A recent trip into the Barton Creek Dark Underworld scared and enlightened us at the same time

Barton Creek Cave proves the ancient Maya left us much to explore!

Sometimes it is hard to believe that these lands were once inhabited by one of the greatest civilizations in history, the Maya.

The Mayans built huge cities and impressive structures, some baffling researchers to this day. They developed advanced agricultural practices, were mathematical and astronomical geniuses, had an intricate writing system, and a very complex belief structure.

Barton Creek Canoeing in Belize

Their civilization spread across the region from the flatlands of Yucatan in the north to the rain forests and coastal zones of Belize to the highlands of Guatemala and Honduras. Millions of Mayans lived across these lands, building majestic cities bustling with activity, immense temples and pyramids aligned with the stars, and extensive trade networks and road systems that spread out like a spider web of commerce, and trade. They created masterful works of art, their cities were decorated with their triumphs and culture, and books filled with their knowledge, and enlightenment.

Then they abruptly abandoned their great cities, their academics stopped documenting, their people scattered, one of the greatest historical mysteries is why the Maya dispersed. We may never know their secrets or the fate of their grand civilization, but that hasn’t stopped us from exploring and attempting to understand the people who once dominated the land we call home today.

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Here in Belize, we have quite a large number of Mayan sites, these include more than just ruins of great cities like Caracol, or Xunantunich but also ceremonial sites, and ritualistic sites that dot the land. The Mayan society was very spiritual, with their belief system dominating the lives of its people, and used as a tool of unity and control.

The Mayans believed that the Ceiba tree depicted the structure of the world, the top of the tree which is filled with leaves depicted the Heavens, the trunk of the tree is the Earth with the roots that go down deep representing the Underworld, known to the Mayas as “Xibalba”. The Mayans believed that the roots went deep into cave systems and were extended into stalactites, To them, caves were entrances to Xibalba, and they would enter these cave systems to present offerings to their Gods and Barton Creek is one such cave system located here in Belize.

The ride to the site on the Pine Ridge is scenic, the foothills are lush and there are small farming communities along the way, a glimpse of a very quiet, simplistic life. We arrived at a small steam crossing and drove right through to get to the park entrance which seemed like any normal car park. Farther up the creek stood a huge crack in the side of the cliff, a large slice of black abyss peering out onto the forest. The water was a hue of jade but you could look through it and see old wood trunks on the bed, and small fish swimming around.

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Help your guide lower the canoes into the water to ready them for your expedition, the water is easy to paddle through.

At the mouth of Barton Creek cave, the aperture of its entrance becomes increasingly more apparent, a tall slice seemingly slashed right through the limestone. Get your safety tips and a quick brief as you enter the cave. The entrance can be tricky as there is a tiny passage buffered on both sides by two huge boulders but once you pass the entrance the cave really lays its atmosphere on you. You can feel the difference in the air, there’s more of an echo, and the light slowly but surely loses its fight against the darkness.

As you go deeper into Xibalba, the impressive stalactites and stalagmites quickly make an appearance, these old, and huge structures deposited by water erosion over hundreds of years formed what looks like a twisted gothic Cathedral. It is incredible seeing glistening quartz, and calcium deposits and bats who nest here by day.

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Delving into the cave you will halt your canoes and shine your light up the side of the cave, to see at first, what looks like just a small rock formation, but slowly it makes out to be a familiar shape. It is a skull, or the remains of a skull, a young girl who was sacrificed here in the cave to the gods, your guide will explain that her skull had been calcified, forever becoming a part of the cave.

There is a total of 28 persons believed to have been sacrificed in the cave, ranging from young children to older adults in attempts to appease the gods. Studies done in the cave determine that the Maya were using Barton Creek Cave from the Early Classic (A.D 200 to 600) to the Late Classic Period (A.D. 600 to 900) and they believed that along with being the entrance to the underworld, caves were home to the rain god Chaac. The Mayans would make sacrifices to the rain god to ensure ample rain for a good harvest.

There were pots strategically placed to collect the water dripping from the stalactites which would be sacred as the stalactites were thought to be a part of the Ceiba tree.

We made our way to a chamber called the Cathedral, so named for it’s apparent (yet natural) architecture. It was massive with climbing ceilings and an incredible echo, the formations were grandiose, and all laden with quartz and other mineral formations.

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At this time your guide will ask you to turn off all headlamps, causing the cave to become pitch black, as though a curtain has been draped around you. You will not be able to see anything, not even your own hand in front of your face. It is calming however, a quiet that is mind-clearing, something that is rarely enjoyed in our noisy hyper-visual world. It won’t be hard to understand why the Mayans regarded these caves as spiritual, places of worship and devotion, being in the dark cave does begin to feel like another world.

As you reach the end of the tour, you will learn that the cave goes for about six miles deep and you probably had only made it through one, what secrets could lie within the other five? Magnificent mysteries are about in Belize, Barton Creek Cave is among the most alluring!

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What to bring:

  • Closed toe shoes (these are always best when going on an excursion here in Belize, although not necessary for this specific adventure, they could come in handy!)
  • Purified Drinking Water – Belize’s climate is a sub-tropical, and can get warm and humid so keeping hydrated is a must
  • Waterproof Camera – the cave is located in a really beautiful creek, worthy of great photos
  • Spirit of adventure – be up for anything and get ready for a great adventure!

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