Over the course of my various travels, there have been five moments when it occurred to me that I had put myself in a situation where I might die. The first took place in London, during a late night stroll along the bank of the Thames. The second was in Taiwan, sitting at the front of a bus making its way down the winding sliver of a cliffside road inside Taroko Gorge. The third and fourth were both in planes during storms, one while flying through the edge of a typhoon over the Pacific, the other in a much smaller aircraft over the Midwestern United States. And the fifth instance happened this spring, during a tour of Balankanché caves.
Located about 4.5 km southeast of Chichén Itzá off highway 180, the site of Balankanché had been used, off and on, since at least the Late Preclassic (300 BCE—250 CE) until the fall of Chichén. As a sacred site, the many clustered, in situ artifacts consist of implements for rituals. Incense burners—several of which possess semi-abstracted faces—are particularly, and unusually, abundant.
The cave itself is essentially T-shaped, with the central passage culminating in a chamber dominated by a naturally forming column and stalactites that together resemble the trunk and hanging branches of a great, subterranean tree. To the Maya, this formation represented the World Tree, or Ceiba, which connected the three layers of the universe: heaven, the middle (terrestrial) world, and the underworld. The raised ground around the bottom of the “tree” is heavily dotted with incensors and may have been used as an altar.
Having grown up in an area similarly situated on limestone, and thus similarly punctuated by caves and sinkholes, I was particularly excited by the possibility of visiting this site. However, my experiences with the cool environments of caverns in the US colored my expectations of what the Yucatán counterparts would actually be like. Despite having read that the air would be warm and humid, and that the “major danger” archaeologists faced “during the exploration was lack of oxygen,” my brain somehow never accepted what this had to mean for our own visit until we were actually in the tunnels themselves [Coe 2001, 399].
We arrived at the site after spending the morning and early afternoon in the sun at Chichén Itzá. Fortunately, the air conditioning in the car had already provided some much welcome relief from the heat and helped revive our energy for this next adventure. Upon our approach, though, we learned that we were the only people at the welcome center, and the next tour wasn’t scheduled for another 45 minutes. Waiting was a gamble, as the site’s policy is to only take groups of five or more into the caves; if no one else came, we would have wasted our limited time. Spurred on in my enthusiasm by wishful optimism, I assumed more people would show up closer to the time of an actual tour, and so we opted to wait. And then, when the tour time came and went and still no one else had arrived, we waited a little longer. Finally, after almost an hour and a half, we decided to leave and try to salvage the rest of our afternoon by visiting the nearby Ik Kil cenote. As we got up to leave, the man supervising the site stopped us and offered to let us go if we paid for two extra people. We agreed, albeit a little reluctantly, and he called over one of the guides to take us through.
At this point, I was a little annoyed. After all, there were three guys, including our own guide, who had been waiting the whole time we were there to lead people into the caves. Surely, I thought, it was better for them to take two people rather than no one at all. Making us wait and then pay extra felt a lot like getting fleeced. But we had already invested the time, and not going would have been the second major disappointment of the day. So we sucked it up and determined to make the most of the opportunity we had.
Our guide was perfectly pleasant, although he spoke very little and led us quickly through rising and falling tunnels. At first I wished he would slow down so we could better take-in the surroundings; 20 minutes later, I wished we could somehow go even faster. His job was not so much to provide information or guidance (the piped-in dramatic voices near the entrance and installed electrical lighting did that) as it was to occasionally draw our attention to the major points of interest within the caves. It was also, I soon understood, to make sure we didn’t somehow get lost or pass-out.
There is only one entrance into the caves, which means that there is only one source of fresh air. As we made our way further underground and further from this opening, the atmosphere became steadily hotter and more humid. Eventually, it felt as if we were walking through water, and I found myself unable to get enough oxygen into my lungs. Stopping did not help. The only way to get the O2 I so desperately wanted was simply to keep walking until conditions improved. The effect lessened somewhat—although not enough to breathe comfortably—when we reached the Ceiba, and we paused there (for as few minutes as possible) to take pictures. We then went a little further into one of the branches of the “T,” but my memories of what we saw are hazy at best. I do recall, however, my intense relief when I realized we were heading back and my even greater relief when we stumbled out into the open air. There were several moments, both going and coming, when I had to suppress waves of panic, and I was thankful to have both Josh and our guide there. Knowing that they, too, were having trouble breathing reassured me that the issue was environmental and not personal (ie, I was not having a heart attack) and that if we just kept going we would make it through.
Even so, it took several hours after leaving the site for the squeezing sensation in my lungs to go away and for my breathing to return to normal. I’m also embarrassed to say that although we finally appreciated the reasonableness of their five-person minimum policy, in our lightheaded, respiratory desperation and general desire to escape the site, we forgot to tip our guide. This was the worst tipping mistake of our trip, and the one thing I most wish we could go back and change.
Ultimately, although I am glad we went, I don’t foresee ever returning to Balankanché and would only recommend it to the physically sturdy with a strong interest in Maya culture and archaeology.
Highly subjective personal rating: 6/10