Mayan Ritual Cave

Fieldtrip Memories - No.5 Balankanché Mayan Ritual Cave, Yucatán, Mexico

This remarkable cave system (its Mayan name means ‘Hidden Throne’) is near the ancient Mayan ceremonial city of Chichén Itzá. Its entrance was closed by a rock fall until opened in the 1950s, but Mayan legend had long persisted that there was something remarkable inside.

Indeed – a pristine interior containing offerings made c.1000 years ago are perfectly preserved inside. A passage leads past small side caverns inside some of which are stone troughs collecting water dripping from large stalactites.

This was because caves were considered to be ‘virgin’ (suhuy), and their subterranean waters holy. The passage enters into a great central cavern, in the centre of which is an extraordinary fused stalagmite-stalactite presenting the startling simulacrum of as tree. It has a ‘trunk’ and a myriad of small, spiky stalactites hanging from the cavern’s roof give the appearance of foliage.

Simulacrum of a calcite tree in cave

This simulacrum of a tree was venerated by the Mayans, as censers placed around it, left as they were a millennium ago, testify. They probably saw it as a magical representation of their ‘axis mundi’, their World Tree (Ya’ axche Cab). Beyond the cavern, stretching away into the darkness, is a subterranean lagoon in which many votive offerings had been thrown.

Subterranean Lagoon

The overall effect is overpowering. And for more reasons than one: for reasons I never understood, there is limited oxygen supply in the cave and after about 20 minutes of photography, my son, Solomon, who was my ‘wingman’ on this fieldtrip, suddenly brushed past me saying he couldn’t breathe. Moments later, neither could I. It felt as if breathing just stopped. It was a question if we could make it back to the outside world before passing out. Obviously, we did, just, and collapsed gasping on the ground beyond the cave’s mouth. The fun and games of field research!