We Toured Through An Ancient Cave by Canoe: Here’s What It Was Like

by Megan Rodden

The region that present-day Belize occupies lies in the heart of an ancient Mesoamerican empire. A huge population of people once thrived here; the advanced civilization left behind a legacy of remarkable architecture, agricultural and urban planning, rich art and craftsmanship, unique religious rituals, and a profound understanding of astronomy and mathematics. Modern ancestors of the great Maya Empire still reside in the country, some in remote villages that continue to practice very traditional ways of living. The fascinating heritage and history of the Maya is one magical piece of the intricate and intriguing tapestry that is Belize. We had the supreme pleasure of touring a cave deep within the mountainous jungle of Cayo District in western Belize which contained spectacular natural formations as well as incredible ancient artifacts and sacred human remains. Here’s what it was like.

Getting to Barton Creek Cave

Photo by the Belize Tourism Board

Reaching the archaeological site of Barton Creek Cave is an adventure in and of itself. About a 45-minute drive from the town of San Ignacio, the journey takes you through lush forests, past soaring mountains, and around quaint farming communities tucked away from the modern world.

The final few miles of your drive will be over rugged terrain so expect some exciting switchbacks and a shallow river crossing. Four-wheel drive and nerves of steel are recommended, or better yet, hire a guide that will provide transportation to the cave as part of the tour.

The cave is located on the Bogaert Family Farm and was only rediscovered in the 1970s by Peace Corps volunteers, but has since been excavated, studied, and mapped by archeologists and spelunkers. To date, some 5 miles of cave passages have been surveyed and exploration teams theorize there could be even more to the network. Though looting has plagued the cave since its rediscovery, much evidence of the Ancient Maya use of the cave has been uncovered including pottery, jewelry, and the human remains of 28 people.

Journey Into the Underworld 

Photo by Megan Rodden

Upon first seeing the entrance to the cave, you will immediately grasp why the ancient Maya would have viewed this as a special and holy place worthy of reverence and sacred rituals. Jungle vines hang down in curtains across the dark door while sunlight filters through the treetops and dances across the calm water pooled at the mouth of the cave.

The visual result is nothing short of ethereal. This is an entryway to Xibalba, a Mayan term for the Underworld. Belize’s extensive cave systems play an important role in Mayan lore and legend and this specific cave was the site of ancient offerings, burials, and religious rituals to garner favor with the gods in the hopes of successful agricultural seasons or fortuitous fertility.

We toured the cave by canoe. It is an easy and pleasant paddle, not requiring any special skill or exertion as there is little or no current along the stream that meanders through the cave’s passage. I was inclined to quiet myself and the splash of my paddle as we probed deeper underground. A feeling of reverence settled over us as the subtle perceived pressure of the earth above us grew.

Experience This Ethereal Cave for Yourself

The journey calls to mind another fabled passage, one from Greek Mythology, of the River Styx; but this float is more serene than spooky. In the first kilometer, your guide will point out several ledges along the cathedral-like passage that are significant for the treasures they hold, and the ancient practices once performed there.

Touring Barton Creek Cave by canoe is one of Belize’s must-do excursions. Suitable for nearly any age and fitness level, the tour is interactive but undemanding. Whether the complex history of an ancient civilization intrigues you, or you’re simply fascinated by the geology and fantastical formations sculpted by nature, you are sure to be wowed by Barton Creek Cave.

Featured Photo by the Belize Tourism Board

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