I suppose this is the reason why they call it a rainforest. It has not stopped raining since we left San Ignacio. When we approached the Hummingbird Highway towards Blue Hole NP, it got a lot worse and rain fell out of the sky in buckets. And it is not even the rainy season.
It is not that we can say that it has been better in the past few days. The shoes I wear are still damp and are full of mud from our visit to the ruins of Cahal Pech yesterday. We are standing at the parking lot of the Blue Hole National Park in Belize, about twenty kilometers south of the capital Belmopan. For the first time we head into the jungle. Towards an adventure that I was looking forward to the most: exploring Crystal Cave, perhaps the most demanding day trip from San Ignacio.
Through the jungle
A walk of about 45 minutes. That is what awaits us before we get to the entrance of the cave. ‘I estimate the difficulty of the trip about eight out of ten,’ says Marcos, a guide with Maya origins. We are not intimidated by Marcos’s assessment and put our backpacks in the trunk of the car. I quickly take my drinking bottle and GoPro when Marcos is waving his arms to leave. For a brief moment the trail seems to be doable, but after about fifty meters the stone path turns into a real mud pool. In the jungle, holding on to the branches and trees is not an option. You never know which animal is on the back of the trunk, or what dangerous insect is camouflaged so much you did not see it. And then we don’t yet take Poisonwood into account, a poisonous tree species that grows here and of which a touch of the bark is enough to make you sick.
The journey does not become a demonstration of my Tarzan-like skills to swing from vine to vine to keep me straight on the slippery path. With legs often extending widely, my technique is better described as a clumsy ballet dancer. Mud, smooth stones and roots hidden half-underground. Enough obstacles to cause a fall leading to a mud bath. Especially when we have to overcome some altitude meters. That I am not exaggerating becomes clear when Linsay falls first on her buttocks before we reach the entrance cave.
Descending the Mayan underworld Xibalba
Eventually I succeed in reaching the entrance of Crystal Cave without a fall. Although this feat is hardly noticeable because of the large amount of mud on my trouser legs. Caves such as Crystal Cave were sometimes called Xibalba by the Maya. Literally translated it means ‘place of fear’ or ’empire of shadows’. Not an inviting term, but what did you expect from a place that was used for rituals and human sacrifices. Fortunately, as far as we are aware of Marcos’ plans, this is not on the schedule the day.
To explore Crystal Cave, we first have to abseil about five meters into mouth of the cave. Marcos sets up a rope system and descends first. I follow and shortly thereafter it is Linsay’s turn. The sunlight barely reaches the beginning of the cave and so we quickly put our headlights on and continue to descend the cave. Whoever thought that this would be the hardest part, is wrong. In his free time, Marcos often goes exploring new caves, and he wants to give us the same experience. Not much later we encounter a first Maya site. Remains of pots and a fire pit are easy to spot, even though it is only lit up by the light from our lamp. Crystal Cave is therefore full of it. My main focus was on discovering the caves of Belize, the experience of doing some real caving. Narrow corridors and crevices where you have to squirm in between. Deep under the ground, while only the light from your headlight illuminates the road in front of you. Claustrophobia-stimulating. That was Linsay’s biggest fear before we started this adventure. Murmuring yourself through a small corridor and suddenly getting an anxiety attack. Fortunately, she is very brave. I on the other hand enjoy the adrenalin boost you get when you crawl under a low ceiling to reach a larger hall. Exploring the inner caves of the earth is similar to climbing a mountain, soI think. More than once we climb from one stalagtite to another. The only difference is that we are clambering down here.
We have been exploring Crystal Cave for almost two hours when we arrive in a large hall. “So far everything seems to be okay with you.” Marcos begins. “Do you want something even more adventurous?” We nod. He points to a narrow opening above. “Behind it lies Wonderland.” He begins. A more difficult section that requires a little more climbing work. “Only one out of ten groups ventures, depending on the group’s abilities.” We have already fallen into the rabbit hole so deeply, it’s only a small step to move on to Wonderland, I think to myself ..
We take off our shoes and socks and walk towards the starting point of Wonderland. With my bare toes I scan the smooth surface of the ground. In one way or another, this feels even better than with shoes. I pull myself up on a slippery rock to get to the entrance of the corridor leading to Wonderland, a few meters above the ground. In the meantime we are about 180 meters underground. The light from our headlight sparkles different rock formations before the darkness gets the chance to absorb the light. This place is rightly called ‘Wonderland’, which is only reached by a few people a day.
Back to the sunlight
Scrambling 180 meters deep over slippery rocks and crawling under low ledges is a demanding physical effort. The same way back upwards is even worse. With equal caution we work ourselves beyond the many crevices and boulders that are sometimes larger than a car. Our arms and legs meanwhile are fatigued, but a long rest deep under the ground is not an option. Linsay also wants to get back upstairs as quickly as possible, because she is gasping for air and starts to feel claustrophobic. When we see the first rays of sun after many hours, a last steep and very slippery wall awaits us to overcome before we clamber back out via the rope. After spending six hours in the darkness, the sunlight is blinding, eventhough it is partly clouded and we are still under the thick foliage of the jungle. From our toes to behind our ears, we are full of mud and our tired legs and arms is somethng we will definitely feel until tomorrow morning, but the discovery of a new dark (under) world is one that we will not forget.