Did you know that Belize is home to the largest cave system in all of Central America? It’s hard to believe that such cavernous spaces could be carved out of rock with nothing more than water, but it’s true.
What started as just a few little drops slowly became a trickle, then, as if it were Mother Nature’s paintbrush, the trickle turned into underground rivers, designing these artistic, mysterious places as many as two million years ago.
Today, much of the geological structure of Belize is what is known as “karst landforms,” created when CO2-infused water passing through the soil becomes mildly acidic and slowly, over time, begins to dissolve the earth’s natural limestone to create breaks in the rock. These breaks allow more water to begin flowing downward, resulting in ideal conditions for the formation of underground caves and rivers. In fact, if you plot them on a map, the southern half of the country is completely dotted with them.
Scientists have been studying Belizean cave systems since the 1960s. By 1984, researchers had documented 65 sites, most of which are not yet accessible to the general public. In fact, the sport of cave exploration in Belize really began gaining popularity around 1981.
While many of these caves have been well known for years, new ones are still waiting to be found. To many, the most exciting caves in Belize are those yet to be discovered. An exploratory dive sponsored by the National Geographic Society in 2006 located Central America’s longest cave system along the Chiquibul River in the Maya Mountains.
Visitors never cease to be amazed by the awe-inspiring stalactites and stalagmites inside the caves, though the ancient Maya took a very different view of these magnificent structures. The Maya believed the caves, or ac-tuns as they were known, were a portal to Xibalba, the underworld and used them for religious ceremonies. The Maya offered sacrifices to these “gods of death” in these very caves. As a result, nearly every cave in Belize has some evidence of Mayan occupation. Findings have ranged from gifts such as carved jade, storage vessels and decorative pottery to embedded footprints and even human skeletal remains.
A headlamp's ray on a glistening crystal formation, an intact Maya pot and the whispering echoes of ancient ceremonies add to the awe and excitement in the cave explorer's experience.