June 4, 2012
Ever since our group first received our trip itineraries, we knew that we would be hiking through the jungle to Yok Balum Cave for our last day in Toledo. Adding to the excitement, we would also be entering the cave itself; we were even required to bring helmets and headlamps along. What could be more thrilling than checking out some amazing cave formations while trying to avoid hitting your head on one? Even though we were told to expect a pretty rigorous hike up to the cave, I was up for the challenge. When the day finally arrived, though, I was hit with the reality of enduring the toughest and most rewarding hike I have ever experienced.
On the day of the hike, we started early so we could get up to the cave during the cooler part of the day. After rounding up our helmets, hiking boots, and plenty of DEET, we jumped in our van and headed to the village of Santa Cruz, the same place where we had been a few days before to do our service learning. The trail to Yok Balum started just beyond the schools soccer field. Then, after meeting the two Maya guides that would be leading us up the trail, we set off towards the cave. After hiking for about an hour and a half, which included crossing the Rio Grande and a pretty steep climb up to the actual entrance of the cave, we had reached our destination. We were greeted at the cave entrance by a really interesting formation that looked like a jaguar paw, which, as our guides told us, is what Yok Balum translates to in the local Maya dialect. Then, our guides did a final check on our helmets and headlamps, and we entered the cave.
Inside the cave was breathtaking. We saw stalagmites, stalactites, and countless other formations that looked like they came from another planet. The same formations that were so beautiful to look at also turned out to be pretty useful hand holds during our hike and climb through the cave. About halfway through the cave, we found places to sit down, and our guides had us turn off our headlamps; we were plunged into complete darkness. This almost surreal experience helped me to understand why the Mayans viewed caves like Yok Balum as such sacred places. We spent a few more minutes in the dark before turning back on our headlamps and proceeding through the cave, now joined by the bats that inhabited the cave. After spending about an hour in the cave, we emerged back into the jungle and made our way back down the trail.
Looking back, this hike was definitely one of the highlights of my experience in Belize. Between the uniquely challenging hike through the jungle and the amazing sites within the cave, I don’t think I will ever forget my Yok Balum experience. I also think that sharing this journey brought our class a lot closer together; on a related note, I would like to send a special thank you to everyone that motivated me when the going got tough during those last few hills. Relatively few people get the change to traverse this spectacular cave, and having the opportunity to do so increased my appreciation for my unforgettable Belize experience.
Lindsey Estes is a junior from Federal Way, Washington. She is currently pursuing a B.A. in Environmental Studies with a minor in Political Science.