Descent to the Underworld of Chechem-Ha
Story and Photos by Susan Hoffman
I'm sitting cross-legged in the dirt floor in the deepest part of Chechem-Ha cave, looking at theSusan Hoffman: Pots of Chemchem-Ha fragments of bone that Abraham just handed me. They are brittle and gray with age. Are they animal? Human? How did they come to be in the dark recesses of this cavern?
I'm vacationing in Belize with my friends Anna and Jim. A serendipitous chain of events leaves us with the morning free. Bob Hale, the owner of Windy Hill Cottages near San Ignacio where we're staying, suggests that we visit Chechem-Ha. It was only discovered a few years ago and is not listed in any of our guidebooks, but on Bob's recommendation we decide to investigate the pre-Columbian Maya pottery that is said to lie in the cavern.
Our guide Mike takes us on a bumpy ride past the town of Bienque Viejo, down a dirt road that follows the route of an electric transmission line which serves a new hydroelectric plant. To either side of the road, cleared milpas are thick with corn. The Belezian version of suburban sprawl accelerates the clearing of the forests and already the steep slopes are tracked with ruts of erosion.
We park at the Morales household and begin our trek along a jungle trail. The cave was discovered a few years ago when the elder Morales was searching for new palm fronds to thatch his roof. Now the Morales family serve as guides to the well-hidden cave. At first, the trail slopes gradually upward, but suddenly it turns and begins a sharp ascent. It is cluttered with roots and rocks slippery from the jungle humidity. Our arduous hike brings us almost to the top of a mountain. We stop to catch our breath and ready our flashlights as Abraham Morales unlocks the iron gate.
Immediately upon entering, the cave floor descends rapidly and the meager daylight filtering through the narrow opening disappears. But for our flashlights, we would be in complete darkness. The calls of jungle birds and the sigh of wind in the palms fade with the sunlight. The air is refreshingly cool and slightly damp.
Just as it seems there are no living creatures here, Mike aims his flashlight against one wall and points out a spindly-legged scorpion spider. The animal is translucent, about 3" in diameter including its long legs. The blind arachnid has no need for flashy colors in the total darkness of the cave. He holds two oversized pincers in front of him in the fashion of a scorpion, hence its name; but unlike its namesake, this character is not poisonous. Mike picks up the delicate spider and hands it to me. I can barely feel it as it clambers slowly up my arm.
Continuing our descent, we round a bend and are surprised to find several large ceramic pots, burnished brown and stashed in a high niche along one wall. Ahead, more pots are massed on a ledge about 10 feet above the floor. Throughout the cave, rope ladders are strategically placed, allowing us to reach these higher shelves where pottery is precariously perched. Some of the pots are quite large - two to three feet high and more than a foot in diameter. Most are a deep glossy brown reflecting the feeble beams of our flashlights. A few still contain remnants of corn and achayote seeds, and some have bowl-shaped lids. Although most of the multi-colored polychrome pieces have been taken to a vault in Belmopan (the capital of Belize) for safekeeping or sent to the States for dating, there are still hundreds of pots scattered throughout the cave. Most appear to have served as storage vessels.
Mike points out a pot adorned with a crude beheaded human stick figure in relief. He explains that this symbol was used by the ancient Maya to indicate a poison. The name given this cave, Chechem-Ha, is Mayan for "Poisonwood Water," derived from the ominous symbol on this pot. Chechem was widely used throughout the Maya realm. Indeed, according to Mayanist David Friedel, an elaborate tomb discovered at Kalakmul featured a royal skeleton, the bones painted brilliant red and placed on a bed of Chechem seeds and the seeds of Chacal (Gumbo limbo), its antidote. (Personal communication.)
Some narrow passages have to be ascended or descended with the aid of knotted ropes and scanty footholds. We slide ungracefully down some of the steeper slopes, legs bruised and jeans covered with pasty mud. The cave echoes with our gasps and groans.
At the end of the cave, we come upon a large chamber, 75 feet high and 50 feet across, in the center of which is a ceremonial circle of rocks with evidence of past fires. The smoke from ancient flames had darkened the ceiling. Remnants of burned wood lie inside the circle of stones. From in a heap along one wall of the chamber, Abraham hands me some bone fragments: thin long bones, maybe the limbs of a deer? Abraham is not sure if the bones are animal or human. I hold a fragment of bone in my open palm and try to evoke voices from centuries past.
We sit a few moments in silence, hearing only the sound of our labored breathing and the faraway drip of water as it percolates through the porous limestone walls. No sounds from the outside world penetrate this deeply. When each of us has found a place to sit around the fire circle, Mike tells us to douse our lights. In utter darkness and silence, the musty scent of ancient dust permeates the grand chamber. Here the Maya made offerings to the W'itz monster, the earth lord, praying for the bountiful blessings of indifferent gods. In the profound silence 300 feet deep in the rich tropical earth, I conjure up ancient chants in my mind.
To the Maya, caves represented sacred space, a portal to the frightening realm of Xibalba. Deep in the heart of the earth, a Maya shaman could communicate with the W'itz god and pray to the spirits for sustenance. Many pre-Columbian temples are built directly above subterranean chambers, such as at Muyil, and the Temple of the Sun at Teotihuacan. So deeply ingrained was the Maya sense of the power and sanctity of caves that they tried to replicate subterranean chambers in their major buildings.
The late Mayanist Linda Schele said that Copan's Temple 22 marks the inner chamber as a manmade cave where kings performed bloodletting rituals to conjure up gods and ancestors. The subterranean labyrinth of the Palace at Palenque simulates a dark, multi-chambered cavern for performing ceremonies and divinations. Even today, living Maya throughout Mexico and Central America continue to perform rituals in caves. The Lacandones in Chiapas, for instance, are said to "retire" their old god pots reverently in caves alongside the bones of their ancestors. After witnessing a ritual in a cave deep in the Guatemalan highlands, Schele observed, "The cave is alive with the most powerful energies of the Otherworld." Here, the Maya believe, is where rain is born.
Soon, we retrace our steps, shinnying up the knotted ropes and scaling damp rocks past stalagmites. Leaving the cave, we find the descent just as difficult as climbing the slippery forested hillside had been. Gravity and damp vegetation combine to propel us downward through the humid jungle. Palms, orchids, ferns are all a blur as we slide to the path below.
The trail eventually leads to the Morales household, where we take advantage of their small concession and admire their view. An open-sided enclosure with thatched roof serves as a restaurant as well as the family's kitchen. The home is perched on the edge of a large ravine next to a beautiful waterfall. Hummingbirds frequent the flower garden and a Chachalaca, a relative of the pheasant, has made himself a family pet. Wild orchids drip from almost every tree, and everywhere are lush clumps of a delicate fern known as inland coral (so-called because its stems are jet-black like the coral found in Belize's vast coastal reefs). Exhausted and covered from head to toe with black cave mud, Anna, Jim and I are grateful for the opportunity to examine these rare treasures.
Arranging a tour to Chechem-Ha: Any of the local resorts can find you a local guide to take you to the cave. One exceptional guide is Luis Godoy (Tel. 3-22969) who can show you all the local attractions. Godoy can also help collectors arrange to export orchids. The best time to travel there is in late winter and early spring before the April - November rainy season begins.
Don't Miss : Other sights in the area include the Thousand Foot Falls, Rio On Falls and Rio Frio Cave. Scenery in the Mountain Pine Ride is spectacular; orchids abound, and one guide reported to me that he has spotted harpy eagles in the area. A visit to Ix Chel Farm and Panti Medicine Trail is a delightful education on the natural healing powers of jungle plants, long known by Mayan curanderos. And don't miss the Garcia Sisters' shop where they carve and sell slate replicas of Maya monuments.
Susan Hoffman is an impassioned traveler and an accomplished attorney. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org