Exploring This ‘Portal To The Underworld’ Will Leave You In Awe Of Mayan Culture

05.11.16 3 years ago


Fine, fine, that kid we thought was so brilliant, the one who discovered an ancient Mayan city by looking at the stars? Probably not real. But that doesn’t mean that the Mayan world doesn’t still hold secrets untold. Secrets that will only reveal themselves to bold spirits and intrepid explorers.

Deep in the lush green jungles of Belize, there’s a cave with a 1,000-year-old skeleton inside. The bones once belonged to a human — killed to glorify the Gods — and can still be visited to this day. The spot is so special that National Geographic ranked it No. 1 in their book Sacred Places of a Lifetime: 500 of the World’s Most Peaceful and Powerful Destinations.

It’s called Actun Tunichil Muknal, which translates to Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre. How good is that? It could be an Indiana Jones title with zero modification. To the locals, it’s known as ATM cave (because it makes the region a lot of money?); to the ancient Mayans it was Xibalba. The word means “place of fear,” which designates the cave as an entrance to the Mayan underworld. For the Mayans, the underworld was not an abstract concept — it was real, accessed through caves like this one. And with Belize being home to the most caves in all of Central America, Xibalba was never far from the  minds of the region’s early inhabitants.

In those ancient days, standing at the entrance to Actun Tunichil Muknal, and any cave for that matter, was like standing at the entrance to hell. Xibalba wasn’t just home to demons, though. It was also home to one of the Mayans’ most revered deities: Chac, the God of rain. Early Mayans who followed rivers upstream to discover their sources usually found a stream gushing from the mouth of a cave. This led them to believe that water was born in caves — so naturally caves were also the home to Chac.

Chac was responsible for the rain he provided for crops (signifying his mercy) and also the withholding of rain or the throwing of lightning bolts from the sky (signifying his vengeance). When the Mayans sought his favor, they offered gifts, delivered to his dark and wet home deep under the earth. They delivered quite a few gifts to him at Actun Tunichil Mukna, offerings that remain there today.

To see all of this for myself, I traveled down a long and bumpy dirt road, hiked through the jungle, and waded across two rivers before finally arriving at the cave entrance.

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