I swore I would never, ever, set foot in a cave that had anything to do with the Mayans. Three years ago, when I climbed into a canoe for a guided tour in the Barton Creek Cave in Belize, I had no clue that I was in for a ride I would never forget.

More on that later. For now, suffice to say, I’m not sure if my decision this summer to again go messing with the Mayan world was a sign I need my head examined, or whether I should puff my chest out because I have balls. Perhaps I’m just a courageous kook.

What happened was, I got an opportunity to make the trek to a ceremonial cave once used by the ancient Mayans for religious ceremonies, as it was among the activities available during my time at the Rainforest Lodge at Sleeping Giant in Belmopan, Belize’s capital city. From the moment I saw it on the list I got a little twinge. Would I dare go? The curiosity was killing me, but with my memories, so was the fear. For a week I debated back and forth, take the cave tour or do a Mayan cooking class? I tossed and turned a few nights stressing about whether to punk out or push on. I knew it would be a physical challenge too. I have an adventurous spirit, but am very clumsy, not in the best of shape and not an energetic 20-something.

I’m not sure what kicked in, but I typed an email response that I wanted to do the cave. I hit send and panicked. It was on. I committed and no way was I going to back down. A month before the trip I tried to step up my workout game, with my YouTube aerobics class and even did a hike near my home. Ready or not, I was headed to Belize.

The Sleeping Giant rainforest, Belmopan, Belize.

Michele Oenbrink/Alamy Stock Photo

Mostly, I thought I was ready. But I was nervous. I was still haunted by the past. I remember being in the mountains, getting in the canoe that seemed so little as it made its way through the cave. I was mesmerized. It was freaking incredible, with the geological formations, stalagmites, Mayan pottery, remnants from another world. But there was something dark, brooding in the air, beyond creepy. At last, the guide told me that human sacrifices had been done in the cave. Fine time to tell me, over 30 minutes into the ride. I swore I heard some whispering, but we were alone. The headlamps were great, but the shadows played havoc with my imagination.

At one point, I remember the boat stopping and my guide telling me to look up at a certain spot up on high. I did and regretted it. There it was. I saw an image, piercing red eyes from a beast that looked part jaguar and part demon. It was sheer evil. The moment I saw it, my heart froze. I stopped breathing. Terrified isn’t the word. I’ll never forget the image. It would be weeks before I didn’t think about what seared my soul. I remember gasping and looking at the guide. He knew. No one spoke. For me it was a WTF moment. Never been so uncomfortable in my life. I know what I saw, but it couldn’t have been real? Was it some sort of technological trick? My heart told me no. So yeah, I had to face my fear of going into a cave where I might have a second date with the devil.

The night before the hike to the cave I can’t say I really slept. My mind was racing. I vaguely remember eating breakfast, I tried to fuel up on the Village Breakfast, scrambled eggs with onions and tomatoes with coconut refried beans, bacon and Belizean fried jacks, a most delicious pastry. I dared not attempt that strenuous hike without provisions.

Eight thirty rolled around quickly and it was time to hit the road. It was just the guide, and six of us. As we got out of the jeep and entered the jungle, I had second thoughts and said a little prayer. No turning back now.

Nothing to do but proceed to go up, up, up the mountain. I gave thanks for the ropes to hold onto as we climbed steeply. I knew I was out of my league, as I panted, stopped and kept moving, but I didn’t know how much so, until we continued for what felt like an eternity before finally reaching the top, the opening of the cave.

We strapped on our headlights and crept low to enter.

It was awesome, the crystal curtains, the stalagmites, the pieces of pottery, skulls, bones. What was missing though, and thankfully so, was the darkness of evil. I sighed with relief. But there was devastation of another sort—the terrain. It may not have been a big deal for some, but for me, getting on all fours, clinging to, and climbing rocks, trying to find solid footing in mud, sliding down on my butt to get to the next spot, oh yeah, this was major. In my head I was cussing myself much of the time.

Once again, I bit off too much.

If it had not been for Omar, the guide, I wouldn’t have made it. As it was, I still managed to fall a couple of times. My right arm still isn’t 100 percent a month later. I was not the only one though. But after more than an hour or so, we made our way to the top of the cave. We celebrated by turning off our headlights and sitting in complete darkness for a few minutes and exhaling. Then there was the journey back.

Who said down is easier than up?

I remember trudging gingerly, holding on to ropes. It was going pretty well, until we stumbled upon Belize’s deadliest snake on our path. This nearly pushed me to the edge—I can’t even stand to see a snake in a movie. That snake was defiant. It took Omar to handle him. He had a cutlass and tossed it out of our path. We could only pray that we would scramble down the hill and not find him waiting to greet us. In my panic, I started racing to get to the bottom and fell again, like the girl in the movie who falls when she’s running and a killer is after her. I was so over this adventure. It didn’t seem quicker going down than up. I kept thinking we were done, but we weren’t.

At last, we reached the bottom. I never felt such relief. My body was already aching, I knew the next day would be hell. I just about had the strength to climb into the jeep. My legs were rubbery. I was sweaty, shaky, beat up, but smiling. I came and I conquered.

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