Balamkanché Cave

Yucatán, Mexico


This dry cave network was used as an elite temple for ceremonial purposes by the ancient Maya and as a sort of refuge during times of conflict. It is just up the road from Cenote Ik Kil and the ruins of Chichén Itzá.


Tlaloc, the Aztec god of rain, guards the Maya sacred Tree of Life in the Ceiba chamber.

Tlaloc, the Aztec god of rain, guards the Maya sacred Tree of Life in the Ceiba chamber.

 

Some sources claim that this is the place where the Itzá Maya escaped when Chichén Itzá was destroyed (possibly by Mayapán although this in itself is a complicated and contradictory story). I wanted to test if it was possible to live in the cave for an extended time and that was one of the reasons for my visit. Well, the ancient Maya were resilient people and I would not put it past them; they would have been used to humidity so they could have possibly survived here. Even our guide Agustín did not seem to suffer; he said he was used to the tropical humidity of Yucatán. We came here with my husband Rhod in May 2018 and at that time of year the humidity in Yucatán is already high. We are also used to it after living here for more than four years but we could not avoid sweating. In any case, you have to have a certain level of fitness as today's path takes about 45 minutes to walk, up and down the stairs (built in modern times). Not all areas of the cave are open to the public; check the map below.

 
Stunning Bonampak murals: Procession of the lords. Although they were not direct ancestors of the Lacandón Maya, something tells me that the dress code of white tunics was copied from them by today's inhabitants of Lacandón jungle .
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Pottery vessels and miniature metates for grinding maize.

Pottery vessels and miniature metates for grinding maize.

Yet another chamber with offerings.

Yet another chamber with offerings.

 

Tours run each hour on the hour and an audio presentation is used, either in Spanish, English or French, on an alternating basis. However, six people are needed for a tour, which can be tricky as not many people come here (organised tour buses to Chichén Itzá do not stop here). We arrived at 10.30 and were told to wait. After 11am we paid Agustín 300 pesos as his guide fee (or a tip) and asked him to take us alone and we succeeded in getting in. Apparently a light and sound show is part of the audio presentation but as we preferred our guide talking to us, we gladly missed this show. The guide spoke Spanish only so if you need English, it is better to have the audio tour.

Cave map by Bruce Rogers. Source:  wikipedia.org .

Cave map by Bruce Rogers. Source: wikipedia.org.

The cave entrance sits in a sunken pit in the middle of the jungle garden. The entrance passage descends abruptly to a depth of about 10m. The walk is about one km long (my guess). Along the corridor the passages are lined with side caverns. They are lit, which makes the caves atmospheric. The limestone has different colours in places, with darker colours where there was water in the past. The light sometimes creates visual effects so the stones resembles people or objects and it is up to you to use your imagination on how to 'interpret them'. The light effects make a great photo opportunity although I feel my photos do not do justice to the cave. Partially it is because they are only taken on my mobile and partially because the humidity may have played tricks.

Map of the Lacandón jungle. Source:  wikipedia.org . Right: the walking tour map from the camp.
The paths through the cave are paved and comfortable.

The paths through the cave are paved and comfortable.

Source:  pinterest.co.uk .
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In the first cave room the guide pointed to a stalagmite in the shape of a human head. About 200m from the entrance is the Throne of the Jaguar, a kind of altar where the Maya carried out ceremonies and which the name of the caves comes from. The cave is often spelt as Balankanché, even on the road sign. However, balam means jaguar in Maya so the name should be Balamkanché. Agustín agreed with me, when I raised this question.

 
Agustín leading us down the pit to the cave entrance.

Agustín leading us down the pit to the cave entrance.

A Lacandón Maya selling traditional bows and arrows at Palenque ruins. He is from the village of Nahá, one of three Lacandón settlements today.
 

The cave was first explored in 1905 by archaeologists Edward Herbert Thompson and Alfred Tozzer, followed by teams of other scientists, including the Carnegie Institution, that restored the site of Chichén Itzá. Thompson dredged the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá ruins, where he recovered various offerings (including gold, jade, and human remains). It was there where he learnt about the Balamkanché Cave. In 1959 a local guide stumbled upon a secret wall. I was not able to find out why the ancient Maya built this wall but my common sense tells me that the wall worked in the same way as in every ancient Maya city: the ceremonial centre was often behind the wall for protection. This is where the royalty lived and where they stored all their sacred books and knowledge.

 
The head formation on the right.

The head formation on the right.

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The head. Below various cave openings.

The head. Below various cave openings.

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Behind the wall in this case is the 'Ceiba room', which makes the cave sacred. At the centre of the vault, there is a large limestone stalactite column attached to the floor, which resembles a large Ceiba (kapok), the sacred Maya tree. In Maya it is called wacah chan or yax imix che, depending on which Mayan language. It represented for them the three levels of the Mayan universe: upper world (sky) was the branches of the tree, middle world was the Earth and the roots represented the underworld (where the deceased entered before they could get to heaven). The central world tree has also been interpreted as a representation of the Milky Way. In essence, this tree represents the Maya cosmology beliefs. Incense urns, stone metates (for grinding corn) and pottery vessels with images of the goggle-eyed Tlaloc, the Aztec god of rain, were found under and around this tree stalactite.

Initially, the plan was to leave the artefacts where they were and turn the cave into an underground museum. But today reproductions of the original items are used instead. A wise decision….

 
The World Tree, ceiba.

The World Tree, ceiba.

The goggle-eyed Tlaloc pottery.

The goggle-eyed Tlaloc pottery.

3D laser scan of the Ceiba room. Source:  wikipedia.org .

3D laser scan of the Ceiba room. Source: wikipedia.org.

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Caves were seen by the Maya as the mouths of Witz (the Mountain Monster) and water had its origin deep within them. I deal with the Witz in my separate post Monsters.

The cenote lit by a torch.

The cenote lit by a torch.

Needless to say, there is a lake in one of the chambers. The water is so transparent that Agustín threw a stone in it before we could realise there was water there. We lit the cenote by torch, to make it visible in the photo (see on the left).

This would have served as drinking water for those hiding here and bathing would have been most likely allowed only for spiritual purposes.

On the cave map there is also the Shrimp Room. This was a water tunnel full of shrimps discovered by Dr. George Stuart, the National Geographic archaeologist. It is not open to the public and neither are the areas of muddy seasonal stream passages. He and his team found here incense burners in the water, probably placed here before the water of the cave has risen. One of them (dated to 900-950 AD) had spikes on it, which in his view was an imitation of ceiba tree spikes; another piece of pottery had maize in it (that would certainly indicate that the ancient Maya lived here, or were hiding here, even if for short periods of time).

 
With the World Tree lady at the cave museum.

With the World Tree lady at the cave museum.

Izapa Stela 1, drawing by John Montgomery. Source:  research.famsi.org .
 

There is a small museum at the reception house with some maps and photos of the cave. Symbolically, one statue of a woman that comes out of the World Tree is also placed here. The jungle botanical garden outside is also informative as the jungle trees are properly labelled with their names and usage. Certainly, if you are having to wait for more visitors to come to form a party of six, the time will pass quickly if you explore both the museum and the botanical garden.

 
Chaká and Chechén trees (Gumbo Limbo and Black Poison Wood).

Chaká and Chechén trees (Gumbo Limbo and Black Poison Wood).

Erythroxylum rotundifolium?

Erythroxylum rotundifolium?

 

As always in a Maya place, I tried to vividly imagine the ritual that the ancient Maya performed here during their ceremonies: making offerings to deities, fire rituals, burning copal incense, drinking alcohol (balché, made from the bark of a leguminous tree, honey and water), cleansing rituals (for both mind and body), even smoking tobacco. Try to imagine the real people here during your walk; this was not just a cave created by nature thousands of years ago. It was inhabited by people and used for worship and that adds an extra element of excitement.

 
Reception and the site museum.

Reception and the site museum.

A chultún from the nearby site of Uxmal that we visited a day before.
 

How to get there:

Balankanché cave is 7km east of Chichén Itzá on Hwy 180, the old road. By car it takes about 8 minutes. You can take a taxi from the ruins.

The entry fee is $127MXN. Discounts for locals are available.

 
 

MIX AND MATCH:

Definitely to be combined with Chichén Itzá and the cenote Ik Kil.