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B'omb'il Pek and Jul Iq'



In the Maya world, caves are understood to be passageways between the world of the living and the underworld of the dead.


Since ancient times this underworld has been believed to be the realm of gods and ancestors. Named Xibalbá (the place of fright), it is also the home of the “earth monster.” Royalty, nobles, and pilgrims would travel great distances to certain caves in order to make offerings and collect the pure waters that seep through the limestone walls and flow from the inner earth. For many in Mesoamerica it is where the very origins of humankind began.


During the Spanish colonial period, when customs and religions of the New World became outlawed and persecuted, rituals had to be performed inside the deep mazes of caverns and caves.


When they found the idols hidden deep within the caverns, enraged European priests would destroy them and punish the worshippers. Despite their greatest efforts, however, these priests could never completely stamp out the traditions of the Maya.


The hidden caves even served the guerilla forces during Guatemala’s recent 36 year-long civil war, providing a natural armory for caches of weapons. In the department of Alta Verapaz, just west of the small town of Chisec, the caves B’omb’il Pek (Painted Stone) and Jul Iq’ (Wind Hole) are open to adventurous travelers curious about these gateways to the underworld. Both are reached by a short hike across farmlands and over rocky, forested hills. Opened in 2002 through a collaboration of indigenous Q’eqchi’ Maya and international archaeologists, the caves continue to serve as centers for traditional ceremonial rites, but now the local economy also benefits from tourism to the sites.


The journey to the underworld, however, is a bit tricky. Ducking under colorful stalactites while stepping lightly around delicate formations on a slick, uneven floor, the visitor must cautiously navigate the treacherous cavern floor. There are no paved routes or lighting, and informative guides, hard-hats and flashlights are necessary and provided with the entrance fee.


Inside B’omb’il Pek, two small holes must be passed through in order to view the rock art on the inner wall. Not for the claustrophobic or broad-shouldered, it requires some maneuvering to squeeze through. Inside the second opening, a stone ledge is all that keeps you from plunging 50 feet into oblivion. An adjacent wall bears images of monkeys and jaguars, painted by the ancient Maya brave enough to enter the earth monster millennia before modern conveniences such as flashlights and hiking shoes.


Deep in the chasm, the guide recommends turning off all lights. The hollow sound of wind passes through; the earth seems to be breathing ... it’s easy to imagine a supernatural world residing in such an ominous place.


To see what lies inside the mouth of the earth monster is to experience the Maya world view firsthand—to see the natural landscape that influenced the religion, art, and architecture of one of the world’s longest lasting empires. People in this area sometimes say their Mayan ancestors never truly disappeared. Rather, they went underground to where the water flows, and the sounds of their marimbas and celebrations can be heard throughout the night.

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