There is a human skull half-submerged in the mud at my feet. Through the damp gloom, I can just make out other bones, scattered across the floor. Luckily, I haven’t stumbled upon a gruesome murder scene, but the truth is almost as chilling. This is an ancient Mayan ceremonial cave, buried deep within the jungle in Belize, where human sacrifices were offered to placate the gods more than 1,000 years ago.
Even if you’re not squeamish about stepping over skeletal remains, this is not your average day trip. The sprawling, spookily intimate caves can only be reached after a punishing 40-minute uphill hike through the jungle, humidity closing in with every step. Cleaved into the side of a mountain with bats swooping around the entrance, the cave is pitch-black and difficult to navigate despite the obligatory helmet, head torch and affable local guide, Marvin.
Progress is slow and careful: scrambling over rocks, crawling under giant stalactites, climbing around shadowy rimstone pools and avoiding the occasional enormous scorpion spider I’m promised isn’t venomous – though I’d rather not find out. Along the way, Marvin points out Mayan relics, left untouched and preserved for a millennium in crystal. There are bones, tools, pottery used to collect blood and even an altar in the main ghostly chamber where it’s impossible to see your own hand with the torch turned off.
There are thought to be thousands of caves just like this across Belize. Bordering Guatemala in Central America and carpeted in protected rainforest, the country is the ultimate destination for anyone craving adventure. Visited by half a million people each year (less than Colchester Zoo), it feels blissfully remote and untouched, waiting to be explored by anyone bored to tears by the prospect of another week on a sun-lounger.
The Sleeping Giant Rainforest Lodge in Blue Hole National Park is a dream for any budding Indiana Jones’. A handful of wooden cottages dotted through the jungle without TV, WiFi or phone signal, it’s a blissful retreat from reality where outdoor baths are shaded by banana trees, hammocks swing by gurgling creeks and peacocks prowl the grounds. There’s even a poolside rum shack so you don’t miss out on a bit of holiday indulgence. Though really, you’re unlikely to spend much time sipping cocktails.
Instead, I go cycling through the hotel’s fragrant orange groves, hike to a hilltop lookout for a bird’s eye view of the rainforest-cloaked mountains and brave the ceremonial Mayan cave, open only for Sleeping Giant’s guests in order to preserve its fragile treasures. After that, a two-hour horse ride through the sun-dappled jungle seems like a doddle, cooling off along the way with a swim in a natural spring. The next day, cheerful guide Pedro leads me even further into the jungle on a nature hike, wobbling over rope bridges strung across rivers and hacking a path as we go with his – gulp – machete. Belize’s very own Bear Grylls, Pedro previously taught survival skills to visiting British troops and imparts his considerable wisdom along the way, a useful distraction from the ominous rustling of leaves all around. He indicates plants used for medicine by the ancient Mayans, promises termites are an excellent source of protein when stranded and assures me only eight of Belize’s 63 species of snakes are actually deadly. So that’s okay then…
There is plenty to discover beyond the rainforest. The astonishing Mayan settlement at Xunantunich is unmissable, with sweeping views over the Guatemalan border from the top of its stately acropolis El Castillo – though visit after 12pm to enjoy it almost to yourself after the cruise ship groups have left. Finally, even the most beach-phobic traveller should spend a few days on Belize’s brilliantly blue Caribbean coastline.
My next stop, The Almond Beach Resort at Jaguar Reef, has all the trappings of a laid-back tropical paradise: rooms that open straight onto a five-mile stretch of dazzling white sand, beach fire-pits for drinks after dark and a ceviche bar perched on a pier over the water. But I didn’t come to this part of Belize for the beaches – however beautiful they are. Most guests ditch sunbathing for waterfall climbs, jungle zip lines, river tubing or nerve-wracking hikes through the world’s first jaguar preserve, home to up to 100 protected big cats.
But the big draw here is the chance to scuba-dive in the world’s second largest barrier reef after Australia. A bumpy half hour speedboat ride at dawn from the coast, the 185-mile reef is home to more than 500 species of fish, a technicolour underwater universe where coral sways silently, turtles glide past and the dive instructor waves me away from one particularly ugly specimen lurking in the shadows. Back on the boat, he reveals we just encountered a pufferfish, the world’s most dangerous fish.
Later as the sun sets a blazing orange, my adventures continue. I board a motorboat to cruise down the Sittee River past trees heavy with mangos, cashews and coconuts. As darkness falls, red eyes gleam from the river bank, the only giveaway we’re being watched by the local crocodiles. Our boat glides down a narrow jungle tunnel tangled with mangroves to Anderson Lagoon, a satin-smooth stretch of water illuminated only by a blanket of stars above.
Between January and May, this lagoon is home to bioluminescent microorganisms, which glow a bright icy-blue when disturbed in complete darkness. I can’t see the water below but take a deep breath and plunge off the side of the boat, causing a ripple of waves that seem to sparkle around me. Moving just slightly leaves a trail of luminous blue in my wake while each arm seems covered in tiny glittering diamonds when I raise it above the bath-warm water. Just another extraordinary sight in a country filled with remarkable wonders.
Do it yourself: Visit https://www.travelbelize.org/ to plan a trip. Both hotels Siobhan stayed at are part of The Belize Collection (https://www.thebelizecollection.com/). Rooms at Jaguar Reef Belize star from £225 per night; Sleeping Giant Rainforest Lodge room begin at £159 per night. KLM and British Airways fly to Belize with one stop in Atlanta; prices begin around £659 return