Beneath Belize’s near perfect smile lurks a darker visage. Muahaha! Photo courtesy of Gionni Scaduto.
There are certain places on this planet where the restless spirits of the dark linger. They manifest as curious voices and sinister smells; they move things about; they dart out of the shadows as ghostly apparitions. These are the places considered the most haunted in the world.
You’d be forgiven if you assumed Belize was not of them. But you’d be wrong. Dead wrong.
Known for its unspoiled beauty, its extreme biodiversity and distinctive ecosystems, Belize does not immediately come to mind as a hot bed for the paranormal; however, considering its small size, the country’s overflowing with fearsome and persistent legends — stories so terrifying they are passed down from generation to generation as part of the region’s folklore.
Belize’s legends include amazing tales of ghostly apparitions whose eyes glow red, jungle gnomes with backward feet who’ll rip your thumbs off and beautiful but deadly women who’ll steal your heart and then your soul.
Goblins: Tata Duende
As one of the most heavily forested and lightly populated countries in the world, there’s no better place than Belize to escape the hustle and bustle with a long walk in the woods. However, if you come across an ugly little man wearing a big red hat, don’t show him your hands — especially if you value your thumbs.
The Tata Duende (also referred to as El Sisimito) is a mythical goblin of Belizean folklore, a powerful spirit that protects animals and the jungle. He’s one of the region’s best-known legends, appearing on a Belizean postage stamp as part of a series on the folklore. He’s like a paranormal Elvis.
Tata Duende carved into a stump. Wanna meet him? Carve a message to him in pine. Photo courtesy of Gionni Scaduto.
He’s often described as a short man, a little over a metre in height, with a pinched up sour face, wearing a wide-brimmed red hat and animal skins, missing both thumbs, and with feet facing backwards to throw people off his trail. Oh, another thing — he doesn’t have thumbs, which has stoked a strong desire to rip off anyone’s thumbs he encounters. Prevent his thumblust by tucking your opposable digits into the palms of your hands as soon as you see him. If you’re quick enough, he’ll take an immediate liking to you, believing you to be a compatriot. And if he likes you, he’ll be more than happy to teach you to play his silver guitar.
So, the next time you hear a whistle in the jungles of Belize — hide your thumbs.
Ghosts: The Stone Lady
The ancient Mayan ruin of Xunantunich (pronounced Shoo-nahn-too-neech) lies about 128kms (80 miles) west of Belize City. Whether you’re a curious traveler or paranormal enthusiast, Xunantunich should top your list of places to visit, as it’s one of Belize’s most easily accessible and impressive archaeological sites — and it’s cursed, too! Local legend holds that the ruins are haunted by a woman dressed completely in white with eyes that glow red like campfire embers.
Xunantunich’s largest pyramid, El Castillo, rises 130 feet above the main plaza.
Dubbed the Stone Woman, she generally appears in front of the ruin’s El Castillo, ascends the stone stairs, and disappears into a stone frieze. If this ghostly victim were indeed a Mayan from nearly two thousand years ago, it’s appropriate that she would haunt the temple stairs — a procession up El Castillo would have figured prominently in ritual human sacrifice. The Stone Woman’s appearance is so strongly associated with the area that the site itself is now named after the ghost — Xunantunich means Stone Woman in the Maya language.
According to legend, the Xtabai (pronouced Shta-bye) is an evil spirit who appears as a beautiful woman. She’s said to hide in the thorny trunk of Belize’s ceiba tree. If, while passing this tree at night, you catch a fleeting glimpse of an enchanting woman combing her long hair — or if you hear a soft whispered phrase or a sweet song of love, do not look up. Repeat: Do not look up.
The unmistakable thick conical thorns on the trunk of the ceiba tree. Photo courtesy of Gionni Scaduto.
She’ll beckon you to come closer and you’ll be unable to resist her passionate embrace, which will cause you to fall into a deep and hypnotic sleep. When you wake up — provided that you do wake up — you’ll find that you’ve been in the passionate embrace of a spiny cactus all night long. What’s more? The wounds that you receive will likely result in a fever that is very often fatal. It’s a thorny predicament.
Of course, The Xtabai can be very tricky and can take on many shapes. When not in the form of a beautiful woman, some locals contend she takes on the form of a snake, while others claim they have seen her without any flesh. But the scariest form the Xtabai takes on? Someone you know.
Scared? You better Belize it!
Belize offers some of the most breathtaking scenery anywhere in Central America — thick tropical forests envelop much of the country, while just offshore, dazzling turquoise shallows and cobalt depths prove enchanting. For these treasures it is well known, of course — but its jungles and ruins hold a wealth of more… unearthly treasures. So, does the region deserve to be counted as a hot bed of the paranormal? You better Belize it!