On the Trail of the Maya in Belize
New York Times/ TRAVEL DESK/ April 7, 2002/ By HERBERT BUCHSBAUM
I'm clinging precariously to a sheer rock wall, grasping in the darkness for a handhold that's not there.
The flutter of fruit bats hadn't really bothered me. Neither had swimming in clammy water, nor stumbling upon largely intact human skeletons, disconcerting as they were. But now, as I attempt to wrap my leg around the side of a slick boulder while keeping my footing on a two-inch ledge, trying to suppress the sheer terror of slipping into the black stony river below, I suddenly understand why the Maya called this place hell.
Unlike those sacrificial victims whose remains litter the cave floor, at least I know I have a good chance of getting out. Also unlike them, I've paid for the privilege of being here.
More than a millennium ago, Maya priests and princes performed ritual sacrifices in caves like this, which they believed to be entrances to the underworld. Today, in Actun Tunichil Muknal, a riverine grotto deep in the mountain rain forests of the Cayo District in western Belize, intrepid travelers can see the evidence of these rites. A rugged trek into the cave is becoming one of the hottest adventure trips in a region rapidly gaining popularity as a center for ecological and archaeological travel, offering an unparalleled glimpse of the subterranean world the Maya called Xibalba, or Place of Fright.
My wife, Letta, and I hadn't planned to go inland, much less spend hours inside a dank cave. Like most visitors to Belize, we'd come for the white-sand beaches, transparent turquoise water and the chance to explore one of the world's largest barrier reefs. We'd started at Tobacco Caye, a tiny island off the town of Dangriga so low key that all one can do there is snorkel or dive among the tropical fish and coral gardens, eat fresh seafood and sway in the balmy breeze in a hammock under coconut palms.
As pleasant as this was, we were curious about the rest of the country, so after a few days we hired a boat to the mainland and began our tour of the other, nonaquatic Belize.
We started at the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Preserve, the world's only jaguar sanctuary, an easy 40-minute bus ride from Dangriga. The 150-square-mile preserve had few visitors -- perhaps because it is off the beaten track to begin with, perhaps also because tourism has suffered in Belize since Sept. 11. After the rangers left at 4:30 p.m., we were almost alone with the wildlife.
But when we arrived in the 90-degree heat of midday, the animals were not to be found. We hiked for two hours on a well-maintained trail to a waterfall, where we had a swim and made ourselves lunch with food we'd bought in Dangriga.
Along the way, an occasional flurry of color streaked by, as iridescent blue-crowned motmots or a red, black and yellow Montezuma oropendola flew across our path. We hadn't really expected to see the big cats, which also include ocelots, pumas and jaguarundis; they're shy and primarily nocturnal.
Another trail, a flat, one-hour loop, led to the wide, green South Stann Creek through a dense forest of cacao and palm trees. On the way back, an ungodly roar stopped us in our tracks. We followed the sound back to the river, the roars growing louder and resonating through the jungle.
Across the river, high up in the trees, we saw a troop of black howler monkeys. Misled by their outsize racket, we were surprised to see how small they were; 20 pounds is considered large.
That evening we made a simple pasta dinner in the park's kitchen, took a night hike -- during which we saw eyes in the trees but no jaguars -- and slept in one of the preserve's clean but spartan cabins.
The next morning we headed by bus to San Ignacio, the capital of the Cayo District. We quickly discovered that getting around the mainland presents a stark choice -- the privately operated vintage Bluebird school buses, which are cheap and slow, or a rental car or taxi, which make good time but at exorbitant prices -- 10-mile taxi fare, for example, was $20. Although we decided this would be our final Belizean bus trip, we enjoyed the five-hour meander through 130 miles of citrus groves and villages of vibrantly colored clapboard houses.
We arrived in San Ignacio, the region's scruffy, bustling service center, in the early afternoon and took a taxi to our hotel about 10 miles away -- the more tranquil establishments lie outside of town, tucked into the jungle. On the way we asked the driver to stop at Xunantunich, the ruins of a classic Maya city. To get there, we and the taxi took a hand-cranked ferry across the Mopan River, whose banks were crawling with five-foot iguanas.
Xunantunich, not as extensive as Chichén Itzá in Mexico or Tikal in Guatemala -- barely rates a mention in most Maya monographs. But its 130-foot Castle, the central pyramid, cuts an imposing contour as it rises out of the jungle. And the graceful architecture and symmetrical layout, designed with almost Grecian balance and perspective, embody the more peaceful side of Maya culture, the kind I learned about in sixth grade when the prevailing view was that the Maya were too busy discovering principles of mathematics and astronomy to have much time for war or human sacrifice.
Unlike the tour-bus meccas of Chichén Itzá and Tikal, the city was virtually ours alone, and manageable in a couple of leisurely hours.
When we got back to the taxi, we realized we were only two miles from the Guatemalan border and a potential handicrafts shopping spree. ''Do they have fabric?'' Letta asked our driver, her expression telling me we were already on our way to the land of beautiful and inexpensive handwoven tablecloths.
We did indeed find fabric and other handicrafts in the Guatemalan border village of Melchor de Mencos, but the relative lack of competition keeps prices high, even after the requisite bargaining. So unless we'd bought in bulk, the $10-a-person Belizean exit tax and the $15 we'd paid our driver to take us there canceled out any anticipated saving. Still, we returned with eight woven cotton place mats and a brightly embroidered tablecloth.
The sun was setting and the sounds of the jungle rising by the time we arrived at our hotel, duPlooy's Jungle Lodge, an ornately landscaped idyll on a high bluff above the Macal River. Aside from its edenesque surroundings, duPlooy's most remarkable feature is a 250-yard wooden catwalk running through the jungle canopy high above the river. The walkway widens into a deck as it passes in front of the hotel bar, where you can nurse a rum and lime juice in a comfortable chair as you watch the tanagers, toucans and herons fly by.
The dining room next door serves a Belizean mix of Mexican, Chinese and Garifuna, or Black Carib, cuisines that was generally fresh and tasty -- we loved a rich black bean soup with lime and cilantro and a savory corn and pepper quiche, served with Belikin, the national lager -- and reasonably priced, with dinner for two running about $35.
DuPlooy's also provided the ingredients that made it worth setting our alarm for 6:30 a.m. bird-watching: tea, coffee, a resident ornithologist, binoculars, and a tray of tropical fruit for the freeloading parrots, motmots and aracaris, members of the toucan family.
DuPlooy's, like most of the resorts in the area, offers a wide assortment of day trips, from caving and tubing to horseback riding and hiking. But after the taxing travel of the previous day, we decided to spend the next day by ourselves, canoeing on the Macal. From the hotel's private beach, we paddled languidly upriver for some five hours, stopping occasionally to sun on some rocks. Apart from the blue herons and snowy egrets, proud blue-and-white kingfishers and cartoon-colored wood rails, we didn't see another soul.
The next morning, our guide, Renan Castellano of Pacz Tours, based in San Ignacio, arrived at 8:30 to take us and two other couples to Actun Tunichil Muknal. The name, which is Mayan for Cave of the Crystal Sepulcher, refers to a chamber where the skeleton of a young woman (dubiously described in some brochures as a Maya princess) lies half-embedded in sparkling calcite. Renan supplied miner's helmets, duPlooy's packed us a lunch, and we brought only a naïve eagerness to risk unknown peril for the promise of archaeological adventure.
Just getting to the cave demands a dizzying 90-minute drive through back roads, farms and a mud track that was tricky even with four-wheel-drive, as well as an hour's hike through the rain forest, and fording a waist-deep mountain stream three times. The only way into the grotto itself is to swim across a 15-foot pool. After that it's three hours of wading and swimming along rock walls, squeezing through tunnels, and rock climbing -- a sort of triathlon in total darkness.
About 700 yards in, Renan instructed us to take off our shoes, the theory being if saving your skin depends on watching your step, you're less likely to damage the artifacts. Soon the claustrophobic tunnels and boulders gave way to a vast open chamber called the Cathedral.
Our headlamps shone on shimmering crystal stalagmites and stalactites, massive columns where the two have joined, and curtains of white flowstone. Here and there lay large clay jugs, presumably where the Maya left them more than 1,100 years ago, cemented in place by the same calcite deposits that created the cave's stunning architecture. Some pots contained food and grain offerings. We wended our way to a pile of slate stelae. Archaeologists say this was an altar, where Maya shamans and royalty took hallucinogens and bled themselves with obsidian blades to elicit conversations with a god who emerged from the mouth of a snake.
A leading theory holds that as a long drought swept the region in the ninth century, the Maya grew increasingly desperate, offering ever greater sacrifices until finally they were giving up beating human hearts to an indifferent god.
We saw the skeletons of 6 of the 14 victims archaeologists have found in the cave. For the last, we climbed a rickety 15-foot ladder to a separate chamber, the Crystal Sepulcher of the ''Maya princess.'' Most of the cave's identified victims were teenagers, and all were male except this one, a girl believed to have been 16 to 19 years old at the time of her death. Her skeleton was shockingly intact, spread-eagle on the floor, her jaw agape and skull tilted as if she were looking up.
Her gaze stuck in my mind as we retraced our way back toward daylight. And as our SUV bounced and skidded out of the jungle, I tried to reconcile the kind of people who plotted the course of the planets with those who had sacrificed a girl in her prime.
The next day we were flying out. We arranged to canoe downriver to San Ignacio and have a taxi meet us at the pier with our bags to drive us to the airport. As we launched the canoe into the cool, sunny morning, our descent into Xibalba receded into memory, displaced for a while by the deep blue sky and lazy river ahead.
The claustrophobic need not apply, and being a good swimmer is a must
The best time to travel is January to May, the dry season.
For general information, www.belizenet
.accessbelize.com are extensive and well organized.
We found the Footprint ''Central America and Mexico Handbook'' by Peter Hutchison (Contemporary Publishing, $27.95), and Steven N. G. Howell and Sophie Webb's ''Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America'' (Oxford University Press, 1994, $39.95) to be indispensable guides.
English is the official language. The Belizean dollar is pegged at 2 to 1 to the United States dollar, and most people and businesses accept United States currency. The prices that are listed here are in United States dollars.
Getting Around Public buses are slow but cheap, taxis and rental cars expensive.
To get to San Ignacio, your hotel can have a taxi pick you up at the airport in Belize City, 180 miles away, for $75 to $150. You can also rent a car at the airport; get a four-wheel-drive if you plan on exploring the jungle on your own.
Where to Stay
CAYO DISTRICT: San Ignacio, the base for exploring the Cayo District, has accommodations to suit varying tastes and budgets. Several Macal River outposts have well-designed, comfortable cabins with hot water, private bath and electricity (or kerosene lamps when there's not) in spectacular settings.
COCKSCOMB BASIN WILDLIFE SANCTUARY -- The park has sleeping options ranging from campsites ($2.50, $5 if you need a tent) to beds in dorm rooms ($17) to private cabins (up to $50). Both toilets and showers in the campsites are in wooden outbuildings, and are spotless. You have to bring in your own food, but can cook in a decently equipped kitchen for $2.50 a day. Reserve through the Belize Audubon Society, (501-2) 35004. Trails are well maintained, but can be soggy even in the dry season; the visitors center rents galoshes ($1.50) if you need them. DEET is de rigueur for day hikes. Entry fee: $5.
You don't need to be an experienced rock climber to explore Actun Tunichil Muknal, but you do need to be in good enough shape to lower yourself down from a rock, know how to swim, and have a high tolerance for mud, heights and claustrophobic conditions. Belizean law requires that you do this tour only with a licensed guide. We booked our guide through the hotel and paid $125 a person plus tip for the guide and driver, but I've seen it advertised for less. Two licensed companies based in San Ignacio are Mayawalk Tours, (501-9) 23070, www.mayawalk.com,
and Pacz Tours, (501-9) 22477. Don't take anything that cannot get wet.