The Caves of Cayo: An Inside Look at Belize
Maggie Steber for The New York Times
From left, a signpost for a cave; looking out from Actun Tunichil Muknal; and ancient Maya pottery found in Che Chem Ha.
IT was noon in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve of Belize, and Danny Portillo was leading a group of travelers through a cave. Spring water rushed from a black void. Flashlights flicked and pushed shadows off the walls. Ahead, skulls and broken pots lined a corridor that faded from sight.
Maggie Steber for The New York Times
William Pleytez leads a tour in what is believed to have been a sacrificial chamber in Che Chem Ha, a cave on his familys land in Cayo.
The cave felt haunted, like a wild portal to a time when human sacrifice, ceremonial bloodletting and hallucinogenic quests were common religious rites. “Welcome to the Maya Underworld,” Mr. Portillo said, his voice swirling in a chamber of bats and polished stone.
Tucked under the Yucatán Peninsula, along the balmy shores of the Caribbean, the small country of Belize is perhaps best known for its turquoise waters and colorful barrier reef. But in recent years, as tourism to the country has grown, adventure seekers have tiptoed inland, into the jungle and underground.
Cave tours are now offered by dozens of outfitters around the country, most prominently in the Cayo District, an interior region abutting Guatemala where mountains jut into the sky. The treks are as varied as the terrain. Some are casual day trips, taking visitors along flagged routes and stone staircases, with picnic lunches and cool dips in jungle streams.
Others are geared to the adventurous and able-bodied, requiring strenuous hikes and upstream swims to remote caves where, once inside, participants perform crawling, climbing and squeezing through constrictions under the pale glow of a headlamp.
Most feature jaw-dropping archaeology, including skulls of sacrifice victims and etched clay pots left dusty and untouched for hundreds of years. “Unless you’re an archaeologist, you’re never going to see sites like you see in Belize,” said John Moses of the National Speleological Society, an education and conservation organization based in Huntsville, Ala.
Because of their cultural and historical significance, the caves are controlled by the Institute of Archaeology, a department within the Ministry of Tourism. While there are hundreds of caves that cut and twist into the mountains in the Cayo District, only about 10 caves are commonly highlighted and explored by tour guides.
Among the most popular is Actun Tunichil Muknal, a subterranean cathedral in the heart of Cayo that features rare artifacts and mineralized human remains that date back hundreds of years.
Other caves involve canoeing or river tubing. At Caves Branch, a watery network of caverns near the town of Belmopan, paddlers can float in inner tubes along dark underground streams past artifacts and waterfalls. Flour Camp Cave, a little-visited site in the Maya Mountains with preserved pottery and drooping stalactites, is reached by horseback from a nearby eco-lodge.
“For serious cavers as well as adventurous travelers, Belize is a rare place,” Mr. Moses said.
For most cave explorers the voyage underground begins in San Ignacio, a lively town on the Macal River that serves as a hub for area tours. There are numerous eco-resorts and hotels that cater to adventurers in search of a speleological experience. Many resorts also arrange cave guides, which is how I got in touch with Mr. Portillo, 38, a machete-wielding Honduran who spends up to 300 days a year giving tours underground.
Mr. Portillo works for Pacz Tours, which has an office in town that shuttles vans full of travelers to the jungle caves each morning. On a hot Tuesday last winter, I joined four Americans and a woman from France to see Actun Tunichil Muknal. We drove for an hour through dense jungle hills before setting out on foot.
“You’re not going to believe this place,” said John Coughlin, 56, a construction contractor from Minot, N.D., who wore swim trunks and sandals for the trek. Mr. Coughlin did the tour with his wife last year and returned with his 18-year-old daughter, Hope. “She needs to see this place.”
A trail cut up a river valley under towering trees and past termite nests. In an hour, we were at the mouth of Actun Tunichil Muknal, a vine-draped aperture from which a river flowed. “Ready to swim?” Mr. Portillo asked. Minnows flitted in the clear water. Ahead, the stream disappeared into the dark mountain.
Headlamps on, the group swam against the current, climbing onto rocks and entering a weird underground world. It took an hour of swimming and squirming to reach the main cavern, a soaring chamber where the bones of a dozen humans were delicately arranged on the soil and sand.
Used long ago as a sacrifice chamber, Actun Tunichil Muknal’s most famous victim was a young woman thought to have been killed with a club. The Crystal Maiden, as she is called, rests in a smaller room set apart from the main chamber through a squeeze in the rock. She stares up in a calcified gaze hip bones jutting, eye sockets empty.
Centuries ago, the caves of Belize were sacred places of ceremony and sacrifice. Above ground, ancient cities like Caracol and Xunantunich were thriving centers. But under the earth, many of these caves were off-limits to all but the clergy, inner sanctums thought to connect with the afterlife.
Later in the week, I hired a private guide for a different approach to caving. At Barton Creek Cave, south of San Ignacio, we paddled in an aluminum-hull canoe through a narrow cavern cut by a subterranean stream. A half-mile upriver, bones could be seen scattered on a ledge. A little farther, clay pots were arranged on nooks and rock shelves, possibly as offerings to gods of another time.
For a final trip underground, I toured Che Chem Ha (sometimes spelled Che Chem Hah), a cave on private land in the Maya Mountains. It was discovered 20 years ago by William Pleytez, who was then a teenager, on a farm his parents owned. “My dog ran into a hole in the mountain,” said Mr. Pleytez, now in his mid-30s. Returning the next day with a flashlight, he discovered more than 300 ceramic pieces and an altar where ancient Mayas are believed to have prayed and drained blood.
It was hot and sticky by the time I arrived that morning. Mr. Pleytez, who now offers tours as a side business to supplement his farm, led three travelers into the cave’s mysterious depths. A wolf spider its eyes glinting blue in a headlamp beam crept along on alien legs.
We, too, crept along in silence, ducking and weaving in single file. A hundred yards in, a ladder pointed down into a crater, its rebar shanks bolted on a wall. The air was thick. The floor was wet, sticky and putrid with guano and clay.
A square of sunlight framed the void. One by one, the group descended into the darkness.
ARCHAEOLOGY IN SOME TIGHT SPACES
Most flights from the New York City area to Belize City require a stopover, usually in Miami. According to a recent online search, American flies from New York-area airports to Goldson International Airport in Belize City, with a change in Miami, starting $322 round trip for travel next month. From the airport, the Cayo District town of San Ignacio, which is about 80 miles to the west by car, is a good base for cave tours. Buses, car shuttles and rental cars are available at the airport.
There are more than 10 caves in Belize that can be explored with a tour guide, including Actun Tunichil Muknal, Che Chem Ha, Flour Camp, Caves Branch, Barton Creek, Rio Frio, Key Hole and St. Herman’s Cave. Guides are available for each site.
In San Ignacio, outfitters including Pacz Tours (30 Burns Avenue; 501-824-0536; www.pacztours.net) and Mayawalk Tours (19 Burns Avenue; 501-824-3070; www.mayawalk.com) offer $75 day trips (American currency is widely accepted) to Actun Tunichil Muknal, which is one of the most popular caves. Lunch and transportation from San Ignacio are included.
Both outfitters also offer canoe tours to Barton Creek Cave as well as an inner-tube trip on an underground river in Caves Branch. No advance registration required.
Black Rock Lodge (501-820-4049; www.blackrocklodge.com), an eco-resort near the town, arranges trips to caves including Che Chem Ha, Flour Camp and Key Hole. Rates start at about $70 for half-day trips.
WHERE TO STAY
Lodging in and around San Ignacio is plentiful. Black Rock Lodge is on a mountainside above the Macal River. It has 13 cabins that range from $60 a night with a shared bathroom to more than $200 a night for a luxury suite on a hill above a waterfall.
The Lodge at Chaa Creek (501-824-2037; www.chaacreek.com) is a top-end eco-resort set on a private 365-acre nature reserve along the Macal River. There are 23 palm-thatched cottages and luxury suites. The resort has a spa. Rates are from $135 a person to more than $575 for a four-person suite.
An affordable option, Martha’s Guest House (501-804-3647; www.marthasbelize.com) is in downtown San Ignacio. The hotel has clean rooms that start at $40 a night.
WHERE TO EAT
San Ignacio has a variety of restaurants and stores. There is a farmers’ market by the river. For higher-end dining, resorts like the Lodge at Chaa Creek employ local chefs who make Maya-influenced meals.
At Black Rock Lodge, where an open-air dining room overlooks a mountain valley, homemade bread accompanies fish and vegetarian dishes. Fruit picked onsite is squeezed for juice. Dinner costs $22 a person. Meals are served family-style at a long table with soup, salad, main course and dessert.NYTimes