Caves are usually viewed as spooky and mysterious creating an ominous feeling when you’re inside. Equally important to enjoying the experience is knowing why caves are sacredscapes. Entering these passages to the Maya Underworld is intriguing, thrilling, and mysterious as you take in hundreds of years of history. It also makes a great story to tell your family and friends about your Belize vacation. From tubing, hiking, canoeing, or even swimming in the gloomy underground realm, there is a caving experience suited for each type of traveler. But, have you ever thought about what these caves meant to the Maya thousands of years ago and what they signify to their living descendants?
A cave is more than a spooky adventure; it is an ancient space connected to the spiritual plane, where the Maya entered, humbled, and cleansed. They would drink hallucinogenic substances to induce themselves into an altered state of consciousness when performing sacred rituals or ceremonies. The Maya would make some of these drinks from fermented cacao, plants, mushrooms, and even the skin of a toad. This act is a form of preparation before engaging with their gods and ancestors inside the underworld.
Once inside the cave, carrying only a torchlight, the glistening stalagmites and stalactites cast shadows depicting images of gods. Whether it was a ritual for fertility rites, rain, water, or spiritual animals, the ancient Maya would ask the gods for help based on a need or purpose.
Although some caves are quite large, they were never livable spaces for the Maya. Instead, they would use them as a burial or sacred space or for protection. They also possibly left trinkets and valuables as a symbol of appreciation. Today, you’ll find shards and in-tact pottery, ceramics, and wooden artifacts when you tour caves like Che Chem Ha or Actun Chapat.
Caves are otherworldly. As you journey in the dark, mystical atmosphere, it is the perfect space to reflect and revive as you’ll exit with a feeling of enlightenment. If you’re exploring Actun Tunichil Muknal, Nohoch Che’en, Rio Frio, or any other from the multitude of caves in Belize, see these areas as a connection to Maya Heritage.
When asked, April Martinez of the Heritage Education Network Belize shared a few things you should know when entering a cave:
- Whenever you enter any sacred space, ask permission or say a prayer of thanks to the gods or the ancestors for protection and guidance as you journey through the cave.
- Burials found in caves are not always about sacrifice.
- It is challenging to confirm the cause of death on calcified skeletons.
- Do not touch or remove anything! Removing items or artifacts prevents an archaeologist from being able to properly conduct research and study the site. Removing artifacts impacts the story that is learnt about the cave and creates a gap between people and their heritage.
Visiting a cave will surely ignite the archaeologist inside of you. Make your experience worthwhile by knowing what these sites meant to those who came before us.
Book a stay to travel to western or southern Belize to immerse yourself in its rich culture and landscapes when touring any of its caves.
Information courtesy of April Martinez and Dr. C. DeShield
Row Photo Credit: April Martinez