When I was told that on our way to Uxmal we would be visiting some beautiful ‘grutas’ (grottos), I never imagined a massive underground cave system. The grottos I’ve been to before were quite small, usually made up of two or three interconnected caves, and not so deep in the ground or in the wild. I remember one of these specifically, which was actually the first time I visited Yucatán when I was a lot younger. We were driving down the highway in our rented car towards Chichen Itzá when we saw a sign saying “Visita un cenote natural” (Visit a natural cenote). I guess my parents were feeling up for a little adventure because we pulled up in this desolate parking lot with three houses that looked pretty worn down.
It seemed like no one was around, and just as we were about to drive off, a lady and her young kid came out.
“Are you here to visit the cenote?”
She spoke with that peculiar accent that Mayan Yucatec people often have, her boy clinging to her arm and staring at us with curious eyes.
We asked how far away it was, and she pointed at one of the houses and said,
“It’s right here under your feet.”
Now, my naive ten-year-old self didn’t know what exactly a cenote was, and to be honest I guess I didn’t really care. I was there to see science, to find fossils. Oh yeah, this was around the time when I wanted to be a palaeontologist. Back then, I wouldn’t have wondered Aren’t cenotes supposed to be huge holes in the ground? Wasn’t I supposed to be able to see it if it was right there?
We followed them through an empty garage and down a very creepy set of stairs, then the stairs suddenly stopped and the small space we were in suddenly transformed into a beautiful cavern, half submerged with a mirror of crystalline water, colourful lights illuminating the rock formations and stalactites.
Although incredibly beautiful, the water meant it was inexplorable. Also, the size of it didn’t really leave a lot to explore. So imagine my surprise when, after being told we were visiting grottos with this picture in my head, I was suddenly walking in the middle of the jungle, amid ancient mayan rock sculptures and rock paintings and vines, and then I walked into a slippery hole in the ground and then I was in the underworld, a different kind of Earth straight out of the pages of National Geographic.
Our rabbit hole, hidden between vines and rock and bush, opened up into a tall and huge cave system, illuminated by rainbow lights that gave it a fairytale touch, tinting the rocks in pinks, blues, and purples.
The place is called Loltún, which translates to “stone flower” in mayan. Its name comes from the sound of two specific rock columns in the cave that are hollow on the inside, and when pounded on, they make a sound like “lol” and “tún”, hence the name. The pillars were used in mayan ceremonies for the underworld god, Xibalbá:
It is one out of the numerous cave systems of southern Yucatán and it is the biggest of them, and one of the most important ones since evidence of human residence in the Pleistocene (around 10,000 years b.C.) was discovered, along with rock paintings, sculptures, animal carvings in the rock, tools and steps. Scientists have also found bison, mammoth, and sabre-toothed tiger remains in the caves.
This head-like sculpture is situated at the entrance of the cave and it is one of the best-kept remains found in the caves, but it is not – plot twist – mayan! It’s actually an olmec head. Olmecs were from Tabasco, Veracruz and would travel in makeshift boats to trade with the Mayans.
The caves have an extension of six kilometres of which only two are open to the public, and only a bit more than that has been explored. They run 65 meters deep into the ground are believed to have been formed by water over 100 million years ago, when the Yucatán peninsula would have been submerged underwater.
To go in the cave, you must have a guide with you at all times, for safety, guidance (the caves are really big and puzzling, and the ground is sometimes unstable or slippery), and to learn about what you’re looking at since some of the rocks might look very normal, but they’re actually carved into animals or other figures.
Our guide’s name was Gamaliel and he was a pretty amazing guide. He was very eager to teach us all he knew about the caves, since he practically grew up in them (before it became a tourist attraction, he used to go down to the caves with friends to play soccer!). Here are some more of the things I learned from him:
- Loltún was discovered by a guy called Edward Thompson.
- There are natural “water holes” called holtunes which the inhabitants of the caves used to collect water to survive.
- Holtunes are not the same as chultunes, which are basically the same thing except they’re man-made.
- The beautiful stalactites are formed by mineral deposits brought in by flood water during the rain months. Each one grows 2 to 5 centimetres every 100 years. That is a really, really long time.
- The stalactites are sometimes cut because they’re too sharp, and both the nomads and the Mayans used their tips as a tool.
- Yucatán is not a seismic region, and so all the big rocks that are collapsed on the floor of the caves actually collapsed 65 million years ago when a huge meteor fell in the Gulf of Mexico, the same one that extinguished dinosaurs!
- According to la evidencia, as Gamaliel liked to emphasise in his explanation, archaeologists have found remains and offerings and evidencia of human sacrifice.
- There are 9 entrances to the cave, but before the nomads and Mayans used only one and used vines to enter and exit.
Here’s the best part of what we learned from Gamaliel, because I truly believe that one of the best parts of learning a new language is learning to swear in it so here are my two exclusively favourite mayan swears (my spelling might be incorrect, I’m writing what I heard):
- Pelaná – which basically means “go screw yourself” to describe it lightly.
- Mehenkizin – or something that sounded like that, and which means “little devil”.
At the end of the tour, we reached a really majestic opening that led back up to the real world. Gamaliel spoke a short goodbye in mayan and even though we didn’t understand a thing it was very beautiful. We walked the 72 steps up to the surface and we were back in the world of the living.
The whole experience was very surreal and magical, and the caves were unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my life. It was hard to imagine something as small as a human being ever calling this gigantic place a home. If you are visiting Yucatán, this is one of the places that you can’t miss out on.
Completed on The Bucket List: Explore a cave