Looks harmless enough, right?

“I hate to break it to you, guys. But I can’t go on any further. Do you mind if we turned around at this point?”

My travel partner looked at me incredulously. “You?”

Our capable guide, a Belizean of Mayan descendent with the Anglicized name of John Hammond, understood. He said “You’ve made it further than a lot of people.”

And he turned the canoe about amid the ancient Mayan artifacts of blood rituals, pottery, skulls and skeletons.

Our canoe had glided smoothly over the cold, dark water for about one kilometer into Barton Creek Cave in the Cayo District of Belize. As we paddled deeper into the tall and narrow limestone cave, John aimed his powerful spotlight upon the cave walls, ledges and ceiling. Crystallized formations glowed and we spied a lone pot, a remnant of a long ago sacrificial ceremony, perched on its own ledge. It had survived hundreds of years of looting because it had crystallized to the cave surface.

A Lone Sentinel of Past Violence

Scene of the Crime

The profound silence engulfed us with no sign of life. Only drops of water seeping from the ceiling into the cold creek punctuated the stillness. We were deep inside the earth and for the first time in my life I felt a cloying sense of claustrophobia.

My travel companion was amazed. I was always the first one into the fray. A week later, I would be snorkeling with sharks on Belize’s barrier reef.

But not today.

Barton Creek Cave is one of thousands of limestone caves formed by the rivers running underground in the Cayo District of western Belize. Inside the cave’s gloom, Mayan ritual artifacts remained preserved and hidden for hundreds of years from archeologists, known only to local looters.

As we paddled into the cave, John described the rituals conducted by Mayan priests at the direction of the king in order to control commoners. The priests, as great astronomers, could predict celestial events, such as an eclipse. The king used this secret knowledge to his advantage. The king pronounced that the gods were angry and the end of the world neared. To appease the gods, the Mayan priests must ritually sacrifice a human victim.

Apparently there were many volunteers, all virgins.

Only royalty, the priests and the sacrificial virgins were allowed to enter this sacred cave. The elaborate ceremonies performed hundreds of years ago left a rich trove of artifacts for future archaeologists and explorers. Spells were cast as copal incense wafted through the cave and offerings overflowed from ceremonial pottery. Cave ledges were bedded with palm leaves and floral decorations. The Mayan priests left these relics behind, along with the dead bodies and decapitated heads. After hundreds of years of looting, little was left, except for the bones that had calcified upon the cave’s surfaces.

Today, archaeologists travel to Belize to explore and document the bounty of these limestone caves; there are many more yet to be discovered in the area around San Ignacio.

By now, our silent journey deeper and deeper into the earth sent me over the edge.

Inside the ink, I began to feel intense fears. Besides my claustrophobia, I felt like I was suffocating. As we paddled one kilometer deep into the cave, I felt completely bereft, as if in deepest outer space.

I kept reminding myself how I had no worries; I’m on a great trip here in Central America.

So I bucked up and kept silent as we paddled in deeper, all while stifling a desire to scream “Turn back!”

Was it Mayan ghosts?

Finally, I could not resist any further.

According to our guide, the cave’s intensity so overwhelmed previous visitors that some couldn’t bear entering the cave. Some had even plunged into the placid spring-fed pond from the canoe at the cave’s mouth and splashed quickly back to the small stone dock.

Now I Wasn’t Feeling So Bad

Apparently, I wasn’t the only visitor to freak out in Barton Creek Cave. Our trip back into the light felt as if we had emerged from the seventh violent ring of hell into a sunlit terrestrial paradise.

Outside, I could hear the birdsongs and the howler monkeys barking in the trees. I felt calm. And not embarrassed at all.

John Hammond told me that I had just witnessed the intense power of the cave. As I clamored out of our canoe onto the stone dock, I stood up and said, “Thanks, I’ve done a lot of scary, scary things in my life and usually I’m known for having no fear.”

“But I met my match inside Barton Creek Cave.”

If You Go to Barton Creek Cave

Think you’re so smart? Take on Barton Creek Cave and tell me how you fared. Contact Jamaal at PaczTours.com. Tell him Lenore Greiner sent you.