San Ignacio, in the Cayo District of Belize, is an ideal place to base yourself in Belize’s lush interior as it’s central to many of the area’s day tours and attractions. One such attraction, Barton Creek Cave, sparked my interest as a former Mayan ceremonial site and for the opportunity to go canoeing, an activity I find relaxing and good for families.
After finding the highly-rated MayaWalk Tours company online and reaching out to them, a half day trip to the Barton Creek Cave with my family was arranged. We met our tour guide in the heart of San Ignacio at 8:30AM and set off to our destination.
Along the way, as the streets moved from paved to a more rugged gravel, our MayaWalks tour guide told us about the established self-sustaining Belizean Mennonite community we were passing – whose work comprises the majority of Belize’s carpentry, engineering, and agricultural industries – as well as the Belizean Amish who have traditional practices and also grow their own food in order to maintain a self sustainable lifestyle. We came across several of the Amish children who were getting around by horse and cart, and were happy to wave us hello as we passed by!
As we continued, we approached the Macal River which our lifted SUV was to cross en route to the cave and easily went from one bank to the other. Unless you are very experienced at off road driving, I highly recommend hiring a guide to bring you to the remote Barton Creek Cave. Not only do they have knowledge about the area, but we heard stories of tourists getting their cars stuck because they aren’t used to the terrain.
Upon arrival at Barton Creek, an archaeological site as well as a tourist destination, our MayaWalks tour guide outfitted us with life jackets and high powered flashlights as we made our way to our canoes and boarded.
The entrance to the cave may not look large at first glance, but its just a teaser for the (mostly) cavernous cave ahead.
Sat in the canoe along with our tour guide (my son and partner were in another canoe) we slowly started to paddle into the cave entrance. Upon entering, we switched our flashlights on to guide us to and to see the impressive interior.
Immediately we were transferred into a very different state. Everything in the cave was so dark, but our bright flashlights made a huge difference in visibility and being able to appreciate the beauty of the cave.
Also worth noting, if you have never canoed, the MayaWalks guide will be able to assist you in moving throughout the cave and the tour is done at a reasonable pace.
Barton Creek Cave was used by Mayans from the years 200-900AD, and not just by local Mayans but even Mayans from as far as the Yucatan in Mexico. Archaeologists were able to determine the years of use of the cave, and the history of how it was used by studying pottery that was found within. An aspect of the pottery that points to use by Mayans from the greater region was that some of the ceramics had similarities to those found in Guatemala and Mexico, but with their own distinct style.
While being inside the cave can be quite peaceful in today’s times, it was less so for some Mayans who entered it in the past. Archaeologists found remains of 28 humans that the Mayans sacrificed within. Several natural ledges are within the cave where the Mayans climbed to perform their sacrifices. Sacrifices within the cave became increasingly desperate and important as the Mayans faced drought in the region. As such, sacrifices were made further and further into the cave in order to appease the gods.
Even though sacrifices were performed on the ledges, over time the bodies fell into the water and were excavated from there. So, for any concerned readers, there are not any current remains in the cave as they have been removed. If you do want to spook yourself out though, try turning off all the flashlights in the cave for a moment and embrace the eerie silence and pitch blackness that follows. Mayans who used the cave in the past had to use torches to see their way through the cave, so I’m glad that today’s technology meant we didn’t have to do the same.
Beyond the Mayan history of the cave, the cave itself is quite a sight. Water depths in the cave rage from four to twelve feet deep, and the ceiling of the cave is very cavernous. Three species of bats live within the cave, and we were able to see two bats fly across the top of the cave as we were canoeing through. As well, there are impressive stalactites throughout the cave. As these stalactites only grow one inch per year, it is important to avoid touching them so they remain preserved.
After canoeing a mile into the cave, we reached a point where the stalactites dropped down to the water level so we could not go any further. In total the cave is just over four miles long, but tours cannot go past the first mile.
After we paddled back to the entrance of the cave and debarked our canoes, we made our way over to a swimming area of the river. The area had stairs to enter and a rope swing. If you don’t want to wear your swimsuit during the canoeing, there is a bathroom onsite to change in.
As we made our way back to San Ignacio, we reflected on the journey through the cave and marveled at the countryside around us.
Have you been canoeing through a cave? Would you want to try it?
- Company: MayaWalk Tours
- Website: mayawalk.com
- Price: $75/per person
- Duration: 4-5 hours
- What to bring: Bathing suit, towel, bug spray, water, sturdy walking shoes
Thank you to MayaWalk Tours for my tour of Barton Creek Cave. All views and opinions are, as always, my own.