My guide, Jose, looked around at me and put his finger to his lips, “Shh, can you feel the spirits?”
I held my breath. Human skeletons and cracked pottery lay scattered on the ground. Obsidian blades that were once used to pierce the tongue and genitals sat near a slate altar at the far wall. We were more than a kilometer underground. I was in Actun Tunichil Muknal, Belize’s “Cave of the Stone Sepulchre.”
The Mayans thought caves to be the entrance to Xibalba, or “place of fright.” In order to ensure a good crop or a spell of rain, the chosen human sacrifices would venture down into the underworld, carrying with them large ceramic vessels brimming with maize and jagged bloodletting devices. Shamans followed behind offering pleas to the Gods, their minds and bellies engorged with psychedelic mushrooms.
Upon entering Belize, I was immediately captivated by the beauty of its countryside and the diversity of its cultures. I found respite in the fusion of Mayan traditions and Caribbean lightheartedness, the myriads of ancient ruins and warm turquoise waters. Belize is a country of variety and mystery, and Actun provided a fascinating catapult into its people's perplexing history. This was the adventure I wanted.
To get to the entrance of the cave I hiked through dense jungle foliage, traversed several swift rivers and trudged through thick black mud, struggling to keep my shoes on. Jose hacked at a termite nest with his rusted machete and he and I ate live termites right off the tip of his blade.
The mouth of the cave appeared mossy and tranquil. Emerald water poured from within. A soft green light gently illuminated the entrance from the jungle canopy above.
Swimming into the cave with the glow of sunlight fading behind us, we left the land of the living and approached the Mayan underworld. The only sounds that could be heard were the tap dances of spiders and crabs, scuttling away from our beams of light. We swam through chilly chest-deep water and crawled through narrow passageways, clambered over boulders and snaked in and out of crevices.
Climbing up a rugged wall onto a platform of dry cold limestone, I found myself in an enormous underground chamber. Immense thick arches, frail spindly stalactites and deeply grooved walls adorned the spacious corridor. The air was thick and heavy.
I turned off my flashlight and lit a soft golden lantern to fully grasp the surroundings.
Solitary human skulls peered sideways into the darkness, their blank sockets cold and eerie. Some were as small as infants. Dusty ceramic vessels littered the floor, their bases delicately pierced to release the spirits within. At the edge of a limestone precipice lay the final spectacle, the 'Crystal Maiden,' a 20-year-old woman clubbed and left for dead. Cemented to the floor by age, her perfectly preserved skeleton sparkled with calcite.
Kneeling in the dim chamber, my senses bristled with visions of the sacred ceremonies performed here over a thousand years ago. I shivered, tiny and trivial, in a cathedral of human bones and labored craft, a living museum of ancient souls and unwelcome fates. Could I feel the spirits? I still can.
To find out more information about Actun Tunichil Muknal.
Photos by Jeni Stembridge
And Peter Andersen by CC BY-SA 3.0.