One day about 1,200 years ago, a young Mayan woman walked through the jungle and into the mouth of the underworld.
She never came out.
Instead, her body merged with the ground in a cavern, the limestone slowly encasing her bones.
Now the woman is teaching archaeologists, anthropologists and adventurous tourists about the life of the ancient Mayan civilization.
The journey through Actun Tunichil Muknal (it translates to Cave of the Stone Sepulcher) is an awe-inspiring trip. Where else can you hike through jungles, wade through rivers, swim through the mouth of a cave, scurry over rocks and then see Mayan pottery and remains just inches from your bare feet?
The site was not discovered until 1989, when Belizean archaeologist Jaime Awe _ now a professor at the University of New Hampshire _ began exploring the numerous cave systems in western Belize, near the Guatemalan border. Awe is considered one of the world's leading experts on speleoarchaeology _ the study of caves.
Those caves, he discovered, were places of worship and ritual sacrifice for the ancient Mayans. Actun Tunichil Muknal was probably used for ceremonies involving rain.
Archaeologists believe that around the year 700, there was a massive drought in the area. To appease the gods in hopes of rain, the Mayans would enter the cave with large pottery jars filled with water.
When the drought didn't let up and crops continued to die, the Mayans took more drastic measures.
They began to sacrifice young people inside the cave, in hopes that Chac, the rain god, would reverse their fortunes.
Archaeologists found remains of seven adults and seven children inside the cave. Most of the remains are bone fragments and skulls. They left the majority of the bones where they were found; disturbing the layers of limestone would have also destroyed the bones.
A challenging tour
The site has been open to the public since 1998, and the only authorized guides have been trained by archaeologists, to ensure safety of the artifacts.
Just eight people are allowed in the cave at a time, making it a private, almost eerie journey.
During a recent trip to Belize, I decided to take the tour, which is described on the brochure as "physically challenging."
By the end of the tour, I felt like I had starred in my own version of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
My guide was named Renan, a Belizean man who had worked with archaeologists to map the cave.
Renan was mostly silent as we walked for an hour through dense jungle. His helpers used machetes to chop away foliage; the blades would also have come in handy if we encountered a rare fer-de-lance, a poisonous snake.
We stopped at what is described as the "base camp" _ a collection of thatch-roofed awnings and a disgusting outhouse that had a pit for a toilet. This camp had been the archaeologists' home for years as they explored the cave. We ate a hearty lunch of beans, rice and plantains.
Renan told us to eat up, because we would be in the cave for two hours and no food, drinks or even bug spray was allowed inside _ nothing that would contaminate the cave's fragile ecosystem.
Our party of five was given hard hats with headlamps attached and handed special "dry bags" in which to carry our cameras. Renan led us down a small embankment to a river. There, still wearing our clothes, we plunged into a 72-degree spring and swam into the inky cave.
Where spirits reside
Once inside, we scrambled over slippery rocks, waded neck-deep in the chilly water and slipped past stalagmites. Pointing the headlamp into the clear water, I could see small fish and spiky crayfish dance around my legs. Overhead, I could hear the faint flapping of bats' wings.
Fortunately for the claustrophobes in the bunch, this was not a tour that required visiting tight spaces.
On the contrary. It was more like a giant cavern with a stream running through it. Every few hundred feet, Renan would stop and explain the natural wonders of the cave.
It was clear why the Mayan people thought of the cave as a sacred place. White stalactites and stalagmites (the calcite deposits that result from water flowing slowly through limestone) shimmered and sparkled under our lights.
Renan explained that the Mayan would light fire torches and enter the cave. They considered it a dicey journey, he said, because the cave was believed to be the beginning of the underworld, where the spirits resided.
At one point, we climbed up a small wall of rock. Renan asked us to take off our shoes and socks. We needed to be barefoot, he said, because the artifacts in the following chambers were fragile.
Then, single file, we walked into a field of pottery.
Most of the vases were in shards, but some were intact. We were instructed not to touch or even graze the pottery. Renan said that there were hundreds, if not thousands, of shards throughout the cave.
We walked on until we came to a skull. It was that of a teenage boy who had had his teeth filed and skull altered, all part of a typical Mayan ritual. Renan said that the boy had been sacrificed to the gods.
Climbing a ladder lashed to a rock, we came to a higher chamber. There lay the full skeleton of the young woman.
I couldn't help but speculate on her final hours, dying in a silent, black cavern. I wondered aloud whether she knew of her impending fate when she walked inside.
Tamara Lush can be reached at (813) 226-3373 or at lushsptimes.com.
If You Go
GETTING THERE: Belize is in Central America, near the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and Guatemala. Several U.S. airlines fly nonstop from Miami to Belize City, the country's largest city. San Ignacio and Actun Tunichil Muknal are two hours west of Belize City, near the Guatemalan border.
San Ignacio, about an hour from the Actun Tunichil Muknal, is the most popular place to stay when exploring the cave. Car rentals and tours to the cave are available from Belize City or San Ignacio.
WHEN TO GO: Belize is hot and tropical all year long. Summers are hot and rainy.
CAVE TOURS: Only two groups are licensed to tour Actun Tunichil Muknal. We used Mayawalk, which can be reached at www.mayawalk.com or by calling (501) 824-3070, in Belize. Tour costs range from $65 to $85, depending on the company. Mayawalk also offers overnight caving trips.
THE TOUR: A moderate level of fitness is required for the tour. Participants must hike about an hour in the jungle, swim for about five minutes, then walk through the cave for about two hours.
Wear sturdy, closed-toe shoes and quick-drying clothing. Other, less-strenuous tours to other caves are also available.