Sometimes it’s worth coating yourself in bat sludge.
Belize is absolutely teeming with Mayan artifacts and throbbing with biodiversity on land and in the Caribbean Sea. The Maya Mountain range is no exception, with the beautiful Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Sanctuary being the largest of its kind, and any stroll onto the forest trails rewarding you with spot after spot of rare or fantabulous wildlife. It is along one of these trails that you find St. Herman’s Cave. Most people visit the more famous ‘ATM cave’ but St. Herman’s provides a slice more adventure as you move among artifacts of the historic Mayan people.
Two miles up the road from the Blue Hole cenote is the the starting point of the trail which carries you to Herman’s Cave. We took a tour from our hotel in Hopkins to reach this point, which is over an hour by road through the foothills and quiet villages of the Maya range. Once we had been issued with our helmets and head torches we headed into the trees.
Our guide spent his time pointing out various butterflies and animal tracks, or regaling us with hilarious tales of Belize’s ‘grandfather demon’, a short and grizzled old man with no thumbs and backwards-facing feet called Tata Duende.
At the cave entrance I noticed one of our companions on the tour, a middle-aged glamorous American lady, had certainly not dressed for the occasion. Her super-skinny jeans didn’t look capable of weathering the abrasion of thigh against thigh, never mind a vigorous cave stroll. Her footwear also left a lot to be desired. She gingerly tested every step and still slipped several times as we descended the steps into the maw of the cave system…
Inside we were greeted by a group of cave-tubers bobbing serenely through the darkness but as soon as they journeyed on we were left in silence. Whenever you take a guided tour into any cave, anywhere in the world, ever, the guide will ask everyone to turn off their lights to experience the complete darkness. This happened here, obviously, but we were still fairly close to the entrance so I could detect the tiniest of glimmers reflecting off of the millions of water droplets coalescing on the ceiling.
We followed the water up-stream further into the mountain, and then veered off down slopes to leave it behind. Then we started the first climbs of the tour. The guide showed us the best places to step on and between the crags so that we would still have limbs free to propel ourselves to the next level. I went first and thanks to my lanky limbs I made short work of it. Kristina found it much harder as she’s more like an Oompa-Loompa. Kinda.
Still, everyone made it up there. Even glamour-spelunker escaped with only a small muddy streak. Up we went again. Stalagmite and stalactite formations passed by on each side and we were reminded not to touch them because our natural salts and oils would destroy them. That said, several opportune lumps had become official hand-holds over the years so we were encouraged to use these, carefully.
I struggled with the next section because the same lankiness that assisted me before now hindered me. We were required to squeeze under some jagged rocks and through a very tight crawl space. I didn’t particularly enjoy this bit. I love caves but I do have a touch of claustrophobia in my psyche that puts me seriously ill-at-ease with really cramped squeezes. Potholing is something I will NEVER try. I’ve bungee-jumped in Latvia and sky-dived in the UK but potholing is a definite no-no for me. Anywhere.
I’m not completely sure we should be doing this
I scraped myself a little in that struggle but it did feel good to have made it through and into what felt like a much more secret part of the cave network. A minor scrape is nothing to worry about but what comes next might be classed as an unnecessary and frivolous risk in many travel insurer’s eyes.
We started a really wet descent into a murk only fleetingly splashed with light as our head torches, they spend most of their time aimed solely at your path. Then we reached a drop off. I don’t know how deep the hole was, but it was definitely far enough to be fatal if it swallowed someone up. There was a single old line of rope draped across the treacherous drop. Of course the guide directed us directly across the chasm. Again I was glad to have long legs as the number of bounds needed to get across was minimal. The poor footholds only just do their job in providing something to push off from but we all got across okay, one by one. The look on everyone’s face betrayed our collective but unspoken “I’m not completely sure we should be doing this”.
Again the rock formations were beautiful and looked in no way like the forms the guide claimed them to look like. As is the norm in caves. We pushed on into the heart of the mountain, now climbing regularly again. Minutes later we entered a flatter section that opened out into a roomy cavern. Here we found ourselves literally stumbling through Mayan history. Fire pits and not just potsherds but pretty much intact pottery lay discarded around the floor. It was amazing to walk through here with untold centuries of stories scattered unexamined on each side. Many similar caves exist in Belize, some replete with human skeletons. I have absolutely no idea why access is so easy and carefree, apart from a severe lack of funds to properly police these sites. Any items of truly notable worth must have been stolen long ago so perhaps modern Belizeans just don’t bother to even look any more?
My imagination pictured small groups of people huddled around each fire pit, maybe a dozen pits in the room, and then I wondered what those same people would have thought if they could peer through time and watch us staggering through their home. I doubt they would have been particularly pleased.
Our path, such as it was, meandered through the pits and up another large slope. This one was mainly boulders but even here you discover potsherds nestled in the most unlikely of perches.
Bat shit crazy
At the top we found sunlight gently illuminating a huge cave. Birds and bats swooped together around the ceiling and the safety of our footsteps was destroyed by a rather large amount of poo. We all began to gather more interesting smears on our clothes as we bobbed down the rocks on our bums – the safest way to tackle quite a few of the descents.
We were absolutely drenched with sweat when we stood and admired the huge space from the bottom of the boulders. It’s impressive for the wildlife and the sense of relief after the claustrophobia but it’s not the prettiest cave I’ve ever seen. Before climbing the steps out of the dark and back into the jungle we tried to rinse off unidentified muck from the odd wound but we all felt like we had explored something special.
The physical challenges posed by the one mile walk through this cave network makes sure it remains firmly out of reach of many tour itineraries, but it is precisely that which holds its charm. It’s not really very dangerous, but it feels a bit like it might be. Just like travel in general it’s the journey that holds the most memories, not the arrival at your destination.