At the Gates of Xibalba

In Journeys

Actun Tunichil Muknal cave with PACZ Tours of San Ygnacio, Belize Thursday April 16, 2009.

In the depths of the Earth, the last offerings of a lost empire wait for the adventurous to find them.

Prologue

Silence. I awoke, roused from the depths of sleep by something I could not describe. Foreboding?

It grew, very slowly. A faint orange glow oozed along the walls at what I could now tell to be the far end of the place. A cave–ah, that makes sense now. The orange crept along, growing and growing, making way towards me.

A voice! What is this madness, there’s no one here. Who does it belong to…?

Two men, one naked with his hands bound, the other wearing ornate jewelry and cloth and bearing a torch, have come to this place. The ornate man is pushing the other to the ground. . . what’s going on?

The naked man screams, and crimson paints the floor.

I

I wake, sweating, rubbing my eyes to force the sleep out. Just a dream. Odd how we can almost never recognize a dream when it’s happening, even if the details of the dream are completely absurd. Obviously, no one’s practiced human sacrifice for hundreds of years, at least in this part of the world.

I rise out of bed, my vision goes black for an instant, and I nearly fall back down. The pillow doesn’t want to let me go just yet. A pleasant breeze blows into the room, carrying the scent of the sea through my windows. It helps to dispel the insects, even this far back in the mangroves.

Birds call nearby, and spider monkeys in the distance, on the mainland. None of them out on a barrier island, though I’m sure I’ll see some later in the day. Time to get packed, there’s a lot to do.

I catch the last flares of the sun’s pyrotechnic entrance from the sea as I make my way towards the Big House. As I stuff my face with a quick breakfast of muffins and cheese I do one last check of my gear. Can’t be too careful, especially since we hadn’t been told much of what to bring for the day’s escapades. “Good walking shoes,” they’d said. And no gadgets.

Well, my phone is necessary, even if I am in a foreign country without international data.

I meet my guide, Axel, on the porch. A natural-born Belizean of the K’iche’ Maya people, he’s taken me on several trips previously in the week. I like him a lot–he’s enthusiastic and chatty and has amazing stories about growing up here. More importantly, he’s clearly very proud of his culture and its history. We make small talk as we walk towards the vans.

Today is the big day, a trip to the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave complex in Belize’s northwest. I’d been told it was a couple miles into the jungle, and wasn’t for the “faint of heart” (to quote the activity organizer, who was another very nice man). I’d planned the adventure months ago, and still it hastens my heartbeat. A two-hour drive lies ahead, and then pure wonder.

II

Passing through the village of Hopkins, just outside the resort, I’m reminded of how poor Belize really is. It’s easy to forget economics when you’re at one of Mesoamerica’s foremost resorts. But it’s a small town, and its cinderblock homes and thatched roofs shrink as we speed towards the mainland.

The non-existent traffic makes up for the roads, which are pothole-ridden at the best of times, though we (myself and the five other tourists in my party for the day) manage to make it amusing anyway. For the past two hours we’d bounced along, across most of Belize (it’s a country about the size of Massachusetts in area), talking with Axel and our second guide, Hector, who we’d picked up along the way.

Despite the turbulence–the “free massage,” as Axel and Hector had called it earlier–we all had smiles on our faces. The sheer excitement of the ATM caves banished all negativity from our minds. While en route, Axel had been teaching us about the history of the site, and how it became the crown jewel of Belize’s archaeological wonders.

Actun Tunichil Muknal (called ATM locally) is an archaeological site, comparable to France’s Lascaux in terms of how rare and precious it is. Though it isn’t the only site of its type, it’s not precious for that alone; ATM contains extremely rare specimens from a mysterious period in the history of the Maya peoples, their disappearance. Axel and Hector explained as much, and went on to describe the period in some detail. Hector’s our actual cave guide, so he’d explain more once inside.

We pulled off the main road and into the jungle, reaching the trailhead several miles later. Now for the real adventure.

III

With all our electronics in Hector’s dry bag, the trail begins its siren’s song. The path is well-worn; many groups come through here each year, though not many at a time. We pass a couple while on the way to the cave mouth. It’s a gorgeous day, the wind is just present enough to whisk away humidity, and the clouds aren’t dark with rain–a rare treat.

Leaf-cutter ants make miniature highways on the jungle floor, crossing the path as we walk the three miles to ATM. We cross the river once, twice, thrice, but it isn’t especially difficult. Mostly I’m frustrated with myself for not bringing water shoes–I had them back at my room. My boots are soaked from the inside out. I’ll have to buy new ones when I return to the States.

We traverse a final ridge and suddenly the darkness of ATM yawns before us. Even in the brightness of the beautiful day, the darkness of the cave is almost absolute. A bright turquoise pool sits at the entrance to the Underworld, and small fish flit about in its jade water.

I stand, paralyzed.

“You can be awestruck later, let’s get to the interesting part first,” says Hector.

Well, that’s one way to break the wonder.

I hadn’t expected it when I’d left Hamanasi earlier in the day, but it wasn’t a complete surprise by now. Time to swim into the cave.

The water is frigid, being, essentially, groundwater from under the mountains. The stream comes out of the cave, which we were to oh-so-enthusiastically trudge through for two miles. Truthfully, however, I’m in my element when going into alien places, and an ancient cavern absolutely qualifies as alien.

It was less of a two-mile trudge and more of a two-mile swim. Despite the lack of rain throughout the day, the stream is higher than average from a storm earlier in the week. It pushed against us when we submerged ourselves, and sucked our feet into the gravel when we weren’t. Scampering over wet rocks, slogging through the stream, and swimming through dark, neck-deep pools for at least an hour, we finally, finally made it to our ultimate destination: the ATM archaeological site.

IV

“Welcome to Xibalba,” beamed Hector, a grin on his face from ear to ear.

I can’t blame him for his pride. Seemingly all Belizeans share it, and they have good reason to, even with tourists. Especially with tourists.

A final fifteen-foot climb up a cluster of boulders (and thankfully out of the stream) brings us face-to-face with a slew of artifacts. Mostly potsherds (archaeological jargon for shards of pottery), I search through the cluster, finding something a little more interesting.

Several spots on the cave floor, illuminated only by our headlamps, are raised up in odd shapes. I take a moment to think as everyone catches their breath. They look like…bones?

They are bones.

What?

Hector brings the rest of the group over and begins to actually be a tour guide. He reminds us of the stream. During heavy rains (like those of just a few days prior) the stream is fed from the highest chamber in the cave as well as its primary source, bringing silt from upstream and depositing it along its path through the (currently dry) chambers of ATM. These artifacts and remains have been here for over a millennium, enjoying hundreds of thousands of heavy storms. Because of this, the bones here don’t sit on top of the cave floor, they’re buried under inches of rock. Some are only partially buried–there’s a fractured femur and several skulls scattered about, not all of them human. Most are animal sacrifices, jaguars and monkeys for the most part.

While I’m lost in thought, most of the group is already following Hector deeper into the cave.

I swear a skull cracks a smile as I pass by.

Through a mile of chambers, some so small we have to crawl, others large enough to fit a football field (yes, there is one single, enormous cathedral chamber in ATM), we stop several times to discuss the artifacts. There are no hand rails, no wired lighting; only the light of our headlamps and some pink tape on the ground to tell us where to not go. Though scarce, ATM hosts several human skeletons, most of them completely disarticulated, scattered by eons of flood streams. In some places the walls and floor of the caverns are scorched black, the scars of smoke trapped in the cave from ritual fires. Shattered pottery litters the ground in many places as we make our way to the topmost chamber. The Crystal Sepulchre awaits.

Actun Tunichil Muknal means “the Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre” in K’iche’ Maya. Yeah, it’s actually called that, like something out of a fairy tale. It’s our ultimate goal, containing the most perfectly-preserved skeleton in the entirety of the cave, and quite possibly in the entirety of Belize and the Yucatán region.

I climb a rickety wooden ladder into the Sepulchre chamber.

I thought I was in awe before. Now I understand Hector’s comment from earlier in the journey.

The Sepulchre contains a fully articulated human skeleton called the Crystal Maiden, so named for the glittering sediment covering its bones. It lies as if covered by a shimmering velvet blanket, reposed in final satisfaction on the cave floor. We all take a moment to pay our respects.

As Hector explains, the Maiden is the final piece of ATM’s mystery. The cave dates to the period of the Maya’s disappearance, c. 900 CE. The Maiden was, in truth, the last futile attempt by the ancient Maya to appease the gods of Xibalba, the Underworld, who they believed had power over natural phenomena. Xibalba could be entered from Earth, through a series of labyrinthine caves, which the K’iche’ people believed ATM to be.

As we all follow Hector back through the cave, it isn’t lost to any of us that the journey we’re making was, and still is, sacred to the Maya peoples. We’re returning from the realm of the dead.

The Crystal Maiden keeps me company in my mind as we return along ragged dirt roads to the resort.

Epilogue

I can see the light, faint in the distance again. It’s oozing along the walls just like the last time.

The ornate man brings another victim into the chamber. Somehow the previous one is just a skeleton now. Has it been that long…?

They’re moving past me this time, deeper into the cave.

Chanting echoes from where they must be, darkly resonant. Finally, it comes to a rest. I hear the scream again. They somehow sound the same, the victims.

Darkness deepens, the cold gnaws my bones.

The ornate man comes back, moves past. The crimson paints him, too.

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