Belize: The Mayan underworld

Once thought to be the entrance to the mythical Xibalba, Belize's Waterfall Caves is a spectacular subterranean world with a few grizzly surprises

By James Draven
Published 12 Jan 2016, 08:00 GMT, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 10:25 BST
Waterfall Cave

Waterfall Cave

Photograph by Caves Branch

"Don't tell the others we've taken you here," says Carlos from the top, while I cling to the side of a steep incline as if my life ­depends upon it.

I'm in a cave in the Belizean jungle, hundreds of feet underground, beneath a limestone mountain ridge. We've been following the subterranean course of a river, but have taken an unplanned vertical diversion up a scarcely defined sidetrack that disappears into the roof of the cave. I'm refusing to let myself think about the return journey.

"Nobody has been to this place in over a year," adds my other guide, Chico, as I clamber up, and my torchlight reveals first the shattered remains of a human skull inside a broken clay pot, and then the inverted spires of a natural cathedral.

"The Maya believed these stalactites were the roots of a tree," says Carlos, casting his flashlight upwards into a jagged ceiling glistening with crystals, "a world tree whose branches, trunk and roots connect the sky and Earth with the underworld."

They believed by coming to this place, thought to be an entrance into the underworld Xibalba, and burning sacrificial blood, their souls, suffused with the rising smoke, might bypass the many trials on the road to the afterlife.

I fix my head-torch beam on each of my companions. It's cool in here and we're all warm from the trek, and I can see billowing spirals of steam rising up from each of them, like spirits moving heavenward.

It's been said that the only way to evade the perdition of Xibalba was to die a violent death. However, sometimes they'd instead try to appease the gods by impaling their tongues and genitals with daggers of jade shards or stingray spines, under the influence of hallucinogenic enemas.

The evidence of their rituals is all around us: bones, tools, sacrificial animal skeletons, the charred remnants of ceremonial fires and the accompanying cracked receptacles. All just as they were left, hidden in a lofty chamber in a cavern, unwittingly bypassed by all those who come to Waterfalls Cave to scramble up its six cascades.

Here, though, all is still — even time itself. If Chico had said the last people to climb up here a year ago were the ancient Mayans themselves, I might almost have believed him.

"Sometimes, because of the drugs, they'd fall and die on the path back down, though," Carlos says, as I begin the same sharp descent over water-burnished rock to the river, using centuries-old Mayan footholds now worn smooth with age.

Little else has changed with time: as I tip-toe across limestone formations, crawl through tight spaces, dodge cave crickets below ground, swerve rose-tailed tarantulas in the humid jungle above, and conquer those six waterfalls through the cave system, it occurs to me it would've been a near-identical experience for the Mayans in whose footsteps I follow.

Back on the main trail, I'm grateful for modern luxuries such as climbing gear as I scale the face of a 20ft waterfall. I make it up unaided and complete the journey to the final pool.

All too soon, it's time to take the four-mile hike back out of the cave and through the jungle, which means getting down that 20ft cascade. Chico unclips my safety rope. I look down at the small pool beneath me.

"Aim for the dark area," he says.

"Or what?" I ask, "I'll break my legs?"

"Yes," he says.

"And this is really the only route back out of the cave?"

"Yes," he says.

I jump.


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