Take a tour of the Maya underworld—if you dare

October 27, 2023

There are hundreds of caves in Belize that served as portals to what the Maya called Xibalba—home to ancient death gods, rituals, and extraordinary relics left behind.

For many, the concept of Hell exists in another dimension. But in Belize, the entrance to the underworld is right below your feet. The small Central American nation is home to hundreds of caves, many of which visitors can explore. But they are more than just a place to go cave diving. These caves are said to be the pathway to Xibalba, or the Maya underworld.

Cave tourism is one of Belize’s top activities, allowing travelers to explore Maya mythology and culture. A tremendous amount of effort has gone into opening various caves to make them accessible to visitors. However, archaeologists have barely tapped what’s beneath the surface. Here’s how to explore these eerie portals to the Maya underworld.

A caving wonderland

Xibalba (chee-bal-ba), meaning “place of fear,” was significant in ancient Maya culture. The Popol Vuh, the book of creation of the Q’eqchi’ people, described it as a court existing below the Earth’s surface, where the Maya death gods reigned supreme, and a crossroads of the living and the dead. According to Holley Moyes, a professor of archaeology at University of California, Merced and National Geographic Explorer, historians are still speculating on why ancient civilizations saw caves as portals to the underworld.

“We do know that as early on as the Neanderthals, people were buried in the dark zones of caves in what we speculate might be some sort of bear-related cult,” says Moyes. “Think about it. What do bears do in winter? Hibernate in caves. They appear to be dead. Then they wake up and go about their business, so possibly ancient people saw this as a type of resurrection.”

The gods controlled every aspect of Maya life, from the weather (Chac) to the harvest (Hun Hunahpu) and even dictated one’s mate (Ixchel). The region’s first inhabitants would enter the caverns for important rituals like burial, bloodletting, and sacrifice. Archaeologists are still finding evidence of these practices today.

One of Belize’s more popular cave experiences is Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) in western Belize, near San Ignacio. The Maya consider the ATM, meaning Cave of the Stone Sepulchre, a sacred location. The cavern safeguards the bones of 13 men, women, children, and the famous “Crystal Maiden,” who was thought to be a sacrifice. Decades of weathering and calcification gave the skeleton’s surface a gem-like appearance. Several other Maya artifacts and remains are completely calcified to the cave floor. In 2012, photography and video were banned to protect the artifacts.

Miguel Choco, a Q’eqchi’ Maya tour guide for The Lodge at Chaa Creek, says visiting Xibalba is key to understanding ancient Maya and their history. “It is vital to learn about the [context] of the ceremonial activities in the caves and why they concluded with human sacrifice,” he says, which usually happened when drought, infertility, and famine ravaged the population.

In fact, more than 11 percent of Belize’s population are Indigenous Mopan, Yucatec, and Q’eqchi’ Maya people. Many of them continue to practice ancient traditions, speak Mayan languages, and subscribe to mythologies passed down over the generations.

How to explore the Maya underworld

It’s hard not to feel the presence of something ancient and meaningful when entering a Belizean cave, even those without visible skeletons. In central Belize, visitors can take a guided canoe cruise or swim into the underworld at Barton Creek Cave, the longest subterranean grotto in the nation. Pottery shards, jewelry, and the remains of at least 28 individuals ranging from children to adults have been found inside the 10 natural ledges, once a ceremonial site.

However, with only four miles of the cave mapped so far and several more to be explored, who knows what other relics remain. Archaeological work is still ongoing inside the cave, slowly revealing important clues to the downfall of the mighty civilization that once ruled from modern Mexico all the way down to El Salvador.

Not all of Belize’s caves come with outright tales of death, but they can still send a chill up the spine. Located about an hour away from the capital of Belmopan, the Caves Branch River flows through 19 caves of Nohoch Che’en, a popular tubing destination. The 1 1⁄2-hour floating tour takes travelers past towering stalactites and preserved Maya paintings on the ceilings.

At specific points along the journey, tubers enter pitch black areas. Headlamps are provided, but embracing the darkness is the best way to see the caves as the ancient Maya did.

Ali Wunderman is an award-winning freelance travel journalist focusing on wildlife, sustainability, and outdoor adventure. Follow her on Instagram and X.

The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonders of our world, funded Holley Moyes’s work. Learn more about the Society’s support of explorers.