According to the Popul Vuh, an ancient Quiche Maya book that includes a section on the creation of the world, caves, water and mountains were the first forms of landscape to appear when the world was created. To the ancient Maya, any depression in the ground was a cave, including sinkholes, as was any niche between large stones.
The Maya believed that the Rain God, Chaak, lived in caves, and that many caves were entrances to the underworld, or Xibalba, the "Place of Fear."
According to the Popul Vuh, Xibalba was a underground court with twelve Lords of Xibalba, or Maya death gods. Hun Came (One Death) and Vucub-Came (Seven Death) were the two primary death gods.
The other ten were demons who caused sickness, starvation, poverty, fear, pain and death. These demons were Xiquiripat (Flying Scab) and Cuchumaquic (Gathered Blood), both of whom caused blood diseases, Ahalpuh (Pus Demon) and Aalgana (Jaundice Demon), who caused bodies to swell, Chamiabac (Bone Staff) and Chamiaholom (Skull Staff) who caused decay, Ahalmez (Sweepings Demon) and Ahaltocob (Stabbing Demon), "who hid in the unswept areas of people's houses and stabbed them to death, and Xic (Wing) and Patan (Packstrap), who caused people to die from coughing up blood. The rest of the inhabitants of Xibalba worked for one of these gods/demons.
In addition to being a place of death, the Maya believed that caves were places where souls could defeat death and become revered ancestors, making caves important places for burials and sacrifices. Caves also provide a venue for speaking with spirits to learn the right time for agricultural practices such as when to plant corn and burn the fields.
Therefore, for the Maya, caves were spiritual places in addition to being places of fear and death, making caves the perfect place for ceremonial rites and rituals. In fact, almost all known caves in Belize functioned as Maya ceremonial caves. However, only a few living Maya ever visited the caves, and only then to perform the necessary rites and rituals on ledges within the caves. Special ceremonial pots were used in these rituals and at the end of the ritual, the pot was broken or punctured to release its spirit and to prevent the pot from ever being used again.
Finally, caves were also useful places to satisfy the basic needs of the living - clean and fresh water, and safe storage for agricultural products such as clay pots of grains.
Specially licensed caving guides are required for tours of all caves in Belize.
Actun (Aktun) Tunichil Muknal (ATM Cave or "Cave of the Stone Sepulchre") is approximately 3 miles long and is located in the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve portion of the Cayo District near Roaring Creek Village.
ATM was used by the Maya for ceremonial purposes during the Classic Period, with most ceremonies and rituals occuring at the entrances to the cave. However, the Maya believed that the interior of the cave was more sacred and closer to the Maya Rain God, Chaak. Consquently, rituals began to be held deeper and deeper into the interior of ATM toward the end of the Classic Period as the drought that contributed to the collapse of the Maya civilization worsened.
The first ceremonial center within ATM sits on a ledge above the perennial stream that flows through ATM and includes two stela, one in the shape of a blade and one in the shape of a stingray spine. Archaeologists believe the Maya used this area as a ritual blood-letting site because of the broken pottery, obsidian blades and another carved piece of slate scattered throughout this ceremonial area.
The second ceremonial site deeper in ATM is in an upper chamber and include the skeletal remains of 14 bodies, about half of of them children. All of the skeletal remains are male except one completely intact female skeleton covered in sparkling mineral deposits -- the Crystal Maiden. Other artifacts in the second ceremonial chamber include large pots and jars, ocarinas (flute-like instruments) and metates (ground stones used for grinding corn and grains), suggesting agricultural rituals.
Most of ATM is underwater from ankle to knee deep within the cave itself, and the only way into ATM is to swim because the water at the entrance of the cave is about 6 1/2 feet deep. However, once reaching the second Maya ceremonial site deeper within ATM, visitors are above water and must take off their shoes to prevent accidental damage to extremely fragile Mayan objects in this area. (Note: cameras are not allowed in the cave after a May 2012 visitor dropped a camera and broke one of the calcified skulls. Also, carry an old pair of socks to wear for the portion of ATM that is above water.)
ATM was first explored in 1989 and National Geographic produced a documentary about ATM in 1992 (Journey Through the Underworld).
Only 30 tour guides are licensed to lead tours into ATM Cave.
Barton Creek Cave: Barton Creek Cave is located in the Maya Mountains and is approximately 4.5 miles long.
Above a subterreanan river, the Cave features 10 ledges on which archaeologists have discovered the skeletal remains of 28 humans, ages from children to adults, food storage and cooking vessels, stone tools, spindles, monuments, ritual offerings of corn and other agricultural products and fire hearths. Archaeologists believe Barton Creek Cave was used for agricultural and fertility rites, family burials, human sacrifices and ritual bloodlettings. Objects found in the Cave are from the Early Classic through late Classic Periods. (300-800 AD)
Barton Creek Cave is explored by canoe and most Cayo lodges and independent tour operators can arrange tours.
Blue Creek Cave (Hokeb Ha in Quiche Maya, meaning "where the waters come out)) is located in the Belize's Toledo District, and is believed to be part of one of the largest underground cave systems in the world. Late Classic ceramics and an altar found inside the cave indicate that the Maya used Blue Creek Cavve for ceremonial purposes.
The massive entrance to Blue Creek Cave was carved by Blue Creek as it emerges above-ground. Calm waters of Blue Creek Cave at the Cave's entrance are perfect for swimming. Note: Blue Creek runs through the entire cave system, so be prepared for a wet trip! A guide is required under Belize law. Also, accessibility may be limited during the wet season from May through November.
Blue Creek Cave is near the Mayan Blue Creek Village, a small Mayan Village of Mopan and Quiche Mayan with a population of about 270.
Nohoch che’en or Caves Branch was declared a 15.5 acre archaeological reserve by the Belize government in 2010. Many caves are located in this area, including Petroglyph, Pothunters, Satabe, Footprints, St. Margaret’s Cave, Pottery Cave, Te Tun Cave, Caves Branch Rock Shelter (CBRS) and others. Archaeologists estimate that the caves in this area were used from the Middle Pre-Classic to Post Classic Periods by the Maya, primarily for burials and ceremonies/rituals.
The Cave's Branch Cave System is an approximately 19 mile network of caves in the Cave's Branch Valley. (Approximately 28 miles of caves have been surveyed in this area of Belize alone.)
Depending on the length of the tour selected, the popular cave tubing tours of Cave's Branch pass through 3 to 5 caves. (Note: these caves were probably one cave until sections of the cave collapsed from age.)
St. Herman's Cave , located in the St. Herman's Blue Hole National Park and managed by the Belize Audubon Society, is part of the Cave's Branch system, but is not part of the Cave's Branch Archaeological Reserve. Cave's Branch Creek runs through St. Herman's Cave and connects it to the interior Blue Hole, a collapsed cave, or cenote. The Maya used St. Herman's Cave during the Classic Period and spears, torches and ceramics were removed from the Cave for safe keeping by the Belize Archaeology Department. Some artifacts remain in St. Herman's Cave, but are further within the Cave and explorations beyond the initial 300 feet into the Cave seen by most visitors requires a licensed guide. (The Cave extends for about a mile.)
Crystal Cave (or Mountain Cow Cave) is also located in St. Herman's Blue Hole National Park and is also part of the Cave's Branch system. This is a cave for the physically fit only and is a good cave for those with some caving experience - expect rock walls, small crevices, tiny gaps, bats, blind crickets, spiders, and massive "crystal" stalagmites and stalactites. The hike to reach this cave is about 50 minutes and getting into the cave requires a short (15 foot) rappel.
Actun Che Chem Ha Cave (Cave of the Poisonwood Tree) was accidentally discovered when William Morales, a local farmer, lost his dog and found the cave. Che Chem Ha was first explored in 1989 by the Belize Department of Archaeology.
The entrance to Che Chem Ha is decorated with Mayan art, and its walls are lined with Mayan storage jars, many of which still contain petrified pieces of corn, annatto and other agricultural products. Six side passageways (some crawl spaces) contain collections of different types of ceramics. For example, one of the side passages is filled with large ceramic objects, some as big as 3 feet in diameter. Another passage is filled with ceramic objects with inverted bowls covering their bases. A large chamber at the western end of the cave houses a miniature uncarved stela.
Archaeologist believe the cave was used from the Middle Pre-Classic to the Terminal Classic periods (around 1300 BC to around 960 AD) making it one of the longest used Mayan caves. Approximately 51% of the ceramics found at the site are late Classic pieces.
Che Chem Ha is approximately 16 miles from San Ignacio near Vaca Falls within a steep hillside overlooking the Macal River, and is a "dry" cave (no water source originates in the cave).