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Belize Caves – Fascinating History, Unique Archaeological Experience & Both Soft & Hard Adventures

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Belize Caves – Fascinating History, Unique Archaeological Experience & Both Soft & Hard Adventures

The country of Belize as well as Guatemala and the Yucatan Peninsula have areas with topography referred to as karst (areas that are made up of a limestone shelf that is riddled with depressions, holes, & rivers). As a result of this geological phenomenon thousands of caves have been produced. These caves were sacred to the ancient (and modern) Maya, areas where they performed rituals and sacrifices archaeologically evident through the discovery of large ceramic jars, fire hearths, human skeletal material of both adults and children and other significant artifacts.

The Maya believed that these caves were portals into the underworld, an underworld known as (pronounced Shi-BAHL-bah) and it was believed that the Maya deities of death ran these areas. Traditionally the entrance to Xibalba was a specific cave entrance in Guatemala but it is now believed that all caves were sacred and offered access to Xibalba.

In Belize archaeologists have discovered through radio carbon dating that the use of these caves date back to as early as 1000 BC (Preclassic) and continue through AD 800 – 1000 (Terminal Classic). It is also noted that there is a significant increase in ceremonial activity during the Terminal Classic possibly due to the impending decline of major lowland Maya city-states that happened during this period. This increase in ceremonial activity in various caves occurs just prior to and during what is referred to as the Maya decline or collapse, a social and economic breakdown in the lowland Maya society, causing major cities to be virtually abandoned AD 800 – 1000 (Terminal Classic Maya period).

Numerous caves throughout Belize offer an archaeological as well as soft & high impact adventures. There is cave river inner tubing, hiking, and canoeing. These cave sites are generally only accessible with licensed guides and several are managed and protected by the Institute of Archaeology (IoA) and Belize Audubon Society. Many caves are considered archaeological sites and their protection falls under Belize’s antiquities laws and all possible care should be taken during your visit. One of the leading cave researchers in Belize is Dr. Jaime Awe, who is the director of the Institute of Archaeology. Much of the information in this article comes from Maya Cities and Sacred Caves: A Guide to the Maya Sites of Belize by Jaime Awe published in 2006 by Cubola Productions, Belize C.A.


Located in the central Cayo District of modern day Belize, archaeological remains indicate that Barton Creek Cave was utilized by the Maya to conduct rituals and ceremonial activities typical of other caves in the area from the Early Classic (AD 250) to the Late Classic (AD 900). Artifacts and other material include large ceramic jars, human skeletal material, hearths, and modified cave formations. Many chambers, as well as narrow areas, within Barton Creek Cave contain ledges upon which important ritual (ceremonial) material was placed.

Activities & Access
Canoeing is available for either a few hours or a 1/2-day, the stopping point is about a mile into the cave and swimming is available in the inner pools. Licensed guides provide tours and restrooms and changing areas are provided. Located approximately 25 minutes from mile marker 64 on the Western Highway (Georgeville).


Located in the Roaring Creek Valley in Belize’s Cayo District this cave wasn’t reported on in any detail until the late 1980’s. Significant archaeological finds include stelae in upright positions (ancient Maya stone monuments) and ceramic vessels including a chocolate pot of an elite Maya who probably entered the cave to perform a ritual bloodletting ceremony. Other remains include human skeletal material of both adults and children, stone implements made of both chert and obsidian, chipped stone tools such as biface points and ground stone tools that included manos and metates. Actun Tunichil Muknal was occupied by the Maya from Early Classic to Terminal Classic (AD 300 – 900) as with other caves in this region the Maya utilized this cave for ritual activities such as bloodletting, ritual smashing of vessels and sacrifices to appease various gods, deities, and rulers. Not surprising when Tunich Muknal was first occupied the Maya utilized the opening areas more and did not penetrate the interior until later in time.

Activities & Access
Actun Tunichil Muknal cave is accessed south of Teakettle Village in the Cayo district; it is a somewhat difficult journey since visitors must hike the last two miles that cross Roaring Creek several times. In order to enter the cave visitors must swim across a pool of water. Only licensed guides are allowed into the cave and you can make arrangements either through your hotel or lodge, your tour operator, or in the town of San Ignacio.


Formerly know as Vaca Falls Cave, located in the Cayo District about eight miles southeast of Benque Viejo Town, this cave contains many tunnels and chambers. The cave is located on the property of the Morales family. As was the case with Actun Tunichil Muknal, Che Chem Ha Cave was not discovered until the 1980’s. Archaeologists believe this cave was utilized from about middle Preclassic (900 – 300 BC) to the Late Classic Period (AD 850). Located within the deepest area of the cave is the Stela Chamber which houses an upright uncarved Stela ritually placed there by the ancient Maya, also of note is the fact that unlike other caves within the area there was no recovery of human skeletal material. There were a significant number of large ceramic jars found in association with plant remains indicating the importance of agricultural rituals and practices among the Maya who resided near this cave. Another interesting recovery is that of a well-preserved hard wood torch that would have been used to light the chambers and activities carried out in the cave by the Maya.

Activities & Access
Located approximately 8 miles from the town of Benque Viejo in the Cay District in Belize, Che Chem Ha cave can only be visited by licensed Belize guides and the Morales family who own the property provide restrooms, food, lodging, and tours. There is a 45-minute uphill walk to access the cave and within the cave there are ladders to access various chambers.


Located off the Hummingbird Highway in the Cayo district, caves that are part of this system include Footprint, Waterfall, Big Drop, and Petroglyph. The ancient Maya utilized these caves from approximately AD 300 – 900 for various rituals and ceremonies as is evident by the archaeological remains recovered within the cave system that include ceramic material (including large jars), stone tools, hearths, and skeletal remains of both humans and animals. Presumably these remains are all remnants of important rituals carried out from Preclassic to Classic Maya times.

Activities & Access
The Institute of Archaeology now manages a portion of Cave’s Branch and in doing so collect an entrance fee, maintain the cave, and provide a caretaker. Caves Branch offers an easy flowing water system whose water temperature averages 65 to 75 degrees all year long. All tours are guided and usually include headlights and tubes. As you move through the water system you traverse between cave chambers and open outside areas providing an incredible contrast between temperature, environment, and scenery. Caves Branch is easily accessed off the Hummingbird Highway and can be done as a day-trip from Belize City or as a 1/2 day tour from San Ignacio or some of the numerous jungle lodges such as Pook’s Hill, Hidden Valley, or Maya Mountain Lodge.

You can also get more information on all the above activities here: http://www.beyondtouring.com

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