Most of Belize’s geology is karst limestone, which is ideal for the formation of caves. About 200 million years ago, the skeletons of sea organisms accumulated forming a thick layer of sediment. As sea levels fell and mountains rose, this limestone layer was carved by wind, rain and faulting into caves. Belize’s cave systems are among the most extensive in the world and have only begun to be explored. Mapping and research began in the 1960’s and since then more than 300 caves have been explored and some 150 miles of passages mapped. These include the Cebada and Petroglyph Caves, two of the largest caves in Central America. The most spectacular cave system is the Chiquibul, west of the Maya Mountains. A National Geographic expedition found it to be the longest cave system in Central America, with over 60 miles of underground passages that run all the way into Guatemala. Heading into these caves allows you to appreciate their spectacular geology. The many Mayan artifacts found within them also adds culture and history to the caving experience.
Many of the country’s caves remain unexplored; however, those that are accessible and mapped are open to visitors. Western Belize has many caves. The Rio Frio Cave, in Mountain Pine Ridge, is the most accessible cave in the country with a massive entrance surrounded by lush vegetation. Barton Creek Cave (also in Mountain Pine Ridge) is a water cave explored by canoe. Chechem Ha Cave, west of San Ignacio, is noted for its many intact Mayan pots. Advanced spelunkers can explore Cebada, in the Chiquibul Forest; it is the largest cave in Belize with many unexplored caverns. Another advanced cave is Actun Tunichil Muknal, featured in National Geographic magazine; it has Mayan pottery and the skeletons of sacrificial victims. Central Belize, around Belmopan, has many caves as well. The Inland Blue Hole is a collapsed sinkhole good for a refreshing swim. Nearby is St. Herman’s Cave with a massive entrance and Mayan pottery within. One of the most popular tours is river Cave Tubing where you float along the Caves Branch River going in and out of various water caves. Advanced spelunkers can explore the deeper caves of the Caves Branch Cave System like Black Hole, Footprint, Waterfall and Petroglyph (named after Mayan rock drawings). In the southern Toledo district lays the Blue Creek Cave System or Ho Keb Ha in Maya.
Maya Cave Mythology
The Maya believed caves were the entrance to the underworld of Xibalba, and used them for utilitarian as well as religious purposes. To the Mayas, caves were the entrance to the underworld, which they called Xibalba (Place of Fright). The Maya saw earth’s surface as being in the middle of many levels of reality in which spirits and their gods lived. There were nine levels beneath the earth, and caves were the access to this lower world. In classic archeology the study of the Maya was centered on ruins. Recently, archeologists have begun appreciating the wealth of information that caves reveal on the Mayas, and so emerged the field of speleo-archeology. Water that dripped from stalactites was used as holy water for ceremonies. Rituals and even sacrifices were performed in caves, evidenced today by many pots, shards, alters, sacrificial skeletons and burial sites. Over 200 skeletons have been found in more than 20 caves in Belize. One chamber in Caves Branch holds 25 individuals. Some burial sites show possible evidence of commoners being sacrificed to accompany the journey of an elite who died.