Spelunking San Ignacio: the insanely awesome Crystal Cave

The Dream Team in Wonderland, two miles under ground. *

I said it before, but I’ll say it again: ATM is for tourists, Crystal is for adventurers. Crystal is different. It was a challenge the memory of which still gets my blood pumping. It is impossible to overstate how incredibly breathtaking it is. It was one of the most exciting and intimate ways I have ever experienced the earth. I will never forget it.

In San Ignacio, I was lucky enough to cross paths again with my friend Ryan from Caye Caulker and meet his new travel buddies Seamus and Oxy. Not only are they all super cool, but were best buds with Caveman Carlos (the guide I tried unsuccessfully to go with to ATM; connect with him via J&R Guest House) plus had a rental car and generously welcomed another passenger. It was Seamus and Oxy’s last day in Belize, so they called up Carlos and asked what we should do. He recommended Crystal ($75Bz each, plus $28Bz park entry fee) and we signed right up. We grabbed lunch to go and hopped in the car, off on an adventure.

Before & After

After a detour through Mennonite farm country for ice cream (reminded me of my childhood aspirations to be a Sunnyside dairy princess!) and beer, we arrived at the National Park, also home to Blue Hole, one of the only cenotes in Belize. We pilfered oranges from the neighboring orchard and hiked 30 minutes in near 100-degree weather to the cave entrance, sweat already starting to pour off of us. I sang my favorite walking tra la la la song to myself.

Unlike ATM, which is a tunnel without altitude change, Crystal delves deep right from the get go. At the greatest depth we were two miles under ground. It is a serious cave: you climb, you crawl, you slither, you squeeze, and you do NOT get your hand held. Do not even think of attempting it without a guide. No one else was in the cave with us; everyone was at ATM. From the huge pit of an entrance, we descended quickly.

Our entrance and sharp descent. *
Yep, we’re going that way, through that tiny hole in the upper right.
Our guide Carlos and Ryan, heading down.
Slipping through crevasses just barely people-sized. Sometimes sliding on your butt was the only way.

The pattern of Crystal is large cavern, small crawl space, large cavern, repeat. It led us to have moments of tight embrace of the rock followed by grand open awe. How very Frank Lloyd Wright…

The Carlosisms started coming fast and furious. Our names were shortened to our home states, which actually wasn’t specific, but worked well enough: Seamus and Oxy from Oregon, Ryan and me from California. “Take a break!” “Fear is a disease!” “Follow your heart!” “Keep the fire burning!” “Cave sex!” Soon enough we were all chiming in with the applicable Carlosism.

Being 6’7″ isn’t very helpful down here… *
Hear me roar! I was really into growling in the cave. (“Take a break, California…”)

These caves in Belize are said to be some of the entrances to Xibalba, the Mayan underworld or “place of fear”. Most locals refuse to enter them. Like ATM, Crystal Cave was also used as a ceremonial access point, and thousand-year-old skulls and pot shards grace its floors.

Pottery slowly being consumed by the cave.
The team in action, down then up. *
The munching O’Malleys. “This is the furthest below ground I have ever eaten a burrito.”

I felt spry and light on my feet, and enjoyed vaulting myself up. The further we went in, the slicker the clay covering the rocks got. We maintained three points on contact with the earth at all times. The act of finding holds, swinging yourself around corners, and pulling yourself up and over made me think of my rock climbing sister Laura. Is this what bouldering feels like? Because it was kind of super awesome…

The formations all around us through were breathtaking. The variation astounding: delicate crystals, cascading layers like melted wax, smooth ripples, many reminiscent of stone coral reefs.


But Carlos told us we hadn’t seen anything yet. We were headed to Wonderland and “you’re gonna pee your pants!” We took off our shoes, and I daintily trekked barefoot into the underworld.

The peanut brittle road to Wonderland.

He wasn’t joking. It was truly a wonder. Everywhere you turn was something spectacular. We discovered that beautiful ringing tones could be coaxed from certain stalagmites with a soft knock.

Β The entrance to Wonderland. *
Making cave music.
Stunning beauty all around.
Enamored by the earth sparkling around me.

After gawking, we all sat in a row on a ledge, turned off our lights, spoke soft words of appreciation for this experience, and then were silent in the pure and complete dark. The Mayans say the spirits still dwell in the caves, and our group felt their presence. To me, the silence felt like a prayer without words. A meditation to the earth.

Stunning, as if delicately dipped in shredded coconut.

But the silence had to end, like all things do, and we left our beautiful crystal sanctuary to rejoin the living, feeling peaceful, alive, and pretty kick ass.

The crawl back to the surface. *
Our team, victorious. Yeah, I cave, and wield a machete. *
Use what yo mamma gave you! *

We finished sweaty, THIRSTY, hungry, and oh so happy. Those spare burritos saved from lunch hit the spot so hard. We then went for a sunset swim in Blue Hole cenote where we bathed in the cool water, chased crawdads, and watched the fire beetles come out after dark to dance. Refreshing! An absolutely killer and memorable day.

Cenote bound! *
Cave woman!! *
* photos courtesey of Seamus and Oxy O’Malley. πŸ˜‰
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4 thoughts on “Spelunking San Ignacio: the insanely awesome Crystal Cave

  1. What an awesome journey! You have to try bouldering with me some time – I think that you would really enjoy it. Probably a little less adventure but it is truly a puzzle to solve with your mind and body which I think you would really dig πŸ™‚

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