Voyage to the sepulchre of the Crystal Maiden

San Ignacio: We travel west past acre upon acre of verdant, shiny-leaved orange plantations, the fragrant scent of orange blossom (a relation of the jasmine) mingling with the heavy sweetness of citrus fruit. This is Belize’s rich fruit bowl, tended by the migrant Mennonite community and exported in juices, including the Tropicana brand, to Britain and the US.

Truck loaded with oranges
Our guide Martin introduces us to Crocodile Claw
We apply it to our insect bites

Our van climbs out of the lowlands into a jungle dominated by limestone karsts reminiscent of southeast Asia. We pass small, neat villages, each equipped with modern-looking busy schools and smartly uniformed schoolchildren. Glossy-coated horses are tied away from the well-maintained roads and even the dogs look healthy.

Going caving: Rachel, Wendy, Dave, me and Nick

San Ignacio is a sleepy settlement on a broad-banked river happily occupied by swimming and playing families. We’ve left the coastal Creole and Garifuna speakers – this close to the Guatemalan frontier, people speak Spanish and five local Mayan languages in addition to English.

We cross the Roaring River three times
Yawning cave entrance

We hear about a nearby cave, discovered in 1989, and decide to explore it with the help of Martin, a local guide. He warns us that it’s an arduous journey involving wading for 3 hours in the dark along a cold river. I hesitate, because I sense I’m on the edge of developing a cold, but curiosity gets the better of me and we set off in the early morning.

Nick watches the fish
Inching into the cave, trying not to get too wet

The cave, called Actun Tunichil Muknal (‘Hollow-stone, or Cave, of the Stone Sepulchre’) is located inside the beautiful Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve, a rainforest crossed by the wonderfully named Roaring River, which, this being the dry season, is more of a purring river, inhabited by fish and turtles.

Nick jumps straight in
In places the water is shallow

It’s a 30-minute gentle hike through the forest to the cave’s entrance, crossing the river three times – a thigh-deep wade-through in shoes and socks. Martin proves a great guide, introducing us to Mayan medicinal plants such as ‘crocodile’s claw’, a leaf that when crushed, eases our itchy insect bites.

The cave extends for miles into the mountain
It's tricky going
It's a steep climb in places

The cave’s mouth looms large over its own river, a cold, crystal clear spring from somewhere deep inside the mountain. Everyone’s a little apprehensive about entering such a dark place – my horror of cold water is far greater than any fear of the dark – and so it is with some trepidation that we reject the bright, hot sun for the earth’s interior.

At least the the exercise keeps the chill off
It's quite exhausting though

Head-torches on, we cling to the bumps and outcrops on the steep-sided passageway within the cave. It takes us deeper inside, where we clamber over rocks, feeling our way in sodden shoes. We’re wading though a chest-deep river, swimming in places, and it’s not long before we’re shivering.

It's a tighter squeeze for Nick
He makes it through

But the cave draws us onwards and inwards to its mysterious heart that seems to lie just beyond the feeble light of our headlamps. We squeeze through narrow gaps, turning our heads sideways to get our helmets past; we look up to see cathedral-high ceilings with blackened holes made by shitting, roosting bats; huge catfish swim around our legs; creamy golden stalactites descend like icicles or in delicate folds from the roof.

Delicate folds of hanging rock
They are met by rocky growths from the floor
Some resemble molten wax

We’ve been venturing in this way for about an hour when Martin asks us to switch off our headlamps. The darkness is absolute, it is almost palpable as if the absence of light could press down on our eyes. We think back to the cave’s first explorers: the Mayan people who used it as a ceremonial burial chamber, a place of sacrifice, prayer, hope and perhaps of last resort from 250-900 AD.

Pots, untouched for more than 1000 years
The chamber is littered with pottery and human skulls and bones
Calcification shows the water level when the cave is flooded

We proceed hesitantly in a line, guided by Martin, each with a hand on the shoulder of the person before them. We shuffle forward wordlessly, feeling our way in the pitch black, trusting in Martin’s voice above the drips and gurgles of the rushing water. The ancient Mayans would have been guided by flaming torches into this, their underground temple of death.

One of the 14 skulls
Some have crystallised.

After a time, Martin instructs us to switch our lights on. Tiny bats resettle in their roosts. We’re in a larger passageway now and we pass into a wide open hall made gothic with stalagmites and stalactites. The natural architecture of this cave temple is so perfectly formed as to look designed, like a Gaudí concrete construction. The floor is carved into delicate swirls and patterns from the river, which annually floods the cave.

Carved corn, an important Mayan symbol
Monkey detail on a pot

The entire cave glitters with crystals of quartz and other colourful minerals, the water reflecting the sparkles and our headlamps casting enormous moving shadows from the stalagmites.

Limestone walls
Bats have made holes in the cave ceiling to roost

Further in, we leave the river and enter a large cathedral-like chamber. Here, we find the artefacts that must have so delighted Jaime Awe, the Belizian archaeologist who first explored the cave on its rediscovery: perfectly preserved pottery bowls, fragments and human remains testifying to its subterranean role as a place of Mayan ceremony. In particular, we see examples of the staged three-bowl configuration – an upright bowl, one on its side and one inverted – that signifies human sacrifice to the gods.

Detail of a stalactite

More tellingly, to my eye, are the human skeletons, their skulls smashed from the back in a death-blow. The front of the skulls show evidence of Mayan cranial deformation, which was also practiced by the Incas, whereby a board was strapped to the baby’s head to flatten it.

A whip-tailed scorpion - it feeds on cave crickets

We tiptoe past the skulls and pottery and as our eyes adjust, we see that more and more remains – the cave is full of discarded objects.

Me and Nick in the cave

We exit the massive hall and climb up and over more boulders along a path that ends in a steep rickety ladder. Up we climb and find ourselves in a small room with the huddled skeleton of a sacrificed child. Past him, the chamber opens up to reveal the splayed remains of a young woman, who was sacrificed here by a blow that severed her spine.

Because of her posture, they call her the Dancing Girl

Her bones have been consumed by the cave, crystallised by the steady drips of water and minerals, so that she is entirely made of sparkles. Her posture lends her the ‘Dancing Girl’ name, but for me, her brutal death robs her of any joy. Still, she lies for eternity bejewelled through her murder in perhaps the most wondrous cave I’ve visited.

Only the top of her forehead is above the water level during flooding, and so has escaped crystallisation

We exit the cave the way we came – to continue further, would be an impossible 1.5 miles into the mountainside. The route back is faster now that we are surer in the dark.

We make our way out of the cold, dark cave

Finally, we emerge, swimming out into the sunlight, grateful to have escaped a cave that swallowed at least 14 unfortunates. We walk back through the woods to our bus, stopping for a local dish of gibnut (an agouti-like native rodent) on the way back to San Ignacio.

Actun Tunichil Muknal cave

3 thoughts

  1. I actually did this exact same trip on December 24th of 2010, so just a few months before you. It was absolutely amazing. You seem to have had a slightly better tour guide than I did. I would never have known about the 3 pot configuration or known that the top of the Crystal Maiden’s skull was above the water. I think I actually met Martin outside the cave, because he looks familiar. It was one of the best day trips I’ve ever done, and I would love to do it again.

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