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Here's a trip that takes you into a dark wilderness seldom visited by the average tourist. It's a trek is for explorers curious to engage with a past culture. Deep in the tropical jungles of Belize, the Mayan natives developed intricate folklore around the underworld of their huge caves, some of them divided into many rooms, with the sounds of dripping stalactites echoing from wall to wall.

Reporter Bernice Notenboom hiked and drifted by innertube through a series of these caves, led by a Mayan guide. Bernice's trip takes a spooky, mysterious turn - perfect to get us in the mood for Halloween.

Innertubing the Mayan Underworld

By Bernice Notenboom, 10/26/2001

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Night falls early in the jungle. The hot day surrenders to a choir of Cicadas. Above the dense canopy of jungle trees, I see a sliver of sky full of bright stars. The Maya believed that each night, Xibalba, the god of the underworld swallowed the setting sun on its path to sunrise. The sun, then transformed into a jaguar, traveled through the underworld, and reappeared at dawn as the sun god.

In the distance I hear the call of the howler monkey.

It sounds like the chilling roar of a giant jaguar. I halt my breath and as more monkeys join, the call becomes so poignant it vibrates in my own throat. No wonder the howler monkeys were so important to the Mayan people. They represented the voice of Xibalba. Tomorrow, I am going to float down the Cave Branch River into one of the Mayan underworlds.

Walter: "We are tubing upstream, [we're not tubing down stream, ok,] tubing down stream is too easy..."
Walter, our Mayan guide, explains the mechanics of our floatation device:
Walter: "Ok, our tubes are deformed. OK, they have a thick section and a thin section. So what we are going to do is let the thin section be behind our knees, something sorta like this. And this thick section will be going behind our back. Remember this ball? Here always go down, don't let it be sticking up. It's not a comfortable feeling. Sit gently, don't be jumping in your tubes, 'cause it will flip over."

Inner tubes in hand, we wade through knee deep warm water to find a comfortable spot to start paddling upstream to the entrance of Footprint Cave.

Walter: "We are close to Footprint Cave. What is Footprint Cave, How did it get its name? The Cave got it's name by Footprint, go to way three back. I don't know how far, hopefully we can show you guys. There's footprints out there, and when the Mayas walked, they usually walked barefoot. And they walked on clay. The clay, when they put their foot there, they left the mark. And when the water comes down with a lot of minerals, and then crystallize the footprints. And we can still see footprints, probably about 2 thousand years old..."
The Maya held caves sacred as the entrances to the Underworld. Carrying torches, they would travel up to 6 miles deep into the earth to perform their rituals.

Walter: "The only people allowed in there in the Mayan days were shamans, the priests, and the volunteers. Nobody was allowed in there. That belief is still passed on from generation to generation, until present day. When I was a kid, none of my family wanted to enter caves. Nobody. That's why you don't find a lot of locals as cavers, go into caves, because of the reason is, that this has been passed on from the Mayas, that this is a sacred place. This is not a place to go in there and have fun, or just go in there and spoil it. We did not enter caves because of that reason. This is a sacred place, not an ordinary place."
Caves symbolize everything that is forbidden; gloomy, lightless, dingy places where creepy winged and four-legged ones dash away from your head and feet. I secure the straps of my sandals and firmly tuck my hair under my hat. As we enter the cave, a cool breeze chills my sweaty back. My eyes have difficulty adjusting to the darkness.
Walter: "Everyone's headlamp is working, make sure gather your tubes, we'll be heading off into the mystic of the underworld."
The Maya believed they lived in a middle world, sandwiched between nine layers of the underworld and thirteen layers of the upper world. They believed in an afterlife to which only kings, priests, and those who die by sacrifice gain entrance. This supernatural world was in charge and the threat of revenge of the gods kept all people in line. There were 166 gods and most were feared, evil, greedy, and some even had soul-stealing spirits.

We have now paddled with our hands a few miles against the current inside the cave. The water is too shallow here for our inner tubes, and we're forced to continue our journey on foot.

The floor of the cave is dusty, dirt mixed with bat guano. A negative handprint marks our first sighting of Mayan evidence. I carefully place my own hand over this thousand-year-old handprint, and notice that I have an extra finger. Bad luck or sacrifice? Remains of fire pits, ashes, incense burners lead us to the most sacred site in the cave. Walter instructs us to turn off our headlamps.

Walter: "That's the carving, that looks like a plastering, of one of the underworld gods. It's the god of happiness, fertility and laughter."
The god of happiness, laughter and fertility. It is hard to believe that this grinning monkey god sculpture with its tongue sticking out also served as the altar for the most painful ritual: the offering of blood to call the gods.
Walter: "The way how the Mayas would do rituals was, take out blood of any humans, they would cut their fingers, that was one way. The other way was the female would pull their tongue out and they would put a knife through it, so it would go through and through, and they would get a vine from the jungle with a lot of thorns, and they would put it on top and pull it down. This was a ritual. The other was that males was they would cut underneath their penis, definitely not off because they need it. Laugh. This was a ritual And they would burn these different parts on their fireplace."
Walter describes how the Maya burned pieces of flesh from different parts of the body along with tree bark. In the smoke, the immense open mouth of the vision serpent appeared to them. The king, hallucinating from loss of blood, would visualize faces of the ancestors inside its monstrous mouth. The ancestors gave the king a message to bring back to his people.

It is much cooler now and the familiar sounds of fruit bats and cave swallows have disappeared. Suddenly, labyrinths of passages emerge in front of us. We take a right turn into a slot and follow our guide's beam of light deeper into the void of darkness. I glance back over my shoulder and realize that there are absolutely no landmarks. I would be hopelessly lost if left alone.

Walter: "Hey guys, lets gather close here, let's have a moment of silence..."
It strikes me that if you really want to hear voices in the darkness, you can almost imagine them in the sound of water splashing against walls and rocks.

The walls around us narrow to the width of one arm-length. We stumble over small boulders and as I bang my head against an overhanging terrace, I realize we will not be able to travel deep enough into the cave to find the fossilized footprints that gave it its name. They remain the exclusive privilege of the ancient Mayan Kings.

We turn around and walk quietly back to the cave entrance each of us with our own thoughts. In the distance, in the middle world, I hear the echo of a faint roar. Is it the call of a howler monkey?

In Belize, I am Bernice Notenboom for The Savvy Traveler.

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