We left a hot, sunny day behind the instant we stepped into the cave. Misty jungle air turned suddenly crisp, sharpening the all-consuming blackness only a short distance ahead. Ghostly whispers emerged from somewhere deep within the belly of the beast. We were alone and my imagination was fired up – a lethal combination.
Luke and I arrived at Belize’s Blue Hole National Park 90 minutes before closing time. We begged the ticket seller to let us see St. Herman’s Cave if we promised to be quick about it. He begrudgingly asked if we brought our lights.
We scurried along a half-mile path cut into dense jungle, making our way toward a steep rock wall presiding high above the surrounding canopy. A sudden drop in air temperature indicated our arrival well before the entrance of the cave was within view.
A set of stairs first led us up, then down into the cave. My feet met the wet rock and immediately flew out from underneath me. A group of women huddled near the entrance gasped, then chuckled when I popped back up, hands lifted above my head in a gymnast’s dismount to demonstrate I was okay.
St. Herman’s Cave gaped open like the roaring mouth of the Abominable Snowman. Fang-like stalactites crowded the opening and a small river cut through the jagged rocks below like a tongue.
We followed a narrow path hugging the right-hand side of the cave wall. Visitors can walk about 200 meters in on their own. Hired guides are required beyond that point. We switched on our lights and followed the roped walkway forward. The group of women gathered at the entrance didn’t follow us in.
Anyone who’s spent time underground knows the true definition of darkness. The blackest black swallowed us whole barely 25 meters in. I forgot my headlamp at the hotel, so we relied on my cell phone’s weak flashlight and Luke’s headlamp to illuminate the way.
Our fingers met damp rock to the right and the great unknown to the left. It represented every tale I’ve read about the Mayan belief in the existence of an evil underworld known as Xibalba.
According to Wikipedia, Xibalba means “place of fear.” It is ruled by “death gods and their helpers,” ranging from those who cause sickness and fear, to those who hide amongst your home’s dust bunnies and stab you to death when you’re not looking.
Belize’s cave systems have been referred to as the entrance to Xibalba, a fact that didn’t scare me on the beach, but sure as shit haunted me inside St. Herman’s. Every perceived whisper, unfamiliar shadow and silhouette was the ghost of a god or human sacrifice looking to punish those who dare to trespass on their turf.
When we reached the end of the trail, Luke suggested we turn off our lights for a minute. The blackness was total and immediate. I waved my hand in front of my face. Nothing. The only sensory experience to be had at that moment was the sound of water trickling down stalactites into the river and an unnerving breeze originating from somewhere deep within the cave.
On our way out, Luke wanted to stop about midway to grab some shots of the entrance. Once again, we shut off our lights and stood in the dark, this time, for upwards of 20 minutes.
During this time, I was plagued by the kind of paranoia only known to someone who’s wrestled with an overactive imagination and an acute fear of the dark her entire life. I started to believe the voices in my head telling me to run were ghostly whispers urging us to leave before it was too late.
Luke asked me to point a flashlight toward the entrance to provide some ambient light in his shot. I did a terrible job following orders because I kept shining the light on the surrounding rock ledges fully expecting to see someone watching us from above.
We eventually made our way out of the darkness and back into the light. The sun was still hot overhead and the jungle air was heavy, but I maintained a residual chill in my bones until we were back on the Hummingbird Highway. At which time, Luke pulled a small rock from his pocket that he picked up inside the cave.
Visitors are expressly forbidden from gathering artifacts or other objects from the cave. In doing so, Luke has cursed us for all time. It is now his job to ensure there are no dust bunnies in our home.