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Caving in the Mayan Underworld: Cayo District, Belize

Caving in the Mayan Underworld: Cayo District, Belize

A Spooky Trip to Find Spectacular Artifacts

Besides archaeologists, few people typically get the chance to spend more than 3 hours investigating a well-preserved cave filled with precious artifacts. Western offers a rare opportunity: If you can muster the courage to enter some slightly claustrophobic spaces, swim through cold water, and climb over rocks, you’ll be rewarded with a spine-tingling peek at extraordinary remnants from the .

The most awe-inspiring cave in Belize, and perhaps all of Central America, is Actun Tunichil Muknal. After a 40-minute hike through the lush subtropical forest in Tapir Mountain Reserve, during which you’ll cross three shallow rivers, you’ll come to the special cave. It isn’t easy to navigate—mentally or physically—but that’s all part of the adventure. Just channel your inner Indiana Jones. A sort of haunted house, this cave was the stage for 14 human sacrifices, six of them babies, during Mayan times. The Maya probably made most of the sacrifices in the hope of conjuring rain. Today, the cave entrance is filled with water that’s about 3.8m (12 ft.) deep, which means you’ll start your tour with an invigorating swim. Once you reach shallower water, you’ll hike through it, surrounded by striking . At different times, the water may reach your ankles, knees, or chest. You’ll also need to use your arms and legs to clamber over and between boulders.

When you finally reach the cave’s dry chamber, it’s like walking into an old cathedral. In fact, your guide will ask you to remove your shoes in this sacred area, so remember to wear or bring socks. (To preserve the cave, it’s important to prevent the body’s oils, acids, and bacteria from touching any of its surfaces.) As you tread across the soft limestone floor, you’ll be amazed by the extraordinary assortment of Mayan pots and vessels here. Many of them are thousands of years old. The real adrenaline rush comes when your headlamp first illuminates some skeletal remains. There’s even a fully intact skeleton called the “crystal lady,” which you can view by climbing up a narrow 3m (10 ft.) ladder. History buffs and adventure junkies will be equally sated by this unique 31⁄2-hour tour.

For a slightly more relaxing and kid-friendly version of caving, try floating through the underworld. To explore Caves Branch, you’ll start with a relatively easy walk along a dirt road followed by a 45-minute hike through valleys and farmland. Then it’s time to get wet—so dress accordingly—but this tour is much less strenuous that the previous one. After strapping on a battery-powered headlamp, you’ll hop on an inflated inner tube and head into a network of caves. As you drift through limestone tunnels, you’ll learn about the cave’s geology and see some surreal stalactites as a few bats hang overhead. Your guide will point out Mayan artifacts, including clay pots, and you might even glimpse some bones. As the current speeds up, you’ll get a thrilling ride over small rapids before coming to a small natural pool where you can hop out and take a quick swim. Whichever way you journey through the Mayan underworld, you’ll be astounded by the sacred wonders hidden beneath the earth’s surface.

Belize Tourism Board, 64 Regent St., Belize City ( 501/227-2420; www.travelbelize.org).

Tour: Mayawalk Tours, 19 Burns Ave., San Ignacio ( 501/824-3070; www.mayawalk.com).

When to Go: Nov–Apr.

Phillip S.W. Goldson International Airport.

$$–$$$ Chaa Creek Lodge, San Ignacio ( 501/824-2037; www.chaacreek.com). $–$$ Black Rock Lodge, San Ignacio ( 501/820-4049; www.blackrocklodge.com).

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