I’m standing in the middle of a sweltering Mexican jungle in the Yucatán peninsula. Despite the muggy heat and swarm of biting mosquitoes, I’m elated. In a few brief moments, I’ll be underground again.
It’s late in the day, as my two companions and I prepare for our visit to Cueva Las Camaras- a labyrinthine cave found near Akumal in the state of Quintana Roo. We are part of a massive expedition that has come to explore and survey the lesser known caves of this region, most famous for its pristine beaches but also for its multitude of elaborate cave systems and deep cenotes. Amusement-like parks around here are everywhere; all centered on the areas main attractions- caves and cenotes. Here you will find hidden, subterranean jewels such as those found at Rio Secreto and Aktun Chen. Though beautiful, we are not here for the show caves.
“A couple of things about this cave,” my fellow caver, Aaron, says as he begins donning his field clothes. “It’s sweltering in there so bring plenty of water. Also, there are a couple of tight belly-crawling passages, so make sure you tuck your shirt in well. Another guy got quite a rash on his stomach from something we are guessing was in the dirt. The other thing you need to know….I’ll wait and tell you once we’re in the cave.” I’m curious but do not press it with Aaron.
We begin our 400-meter march through the thick jungle to the cave entrance. We make our way through the lush vegetation, doing our best to avoid the spiderwebs and unforgiving stinging plants along the way. “This is it,” Aaron says, and we make our way down from the path to a drop in the ground where a half-moon shaped opening leads down to the underground.
Our team makes its ways through the small entrance, alternately on bended knees and bellies, until the passage opens up enough for us to stand. The air is wet with moisture. Sweat drips from my face, and I’m grateful I remembered to bring my bandana as I wipe my brows. We continue to go deeper into the cave, sometimes we walk and occasionally crawl. I follow my fellow caver, Rebecca, through the bedrock passages, admiring the various stalagmites and stalactites along the way. Rebecca makes her way through a small opening which requires her to flatten on her belly. Teeth-like stalactites hang down inches above her back, almost as if the cave itself wants to take a bite out of her.
We make it to an open, spacious chamber with several tunnels going in various directions. My clothes are now drenched in sweat. We decide to take a water break before we continue onward.
It’s at this time I ask Aaron about the other thing he was going to tell us about this cave.
“Well,” he begins, “a couple of years ago was when I started mapping this cave, we used to come a different way, through the pueblo, to get to the cave entrance. We noticed people would quickly avert their eyes when we looked at them. Nobody wanted to make eye contact with us. Then one day, after leaving the cave and heading back to town, we found a freshly killed coral snake directly in the middle of our path. Next to it was a dead bird tied with fishing line to a long stick. It turns out there was a man who lived in this cave for a while after he was forced out of the pueblo by the other residents. They say he was extremely violent, so they made him leave the town. No one knows what happened to him, but the villagers do not want people visiting this cave. They believe visitors will bring some of the man’s evil back to the village with them. The dead snake and bird were their attempt to scare us away. So now we use a different path to the cave- one that doesn’t go through the pueblo.”
It’s then that the Mom in me begins to wonder, “what the hell am I doing here?”. I am, deep in the middle of a lesser known cave in Mexico, in a region where superstition and beliefs in dark magic still prevail. What would the villagers do if they discovered we visited the cave against their wishes? I shudder at the thought, though feel somewhat reassured by the fact that my companions do not seem concerned. Since becoming a mom, my paranoia gene turned on and is known, on occasion, to send my mind ablaze with dark thoughts.
I finally settle down and begin to wonder about the ancient Maya civilizations that inhabited this region long ago. Did they visit this cave? I can’t help but wonder if Maya once walked, crawled and shimmied through these same passages.
It’s not too difficult to imagine — The Maya revered caves and saw them as a supernatural portal to the Underworld; a place they called Xibalba. Caves were revered as sacred spaces and as symbols of fertility and transformation. More than 1,000 years ago in this very region, the Maya performed ritual human and animal sacrifices deep within caves like this one to appease their deities.
In fact, earlier this year, secret chambers within a cave called Balamku (Cave of the Jaguar God) were discovered by a team of archaeologists exploring beneath Chichen Itza, an ancient Maya city in the Yucatán. So far, the team has found several ritual offering chambers deep within Balamku, with objects untouched and unseen for over 1,000 years. Over 150 artifacts have been found thus far, including incense burners, grinding stones, pieces of jade and plates engraved with the sacred ceiba tree-a Mayan symbol for the Universe. In other caves utilized by the Maya, remains of ancient humans have been discovered. One cave located in Belize called “Actun Tunichil Muknal” (Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre) houses the remains of a 20-year old woman who was thought to have been sacrificed by Mayan priests as part of a religious ritual. Dubbed the “Crystal Maiden,” due to the calcite encrusted skeletal remains, she was believed to have been killed to placate the gods, as Maya population numbers plummeted, perhaps due to drought conditions across the region.
As we exit the cave and make our way back to the vehicles unscathed (mostly) and unaccosted by angry villagers, I feel some relief. The bright sunlight seems foreign but welcoming after so many hours in the dark underground. Some of my early elation returns and I, once again, feel darn lucky for the opportunity to explore subterranean worlds where echoes from the past still resonate. It’s been a good day.