Discoveries in 2017: Return to Xibalba

In my previous post Discoveries in 2017: Bad Guacamole, I made reference to the Latin American literary tradition of “Magical realism“.

You may also remember that on several previous occasions we have discussed Xibalba, The Place of Fear.

Xibalba is a bizarre Mayan underworld wherein dwell the twelve Gods of Death. It is roughly analogous the the Christian concept of Hell, but even scarier, and none are exempt from its torments, not even the good.

You would do well to click the above link, and research other references, should you wish to understand more about the worldview of those for whom life is Hell and death even worse.

For example, here you see Ixquic, better known as “Blood girl” entangled in the coils of K’awiil the Serpent God as she is judged by the Overlords of Xibalba. This sort of thing happens every day, and “days” in  the eternal darkness can be thousands of years long.

Wish you were here!

It is written in the Popol Vu that that to overthrow the Lords and bring about the end of time one must first find a portal (Which is what this post is all about), then cross three rivers, one filled with scorpions, one with blood, and another with pus, all before the trials begin.

It is all very magical, but is it real?

Allow me to segue from the mythological to the quasi-mythological by reminiscing about the loss of my virginity in a Mexican border town whorehouse, a place later immortalized in the great Tarantino cult movie “From Dusk till Dawn“. It was my first introduction to Xibalba.

The year was 1967, the “Summer of Love”, a period so long past that the youth of today sometimes confuse it with the Maya Classical Period. Like so many of the restive youth of that time I was headed to California. We were stardust, we were golden, and we had to get ourselves back to the garden.

I rolled into Tucson to meet a friend there enrolled in college. We hatched a plan to go to the nearby Mexican border town of Nogales to purchase a “Donkey Flick”, which is to say a mythological movie depicting sex with a donkey. By the end of summer we planned to be back home in suburban Maryland; then, on Labor day at the Old Timers Reunion in West Virginia, an annual gathering of cavers, we would screen the movie in the Big Room of Sinnit cave. The impossibility of doing so was not a consideration.

Crossing the border was not a problem, no passport required, just a little mordida (Bribe). This was not my first trip to Mexico. A week earlier I had swum the Rio Grande in Big Bend Texas to become a reverse wetback.

I love it when any foreign country lives up to its stereotypes; so, I was pleased when, immediately upon parking my Momma’s Mustang in Nogales, a young boy rushed up to offer his sister, or better still his virgin mother! Shoeshine? Failing that, he would at least watch the car for a pittance, a wise investment without which the car would surely disappear, either at once or in pieces.

We were told that to purchase such a peculiar “pelicula” we would have to go to Boy’s Town which was located some distance away in the desert. “There, Senior, you can get anything you want!” If you have ever seen a Clint Eastwood Spaghetti western you can picture the scene.

We arrived as a flash flood was rampaging through the tiny village that consisted entirely of houses of ill repute. Cars and cattle were being swept down the aptly named Canal street. On either side of the submerged street scantily clad women hung off the second floor balconies of adobe buildings. They cheered as a brave cowboy in a big truck drove into the flood and attempted to rope the cattle.

I stood transfixed by the scene until a hideous Harpie who I had not previously noticed approached from behind, violently grabbed me by the crotch, and attempted to drag me away. She looked like a witch!

I was terrified, broke free, and ran down the street. On my left was a large building with garish flashing lights and loud music blaring from the open doors. I leapt inside and the witch desisted, for it was not her designated feeding ground.

I looked around, dazed and confused. Even more scantily clad women were buzzing like wasps around groups of drunken soldiers from nearby Fort Huachuca. I took a seat. At 19, though still a virgin, I was already a veteran of the Georgetown bar scene along the Potomac, so nothing seemed too unusual until an attractive young woman in a miniskirt suddenly straddled my knee, which happened to be where my hand was located. By the grace of Oztotl my palm was pointing up. My mind raced as my finger wiggled and I tried to comprehend what was happening. Was it a mollusk? Or could it be???

I will spare the gentle reader the gory details of what followed, but suffice it to say that four dollars and a drink were never better invested in a young man’s education. I owe a debt to that fine establishment which I consider to be my Alma mater.

The place later became known as the Titty Twister. About that time it was visited by Quentin Tarantino. He determined that the ladies who had been so eager to please were actually vampires working with the Hero Twins, popularly known as the Gecko Brothers, who sought to overthrow the Twelve Dark Lords. Their actual names are Hunahpu and Xbalanque.

The front of the Titty Twister
The rear of the Titty Twister provides easy access to Xibalba

Allow me to to offer contemporary photographic proof of the existence of Xibalba. The following very large monster was photographed on July 7, 2017 in Chisec, a tiny town almost solely inhabited by Indians nestled deep in the jungle covered mountains of Alta Verapaz. I later ascertained that the monster was some sort of Therapod dinosaur now extinct elsewhere.

An escapee from Xibalba

I was swallowed by the dinosaur feet first. Here you see me passing through the digestive tract on my way to the anus.

On my way from “where the sun don’t shine” to where it does

As you will soon see there were many more monsters, but I’m getting ahead of myself. My visit to Chisec was later in the trip.

……………………………………………………………….

You already have more proof of the existence of Xibalba than there is proof of Hell in the Bible; so, now we can return to nearby Raxruha where I had recently barfed up the last of my bad guacamole and was ready to resume travel. My next goal, the ostensible purpose of the entire trip, was to explore the magnificent Candelaria cave system which I had first glimpsed in 1976.

As you may remember from a previous post, at that time my future ex wife and I had traveled up the Rio de la Pasión during the Guatemalan civil war.

We ran out of river at Raxruha which was then much larger than it is today because it was filled with Kekchi refugees who had gathered along the newly constructed Franja Transversal del Norte (Northern Transversal Strip), a road project intended to subjugate the Indians for the purposes of resource extraction. Numerous massacres by government soldiers and paramilitaries had recently taken place so everyone was terrified.

The entire area had previously been inaccessible, so for most of the Kekchi it was their first exposure to the outside world. None had ever before seen a tall blond woman so she was regarded as a godlike creature, perhaps from another planet? The bravest of the children would creep forward to tentatively touch her hair to see if it was really made of gold.

I had never before seen such extraordinary karst, and so presumed that there were numerous caves. Asking where they were did no good because no one spoke Spanish and everyone was lost. A few recognized the word “cueva”, so when news spread that we were looking for caves people would all point in different directions. Eventually I found a Hispanic construction worker who authoritatively pointed to a path and said, “That way”.

The mountain appeared to be a monolith, but the path led to a hidden narrow defile between sheer cliffs. The path soon opened into an enormous dolina (sinkhole) that contained a Kekchi village that looked like something from a fairy tale, a place cut off from the outside world and lost in time. The stupendous cliffs that surrounded the village were pocked with large cave entrances. It could truly be said that the mountain was hollow and the inhabitants troglodytes.

No one knew we were there, so we followed a side path leading up to a saddle between the mountains. At the pass we discovered another large cave leading to one of the entrances overlooking the village. It was a window into another world. We sat for hours looking down upon the Maya as they toiled away at their traditional tasks.

I broke the reverie to further explore the cave. A twisting passage led upward to the very top of the mountain. The bone white limestone had been so deeply eroded that it resembled Swiss cheese. There was no soil whatsoever so the only vegetation consisted of the bizarre shapes of Tillandsia bulbosa, a Bromeliad so tough that it can grow on bare rock.

Here you see an example of Tillandsia bulbosa that I planted at the Butterfly Rainforest in honor of that visit to the mountaintop so many years ago

I had never before seen, or even imagined, such a wondrous place. Even now, more than forty years later, I remember it as a dream. Perhaps now you understand why I felt compelled to return.

I have carefully studied Alta Verapaz on both topo maps and Google Earth  but I have yet to rediscover the hollow mountain. I am, however, quite certain that it was near to, or part of, the vast Candelaria cave system which was unknown to the outside world at the time of my first visit.

The Candelaria cave system is one of the wonders of the world. The main passage containing the Candelaria river is now known to be over 22 kilometers long. It is possible, though difficult, to paddle the entire length which makes it the longest such traversable underground river on earth (I think?). The total length of the passages contained therein is estimated to be 80 kilometers.

Many of the passages are enormous, especially the ancient “fossil” passages that lie above the river and which may or may not be directly connected. There are numerous entrances to the system, and many of the vast upper chambers are beautifully illuminated by skylights.

High noon at Candelaria, the Weazel argues with the Overlords

These vast sky lit chambers were used by the Maya for ritual purposes during the classical period (A.D. 250 to 900). The faithful would make arduous treks from as far away as Tikal to commune with the Lords of Xibalba.

I was fortunate that Doctor Bojorquez, my host at the Hotel Cancuen in Raxruha, was the owner of the lowermost entrance to the system where the Candelaria river emerges from darkness to join the headwaters of the Rio de la Pasión. He had developed the resurgence as a tourist attraction which he called Balneario de los Naciemientos (Bathing place of the Springs).

Not far away is a fancy resort owned by the Frenchman who first revealed the Candelaria caves to the outside world. Other entrances further upstream are owned by Kekchi communities who jealously guard their sacred chambers.

Doctor Bojorquez kindly allowed me to camp at the Balneario. He even gave me a lift and a free tubing tour. It was a bucolic place where sheep and horses grazed verdant pastures, and blue water gushed from jungle covered mountains.

The Bathing Place of the Springs is just downstream from where the Rio Candelaria first sees the light of day

This pacific place was just what I needed to recover from bad guacamole, though I continued to suffer from Lyme disease and the broken bones and night sweats that kept me awake as I slept on the hard ground.

The kindly peasant family who served as caretakers shared their simple food with me every evening. They had a fine young son named Aaron who despite being only about ten years old served as cave guide, shepherd, and general roustabout. He was the proud keeper of the inner tubes used to float tourists through the cave.

Lord Aaron, Keeper of the Tubes

The boy was preternaturally bright and curious so I gave him my English/Spanish dictionary in the hope that he will go on to conquer the world. Too many times I have met exceptionally intelligent Maya children held back only by their humble circumstances.

Directly above the resurgence a small trail led steeply up the mountain to the entrance of a vast fossil passage, part of which you have already seen in the previous sky light photo. Here is the downstream entrance, photographed using natural light (I carried no flash equipment, and no caving gear other than a small headlamp).

The downstream entrance to a fossil segment of the Candelaria cave system. Note the vertical red bar representing a person

The scale of these passages is difficult to comprehend so I have added a red bar indicating the approximate height of a person standing in that location. You are not hallucinating, the surreal appearance of this and certain other photos is due to the use of in-camera High Dynamic Range (HDR) technology that combines three different photographs with different exposures. It adds additional depth and color saturation to enable the camera to “see” what the eye sees.

While searching Google Earth for the aforementioned ‘Lost village inside a hollow mountain’ (which I couldn’t find) I did discover a different remote village in an even larger sinkhole southwest of Raxruha. The name of the village is San Miguel Sechochoch. In the following slightly tilted image you are looking straight south from the lowlands of the Peten to the highlands of Alta Verapaz. Raxruha is in the lower left corner.

Looking north into the highlands of Alta Verapaz

Notice that to get to San Miguel it is necessary to pass through a narrow defile between karstic hills. It was a long walk for an old cripple, but since I was already at the Balneario I just had to do it! This is what it looks like in real life.

Who is this strange gringo? Where did he come from and why is he walking to our village? A missionary?

Notice that the 45 degree slope behind the people has been cleared. The Kekchi make use of every bit of land no matter how steep. It is impossible to use machines under such circumstances, so they labor long and hard for pennies a day. They seem never to tire of tortillas which is all they have.

From Raxruha I headed west, then south into the mountains to the nearby small town of Chisec. You have already seen some of the wildlife.

Looking south into Alta Verapaz with Chisec in the center

95% of the inhabitants of Chisec are Kekchi Maya. It is a very small place. The townies all speak Spanish, whereas many of their rural brethren do not.

This remote valley is a refugium for ancient customs and wildlife alike. That explains  the Therapod dinosaurs. For their own safety they, along with other otherwise extinct beasts such as Mammoths, are kept in a zoo like enclosure complete with a tiled pond for their bathing pleasure and mine.

The name of the facility is “The Virgin’s Ranch”. There were lots of virgins, Nuns who gather there to sip the sacramental wine and get jolly.

The Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) is an otherwise extinct species of mammoth that inhabited North America as far north as the northern United States and as far south as Costa Rica during the Pleistocene epoch. Their range is now restricted to Chisec.

As an apparent alien from another planet, I was graciously offered the use of an unoccupied cage which I found to be very comfortable.

The animals were tame, so children were invited to play amongst them. They especially enjoyed the slides which had apparently been made by large semi-aquatic animals, perhaps errant Amazonian otters. The surfaces of the slides were so rough that they would rip the ass off a rhinoceros, but that was not a deterrent.

Even more interesting was the fact that some of the slides ended not in the pool, but rather at the edge of a precipice above jagged rocks. The bones of beasts and children alike collected below, probably the result of ancient hunters driving them off the cliff. At least they were warned.

The sign says, “You use the facilities under your account and risk”,  but few of the children and none of the dinosaurs could read.

My first foray was to the Lagunas de Sepalau, a series of blue karst windows about ten miles east of town. I thumbed a ride from the village plaza.

Immediately upon entering the village of Sepalau I was captured by the Indians and told that I would not be allowed to visit the lagoons unless I payed an outrageous fee and hired a guide. This sort of extortion is the inevitable result of commie do-gooders informing Indians of their victim-hood. Otherwise they would not know.

The Lagunas de Sepalau
The pellucid blue waters of the lagoon are strangely devoid of life

As I have told you too many times already, I was sick and weak. I had failed to take a walking stick on my little jaunt, so when I stumbled I instinctively grabbed a small tree that turned out to be a spine palm. I live in terror of spine palms, this is why.

Bactris major (Image swiped)

This is an old trunk,  the young trunks are fuzzier, the spines even sharper, and brittle as glass. So it was that I sharpened my pocket knife to a razor point then spent several hours digging until my hand looked like hamburger.

Just north of Chisec there are two famous caves, Jul Iq and Bombil Pec, which are controlled by local Kekchi communities. The same commies referenced above apparently thought it would be a good idea to show the locations on Google Earth, but the good news is they got it completely wrong. Cavers never publish the locations of caves, for it only encourages idiots.

There was even a sign and parking area, then a swinging bridge across the beautiful Rio San Simon.  I expected to see a village, or at least a guard shack but there was nothing so I started hiking. I understand that poor rural people need to be reimbursed for the protection of their natural resources, so I would have been happy to pay, but there was no one to be seen.

The trail to Jul Iq

After about a mile I found the well marked entrance to Jul Iq. The  thoughtful folks had even fashioned crude steps going down into the muddy maw of the cave. It had been raining off and on for weeks so the outside was almost as muddy as the inside. I was wearing a tee shirt, shorts, and sandals, not good attire for caving in deep mud. My clothes were already filthy, but things were about to get much worse.

A really bad photo from just inside the entrance to Jul Iq

A well defined path led further down into the cave. It was heavily decorated with formations, but nothing special. The most interesting discovery was the track of a big cat, either jaguar or puma. Wildlife has been almost completely extirpated from the jungles of Guatemala, so big cats are rare.

As I was slogging back I realized that I had somehow missed an enormous side passage over a hundred feet in diameter. My view had been blocked by a small mountain of mud. Footholds had been hacked into the slime, so I climbed up and peered into the darkness beyond. A small skylight enabled me to see the enormous extent of the chamber which appeared to go on forever.

I was already covered with mud from the waist down, but to go further was a new commitment. One more step would have meant an uncontrolled slide with the very real possibility that I would not be able to return. As it was I was knee deep in mud and in danger of losing my sandals, so I beat a retreat.

Thus far I had  hiked through an agricultural landscape, but beyond Jul Iq the trail ascended the mountain into undisturbed jungle, the first I had seen in this overpopulated part of Guatemala.

I soon reached the lip of an enormous jungle filled pit. It wasn’t very deep, but a fall would have meant certain death. Some mad consultant had apparently advised the Indians to build a rickety wooden platform on the edge so tourists who had never been on rope in their lives could abseil into the cloud filled abyss. I wouldn’t even come near it.

Bombil Pec. Go ahead, you first, show me a double gainer!

Further on there was another way down. A wooden ladder had somehow been affixed to the cliff. It appeared to be well built, but the rungs were slick as glass, and there was no way to know which ones were rotten. If a fat Indian had gone first I might have tried it. The unknown beckoned but I was alone in the jungle, so I chose discretion over valor. It was a bitter defeat, but I didn’t get old by being stupid.

I must have been quite a sight as I trudged back into town. It was strange enough that an old Gringo had taken up residence, but one whose filthy rags hung in tatters from his mud covered body? Was I perhaps a penitent?

I was starving, but too filthy to enter a restaurant, so I joined the poorest of the poor at a stall next to the market selling sausages. They were delicious! So I bought beer and more sausages for all of mis compañeros too poor to afford anything but tortillas. That made me the new Hobo King; thereafter, whenever I walked past the market I was hailed as a hero!

An affordable restaurant

Those sausages must have held a secret. For the first time in many months I began to feel better! It was about damned time!

I decided to celebrate by having a real drink, but the only cantina in town was such a scary place that I quickly fled. It is a well known fact that Indians can’t hold their liquor, it isn’t a moral failing, just a lack of liver enzymes.

My trip was almost over but the best was yet to come. I had been dissatisfied with my brief visit to the downstream end of the Candalaria cave system, so I decided to visit the upstream end, specifically the insurgence near the village of Camposanto.

Where the Rio Candelaria begins its 22 kilometer journey through the darkness

Once again I was required to pay a fee and hire a “guide” who in this case was a teenager suffering from a terrible hangover. I got my money’s worth, because I could never have taken the following photo without someone to press the shutter button. I was using a mini tripod and timer so his ineptitude was not a problem.

Look closely and you will see a tiny red dot. That isn’t a vertical bar representing a person, that’s me in a red shirt standing atop a debris cone beneath a skylight!

Xibalba is real!

What poor peasant mired in ignorance and superstition would fail to heed the words of the High Priest in such a sublime cathedral where the terrors of Xibalba are manifest? All religion is based upon fear of the unknown, and from this rise our pathetic human attempts to find meaning in the void.

There are those who suppose that I am especially courageous to enter the unknown alone, there to meet the monsters of our primordial dreams, but that is not so, I have a healthy respect for real danger, especially my old foe gravity. It is simply that I am insatiably curious and have no fear of ghosts.

There was much more to see of the great Candelaria caves; but my time was growing short, so I crammed myself into a minibus and headed north to Sayaxche on the Rio de la Pasion where I had begun my journey to Xibalba so many years before. Though Sayaxche had grown considerably, I was pleased to see that it was still a shitty little town, and that the only way to cross the river was still by means of an overgrown dugout canoe.

Crossing the Rio de la Pasion

It was time for some rest and a phased reentry into the harsh reality of the modern world. Where better than the mythical island city of Flores (Flowers), a veritable paradise set deep in the jungles of the Peten.

The island of Flores as seen from atop the Mirador pyramid

At the dawn of time the first aboriginals to explore what was then an unfathomable wilderness discovered a magnificent blue lake. There, on a defensible island, they founded a city that has been continuously inhabited for the last 3000 years. Nojpetén, as it was then known, is said by some to be the oldest city in all of the Americas, its founding contemporaneous with the building of the Egyptian pyramids.

When the Spanish Conquistadores first discovered the “New World” the inhabitants, weakened by disease, offered little resistance. As the Spanish soldiers progressed the Maya withdrew deeper and deeper into the jungle. They made their final stand on the island fortress now known as Flores.

In 1541 their stronghold was attacked by the terrible Hernán Cortés who had already subdued the great Aztec civilization. He failed in the attempt. They captured his horse which they revered as a God, but it subsequently died due to a steady diet of meat, the only fare suitable for a deity. Even to this day there is a statue of the mythical beast standing by the shore.

The Maya held out for another 156 years until the city finally fell in 1697. From the ashes rose the city of Flores, a piece of old Spain frozen in time and lost deep in the jungles of Guatemala.

A typical street in Flores

Since then little has changed other than the advent of electricity and an inundation of travelers from around the world who come not because of the beauty of the city, but rather because it is a relatively safe base from which to visit the ruins of Tikal which receives some 800,000 visitors per year. That is a bit much for an island with a permanent population of about 2000.

So it was that I trudged the hilly cobblestone streets in search of a room. I was in despair until I discovered Los Amigos, a Hippie heaven! I was back on the “banana pancake circuit” and it was time to wash up, chow down, and oogle some Hippie chicks!

Los Amigos Hostel in Flores, Guatemala

The only room available was a tiny cubicle that opened directly on to the public area which was full of people and loud music. I was desperately afraid that I would not be able to sleep because of the noise. I was told not to worry for there was a 10 pm lights out policy. I didn’t believe a word of it. Since when do young cigarette smoking music loving Eurotrash go to bed at ten?

I was pleased and astonished when at 10 pm the lights went out and they wouldn’t serve me another drink. We were all urged to go to the disco upstairs that was open late. Disco? Oh, No!!! The music would surely reverberate through the walls!

There was little other choice so I went upstairs. The wooden door led to a narrow passage between ancient stone walls, then into a room with a sloping back wall that was surely part of a pyramid.

Apparently Xibalba would not let go, for it was clear that I was back in the Titty Twister! The bartender gave me a wink and offered me a free drink.

Eh Gringo, how about a drink?

It was a bizarre scene as footage from Burning Man played on a big screen, lesbians wriggled in a heap, and translucent Dutch girls played beer pong. I felt right at home, and best of all not a sound escaped from the sacred chamber deep within the pyramid. No one can hear your screams!

One morning a shriveled old fisherman came to the Hostel holding a hostage. It was his practice to offer crocodiles and turtles to the tourists in the hope that they would bargain for the lives of these unfortunates. Either pay up or they go into the stewpot! I’ve always been a sucker for a turtle, especially a giant Staurotypus stinkpot!

The Weazel saves a stinkpot from the stewpot

I found the owner Jeronimo to be a fine fellow, a feral Dutchman who could not suffer the stultifying civilization of his homeland. He supported my effort to save the stinkpot, but it would do no good to just throw it back in the lake for it would surely be caught again. He offered the services of his panel van to take it to a different protected lake.

The van had an interesting history. The old heap had been purchased by Spanish Hippies in northern Mexico. They had intended to drive the length of Central America, but when they got to El Salvador a drug gang saw how dilapidated it was and thought it belonged to rival Narcos so they set off in hot pursuit with guns blazing. The van crashed into a ditch and the Hippies were kidnapped. Penniless kidnap victims are usually executed, but by some miracle they were spared and fled for their lives. When Jeronimo met them they gave him the van which they considered to be cursed.

But all things must come to an end. I returned to Belize for one last wallow in nostalgia. I have always had a love/hate relationship with Caye Caulker where I was once known as Captain Morgan for my piratical proclivities. I feared that it had changed, and so it had. Most of the Rasta gangsters had either been shot or imprisoned, the population had quadrupled, and numerous hotels had been built. There was little hope that my beautiful little campsite among the coconut palms still existed.

I inquired at the dock, but no one had heard of Tony Vega’s. I remembered that it was very near the dock, but so much had changed that I walked right by never noticing the overgrown lot still inhabited by a wizened old woman. It was like I had never left.

My campsite in Caye Caulker

Enough, I’m tearing up and must be done with this. Goodbye for now my friends, and may your trials be easy when it is your turn to stand before the Lords of Xibalba.