Explore Belize Caves
In the past century alone, explorers have documented more than 300 different caves in Belize, making it an exciting destination for visitors.
Archeologists have documented 198 different caves as being important religious and ceremonial sites used by the ancient Mayan culture that once dominated Belize. Evidence such as Mayan sacrificial burials, skeletons, altars, and artwork can now be seen in many of these sacred caves. The ancient Maya believed that caves were a passage to the home of the gods, and conducted ceremonies within to communicate with the underworld. The Maya culture celebrated caves as places for both death and creation.
Many of the caves in Belize were formed around the year 300 A.D., when much of modern Belize was underwater. Millions of years ago, sediments in the water began to accrete into the soft mineral limestone. Limestone in the ocean water is formed from calcium carbonate, and after storms churned the tropical sea, a unique form of rock was formed called breccia. After millions of years passed, these limestone rocks were carried upwards on the expanding Maya Mountain range, causing calcium-rich water to run off downhill during the Cretaceous Period. Exposed to the air, the calcium-rich water mixed with carbon dioxide, binding with decaying organic material to form a weak acid. Over time, this acid ate into the rock, carving out the magnificent caves that exist today.
The Maya used caves to offer sacrifices to their rain god, Chac, who was worshipped for bringing life-giving rains to water the fields. While many of the Mayan sacrifices involved agricultural foodstuffs, the Maya also practiced human sacrifice to appease Chac. Today, visitors to the caves can see skeletal remains of human sacrifices uncovered by modern archeologists. Evidence uncovered from these important Maya religious ceremonies offer important archeological clues for better understanding the ancient Mayan culture.
If you want to travel back through time and enter the realm of Xibalba, then you have to explore any (or all) of the below 10 caves to learn about the enigmatic and ancient Maya civilization –
1. Black Hole – The Black Hole drop in Belize is for those people who seek the real thrill of adventure. The descent is 300 feet deep, starting with the first 10 feet and providing an unforgettable rush in the next 200 feet. The final 100 feet will take you through the canopy of the Belizean rainforest and this entire experience is definitely not for those who were expecting a vanilla holiday. Ladder climbing, hiking and some rock climbing skills will definitely be needed to get in and out of the Black Hole but even when it is done, the adrenaline will take a long time to come down.
2. Rio Frio Cave – The signature of this cave is its massive mouth and it is also the largest cave you will come across in Belize. Located in Mountain Pine Ridge, the arched entrance is miraculous and in the rainy season, you might get to experience the river that runs through the paths of the cave. The cave tour is not that strenuous or difficult and you should carry a flashlight to experience it properly.
3. Barton Creek Cave – This ceremonial cave can be explored with the help of licensed guides on a canoe. It might take up about half a day but the cultural and natural wonders you come across is well worth the sweat. The canoe will glide along the river cave and will take you through chambers that will remind you of cathedrals and wide roomy passages. It is interesting to note that Barton Creek Cave was part of a recent list of ‘9 most unusual and beautiful caves in the world’, and when you are in your canoe exploring this cave, you will know why.
4. Chem Chem Ha Cave – A lot of Maya artifacts and artworks can be found in this cave which was discovered by a farmer. The entrance itself is riddled with Maya motifs which would appeal to the archeology hobbyists among you. The chamber walls are lined with ‘ollas’ or storage jars and you can reach the high chambers through ladders inside the cave. You can only explore this cave with a licensed guide since it is carefully monitored to stop looting of artifacts.
5. Actun Tunichil Muknal – This ceremonial cave is so rich in Maya artifacts that you will never experience so much first hand cultural knowledge anywhere else. You can see bloodletting altars and more than 1400 other artifacts. There are both dry and wet chambers in the ATM cave and some sacrificial remains might also be found, particularly the ‘Crystal Maiden’ artifact which is the remain of a young human female but because of calcium carbonate covering, sparkles in the lamp light, giving the experience a rather grim memento mori. There is also a hike of 45 minutes where you will cross 3 streams.
6. Caves Branch Cave System – There are about three caves in the Caves Branch cave system – Petroglyph, Waterfall and Footprint. The names of the caves have been taken from the objects you will find on the walls inside. There are embedded footprints on the walls of the Footprint, about six waterfalls in Waterfall, and Maya’s ancient rock drawings from 300 to 900 A.D. in Petroglyph. The humongous cave system has been formed by the Caves Branch River that goes through these caves and has many a squeezes to make your heart skip a beat.
7. Laguna Cave – There is a wooden ladder about 4m long which can be used for climbing over the steep slope over which the entrance of the cave is situated. Then you will go through two entrances, through a slope of 8m depth and into a lower chamber which has an exquisite skylight filtering to the center. Some crevices of the cave are home to bats and speleothems, and further in, you will see a wooden bench through which the village of Laguna, after which the cave has been named, can be seen.
8. St. Herman’s Cave – This cave is located in the Blue Hole National Park which also hosts the Crystalline Cave. The archaeological and cultural significance of the cave is immense offering a glimpse into the Maya Classic Period. There is also a walking tour in the cave where you don’t need a guide but be careful on the wet and slippery concrete steps in the cave. The cave lies among the dense tropical forest on the Humming Bird Highway just 12 miles southeast of Belize’s capital city of Belmopan.
9. Tiger Cave – Many years ago, a cub of a jaguar was chased to this cave’s mouth by a local dog and thus, this cave came to be called the ‘Tiger Cave’. Because it is located so close to San Miguel village, it is also sometimes called San Miguel cave. It is recommended that you get a guide for exploring this cave properly. The remnants of the farming practices of the ancient Maya can be witnessed in their full glory in this cave. The entrance is immense and vaulted, and you might be reminded of Frodo’s journey in Lord of the Rings as you look at the large holes in the 500 feet high ceiling, stalactite dripping chambers, and mineral deposits inside the caves.
10. Hokeb Ha Cave – Archaeologists love this cave because of the altars and classic ceramics that this cave has provided them with. The outside of the cave is actually almost as interesting and mysterious as the inside with long vines draped over the entrance, and shadows of the rainforest surrounding the caves and bouncing off the limestone boulders. To get into the caves, you need to take a leisurely swim.
Good quality hiking shoes, comfortable clothes and basic necessities should be carried while visiting the above caves. Also needed are flashlights, headlamps, gloves, helmet and your camera. You can hire an experienced guide if you want a more enriching experience. Also, some caves need a licensed guide in order for tourists to visit them.