A jagged rock pointed at my throat, and I squeezed past it as water swirled around my chest. My family and I had just entered Actun Tunichil Muknal — a giant limestone cave deep in the jungles of western Belize — in search of 1,000-year-old Mayan sacrificial victims. Above us, water dripped from stalactites, while tiny gray bats squirmed in crevices like mice. I shivered, and swept the dark cavern with my headlamp for our 11-year-old daughter, Anna.
I’ve always appreciated how travel pushes me out of my comfort zone. Until I had kids, that is.
Now when I travel, between my American-style parenting and a 24-hour news cycle, I feel like my body’s on high alert for every possible danger. Zika, typhoid and now COVID-19, which didn’t yet exist when we took this trip. Deep underground, I guess I had to add cave flooding to my list.
We were hundreds of feet underground and a quarter-mile into the cave, trying to suss out what happened to the ancient Maya civilization that flourished from the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico to western Honduras from around 1800 B.C. to 250 A.D.
Our guide shut off our headlamps, pitching us into darkness. He cast a flickering light against a twinkling stalagmite and the cave came to life. In the shadows, it looked like a high priest was stabbing a sacrificial victim. We gasped, and suddenly understood why the Mayans believed this cave to be the underworld.
Scientists theorize that a series of droughts, worsened by extensive logging, caused the society of millions to collapse. In desperation, they’d risked their lives in total darkness to swim, hike and climb this far in. The smashed pottery that littered the cave floor — and eventual bloodletting — was meant to appease an angry rain god. In one chamber, a calcified human skeleton known as the Crystal Maiden lay sprawled after disembowelment, the jaw jarred open as if calling out for help into perpetuity.
I supposed there were worse ways to die than cave flooding.
We had started our journey on a much sunnier spot — Ambergris Caye, Belize’s largest and most commercialized island. The local people referred to me as “Mama Jenny!” It felt like an honor, like Belizeans respect the strength of a mother.
We took a snorkeling trip to Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley, where gray-brown nurse sharks larger than my husband swarmed after our guide dumped bloody fish into the water.
“Don’t get within five feet or you’ll lose a hand,” our guide said.
Was he joking? Jumping into shark-infested waters didn’t seem like the brightest idea, but our kids plunged in feet first, so I did, too. I tried to position myself between the sharks and the flash of Anna’s bright pink bikini, much to her annoyance.
One evening, we boated through the brackish man-made canals of San Pedro aboard the American Crocodile Education Sanctuary’s skiff boat. Our kids delighted in combing the wild mangroves with a flashlight in search of glowing crocodile eyes. Dogs barked and lunged from shore as we closed in on a hatchling, and I felt like a prowler.
On Friday night, we indulged in a Mayan buffet at Elvi’s Kitchen that had the richness of a home-cooked meal. We ate oyster tacos while playing foosball barefoot in the sand at the Truck Stop, where shipping containers had been converted to eateries.
On another afternoon, we squeezed into a rented golf cart and bumped along a pitted road to Secret Beach. It felt more like a Disney-colored strip of Las Vegas than a secret. Our kids lounged on pool floats in bright blue waters while my husband and I took shelter beneath a yellow umbrella at the Maruba Beach Klub. A tourism police officer walked by with an AK-47 strapped to his back. He looked so out of place that he reminded me of a GI Joe action figure.
While I loved our sand play on Ambergris Caye, I felt like we weren’t getting a true sense of Belize. We couldn’t walk 10 feet without bumping into another American. Even the barrier reef, the longest in the Western Hemisphere, seemed to act as a protector, preventing harsh ocean waves from rolling in, a disappointment to my 15-year-old son, Max. He wanted to surf.
Wasn’t the point of travel to touch the local culture to better understand it and see the people around you so you returned home slightly transformed? We’d have to visit the mainland to find out.
We flew a 12-seater, with airline Tropic Air, into the jungle. My son Caleb sat up front while I prayed from the back that he wouldn’t try to land the plane, given his 13-year-old bravado.
On our first night, we trekked through the rainforest in search of nightlife. Our headlamps lit up the eyes of every single wolf spider, which gleamed like diamonds in the grass. Our Mayan guide lured a hairy black tarantula out of a hole and let it climb up on his hand. We cringed.
“You no fear; he no fear,” he said.
It seemed a good theme for our trip, but there was no way I was trusting something that far out of my comfort zone.
The next morning, we walked across the Guatemalan border, where a guide picked us up for a day trip to Tikal National Park. First settled around 600 B.C., Tikal was one of the Mayans’ largest and most powerful city-states. In northern Guatemala alone, laser technology has shown up to 60,000 interconnected structures like palaces, roads and plazas swallowed up by the jungle.
We entered the park, where raccoon-like creatures known as coatis scavenged for food. Long-limbed overgrowth looped its way around the crumbling limestone ruins along the trail, a reminder that in time the Earth will reclaim anything.
Thirty minutes in, the vegetation suddenly cleared. Before us, two magnificent pyramids faced off in an open-air plaza with tombs and altars between them. Awestruck, we fell silent.
There are six temples at Tikal National Park, which opened to the public in 1955. The best view is from the Mayans’ tallest pyramid, the 212-foot Temple IV. Rickety wooden steps, along with some labored breathing, got us up to its stone ledges. We sat in blissful wonderment, feeling untouchable above a tree line so dense it seemed like we could walk across it to reach Temples I and II, which peaked in the distance, bathed in golden light.
Sitting there, I was struck by how a civilization so advanced in mathematics and astronomy grappled with the same basic equation we do today — sustainability. That seemed like a timely lesson for our kids. But they just wanted to see how fast they could get down the stairs.
On our last night, I was awakened by howler monkeys roaring above our thatched cottage. Given their ruckus, I could almost believe the Mayan myth that there were people trapped in the trees for eternity.
I was starting to understand what a gift things we take for granted like electricity can be. The world can look much different in the dark.
Jennifer Jeanne Patterson lives in Edina and is the author of “52 Fights.” Find her at unplannedcooking.com.