As bad as it gets in the apartment, spending days washing one pair of socks, hours deciding whether to have ketchup or catsup with dinner, and attempting to fry pizzas, I certainly have it better than your average Belizean did two thousand years ago. Of course, back then, they weren’t Belizean or Central American, they were Mayan, and even then there were separate groups, with differences based on language and tribal structure. But one thing they all had in common was a love of bloodshed Wes Craven or John Carpenter would be proud of.
In the west of Belize, near the border with Guatemala, runs the Maya Mountains – it’s an area of lush jungle, fertile land and clean air. And lots of caves. The most famous cave is called Actun Tunichil Muknal. That’s Mayan for ‘Cave of the Stone Sepulchre’, which gives you an idea of what’s inside. Unless you don’t know what a sepulchre is, in which case you should probably read more. And when I say read more, I don’t mean Harry Potter books – they’re for children! It’s normally known as the ATM Cave – I’m not even going to attempt any cashpoint jokes, they’re too obvious. Although it does resemble a large hole in the wall – oh no, I’ve done it anyway. Anyway, in addition to being an extensive cave system over five kilometres long, it’s also (and most famous for being) a Mayan archaeological site – the cave features pottery, stoneware, rock carvings, and human remains. And visiting it is one of the most well-known, interesting and adventurous things to do in the country.
Before entering, your guide (every tourist is required to have one) will give you an introduction to the cave and its contents. As it was weeks ago that I visited, the only nugget of information I can remember is that Bear Grylls once visited the area for one of his survival programmes – apparently he was fine with the whole experience, but his cameraman constantly complained. Perhaps that was because he knew Bear would be taking all the credit for pretending to be stranded alone in the middle of nowhere whilst surrounded by his film crew and support unit and sleeping every night in a hotel, whereas he would never be famous for being the youngest person to climb Everest and instead spend his whole time lugging a heavy camera through a tropical jungle?
Getting into the cave requires more than your average walk into a hole in the rock – you have to wade across a river, which flows through the cave and out the cave mouth, then swim up said river into the cave mouth, before hauling yourself and your soaking clothes onto the rock. After that you get around with a combination of walking, climbing and swimming – the water depth ranges from just covering your toes to places where even the tallest of us have to swim. And you have to take your boots off at one point (for spiritual/religious reasons – some areas are considered sacred, although you have to keep your socks on, for more profane reasons – to stop the oils in your skin damaging the fragile rock), which only adds to the slippery ungainliness of the trip. Along the way you come across many rock formations, some of which may have undergone minor sculpting by the Maya to function as altars for the offerings, to look like people or animals, or to cast shadows and silhouettes onto the walls. The stalagmites probably needed no extra sculpting, and not much of an imagination either.
Like many traditional peoples all over the world, the ancient Maya believed that caves were hallowed ground, sacred spaces, homes for the gods, places that bridged the gap between the physical and spiritual worlds. As well as being somewhere to live when the weather outside was crap. And their most obvious legacy of being here is a large amount of pottery, its condition ranging from nearly intact to completely smashed. They believed that there were spirits inside each vessel, so each container would be smashed after use (or at least have a small hole punched into it), to release the spirits within. As a result, parts of the cave are littered with broken pottery. It looks like the day after a Greek wedding. Considering that most of the fourteen hundred-odd artifacts are between one and two thousand years old, they were well made – if the Maya hadn’t have broken them, they’d have still done the job today.
The ceramics and rock sculptures are in the outer part of the cave, the inner part was considered closer to the underworld, and that’s where you find the human remains – the closer the people got to the gods, the more likely their ceremonies would be answered by them and the better the chance their sacrifices would propitiate them. And what a range of rituals they had. There are fourteen skeletal remains (seven adults and seven children, all under the age of five), and many of them show marks of ancient Maya beautification – their teeth have been filed, and a board or piece of wood would’ve been strapped round their heads and pressed against their foreheads from an early age, giving them a flattened forehead. Plus, a bead or some other object would’ve been hung from the head-squashing board, between the eyes, forcing the person to focus on it as they grew up. The result? A flat-headed, pointy-toothed, cross-eyed gimp. But, according to the ancient Maya, a handsome young hottie by the standards of the day. And that’s what was done to them before they were killed. Young victims, particularly girls, were popular sacrifices, as they were seen as pure and uncontaminated. Most of them were taken to a particular spot in the cave, clubbed, and left for dead. Charming. And, according to the guide and most Maya scholars, most of the victims (at least the older ones who knew what was going on) would’ve been quite happy about this, and even volunteered for it! Death by sacrifice was considered one of the more noble ways to pop off – the victims would’ve been assured of going directly to heaven, and their families would’ve known their kin were helping to appease the gods with their death. And you thought giving up alcohol for Lent was tough.
One of the ceremonies that was performed in the cave was blood-letting – the high-class people (tribal leaders, priests, etc.) would take a sharp stingray barb or porcupine quill and stab themselves with it – women would pierce their tongue (ouch!) and men would stick it in their penis (what?!). The blood would be collected on pieces of paper, which was then burned in small bowls. Through the visions seen in the smoke, one could talk to the gods. And presumably tell them how much their mouths and genitals hurt…
The highlight and final destination of the tour is the evocatively-named Crystal Maiden. After clambering over the rocks, stepping over the skulls and bones, and finally climbing up a slippery ladder attached to the rock face (in your socks), you get to the small cave which marks her final resting place. This unfortunate (or lucky, if you’re ancient Maya) woman was about 20 years old when she was taken up here, clubbed in the back with a stone axe and left to die in the darkness. Over time, her skeleton has become calcified and is now cemented to the cave floor. Her calcite-encrusted bones have a sparkling, crystalline appearance that glitters in the torch-light, giving her her name. The cave’s completely dark, apart from the small pools of light from our head-lamps, and totally quiet, the silence occasionally punctuated by the low voice of the guide. It’s really quite beautiful, in a sad, slightly shocking kind of way. I can picture Damien Hirst exhibiting her in a modern art gallery, in between a pickled shark and a decapitated cow. Then, it’s back down the ladder and through the cave to the comforting warmth of daylight. And lunch and a shower. The Maya name for the underworld is Xibalba, which translates as ‘place of fright’! And for the people travelling through these caves years ago, the darkness lit only by pine torches, it must have been a terrifying journey to a truly awful place. Speaking of which, it’s time for me to stop writing and get the bus to work. Until next time…