Exploring the Mayan Underworld by Daryl Friesen

Resting deep within the Mayan mountains of Belize, are some of the most beautiful and unexplored cave systems of the world. Belize is a spelunkerís paradise as I experienced first hand. I began my own quest to find some of these amazing caves I had heard so much about, as I planned my trip to this small but beautiful country. The first place I stopped on my quest was a little town called San Ignacio which rests close to the Guatemalan border and along the gringo trail, as travelers call the route that crosses through the center of Belize, and into the Petan jungles of Guatemala. It's a town that will forever remind me of the Wild West as I walked its dusty streets in search of a place to rest my head. Old colonial buildings lined its cracked concrete streets and backpackers from all corners of the globe sat on hotel balconies smoking cigarettes and resting from their adventures. The towns had one of those anything can happen here vibes that you only find in third world countries! As I walked the streets I was greeted by several hustlers all trying to get me to stay at their hotel and most of them I tried to ignore, but one of them caught my attention because he had a strange feeling about him for a Hustler. When I met him, he gave me his pitch about the Hotel Jaguar and how great it was, I felt like I could trust him. He introduced himself to me as David, and he convinced me to stay at the cheapest place in town. He called it the Hotel Jaguar and a cheap place it was I can tell you! It had about ten rooms but only one bathroom for all the guests and was one of the scariest I had seen on my journeys into Central America, Well, with the exception to the bathrooms at the Belize City bus station of course.

Once I was settled into my room which had a hole in the wall, which allowed me to view all the activities of my neighbours both intimate and mundane, I made my way across the street to a place called Evaís restraunt. I was once again greeted by David who asked me what my purpose was in Belize. Was I just anther gringo on his way through San Ignacio to Guatemala? I told him about my interest in caves and he lit right up and explained to me that he knew of a secret cave, one where very view people go and that he would take me there for a small price the following day. I agreed!!!

After a light dinner I turned in and was awakened at around seven in the morning with David knocking on my door. I got dressed and made my way out onto the street where David had a beat up old truck with two canoes strapped on top and was accompanied by two other gringos, a young man and his girlfriend, who also wanted to see the cave. They where sitting on a couch in the back of the truck and they looked kind of scared. I think they were the Cancun resort type, not the backpacker adventurer sort! It was not first class travel but it was sure adventure travel which is what Belize is really all about. I introduced myself to the two travelers, who were named Darren and Debra, and sat down on the ratty old couch in the back of the truck next to them. I learned they were wealthy Americans from New Orleans, who were used to traveling in a more luxurious way, as they complained the whole time about the discomfort of the couch and the springs poking them. David flew down the streets of San Ignacio and across the suspension bridge and onto the highway. As we journeyed down the road our guide David lit up a big fat spliff and offered to the his guests.I took a toke, actually I took several, but the other two travelers looked like they where in shock as their guide smoked weed and drove. I noticed a sign on the side of the road that read, "IF YOU DRINK DON'T SPEED. USE YOUR ROADSENSE". It made me start to laugh like a madman or was that something else going to my head.

After about a half hour of driving David took a really fast sharp turn off the highway and we found ourselves bouncing along on a gravel road which passed through an Amish settlement. It was like seeing people from a different age. We found ourselves swerving around several horses and buggies that blocked our path. The Amish people who we passed by on the sides of the road looked at us like we were aliens from another planet invading their peaceful way of life, and we probably were! As David roared past, we left them behind in a cloud of dust. After we passed through the Amish settlement we went down a steep hill and became surrounded by lush thick jungle and the road became really rough! We all struggled to hang on in the back of the truck as we all bounced up and down, I enjoyed it!! David didn't even slow down as we traveled down the hill. It was thrilling but our fellow travelers looked like they where going to puke! I guess they just were not the gravel road types. We bounced along down the hill for about fifteen minutes and when we got to the bottom there was a large river crossing the road" "Des where we stop man." David said as he slammed on the squeaky brakes of his truck. With that we all piled out of the truck and onto the road and helped David take the canoes off the top of the truck. David explained that we would be journeying down the river to the cave site and that the river flowed inside and we would be paddling into it. I couldn't wait, caves are a journey into a different world and the pictures that where forming in my mind of this place where making my blood sing. I could not wait to get inside. I got into one the canoes with David and Darren and Debra followed behind us as we paddled down the river deep into the jungle towards the location of the cave. The journey along the river was beautiful we were truly in untouched jungles. David was a great guide and pointed out all kinds of different birds and wildlife to us. We saw spider monkeys swinging from the trees and iguanas resting on tree branches. He then told us that there were Mayan burial sites inside the cave. The Mayans believed that caves were sacred places and buried their dead deep inside them. There are hundreds of undiscovered Mayan burials still waiting to be found by archaeologists in the many cave systems scattered through out the Mayan mountains of Belize.

After about 15 minutes of canoe traveling bliss we floated into a large lagoon and there it was the grand entrance to the cave cut into the side of the limestone mountain. Two large jungle veins hung over its entrance it looked like something from an Indiana Jones film and just looking at brought back my childhood sense of wonder which was the real purpose of all my adventures. David then hooked up a large car battery to a spotlight in our canoe and did it for Darren and Debra as well. It was an amazing make shift lighting system, something you would only find in Central America where they make do with whatever they have. Within moments we paddled inside the cave and when we got inside you felt like you where entering a cathedral! The feeling of the sacred was overwhelming and it was beautiful. Large limestone stalactites hung from the roof way up above and as we got deeper and deeper inside the beams of our lights made out bats clustered together in the cracks of the cave above. Sometimes they would swoop down on us much to the fright of Debra who did not like the idea of one of them getting into her hair. As we paddled under a natural stone bridge could be seen crossing the river up ahead. David shined the light towards the bride, onto the cavern wall, and there was a skull sitting on a ledge looking down on us. David explained that there were Mayan burials on the other side of the river I asked him if we could stop and take a look and we pulled the canoes up next to a small ledge. Only David and I got out of the canoes and climbed up to where you could see the burials resting on the other side of the river. You could see bones sticking out of the dirt and other skulls upside down and there was even some complete pottery resting down there as well. As we gazed upon the artifacts of a ancient age I felt like I was transported back into a different time and it felt like magic. I felt closer to the Maya in that moment than I ever did standing on ancient temples surrounded by tacky tourists in Mexico. It was a feeling I would never be able to forget,but as quick as it came, it started to fade, along with Davidís light. Reality is always an intruder in moments like that. We had to return to the canoe if we wanted to see the rest of the cave before his light gave out. It would not last that much longer, So we left the burials behind and journeyed deeper into the earth. As we traveled the cave started closing in on us as the ceilings became lower. It got so low at one point we had to duck under the stalactites and you got to see the roof of the cave up close along with all the bats and spiders that lived among its cracks. Slowly the cave opened out again and we came to a large lagoon where the river stopped. I looked off in the distance where there were several huge boulders scattered on the ground and you could see the cave behind them continuing off down even deeper into the earth. David said we would have to leave because we could not continue by foot as the lights we had would not last, so we turned around and went back.

The journey back out of the cave was a silent one. No one talked everyone was still lost in the wonderment of the place.You could see the entrance and the light of day shining into the cave off in the distance it was a surreal feeling as we paddled our canoes slowly towards it. No one talked except David who quietly sang to himself. "Don't worry about a thing, Cause every little ting,Gonna be alright." His voice echoed softly through the silence of the cave and we all started to slowly sing along with him as we drifted through the entrance and back out into the modern world, leaving the wonder of the cave and the magic of the Maya behind us forever.

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