Trip to the Underworld

Day 2 – Today I learned, for certain, that I’m obsessed with caving. I want to throw caution to the wind and become a professional spelunker. The caving excursion in New Zealand remains one of the best days of my life. This didn’t quite match up, but is not left far behind. Seriously though. Caves. I’m not nearly as freaked out by them as I probably should be. But I love bats (so cute!) and spiders mostly stick to themselves, and who can be scared of a blind catfish? It’s too cold for anything really scary to live in there, except for our dear friend Gollum, and we’re cool. Venturing into a cave is like wandering into another planet. The darkness is absolute. The walls press in on you. And when you think you’re finally comfortable with the terrain, it suddenly  opens up to reveal a vast room with hundred foot ceilings and dripping, glimmering quartz chandeliers. Though these caves didn’t have glow worms, they were exceptional in their own way. For Mayans, caves were not just like another world. They were another world. The underworld to be specific. Filled with evil monsters, but also places to go worship and present sacrifices to important gods. With that in mind, this whole expedition took on a feel entirely of its own, and my imagination sparked and burned like a wildfire during our whole visit, and long afterwards.

The day kicked off with a bit of a late start. I was meant to be down for breakfast by 7:30am, but my body was still recovering from the 2 hours of sleep the night before. I stumbled down to the dining hut at a very late 8am. Always ready to flex and accomodate her guests, my delightful host, Myra, had packed up my breakfast in a to-go container so I could hop into my tourguide’s car and start the hour and fifteen minute journey to the site, Aktun Tumichil Muknal (the Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre). It’s an Archaeological Reserve open to tourists where you can get within inches of ancient Mayan pottery and, more creepily, the remains of victims sacrificed to the Mayan gods. Caves are scary in and of themselves, but this takes it to a whole other level. I couldn’t wait to get there.

The car ride over was uneventful. My guide, Luis, was definitely reading me to see if I was gonna be one of the good ones or a pain in his behind. He warmed up towards the end of the drive, and started pointing out all the teak tree orchards, mahogany orchards, the orange groves, and as we got closer to the site, the mounds that were remains of Mayan homes. The last 20 minutes or of the ride were through a road that thoroughly jumbled up my half-digested breakfast. We even drove through what looked like a decent-sized pond (I felt like I was in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), and soon after that, we arrived at the parking lot.

There was a short wait for the rest of our crew, which was coming from Blancaneaux Lodge, a luxury resort a bit farther out than mine. Out of the Blancaneaux van came six young boys (early 20s?) from Greece. They were anything but friendly upon first meeting, but they turned out to be actually the absolute worst.

Before getting to the cave, there is about a 45 minute walk through the jungle. The Greek boy band ran up ahead and left me and Luis behind. Which ended up being just fantastic for me. I got the benefit of a one-on-one tour with the guide. He took his time and pointed out all the things of interest, like the remains of a Mayan well, while I asked away any and all questions to my heart’s content. When we arrived at the mouth of the cave, we caught up to the Greek chilluns, who were obviously annoyed at having to wait. They were clearly more interested in zipping through the whole thing, rather than learn anything at all about the rich history. Our guide stopped to explain some ground rules, and my patience with the six testosterone vessels deteriorated rapidly. When the guide, Luis, explained that they had to keep their shirts on as a sign of respect for the sacred space, one of the boys snorted his best spoiled-rich-kid snort, and asked, “really? Are you serious?” A well-practiced eye roll followed this snarky comment, and I was done. When this same entitled idiot became frustrated as another group passed ours (Luis was still trying to explain some things), I probably not-very-kindly asked him to chill out. Luis. Luis, Luis, Luis. Being the smart man that he is, Luis realized that this just wasn’t going to work. He asked me if I wanted to join the group ahead of us (led by his cousin), and I gratefully obliged. And so, I ditched the boyish blowhards and joined a chilled out and fabulous trio of young Americans, a German married couple, and a Chinese dad and daughter. They embodied the awe and gratitude that I was feeling, and made for fabulous cave-venturing companions.

My new guide was also excellent (though I don’t remember his name because I suck). He was a cave afficionado, probably in his late 20s, but he knew everything there was to know about caving. He’s been running the tour for over a decade, and has spent years exploring the vast network of caves at ATM (Aktun Tumichil Muknal, not a cash machine), sometimes by himself. What I learned from him is far too vast to try and capture in this post, but the thing I found most compelling about him was his deep respect for the caves and the experience as a whole. He told us multiple times that we were coming to get a glimpse of something awesome (in the older sense of this word) and meaningful. With 2.5 hours in the cave, a glimpse, a stop here and there, an impression, was all that we could hope for. But the glimpse would be well worth our while. And it was. He told us to watch for “cave kisses,” the scratches and bites that would be inevitable as we made our way up to the site of the Mayan rituals, and with that we turned on helmet headlights (our only gear, no life jackets), and ventured into the Mayan underworld.

The trek itself was not safe. Far from. Safety measures were almost nonexistant. We probably should have been given life jackets as in some spots the water in the cave was quite deep (like you gotta swim deep). Actually, I wasn’t asked if I could swim until we were almost at the mouth of the cave. Which seems like an important detail. But maybe that’s just me. Once inside, we did some climbing around some steep walls where a slip would have resulted in, at very least, a few broken bones. It was dangerous. No question. Our guide said he’d had to take people out numerous times for sprained ankles and/or broken limbs. Maybe he said it to scare us into being cautious, but I believe it. In any case, I kinda loved that it was so dangerous. There were tight squeezes, and small cliffs we had to scale. We received the full caving experience, but when we got to the cave’s upper passage… it became an entirely different thing.

Before entering the chamber of the upper passage, we were told to take off our shoes. I brought socks, following Myra’s advice, and thank goodness I did. The reason for no shoes is twofold: a sign of respect, but also try and help avoid shattering any of the ancient artifacts. We gingerly picked our way up, and were advised to stay inside these two red strips of tape that marked a safe passage through the pottery and remains. The cave opened to reveal this vast inner chamber. Stalagmite and stalactite formations were everywhere, huge, impressive, and definitely god-like in appearance. Barely a minute passed before we came to the first very dramatic human remain, a skull a few inches off the pass, missing it’s two front teeth.

In total, there are about 18 human remains within the cave, some adults and some infants, almost all believed to be human sacrifices. They’re thought to have been sacrificed during a time of severe drought. The Mayans believed if they gave life, they would receive it from the gods. They also believed that the more pain and suffering during the death, the better the gift to the gods. This explains the most famous remain, the Crystal Maiden. It’s actually a dude (previously thought to be a woman, hence “maiden”), who seems to have been held out, then had his knee broken, his jaw smashed, and then… TRIGGER WARNING: his heart ripped out of his body while he was alive. How they know this beats me. But wow. Woooowwwww… I’m including a picture of the remains to help you visualize this craziness, but it ain’t my pic. Cameras aren’t allowed anymore since in 2012, some idiot tourist dropped one on a skull, destroying it. Oi.


The reason most of the bodies in there are men, is that the Mayans were making sacrifices to Ixchel, the ancient crone goddess of fertility. She only liked the men-folk. Women did come to do bloodletting sacrifices… they would cut off pinky fingers as an offering or pierce their tongues and pull thorny vines through the piercing. Gnarly stuff.

Some of the formations inside the cave have been altered to appear like Ixchel and other gods. If you shone a light on them, they’d cast shadows on the cave’s ceiling that looked like a crone (and others looked like other gods). The Mayans chipped away at these formations to create these godlike shadows. You can see the smoke from their torches on the cave ceilings. Our guide said that only the holiest and most noble of the Mayans would enter the cave to make the offerings, be they human beings or pottery filled with corn and other harvested goods. It was seen as a journey to the underworld. They would take hallucinogens and practice rituals to make these offerings. The evidence of this was everywhere. It was chilling.

Some people still come to the site to perform rituals (though not human sacrifice of course). They stay from 6pm to 6am, and our guide said that sometimes he’s had to carry visitors out because they’re so drugged, or deep into another world. He also very seriously spoke about how life-changing these vision quests have been for these visitors. I don’t doubt it, though I also don’t fancy being in those caves, in that cavern, for 12 hours and on a hallucinogen. But I can absolutely understand how it could be a deeply spiritual experience, both for these new visitors, and the ones from thousands of years ago.

The journey out happened in the blink of an eye. I reconnected with Luis and had a quick sandwich for lunch. He confirmed that the Greek kids were absolute brats, one even threatening to kill him if he didn’t let them do whatever they wanted to inside the cave. Incredible. Luis, and his cousin, struck me for being so talented, and passionate, and knowledgeable, and intelligent. They awed me not only with their information, but their take on the whole experience. On the drive back I had a conversation with Luis about the practice of sacrifices. The essence of our talk was that I couldn’t look at it with my modern eyes and modern morals. He argued that my shock and horror was me being ethnocentric. He said I needed to look back at people’s experiences, even in the far past, even those of the Mayans, with an understanding that my perceptions are not theirs. It was a far more complex argument than I’ve presented here, but it was an important moment for me. This was a lesson in cultural awareness like whoa, one that not only reaches across cultures but across thousands of years. And though it seems kind of obvious now, I can honestly say I never thought of it in that way.

Beyond being totally exhausting (my thighs are on fire from all the walking and climbing), this day has given me more than enough mental fodder to chew on for quite some time. I’ve gone there and back again, returned from the underworld to the world of the living, and find myself asking again, what does living really mean? What does being alive, and “life,” mean to us modern people? How does it compare to the Mayans years ago? So many thoughts. Such a vastly spiritual and special experience. As I cross the threshold into living death (namely, sleep) I have too much to think about to sleep easy. And I’m ok with that.

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