Friday, November 26, 2010

Lanquin and Candelaria Caves: Guatemala Underground

Caves aren't usually among the first things that come to mind when you think of Guatemala. This intriguing Central American country is more famous for its colorful Maya handicrafts, handsome Spanish colonial towns, and mysterious pre-Hispanic ruins. However, northern Guatemala is dotted with limestone caverns that are sacred places for the contemporary Maya, whose ancestors saw caves as entrances to Xibalba, a mythical underworld populated by the Lords of Death and their assistants.

Two of the best known series of caves are Lanquin Caves and Candelaria Caves in the department of Alta Verapaz, a mountainous region still covered in patches of primary cloud forest. The Lanquin Caves are located about 65 kilometers (40 miles) east of the city of Cobán. For most of the way, the road to Lanquin is paved. However, the last part of the drive descends into a deep valley via a precipitous dirt road that could easily have been built by the Lords of Death.

A fast-flowing, emerald green river flows by the mouth of the cave's main entrance, whose small size belies the labyrinth that awaits within. Dimly lit and very slippery walkways wind  through endless dank chambers filled with stalactites and other eerie formations, many of which have been given fanciful names by the locals. Lanquin is not a place for the claustrophobic, and it is not spectacular as caves go. But it does give visitors a good introduction to Guatemala's underground world.

Much more dramatic are the Candelaria Caves, which lie about two hours north of Cobán near the town of Chisec. Candelaria's main cavern is almost 60 metres (200 feet) high and 200 metres (650 feet) long, and it is illuminated by natural light streaming through soaring fissures draped with greenery. There is a cathedral-like feeling of peace and magic here. It's no wonder that the Maya continue to revere this cave and use it for religious rituals.

The Lanquin Caves are open daily from 8am until 5pm. Admission for adults is 30 Guatemalan Quetzales (about US$3.75).

Grutas de Candelaria (Candelaria Caves) are located in a national park by the same name. The Candelaria complex is administered by local Q'eqchi Maya groups as part of an ecotourism project. Knowledgeable Maya guides take visitors on tours of the caves and on tubing trips (floating on rubber inner tubes) along the Candelaria River, which flows through the caverns. In addition, there is a rustic ecolodge that also functions as a hotel school.

Below is a slide-show with some of my photos from a recent trip to Alta Verapaz. Move the cursor over the screen to view captions. Click on individual images for information about ordering prints or leasing photos for personal, editorial, or commercial use.

Alta Verapaz, Guatemala - Images by John Mitchell

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