The Caribbean: Journey into darkness

The jungles of Belize offer thrilling canoe rides, Mayan ruins, spectacular scenery - and human skeletons
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Indy Lifestyle Online
My two pet hates are cramped spaces and anything resembling a bat. So the idea of canoeing more than two miles along a narrow stream into a bat-infested, blackened cave sounded more like a holiday disaster than an exciting adventure into the jungle of western Belize. But lying on the soft white sand of a coral cay, sipping cold beer and seeing the world through purple-tinted sunglasses, I was persuaded into the trip by suggestions of lost Mayan graveyards and even, maybe, some treasure.

After four hours in a baking hot bus we arrived at San Ignacio, known as Cayo by the locals. It's a dusty little town that sits on the edge of the hills of the Mountain Pine Ridge, looking like the set from some dodgy western.

Yet, despite its cowboy imagery, the town is the unlikely centre of Bel-ize's eco-tourism industry and a staging-area for forays into the jungle. From here you can wander off to see Maya ruins, go rafting or kayaking, join overnight trips on horseback or, in our case, embark on an adventure into an abyss - the Barton Creek Cave.

Eva's Restaurant doubles as Cayo's unofficial tourist information centre, a place where travel deals are bashed out in hushed tones over a bottle of Beliken beer. It is also rather shady. It didn't take long before stories concerning the owner, Bad Bob, and his various questionable interests, started to surface. The truth, of course, you will never know. But, for all his bombast, Bad Bob's ego got in the way of his prices and we found a different guide.

At 6am the next morning the sun was up and the heat had already begun to descend. Four of us crammed into the back of a battered Toyota pick- up truck, the two canoes lashed overhead at least providing some shade, and we set off to the cave, a dusty two hours' drive away.

En route the countryside was spectacular. Unlike the coast, the interior is an undulating, if badly fitted, carpet of forest. Through the trees, the sunshine cast delicate shafts of light on to colonies of multicoloured, screeching parrots and as we came to a shallow creek we saw a Mennonite man in the middle of the fast-running water, trying to coax his horse to pull a laden cart over the rocky creek bed.

Finally reaching Barton Creek, we off-loaded the canoes as our guide Jorge explained what to expect inside the cave. Then, installed in the canoes, we set off to shoot the rapids downstream until the point where they dwindled to a trickle beside a gaping cleft in the hillside - the approach to the cave.

In front of the entrance was a clear pool about 150ft in diameter. As I stood waist-deep in the water, shoals of finger-length fish surrounded my legs and began to nibble at the air bubbles trapped to the hairs. We entered the inky blackness and, as I looked back over my shoulder, the light from the entrance faded to nothing. I had my eyes open so wide that I felt they might pop out of my head.

Jorge turned on the spotlight he had brought, illuminating the smaller- than-expected main cavern. The ceiling, at its highest, was only about 18ft, with a width of about 15ft. As Jorge scanned the cave, a billion Technicolor reflections shone off the quartz-lined walls - and, best of all, so far no bats.

The only sounds were our hushed, echoing voices and the slice of the paddles through black cellophane water. We slowly moved deeper into the cavern, past the disjointed stalactites that hung from the ceiling like the works of some mad sculptor. As the cave narrowed, we had to pass through an opening barely big enough for the canoe. Lying flat, with paddles in, we pulled ourselves through by grabbing at the rocky ceiling - all in the dark so as not to lose the lights over the side.

Apparently it was in this second cavern that a number of Mayan Indians fled to avoid the onslaught of the Spanish Conquistadors. In evidence, Jorge shone his light on to the pile of skeletal remains lying on a rocky ledge. They were definitely human, but of what origin, who knows? Pushing farther on, we wound our way through a series of narrow channels to the last cavern.

At this point we were about two-and-a-half miles inside the mountain. One wall was covered in so much quartz, it looked like a blanket of diamonds. Water fell in torrents from the calcium-white stalactites, and large nests of stinging whip spiders occupied the crevices, but there was still no sign of the flying insectivores. An hour later we surfaced, relieved but curiously cheated. I had gone expecting to be scared witless by bats dive- bombing my head in the darkness. Instead, it had all been decidedly relaxing.

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Traveller's Guide

Cave trip: Doug McKinlay paid about pounds 15, inc transport, through Sam's Adventure Tours at International Archeological tours on West Street, San Ignacio.

Getting there: No airline flies direct from the UK. Try Continental from Gatwick via Houston, or from Birmingham, Glasgow or Manchester via Newark. Journey Latin America (0181-747 8315) offers pounds 522 return on Continental. Or fly BA non-stop from Gatwick to Cancn in Mexico, and continue by bus (4-6 hours).

Getting around: Public transport is erratic.

Whom to ask: Belize High Commission, Harcourt House, 19a Cavendish Square, London W1M 9AD (0171-499 9728). Belize Tourist Board, 83 North Front Street, PO Box 325, Belize City, Belize (00 501 2 77213; e-mail: bbtb@btl.net)

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