There’s no question about it – Lol Tun Caves, on the Ruta Puuc, Yucatan Peninsula, deserve a stop. You may end up on a tour of the caves with a large group of Germans and Poles (as I did), you will be pressured incessantly to overtip your guide, but you will also see stalactites of a magnitude previously unknown – magnificent! breathtaking!
If, however, the Disney atmosphere and false lighting leaves you hungering for a truer cave experience, head west about an hour to Calcehtok Caves. Calcehtok is the second largest dry Yucatecan cave system, behind Lol Tun. Pronounced “kal-ke-tok,” it means ”neck-deer-stone” in the Maya language.
I had read in a guidebook to simply show up at the modest entrance to Calcehtok, rouse a sleeping guide, and ask to be taken on a tour. There was no welcome desk, no (mandatory) fee to pay; I simply drove to the road’s end and asked a small, lovely man - Rogelio - in very poor Spanish – if he would take me for a brief tour of the caves. We managed to agree on a one hour tour, una hora ruta turistica, a typical route for a Western tourist.
Rogelio packed his rucksack with a few needed items, handed me a beat-up flashlight, and grabbed a small Coleman lantern as we walked to the edge of the limestone entrance. The ancient Maya ruins of Uxmal and the city of Campeche appeared on the horizon. Below was a scene from Jurassic Park, with palm trees seemingly growing out of the underworld and reaching towards the blue, Yucatecan sky. The ground looked fertile, the foliage lush. The sounds and sights – and smells! – of bats flying below inspired me to close my eyes and say a quick prayer. I tried not to think of the guidebook warning I had read earlier that day about not entering the caves alone because the noxious fumes of bat guano could actually induce unconsciousness. I eyed Rogelio, who was smaller than me, and tried to picture him putting me over his shoulder and mule-packing me out of the cave. He wouldn’t enjoy it, but he could do it, in a pinch.
We climbed down a small, iron ladder onto a limestone ledge, then scrambled over rocks, deep down into the Jurassic palms. We continued beyond the lush green and further into the gray rock. Here’s where the Maya built a wall to keep out their enemies, Rogelio explained. Here are the metates, where the women ground corn. Here are a couple chultunes, cisterns for holding water. How long ago?, I asked. Oh, these metates and chultunes are probably 500-600 years old, he said. Lying next to one metate was a rock carved into a menacing face. I was perplexed to be standing among items that would fare better in a museum than in plain view. Rogelio stopped and fired up the lantern as I breathed in guano fumes and took in the last rays of natural light.
We walked from gray into black, into the first cave entrance, ducking down, watching our heads, and eventually standing in an immense, completely darkened chamber. Cool water dripped from the rock ceiling overhead; sweat began to pour down my face, neck, chest. The dirt under my feet turned to mud.
Many Maya have lived here over the past hundreds, thousands!, of years, Rogelio said quietly, reverently, as we walked across the chamber. There is evidence of hundreds of Maya families living here as long as two thousand years ago. Later we would see shards of pottery and sacred phallic objects from approximately eighteen-hundred years ago, and two-thousand year old art etched and drawn on the limestone walls.
My flashlight flickered off and I cursed myself for not bringing my own large, high-powered light. I stayed one step behind Rogelio – as if blind, arm reaching forward to touch him, his shirt, anything – as we walked into the next large cavern, and then the next, and then the next. There, see over there?, Rogelio would ask, sitting on his haunches, pointing into a distant corner with a flashlight. We could go spelunking down there, with rope. There are underground streams, so you’d have to wear wading boots. It’s a long, skinny channel, but then you arrive in the most magnificent chamber. I could take you on a two hour tour, or four, even eight!
We entered a cavern the size of a football field, containing a single, lonely boulder in the middle of the space. Rogelio informed me that we were about 80m underground at that point (approximately 260 feet); we stood solemnly in front of the rock altar, and I listened to him describe how this was the spot where Maya women were sacrificed. I was amazed by how proficient one’s Spanish could become when hundreds of feet underground, alone with a stranger, speaking of female sacrifices. I leveled my flashlight, still flickering and dying, into Rogelio’s eyes. Why only women?, I asked. The men were sacrificed on the pyramids, and the women in the underworld. At this precise moment, my flashlight died. Rogelio whacked it on the rock a few times, to no avail. He gave me another flashlight. I eyed him suspiciously.
We viewed a small room where the “alux” (“ah-loosh”) live, the tiny dwarves of Maya mythology, containing around a hundred small stalagmites that looked to be a room full of the alux themselves, in army formation. Next was a small enclave for a kitchen, a portion of the cave with blackened walls and ceiling, metates, chultunes, and a complex map of the cave system etched onto a portion of the overhead wall.
Our trek continued; we marched through mud and over massive stalagmites resembling termite hills. Bats continued to fly and screech overhead. Water dripped, sweat coursed, mud suction-cupped, odors overpowered. But something had happened - my fear of the dark, fear of enclosed spaces, fear of Rogelio, fear of bats – had all passed away, and I was one of the ancient Maya women, winding her way from kitchen to storage, rummaging for food, gossiping with friends, tending to the children. I felt the vibrancy of the community and togetherness, the humanity and rawness of living in cramped spaces so far underground, and having to protect your home and family from dangerous foes.
Eventually, we ducked a final time and walked into sunlight. It had been the longest and most glorious hour of my vacation. I wiped brown muck off my face. I gave Rogelio a generous tip, shook his hand, thanked him profusely, and marvelled at my sudden inability to speak Spanish above ground.
Get your little butt out there!