A Day Trip to the Underworld

It’s a breezy Sunday morning in Belize- it happens to be unusually cool, perhaps an ominous foreshadowing of the day’s activities. I’m in the front seat of a large passenger van, head resting against the window, simultaneously trying to ignore the bumping and lilting of the van on the dirt road and trying not to fall asleep after our early-morning start.

We’re headed towards Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM), the cave where the ancient Maya believed they could access the underworld. As if that weren’t spooky enough, the Maya also performed human sacrifices here. Just the idea of entering the cave has me nervously tapping my foot in the van.

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After the journey from San Ignacio, which included an ever-so-important stop for snacks, the MayaWalk Tours van arrives in the ATM park and we meet our guide. Hector, who promises to give us “One Heck-of-a-tour” (ha!), helps each of us get outfitted with a helmet while explaining the itinerary for the day. We leave most of our belongings in the van, except for water bottles and socks. No cameras are allowed in or around ATM because of previous accidents that did devastating damage to some of the artifacts. Ahead of us we have approximately 45 minutes of mild hiking to the cave. I figure this leaves me 45 minutes to mentally prepare to enter the #1 most sacred cave in the world, according to National Geographic. I hope it’s enough time.

RiverCrossingIn no time at all, we’re faced with our first obstacle: a river crossing. Clothes, water bottles, and all, we jump into the river and swim across. The river is too deep to stand due to the erosion damage from last year’s major hurricane, but it is relatively calm. Some of us pull ourselves across using just the rope that has been strung between the two river-banks. We continue onwards, our wet clothes dripping along the way. Hector points out important plants as we wander down the trail- some with significant medicinal uses. The air is thick with humidity and the calls of tropical birds that must be watching us from the trees. We cross two more rivers, this time only knee-deep. A large iguana scampers across the river rocks in front of us.

Sure enough, after 45 minutes, we arrive at a small rest area. Here we must leave everything except our courage & a pair of socks. The anticipation is suffocating as Hector hands out headlamps. We all take turns blinding each other with the headlamps before figuring out how to angle them correctly. I inhale the miniature pack of chocolate-chip cookies I brought along.

And we’re off again.

Within minutes the mouth of the cave is in view. Wide open, ready to swallow us whole, the cave beckons us in. Hector helps us down the embankment and into the river that is flowing out of the cave. “Just swim” is his advice. I’m nervous and I feel like humming Dory’s “just keep swimming” song as I paddle into the darkness.

The next hour is a whirlwind of adrenaline. Hector directs us where to put our feet, when to swim, and how to avoid damaging delicate cave structures. He points to a crayfish swimming in and out of a crevice in the rocks. One of our group members spots an enormous cricket. It doesn’t avoid the beams of our flashlight, because it is blind. Never having been exposed to sunlight, the insects inside the cave rely on large antennas and their sense of touch to navigate their surroundings.

We reach a shallow part of the river and the cave opens up around us. The cave extends through the mountain for another few miles, but we’re stopping here. Now, there is nowhere to go but up. Hector instructs us to precisely position ourselves while scrambling up thick stalagmite to access the next level of the cave. These upper layers of the caves are where the ancient Maya made their sacrifices. This is the heart of the Maya underworld.

ClayPotWe pause to take off our water shoes and put on our socks. The cave association mandates visitors to do this for preservation reasons. As we move into the sacrificial areas, we realize that the only barrier separating us from the hundreds of clay pots is a thin line of red tape placed around groups of artifacts. Although the cave has been well researched and each piece has been catalogued, the archaeologists decided to leave everything in the place that it was found, in an effort to preserve the authenticity of the site. Almost everything is exactly as it was over 1500 years ago.

Soon we’re facing another climb. This time we quickly ascend to the next level of the cave via a pre-installed metal ladder. The number of artifacts in the next chamber is stunning. Clay pots litter the ground. We encounter several piles of human bones. The skulls of the victims are strangely shaped- almost alien like- because of the ancient traditions of skull-flattening. I try to listen to Hector’s constant stream of historical facts, but I’m finding myself absorbed in awe of the cave.

upper level 2

Of course, the best was saved for last. At the far end of the upper level of the cave, lies a skeleton known as the Crystal Maiden. The six of us crowded into the small chamber to see her. She is perfectly preserved, sprawled out, and slowly being taken over by beautiful calcium crystals. It turns out that “she” is actually a “he”. Previously believed to be a female, the Crystal Maiden has now been confirmed to be a teenage male. One by one, we take a final look at the “maiden”, pondering what led to his demise, and leave the chamber. With the help of Hector, we retrace our steps, down the ladder, down the stalagmite scramble, through the lower cave, and back into the light.


The walk back to the park entrance is bittersweet. My legs feel like jelly. I really need a bathroom. My stomach is telling me I should have packed more snacks. But the “real world” seems to pale in comparison to the mystery and adrenaline of the cave. There are no more sparkly cave formations, and I no longer find myself wondering what ancient artifacts will be hidden around the corner.

By the time we reach the picnic area for lunch I know one thing for sure-

rum punch never tasted so sweet.


Mysteries & Monkeys: A Visit to Xunantunich


The massive El Castillo pyramid. With Hannah for scale. 

In Belize, where the average building is one or two stories, the rolling hills and tall trees of the rainforest typically dominate the skyline. But deep in the jungle of Cayo district, the ruins of Xunantunich rises far above the canopy. At a towering 40 meters (~131 feet!), Xunantunich is the second tallest man-made structure in all of Belize. The absolute tallest building?- another Mayan pyramid called Altun Ha at the ruins of Caracol. The sheer scale of these ruins truly make you wonder what could have caused the mysterious downfall of the Mayan empire over a thousand years ago.

There is a still a significant and diverse Mayan population in Belize. The name Xunantunich means Stone Woman in Yucatec, one of the remaining Mayan languages. The name comes from a local legend as mysterious as the fall of the empire. It is said that a woman appears to men who have wandered the grounds of the ruins alone. She is always dressed in a traditional white “huipil” and has fire-y red eyes- always staring at the men before disappearing through the stone walls of the largest pyramid, El Castillo. Thus, the modern name “Stone Woman”, or Xunantunich, was given to this archaeological site. The original ancient name for the city is unknown.

Maybe it’s the mystery that keeps bringing me back, or the crisp, cool wind at the top of El Castillo. Regardless of the reason, this was my 3rd trip to Xunantunich, and each time has been a unique experience. I have visited the ruins with two different Northeastern Alternative Spring Break volunteer teams and independently. I have traveled there by car, horseback, pseudo-hitchhiking (thanks Global Convoy), and chicken bus.



January 2017: 3rd visit with another Barzakh Falah volunteer, Hannah. 


An active archaeological dig area

Even the ruins themselves are changing. Xunantunich is an active archaeological dig, with more of the pyramids and surrounding structure being uncovered each year. It’s not unusual to see areas roped off by caution tape or entire hills covered in tarps. Much of the ruins are still underground and every visible bump in the landscape is likely to have a structure beneath it. Even the largest pyramid, El Castillo, is suspected to be even larger- the bottom layers are just buried under years of sediment accumulation.

dsc_0645Despite the absolutely amazing views, the history, and the legends, the highlight of my third Xunantunich trip actually had nothing to do with the ruins themselves. For the first time, I got to get up close with the monkeys. Sure I’ve seen monkeys in Belize at a distance bouncing along the treetops, but this was entirely different. Just on the edge of the jungle, a young spider monkey came to check us out while eating fruits from the lowest branches on the tree. This little guy was a spider monkey- one of two kinds of monkeys that are found in Belize. We watched him swing between the branches and dodged the leftover fruit pieces falling to the ground around us for a while before moving on.

It’s worth mentioning that the other type of monkey found in Belize is much rarer to see. Black howler monkeys are always heard before they are seen. These guys are aptly named for their deafening calls that echo through the rainforest. Don’t be mistaken, these Jurassic Park like noises are not dinosaurs- they really are just the howler monkeys. To listen, check out the video below.

I love the magic of Xunantunich. I love the smell of the allspice trees that are interspersed across the tree line. I love that orange Fanta tastes the best after hiking to the top of El Castillo. I even love the silly hand-crank ferry that shuttles tourists and their vehicles across the Mopan river- which is the only way to access the ruins. In all likelihood, I will return to Xunantunich again before I leave Belize to do it all over again.