Cave of the Dead!
Location: Caves Branch - Belize
by Wayne & Karen Brown
Last night after we returned to Ian Andersen's Jungle Lodge from exploring The Black Hole we met our Mayan cave guide, Marcos. Marcos told us that his ancestors lived in this area and knew about the underground caves. He said they didn't think the caves were cool places to explore. They thought the caves were the underworld where gods and the spirits of the dead lived. They called the caves Xilbalba (zill-BAHLL-bah). To the Mayans this was the realm of the dead.
Today Marcos is going to take us to explore the Mayan underworld in a cave he recently discovered. It has Mayan artifacts from their religious ceremonies in Xilbalba!
Like yesterday we go by 4-wheel drive to the foot of a hill in the rainforest. Marcos leads us up a trail that winds up into the jungle. After 2 hours of hiking and climbing through the hot, damp and sticky jungle Marcos says "Here we are!". We are on the edge of a limestone cliff in the middle of the rainforest! We can't see anything different about where we are compared to the rest of the rainforest.
Marcos points to a small hole in the under a pile of rocks. Marcos says "This is the entrance to Xilbalba". We put on our helmets and lights and watch as Marcos wiggles into a hole not much bigger around than he is. We push our backpacks in ahead of us as we wiggle through the small hole and follow right behind Marcos. We cautiously enter the darkness into the cave of the dead!
The tiny hole we squeezed through opens up into a tunnel we can crawl through on our hands and knees. As we get further into the cave it becomes larger and we can stand up. Stalagmites and stalactites surround us and sparkle as our headlights shine on them.
Many stalagmites and stalactites have grown together and become large columns. We squeeze between some columns and Marcos points his light at the wall. It is a big spider! With its legs stretched out it is about 6 inches across! Marcos says it is a scorpion spider. He lets it crawl on his hand! We say kids would be grossed-out if it crawled on his face. To our surprise he brings the spider up to his face and lets it crawl on his face! Marcos says he's not afraid because the spider will not try to hurt him. After a while he lets the spider crawl back on his hand and puts the spider back on the cave wall.
Marcos leads us to a dim light up ahead. We use more Mayan steps to climb down to an opening that has a huge stalactite over it that looks like a frozen waterfall. It is the end of this small cave, but we are now at the bottom of a huge sinkhole! This is not as big as The Black Hole that we explored yesterday, but it is big. We are about 200 feet down and the top of the sinkhole looks about 200 feet in diameter.
Marcos tells us that he discovered this sinkhole only two years ago. He found it one day while exploring the rainforest. He returned the next day with Carlos and rapelled inside where he found the small cave we just went through. Marcos says that the small cave we just went through was how the Mayans entered the sinkhole because they did not know how to rappell into a cave.
We are looking down into the mouth of a huge cave. Huge stalactites hang down into opening on in The Black Hole. The stalactites hanging into the mouth of the cave makes it look like the mouth of some gigantic monster!
Marcos shows us several square platforms at different levels on the floor of the sinkhole near the mouth of the huge cave. The platforms are about 12 feet across and made of stones. Marcos says the these were made by Mayan priests for their religious ceremonies.
We climb down to the platforms and discover hundreds and hundreds of pieces of broken pottery. Marcos explains that the Mayan priests used these pots to hold paper made of tree bark and incense called copal. The bark paper was soaked with blood --animal or human! They burned the incense and the blood soaked paper as an offering to the gods of death. After everything had burned up the priests cut a hole in the pot. They believed this would release they evil spirits from the pot. Then the priests smashed the pot on the ground. They did this so the evil spirits could not use the pot to make an offering. This is why there are pieces of broken pots all around here.
Marcos digs in the dirt of a platform and shows us something he has just found. He has some large pieces of a pot and he is putting them together like a jigsaw puzzle. He has made a pot that is like a vase that has three legs. It is about 6 inches in diameter and 10 inches tall. He shows us that the pot has a picture on it. This pot may be over 1,500 years old and the picture looks like it was just painted! It is creature with the head of a jaguar! The Mayans believed the jaguar was the god of death!
Marcos reburies the pieces in the dirt to preserve them until Belizean archeologists can come and study this. Then Marcos leads us into the big cave at the bottom of the sinkhole. We slow climb down Mayan steps past huge cave formations bigger than the ones we saw in the smaller cave. Marcos tells us to walk right behind him so we won't step on any of the bits of broken pottery we see on the cave floor.
After a half-hour Marcos stops. This is the end of the cave. Marcos points inside a small side tunnel. Inside is a big clay pot! It is about 1 1/2 feet tall and 1 1/2 feet wide. This pot is not broken! Marcos says that Mayan this was like Perrier water. The Mayans believed the purest water on earth came from caves. The priests put this big pot here to collect water for the kings to drink and to use in their religious ceremonies. This cave is now a dry cave and stalactites do not drip water any more. Before the cave dried up we see that a stalagmite was starting to form on the side of the pot.
Marcos says that we must go back now so we can get out of the cave before dark. As we head out we're glad that we are not going to be here after dark, especially after Marcos shows us something on the cave floor in with the broken pots. It is a 12 inch long knife made of flint! It is thin and very sharp. Marcos says that this is a special Mayan sacrificial knife. It could have been used for killing animals for sacrifice--or even humans! Marcos turns over a piece of pottery. It is a piece of bone! Is this bone animal or human? We don't know, but it will be dark soon and we're going to hang around to try to figure it out!
Back at our jungle basecamp we think about all the things we saw and learned today. We are also planning tomorrow's expedition to explore cave that can only be enter by a river! Join us tomorrow on our as we go up river to continue our exploration of the Mayan underworld.
Wayne & Karen
Caves Branch, Belize
Position: 17º 10' N / 88º 41' W
Air Temp: 88ºF
Weather: light breeze, overcast with high clouds.
Wearing their helmets and headlights, Wayne, Karen and Mayan cave guide, Marcos, prepare to enter the underground Mayan world of the dead.
Karen squeezes into a tiny, dark hole under a ledge to enter the cave.
Marcos lets a big cave scorpion crawl on his face!
This is looking up to the top of the sinkhole from the mouth of the big cave at the bottom of the sinkhole. Long vines and huge stalactites hang down into the cave. The small cave we entered through is up to the right and can't be seen from this picture. In the middle at the bottom of the picture is the edge of a Mayan ceremonial platform.
Marcos holds the pieces of a Mayan pot with a picture of creature with the head of a jaguar -- the god of death!
At the end of the cave is a big clay pot under some stalactites! This pot was used by the priests to collect water for the kings to drink. (Notice the stalagmite that started to form on the side of the pot!)
Marcos carefully holds a Mayan sacrificial knife. It is made of flint and is very sharp. Marcos says the priests used this knife for sacrificing animals--or even humans!