By the time we reached Loltún cave, roughly 66 miles from Mérida, we were ready for some out-of-car action. The name comes from the Mayan words for flower (Lol) and stone (Tún), which is about as cool a name as you could hope for. This stop on the Ruta Puuc is steeped in history, and was a popular hangout for prehistoric shamans as well as 19th century Mayan rebels — and everyone who came in between. This extensive network of caves is one of the largest on the peninsula, covering many kilometers of subterranean space.
Apparently the caves have not been fully and completely explored, which is hard to believe in this day and age. We learned from our guide that a sprawling new branch of the cave system may be made public in the next few years (hot tip for those who are reading this post in the future).
There is a reasonable park entrance fee (though the Texans we met in the parking lot might disagree), and other than a small group of what appeared to be Mexican students we more or less had the place to ourselves. As an official archeological site, the government has put a number of protections in place, such as the requirement for a designated guide. They literally won’t let you in without one, but technically you don’t have to pay them. The assigned guides work as volunteers and “accept” tips, which in this case we more than happily provided.
We really lucked out with Pablo. He’s associated with a company called Real Mayan Adventures, (which can be found online and on Facebook), and he had every quality you want to see in a guide: a clear passion for his work, extensive knowledge of the subject matter, a friendly (but not overbearing) attitude, and a firm command of English (he told us he was working on his German, evidently an underserved market around there). Really, if it wasn’t for him, the caves would not have come alive like they did for me that day.
After walking down a steep winding stone stairway, we arrived at the mouth of Loltún, gate to Xibalbá (the Underworld). Most of the actual Mayan relics were more referenced than actually seen (pottery and other artifacts from 3600 years ago have been discovered here), but I always had a sense of their presence and significance. Marking the entrance was a faded, almost invisible bas-relief carving of a richly dressed warrior (“late-pre-classic”, among the oldest carvings in the area). We were standing right next to it when Pablo pointed it out. This wasn’t to be the last surprise he would spring on us. He motioned down into the darkness and said “Take a good look before I do something”. Then, he switched on the lights and the intricate yawning cavern stretched out of sight. Down we went.
I’ve been in a few caves before, most of them products of volcanic activity (Pablo was very curious about the lava tubes of Mt. St. Helens when we brought it up). I had even snorkeled in a cenote once before on a previous trip (outside of Tulum), but this was a different class altogether. The first couple of caverns were truly enormous, featuring a mad jumble of stalactites, stalagmites, with surreal surfaces warping and folding and disappearing out of sight. Pablo shot a flashlight briefly at an indentation in the ceiling to reveal a dense, twitching den of bats. Suddenly, the packed mud-like turf below our feet took on a whole new meaning.
Pablo explained to us how the pre-Columbian Mayans used this cave for ritual and meditation. He brought us to a smaller chamber and demonstrated an interesting property of the caves that may have been used to this end. He walked up to a pair of columns and gave them each a swift closed-fist whack in rapid succession. The result was two clear tones in what sounded like a major third on a standard musical scale. He invited us to try it out ourselves, and part of me wished I could have just stayed there and punched the rocks all day.
We went further into the cave system and things got a little darker. Then we saw the hands. Tiny handprints high on the wall, upwards of 7,000 years old. It was suggested that this was how the primitive spelunkers would mark their path as they wended their way deeper and deeper into Loltún. Other prehistoric goodness included the remains of mammoths and other extinct mega fauna (though we didn’t get to see the bones personally). Bones were found in the cave that appear to be over 10,000 years old, and Pablo suggested that a big sinkhole towards the end of our tour was actually used as a pit trap by prehistoric hunters. The precipitous drop would be more than enough to kill a giant sloth or anything else that wandered into it. Yum!
Going even further back in time, we were taken to a “canyon” with massive boulders all piled up on one end. Our guide said that one theory about the formation of the caves (and all the others in the cave-riddled Yucatan) involves the famous Chicxulub crater (you know, the one that supposedly killed the dinosaurs). The pile of boulders and the various high-water marks were supposedly indicators of the impact.
In the final cave (where the mammoths fell), we got a birding treat: a rare glimpse of a special migratory bird that actually hangs out in the caves when it’s not trekking up and down the eastern seaboard. Pablo retold a legend about the bird disappearing into the cave and returning, signifying that it had been to the underworld and back, or something like that. Truth is, I can’t remember the bird’s name or what the legend consisted of. Which is a real shame because when we actually saw one (which Pablo warned us not to get our hopes up), I was genuinely thrilled.
Lastly, on the way out, we passed some of the most recent Mayan contributions to the cave (if you don’t count the extensive electrical lighting system that illuminated our path). This was the remnants of a thick rubble wall built at the mouth of the cave in the mid to late 1800’s by Mayan rebels during what is known as the Caste War of Yucatán (yet another bloody 19th century revolt by oppressed indigenous Americans). This (and other) caves were used as hideouts, providing shelter, water, and security for the fighters and their families. The walls were built in such a way that, from a distance, they appeared to be a seamless barrier, but when you got right up next to them, you could see there was a way through. Heartbreaking, but nevertheless a vital part of the caves’ history.
Even after we had exited the caves and tipped out Pablo, he walked with us back to the car, pointing out wild stingless bee colonies in a tree trunk (whose honey was a trade commodity even before the “pre-classic” period) as well as wild chaya (“Yucatán spinach”, a shrub leaf poisonous unless cooked, and tasty after). By the time we got back in the car, only an hour had passed but it felt like one of the most extensive tours we’d done so far.
And so, on to Uxmal!