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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.