National Geographic : 2004 Nov
through the cave of Balankanche, near Chichen Itza in Yucatan. The cave had long been known and, it was thought, thoroughly explored; only a few potsherds scattered along the main pas sageway testified to an ancient Maya presence. Suddenly G6mez noticed that a patch of wall was unnatural. Scraping away the mud, he uncovered a small portal sealed with clay. G6mez chipped away the clay and crawled through a hole, emerging in a tunnel. A hun dred yards on he came to a large chamber dom inated by a column of limestone reaching from floor to ceiling. What G6mez saw astonished him. On the slimy cave floor was a dazzling assemblage of brightly painted clay vessels. Many were incense burners shaped as effigies of the rain god Tlaloc, whose grotesque, sneering face was molded in bas-relief on the clay itself. News of the find soon reached a nearby archaeological team. That team, led by E.Wyllys Andrews IV and sponsored in part by the National Geo graphic Society, performed an extensive survey of the cave. Forty-four years later, on a miserably hot day in July, I took the hourly guided tour of Balankanche. Even though the cave is now tamed with electric lights and boardwalks, a sign in Spanish at the entrance warns anyone with car diac or respiratory problems (as well as ner viosas and claustrof6bicas)not to enter. Three hundred yards in, we stepped through a gate way, a tourist-friendly portal enlarged from G6mez's crawlway, then hiked down the tunnel to the room with the column. There, I leaned against a wooden railing and stared. My breath came in shal low gasps-partly because of the fetid air and partly because of what I saw. The 1959 team had left the objects they found in situ. The painted Tlaloc effigy pots still lay all around the column-not replicas, but the original vessels. About a thousand years ago the local Maya had performed elaborate rites in this secret lair so near the underworld. Tlaloc, moreover, was originally not a Maya but a central Mexican In every corner of the Maya realm, caves show evidence of their ancient ceremonial role, including sacrificial remains, wall paintings, and pottery offerings. Some sites continue in use. Near Joloniel, Mexico, in a cave with murals from about A.D. 300, a ritual leader prays for rain (left). Each cross symbolizes Christianity as well as the intersection of the natural and supernatural Maya worlds. After the Span ish conquest many Christian and Maya symbols were linked, creating a unique form of Catholicism.