Located far in the west of Belize some 16 miles (26 km) from San Ignacio is the magnificent cave system of Actun Chechem Ha. Discovered purely by accident by a local farmer, the Cha Chem Ha Cave is one of the most magnificent ancient Maya sites ever discovered. Once inside the narrow opening, the cave is home to a vast collection of Maya artwork and artifacts.
Part of the fun of exploring Actun Cha Chem Ha is getting there as it is located on a privately-owned estate near Vaca Falls. Visitors must trek through some spectacular jungle scenery for a full 45 minutes along the upper Macal River Valley before making their way to the entrance. Actun Chachem Ha in the Yucatec Mayan dialect means "Cave of the Poisonwood Water" in reference to the many Chachem trees that grow in the region that produce a poisonous resin.
Once inside the cave, it becomes immediately clear that it was heavily used during the days of the ancient Maya culture. Archeologists now believe that it was partly used as a storehouse for grain due to the large number of pots and storage containers found inside. Actun Chechem Ha is home to a large assortment of so-called "ollas" or large ceramic storage jars, many of which still contain remnants of maize (corn) and other foodstuffs that were common in the ancient Maya diet. It is also known that the ancient Maya used Actun Chechem Ha for religious ceremonies, including bloodletting, due to the artifacts that were discovered inside the cave.
Actun Chechem Ha is a vast underground space. Many areas are only accessible via ladders. And because many of the ancient Maya ceramic items were left in these higher niches, it is known that the ancient Maya made extensive use of the cave. Many of the ancient artifacts have been left in place, so entrance to the cave is carefully monitored, and only licensed tour guides are allowed to escort visitors inside Actun Che Chem Ha.
If you're interested in exploring the Che Chem Ha Cave or other nearby caves such as Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) or Barton Creek Cave, the best place to stay is the Cahal Pech Village Resort. Located in San Ignacio with a magnificent view of the Belize River Valley, Cahal Pech organizes tours to all of the top ancient Maya sites, including Caracol, Xunantunich, and Tikal (which is just over the border in Guatemala).