Loltún caves

Yucatán, Mexico


The visit to Loltún caves in the Puuc jungle is a step back to prehistoric times that is sure to delight any traveller. It challenges our notion of time and provides a glimpse into the ritual caves of the Maya.


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Grutas de Loltún is a dry-cave network; several caves make one huge interconnected cave. They are referred to therefore in both plural and singular. The caves seem to go on forever. Located in the hilly Puuc region, they are the largest cave system on the peninsula. I think of it as one huge cave and will therefore use a singular form when describing it.

Loltún is a porous karst cave. The English word karst was borrowed from German, named after a limestone plateau in the Karst region. It means it is a limestone cave. There are plenty of limestone cavern cenotes (sink-holes) in Yucatán, popular for swimming, snorkelling and some for diving (as they are interconnected by underground rivers). However, this cave is dry. For the Maya, caves and cenotes were sacred, that is where life began and finished. For them, the caves were the entry to the underworld (called Xibalbá). They believed that Chac, the god of rain, lived there and they placed his offerings there. Of course, the caves were also a source of water.

 
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 .
A giant skull pattern? It literally stared at me.

A giant skull pattern? It literally stared at me.

 

The cave's name is derived from two Maya words, lol (flower) and tún (stone), Flower Stone. The name was given from the flower motif that was found here on petroglyphs. We were not able to see the petroglyphs.

One of the petroglyphs at Loltún. Source:  commons.wikimedia.org . Photo by Pavel Vorobiev.

One of the petroglyphs at Loltún. Source: commons.wikimedia.org. Photo by Pavel Vorobiev.

The cave is located about 7km from the small and traditional Mayan city of Oxkutzcab, a delightful colonial market town. It makes such a nice change to see the cave when visiting nearby Uxmal and other ruins on the Route Puuc. We came here with my husband Rhod in 2017, after visiting the Puuc sites of Kabáh, Sayil, Xlapak, and Labná. We took the morning tour at 11am and after the cave we went to Oxkutzcab for the night. 

We hired Miguel as our guide. He speaks good English as he had worked in the US (like so many other inhabitants of the nearby town of Oxkutzcab, where he lives). You need to take guides here for safety reasons; you would certainly get lost if you were allowed to do the cave by yourself. I always like talking to the guides about their life to get a fuller image of the life in the area we are visiting. With Miguel we discussed Mayan rituals old and new, and even current Mexican politics and the system of education (something that lies heavily on every Mayan mind).

 
The nearby colourful town of Oxkutzcab.

The nearby colourful town of Oxkutzcab.

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The cave was 'discovered' in 1931 by an American archaeologist Robert Stacy-Judd and his team. There is a legend tied to his exploration. He found himself lost deep inside an unexplored cave but a blind Mayan priest claiming to be a thousand years old emerged from the caverns and led him back to the surface before disappearing. The strange encounter was covered by the Modesto News-Herald. I rather like stories about ghosts, don't you?

From Modesto News-Herald. Source:  weekinweird.com .

From Modesto News-Herald. Source: weekinweird.com.

A Lacandón Maya selling his artefacts in Palenque.
 

The occupation in Loltún by the Maya people goes back more than 10,000 years and it served as a hiding place during the Caste War. There are 19th century barricades constructed by rebel Maya who sheltered here from the Spanish. So the cave was used by the Maya until very recently. What must it have been like to live here in our modern times?

The cave has been made more accessible for visitors with lighting on its paths. The purple and green colours also add to the cathedral-like atmosphere. Our guide Miguel switched the lights off at some point, and that was a very different experience. We 'felt' the age in the darkness and the plight of the ancient Maya that comes with the darkness. I imagined they kept fires on all the time. There are no wooden trails, like in most caves, so the surface is a little bit rugged and adds to the feeling of primeval times. We could feel the wrinkled floor under our feet. Miguel explained to us that this wrinkled pattern was created in the past by the waters of rivers, so we actually walked on the dried riverbeds.

 
The wrinkled floor of the riverbed.

The wrinkled floor of the riverbed.

Houses along the lush jungle road.
 

The cave has several entrances. The Nahcab entrance is used as the entry point and the exit is about 500m away. Our tour took two hours. With large groups it takes an hour and a half, because the guide will walk with such a group for about 1km. If you take a private guide just for yourself, you will literally have the cave to yourself, like we did, and he takes you further (you will cover about 2km). I say 'he' because I have not seen any female guides here or at any other Mayan site that we visited, and we have seen plenty; this kind of job in Mexico is still a male domain. The reason for a shorter route for large groups is that the path is not always smooth; in places you have to hold onto the rocks (even ropes) when going down and walking between mounds and to do that with a large group is not very practical (nor safe). Good sturdy shoes are the best option here (which I myself stupidly did not have).

 
The main entrance to the cave.

The main entrance to the cave.

With our guide Miguel at the exit, right in the middle of the jungle.

With our guide Miguel at the exit, right in the middle of the jungle.

 

By the main entrance there is a treat for lovers of Mayan ancient stone art as a couple of stelae are exhibited here. A stele is a stone slab erected by the Maya as a monument, to celebrate the king's accession to the throne or any other important events in his life, such as victorious battles, the birth of an heir, a wedding etc. These stelae were found in the jungle, near the cave. After all, the Puuc ruin sites are very near and this jungle area was densely populated.

 
A stela by the entrance with no description or date.

A stela by the entrance with no description or date.

A stela by the entrance with no description or date.

A stela by the entrance with no description or date.

 

If you visited Uxmal and Sayil ruins, you surely know that this region also had a strong phallic worship. The phallic worship was present in the Puuc region and also in Chichén Itzá in Post-Classic times (from the 10th century onwards). Phallic symbols were interpreted as an expression of the human desire for regeneration and as a symbol of fertility (not sex). Well, surprise, surprise, you can see an enormous stone phallus also in Loltún. It was brought here from a small site nearby.

 
Phallus at Loltún. It seems anatomically correct. Credit: Pinterest.

Phallus at Loltún. It seems anatomically correct. Credit: Pinterest.

Posing with the god of fertility, Yum Keep, at the nearby ruins of Sayil.

Posing with the god of fertility, Yum Keep, at the nearby ruins of Sayil.

 

The tour starts at the entrance of Nahcab (beehive), where the famous bas-relief known as El Guerrero de Loltún (the Loltún warrior) is located. He seems to stand there to protect the caves. This relief apparently has ancient Olmec traits (I was not able to recognise such traits). Well, the Olmec are the oldest civilisation of today's Mexico. While they call this character a warrior, it could be a king, as it seems to hold a sceptre. You can't see it well from my photo, sadly. In any case, the Olmec and Maya kings were all warriors. After our visit I found an e-book by Stanislav Chládek (see the source below) and in his view it is a king's image resembling the rain god Chac on Izapa Stela 1 (in Chiapas). My favourite archaeologist Michael Coe describes Izapa as being a connective link between the Olmec and the early Maya. Just imagine the travel of the ancient people! On foot (they had no horses) through thick jungle… Incredible! Our achievements look like nothing in comparison.

 
Nahcab Warrior. It is not easy to see the outline of the figure.

Nahcab Warrior. It is not easy to see the outline of the figure.

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

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

 

At the beginning of the tour, in the Room of the Haltuns (second chamber) we saw stone water containers. Haltun is an artificial container, rather like a trough, carved in the rock for gathering natural dripping water from the stalactites. You may have seen similar water management systems at the ruin sites of nearby Uxmal or Sayil where they call the water container chultún. The difference is that a chultún is an underground storage dug in earth (usually bottle-shaped) and then plastered.

 
A haltún for water storage in the second chamber.

A haltún for water storage in the second chamber.

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

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

In one of the cave cavities, locally known as Huechil (from the Maya huech, armadillo), archaeological excavations were carried out, and extinct animal remains were found here: mammoth, bison, feline and other animal bones, indicating a colder climate period with a different environment from that of the present. Man-made stone tools were also found, probably produced by the peninsula's first inhabitants. We did not see them; they are not on display here (such items usually end up in museums).

Another chamber, the Infant's Room, was the burial place of a 10-12 year-old, with no objects around that would allow us to date the event. The absence of offerings suggests that the child was sacrificed. Apparently some stalactites had their ends cut off by the ancient Maya to use in rituals.

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In the Grindstone room the stones were used for grinding food, powdering of materials, and as water containers.

In the Maya Room we saw the Olmec-style stone head called the Head of Loltún. It was well restored and it really gave the cave a stamp of age.

We liked the natural limestone formations and with a little bit of human imagination some chambers were given names such as Cathedral, Grand Canyon Gallery and Ear of Corn. In the diverse galleries and chambers (some extending over more than 700m) ceramics and marine shells have been found, corresponding to the Maya culture in its different stages of development. They are not on display here.

It is also worth mentioning musical columns, formed by stalactites and stalagmites, that produce sounds with different tones when they are knocked .We did not 'play' though as we were told not to touch anything. It could possibly be a great place for a philharmonic orchestra to play here for a special occasion, as the cave has a different acoustic system. They have set up a wonderful organ for wedding ceremonies in Luray Caverns, Virginia, which is linked to the stalactites. They could do something similar at Loltún. Just a thought!

Last but not least there is a gallery sunlit by the orifices in the ceiling and the last 'room' we visited was also illuminated by natural light and tree roots hanging from the collapsed ceiling, connecting the underworld with the jungle above. Stalagmites here create visually what looks like the underworld lord of Xibalbá.

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Another attraction is the cave painting art. There are apparently some paintings representing faces, animals and staggered fret patterns but we did not see them on our tour. We were told that some of them were destroyed by tourists. On one wall in a large cavern we could see hand outlines. I could not take a good photo of the hands, due to the poor lighting (my flash just did not cope well) and also we stood far from the hands, on an elevated mound. It reminded us of film negatives. The place of the hands is interesting as it apparently indicates a spot where the shaman entered the underworld. I can just imagine the scene, with him in a trance (to get to a hypnotic state, the Maya used mushrooms, water lilies, morning glories and salvia). According to the underwater archaeologist Guillermo de Anda (as quoted by Stanislav Chládek), the handprints could have been 'signatures' of victims prior to their sacrifice. In my view, the two theories go together, as a sacrifice was always accompanied by a shaman's ritual.

The colour of the hands is black and our guide Miguel explained to us that black charcoal would have been used to create the image. The Maya used pigments and colorants from many sources, for example from plants (achiote, indigo, añil), from insects (cochineal), from minerals (palygorskite, cinnabar, hematite), from tree sap. Caves would have been a source of clays. Interestingly, similar handprints were also found at nearby Uxmal ruins (but in red). I found the hands a little bit eerie. They were quite high on the wall, not reachable today, so that also challenged our concept of the shifting earth levels in the cave. It is amazing that mankind survived in those conditions.

The hand paintings. Source:  pinterest.com .

The hand paintings. Source: pinterest.com.

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Useful tips:

Opening hours: The cave is open Monday to Sunday, 9am-4pm. For your own safety, you can only enter the caves with a guide. Believe me, you would not want to walk here alone; you could easily get lost (you might even bump into the old blind shaman!) The tour times are set as follows: 9:30, 12:30 and 15:30 in Spanish and 11:00 and 14:00 in English.

Entrance Fee: $124 pesos non-Mexican citizens, $92 pesos Mexican citizens

Parking: There is a parking fee as it is an archaeological site run by the Mexican Government. There are restrooms next to the ticket office, and Loltún restaurant opposite, across the road. The restaurant has two Mayan sculptures.

Guide Fee: The guides in Spanish are free.

Our bilingual guide asked for 400 pesos but we paid him 600 because he was good and we thought he deserved it for doing a two-hour private tour for us. This cost can be shared if you come as a group, of course.

The nearest decent hotel: in the town of Oxkutzcab, Puuc Hotel, see details in my post Oxkutzcab.

Loltún restaurant.

Loltún restaurant.

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How to get there:

Taking a local colectivo from Mérida to Oxkutzcab is the cheapest method of transportation ($55 MXN). The colectivos (minibuses) depart from the north side of Parque San Juan on Calle 69 between Calles 62 and 64. The journey takes around an hour and a half. After the colectivo drops you off in the central area of Oxkutzcab, you will need to find a taxi to drive you to the Loltún Cave. There are usually plenty of them parked on the streets around Oxkutzcab’s main square and park.

Taking a second class bus from Mérida to Oxkutzcab is also an option. They depart from the Noreste Terminal in Merida on Calle 67 between Calles 50 and 52. However, the second class buses are very slow and the journey can take up to 3 hours.

If you are coming by car from the Puuc ruins sites, the cave is about 15km north and east of Labná; a sign points left to the Grutas de Loltún, 5km further north-east. The road passes through lush orchards and some banana and palm groves. There are a few holes in the road; watch out for them.

If you are coming from the town of Oxkutcab, take road 31, it goes directly to the cave. If coming directly from Playa del Carmen, turn off the highway 180 onto road 184 and drive via the town of Maní.

 
On the road to the cave.
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MIX AND MATCH:

Loltún Cave is on the Puuc route with such ruins as Uxmal, Labná, Xlapak, Sayil, Kabáh. Or you can choose the Route of the Convents, and visit Acancéh, Tecóh, Telchaquillo, Tekit, Mama, Chumayel, Teabo and Tipikal.

Sources:

Chládek, Stanislav (2002): Exploring Maya Ritual Caves: Dark Secrets from the Maya Underworld, books.google.com.mx

Caste War of Yucatán