My left leg was jackhammering with fatigue, calf muscle spasming uncontrollably as I struggled to maintain a perch on the tiny nub of rock. I had to make my move now. It was a leap of faith when I pushed off and jumped up and clung to a knob of rock four feet above me, then scurried ungracefully up onto safe ground. I was panting and my clothes were soaked with sweat and covered with a rime of sticky clay. My head pounded from dehydration. But as I waited for our guide to follow me up onto the ledge, I caught a faint glow. Could it be? Daylight. At last.
We’d been underground for five hours, as deep as 600 feet below the surface of the jungle in a cave the Belizeans call the Mountain Cow Cave. The cavern has been rebranded for tourists as the more picturesque-sounding Crystal Cave, though few tourists make it here. Unlike the more famous and accessible Actun Tunichil Muchnal cave, which sees thousands of visitors per year, Crystal Cave only sees a few hundred, most only peeking into its impressive foyer. I could see why. It was not for the faint of heart.
Our day started early, with a pickup at our hotel by two guides, Gils and his cousin, who wore rubber gardening boots and constant smiles but said little. After a bumpy ride past small villages and into increasingly remote forest, we reached a small parking lot that served as the entrance to St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park. To get to the cave we had to hike through the jungle on a muddy trail that would have mired even the stoutest Land Rover. I could see why the British sent their elite troops to Belize for jungle training. The going was treacherous and every step risked a twisted ankle or worse. Gils warned us to look before we grabbed tree trunks for support: many bore evil-looking spikes and others might be the perch for a fer-de-lance, one of the world’s most poisonous snakes. The jungle was trying to kill us.
Belize — the entire Yucatan peninsula, actually — is riddled with caves like a massive block of Swiss cheese.
After a 30-minute hike and thigh-busting slippery ascent, we finally reached the cave opening. Though we were in a national park and this was arguably its main attraction, we didn’t see another person and there was no marker or interpretive signage anywhere. The trail just died out at a huge hole in the ground. Vines and roots dripped over its side, hanging well into the maw; I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a flock of bats, or even pterodactyls, fly out. Gils set down his pack, took out a well-worn hemp rope, knotted it around a nearby tree trunk and threw the free end over the edge of the abyss. He told us to put on our helmets. Wasn’t there a waiver we needed to sign? I nervously buckled my brain bucket and checked that the headlamp was working.
Belize — the entire Yucatan peninsula, actually — is riddled with caves like a massive block of Swiss cheese. These caves are often shrouded in thick jungle and are still being discovered, often by accident. But the ancient Mayan people who lived here for centuries knew about the caves and used them for ceremonies and sacrifices. The caves, to the Mayans, were the entrance to the underworld and they explored them much like we were, albeit with torches and barefoot instead of with LED headlamps and rubber-soled shoes. The evidence of their time underground is still present.
After our rappel into the cave, we crept down along a steep slope into the darkness. It was a foreboding place that felt heavy and silent, the only sounds a steady drip drip drip from somewhere, new stalactites being formed all the time. The going was tough. There wasn’t a single stretch of flat ground and the limestone was covered in a thick coating of slick clay, the same clay the Mayans used to make their pots and urns. We proceeded on all fours or crab walking to keep from sliding off of a mound and breaking an ankle. I didn’t even want to imagine how you could evacuate an injured person from here.
This was history, a grave site, archaeology come to life right there the beam of my headlamp.
An hour into our descent, we came upon evidence of an earlier human visit: shards of clay, some ash, an intact pot, and then — did my eyes deceive? — a human skull, its crown smashed in, not twelve inches from where I crouched. We all sat quietly here out of respect. A chill passed over me despite the heavy humidity and warmth of the cave. No ropes, no plexiglass, no warnings. This was history, a grave site, archaeology come to life right there the beam of my headlamp.
We descended deeper into the cave. The air became heavier. The water bottles in my backpack ran dry and I sweated profusely. The going became narrower and we were forced to remove our packs and push them ahead through openings and shimmy through behind them. Then, just when claustrophobia threatened to tighten its grip, the cave opened up into a yawning cathedral with chandeliers of stalactites and stalagmites straining to reach each other from ceiling and floor. Our headlamps danced on the formations and my fatigue vanished as I took in the spectacle. We paused for lunch in one of the rooms, in probably the most remote place I had ever eaten a sandwich. We all ate in silence, careful not to drop crumbs in this pristine place.
The return journey was much the same as our descent, and I had no sense of up or down. Nothing looked familiar. I marveled at Gils’s ability to navigate this labyrinth, trying not to think about what it would be like to become lost. Then, that final leap toward daylight. I felt instant relief, as if my lungs could fully inflate again. We picked our way up the cave opening where our rope still hung over the side. Hand over hand, I pulled myself up the last cliff and collapsed on a rock, for a moment not caring if I was sitting on a fer-de-lance. It was good to be back in the land of the living.