Connie's Sacrifice to Lords of the Mayan Underworld

By Peter Anick, March 2005

Thanks to many hours that Connie and I spent digesting travelogues posted on the internet, we had carefully planned out an itinerary for our vacation in Belize. Starting and ending in San Ignacio, our route would introduce us first to the pyramids at Caracol, then to the greater splendor of Tikal, then a breather at a fiesta in a contemporary Maya village, then another classic Mayan site, a butterfly farm, and finally - THE CAVE (Actun Tunichil Muknal, known locally as "ATM", since tourists rarely managed to remember the entire name.) This cave tour, everyone assured us, would be like nothing else we had ever done, so we scheduled it for our next-to-last day so as to save the best for last. Our guide to Caracol suggested that if we were particularly interested in Mayan history and religion, we should do the tour with the "Mayan Carlos". So we specified Carlos Panti when we booked the tour in Bob's reservation book at Eva's Restaurant.

Mask carved into the side of a temple at Caracol

Thursday morning we headed across the Guatemala border to Tikal, a magical world of temples, pyramids, elaborately carved stelae, howling monkeys and leaf-cutter ants. A four hour walking tour, capped by a race to the top of the astronomers' pyramid to catch the sunset satisfied Connie's wanderlust, but as I watched the full moon rise outside the hotel restaurant a few hours later, I got the urge to see the temples again in the glow of the moon. Not possible, as the park closed at 6pm. As partial consolation, I was up the next morning at 5 o'clock to catch the sunrise from the top of Temple IV. It was a beautiful clear morning, but just minutes before the sun crested the horizon, a mist enveloped the jungle, rendering the sun invisible. Our small group enjoyed the view over the canopy just the same, as the tops of other distant pyramids raised their grey combs over the vegetation that surrounded us.

Temple combs rising above the canopy

Connie and I returned to the park that afternoon, exploring the museums and revisiting the plazas that were now becoming familiar. As sunset approached, I hurried back to the hotel to inquire about a full moon tour. The resident guide found me a bit later and explained that he was not going to lead a tour out tonight but that if I could gather up a small group, he'd find a guard to take us in. I swept through the patio and restaurant looking for fellow adventurers and was able to recruit six comrades for the journey and shortly we were trekking back into the dark park behind a rifle wielding guard who spoke only Spanish. There in the central plaza, we watched the moon climb up the side of the Jaguar Temple and then emerge above the top comb like a gem in a crown.

The moon rises above the Jaguar Temple (photo by Dan Mills. Nice work, Dan!).

As it turned out, our guard was hoping to train to become a park guide and was more than happy to show us around the moonlit park, up the wooden staircase to the top of Temple IV, where I had viewed the sunrise that very morning and then over to Mundo Perdido, site of the pyramid where we had observed yesterday's sunset. Before we finally headed out, he gave us his address and asked that we send him the group picture we took on top of Temple IV. It would be a souvenir of his first guided tour.

Jose's "tour group" atop Temple IV

The next day saw us back across the border and on a packed bus to San Antonio, a Mayan village known as the home of a the famous healer Elijio Panti and the slate-carving Garcia Sisters. Unfortunately, when we arrived at the Garcia Sisters' lodge, where we'd be spending the next two nights, we learned that none of the sisters were around and "Mom" spoke mostly Spanish. Our misgivings continued to rise when we encountered Michael, the volunteer caretaker, who offered us the use of his boots and machete should we want to walk in the woods. Be careful of snakes and wari, he advised. The latter - highly aggressive packs of wild pigs - were reputed to root up a tree in order to take down a person taking refuge there. Having talked us out of a stroll in the woods, he then cautioned us to shake our shoes in the morning to rid ourselves of scorpions. He also revealed that we might be visited by black ants which on random nights swarm over houses eating everything they find. Not really a problem, he noted, as the locals rely on these ants to clear their buildings of insects and scorpions periodically.

Folk instruments on display at the Garcia Sisters' Museum in San Antonio. Also at the museum were flutes and ocarinas played by the ancient Maya.

With these thoughts in mind, we scrambled down the road to seek out the fiesta that we had heard would be going on in the village this weekend. Turned out to be a few carnival rides and a beer tent with loud punta music blaring. It seemed that much of the community was attending a rival event at the Pentecostal church further down the road. The only "cultural" event was a short dance by a masked "La Chatona", who, as far as we could ascertain, was an extremely tall woman whose man had deserted her and who now haunts the mountains after midnight. We ended up spending most of the evening chatting with Michael and a pair of Peace Corps volunteers who were still in the process of adapting to the village lifestyle.

Hog's Head Dance, apparently an old Mayan tradition. The hog's head is in the decorated bucket.

The next morning we headed back into town with Michael to seek out the "Hog's Head Dance", an event everyone asserted was happening but with no idea where. After driving about the village in vain, we at last encountered a pair of pedestrians on their way and followed them up the hill where a small crowd was gathered around a trio of marimba players tapping out a lively melody. One fellow urged them on with rattles and another danced with a bucket on his shoulder that contained the hog head, festooned with candles, ribbons, bottles and loaves of bread. The host family brought out plates of rice and beans for everyone and after finishing their snack, the band played a final tune and the whole group proceeded down the hill to another house. This continued all morning and provided a great opportunity to chat with the very friendly locals, until we had to leave to keep an appointment with Bol, a local guide. He led us out to a hole in the jungle that he had discovered on his land some ten years ago. Unlike most of the caves in the area, this one remained virtually unlooted, and it held untold numbers of broken pots, tools, eccentrics, even two skulls, which Bol had reverently named after the days on which he discovered them. The skulls had the flattened, elongated foreheads of classic Mayan nobility, molded in infancy by placing their heads between boards.

Mayan pots in Bol's Cave. The red bowl contains red paint that is still fresh.

On Monday, we returned to San Ignacio after an afternoon spent wandering among the nearby ruins of Xunatunich and its adjacent butterfly farm. We turned in early that night, figuring we would need all our energy for the Tunichil Muknal cave tour which was to be the culmination of our Mayan adventure. I'm not sure what Connie was dreaming about, but I was thinking of the ancient Maya cosmos - the nine levels of the underworld, the sun's nightly battle with the lords of darkness, and the story of a young man we had met at the outdoor pub after our exit from Bol's cave. His father had been one of the chicleros who used to make their livelihood in the jungle collecting the sap of sapadilla trees used for making chewing gum. Chicleros occasionally stumbled upon Mayan caves while roaming the woods, but his father always urged them to "Let them be. What's down there doesn't belong to us." Some friends of his ignored his advice and one curious chiclero lowered himself down a hole they discovered. It was a while before he reappeared and when he did, he was speechless and wearing a glazed look. He never spoke again. Nor did the chicleros with him that day ever go near a cave again. To this day, many Mayan mothers warn their children to steer clear of caves because of the spirits believed to reside there.

Undaunted, we woke early, had our breakfast and made our way across the street to Eva's, where we met our fellow adventurers, Dave from Halifax, Kristine from New York and a young couple from Chicago. As our guide Carlos explained, he never took more than six people in a group. The cave was too fragile and missteps had already caused much damage to the artifacts in the cave. After a long drive through Mennonite farmland and a hike through the jungle that included three stream crossings, we arrived at the mouth of the cave, which rose like an ominous dark keyhole above a beautiful turquoise pool. The only way in is to swim and since most of us were wearing our bathing suits anyway, we worked our way carefully over the slick rocks and into the pool for a refreshing swim. From inside the cave, I looked back and saw Connie seated awkwardly on a boulder just outside with an anguished look on her face. "We've got to go back," she cried, "I've broken my finger!" Disbelieving, I began the swim back to the entrance and when I arrived at Connie's side, she was faint and suffering from shock. "My little finger was bent out at the joint at a right angle. I didn't know what to do, so I told Dave, who was next to me, to pop it back in. He looked at me like I was crazy but he did it." Sure enough, Connie's pinky was back in place, with two tell-tale red spots at the lower joint testifying to the finger's near amputation. Back on shore, the still shaking Connie downed a tylenol and some watermelon to subdue her shock, as the group gathered to decide what to do next. We were a good two hours from town and ten yards away from the cave that was supposed to have been the highlight of our trip to Belize.

Connie tries to decide whether or not to tackle the cave with a broken finger. Our guide offers some gentle persuasion.

Connie tried flexing her little finger. It hurt but bent. "Yes," nodded Carlos in response to our inquiries, "there's a lot of climbing in the cave, and you'd have to rely on your hands a lot." Connie flexed her finger again, looked around at the sympathetic group around her and said, "I'll do it." In we swam, clambered up on the opposite shore and then waded back into the waist-deep stream rushing out of the cave. Connie stayed right behind Carlos as he shouted instructions on where to step, where to avoid sharp rocks, how to fit through narrow crevices, and finally how to navigate the steep wall of the cave to follow the trail of the Maya shamans who had performed their rituals here a thousand years ago. Calcified pots lay strewn everywhere, purposely broken by the priests to release their spirits. We passed an altar containing unusual stelae shaped like obsidian blades and corn cobs where the priests had conducted blood-letting ceremonies. It was here that the Mayans had pleaded with the gods of the underworld to bring them rain in the dying days of the classic Maya empire. If the gods wanted blood, they apparently got it, because the bones of sacrificial victims lay scattered throughout the cave - several men, a young woman, a bound captive, even a tiny child. The trail led us past several skulls to an upper chamber that could only be reached by a ladder - the final resting place of a girl whose calcified skeleton shows evidence of a traumatic end.

Skull in ATM cave, with flattened forehead and filed teeth

Somehow Connie climbed, crawled and shimmied her way through, up and down the ladder, under stalactites barely a foot off the ground, and back down the steep wall of the cave. The magical ambience of the cave was an excellent distraction from her dislocated finger, save for several sharp reminders occasioned by precarious hand-holds. Toward the end of the trip, as we waded back in absolute darkness, I'm sure she was thinking that she had made the right decision. When we finally saw the light at the mouth of the cave, we all joked about the "sacrifice" she had made to the spirits of the underworld.

Lords of the Underworld - not!

The next morning her little finger was still quite sore and she gave it a good icing before we headed out for our last visit to a Mayan ruin - the Cahal Pech site just a short uphill walk from our hotel. To our surprise, we found an excellent museum there at the site, with many interesting displays - a statue of a bound captive, a toy showing that the Maya did indeed have the "wheel", a royal burial surrounded by jade and eccentrics. But one display in particular gave us pause. The sign read, "a common ritual involved the offering of the last digit of human fingers in small bowls more than 200 finger bowls were discovered within a tomb in a large temple to the south of city center."

We are still pondering this odd coincidence. Perhaps it was a similar experience in Maya times that initially inspired the belief that the gods desired the little finger. Or perhaps there are still spirits inhabiting the cave, impatiently waiting for someone to pay them their due.


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