This story appears in the July 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine, Israel edition.
Story by Idit Elnatan Photographs by Eddie Gerald
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We return to our camp as a happy bunch of friends, high on adrenaline. Jokes are told and laughter breaks the silence. The thick darkness inevitably led to hair-raising stories about snake bites and ghosts allegedly inhabiting the area. I recall the days when I was a kid, when my friends and I would walk home after long hours of hanging out. Any stroll down the street, however short, turned into an exciting journey. Every pair of trees became a dark forest. With age the world becomes familiar and so understandable. But here, again, was real adventure. We leave the park and I sigh with relief, imagining that the scary part of the trip is behind me. But Guatemala has other plans.
The next day we head north to Cuevas de Candelaria in Alta Verapaz, a system of karstic caves that branch out over 22 kilometers. The fog keeps tracking us. From time to time we see the Ceiba, the national tree of Guatemala, the roots of which are believed by the Mayans to connect to the underworld. Small farmhouses with red roofs peep out of green tropical vegetation, and verdant plantations of cardamom, guava, banana, avocado, coffee and corn sprawl along the way; Farmers walk on the roadside, carrying sacks on their backs; open-flat-backed trucks, common mode of transportation here over-stuffed with far too many passengers. They cling to the sides, lie on the roofs, trying any possible way to hang on for the ride.
We arrive to the buzzy applause of cicadas hidden in the lush vegetation, sound like hundreds of fluorescent bulbs. Children are swimming and splashing in a serene river flowing underneath. Two locals that run the site, head toward us, one carrying a colorful basket on his back. I wonder what's inside. We walk through corn fields and cocoa trees. The heat and humidity are oppressive and insects are everywhere. I spray a generous amount of mosquito repellent on myself.
After two kilometers, we reach Bombil Pek cave falling over 60 meters. I ask the guys how the hell we're going in there, although I know the answer. One of them pulls a rope from the basket.
I'm trying to keep my panic under wrap as the guys prepare the rappelling gear. One of them gives me instructions in Spanish as David translates. I don't understand. He repeats. I refuse to understand. The instructor gives me hand gloves and tightens the harness around me. "Your lives depend on this rope," David says, "hold on tight." I get all sweaty, my clothes sticking to my body. I begin my descent. I pass the steep walls, holding the rope in a death grip. Finally I reach the cave’s floor. I'm panting and trembling, but like a kid after a crazy roller coaster ride, I feel like doing it again.
We move on to the Cave of Candelaria, a beautiful and terrifying world in the bowels of the earth. My imagination starts to work as I watch the shapes of the stalactites. Animal heads, masks, faces of people, familiar and unfamiliar objects, staring at me from every corner. My flashlight beam hits one face with particularly malevolent eyes. It gazes back at me, and I can swear it sticks its tongue out. Startled, I move the flashlight to highlight a giant spider – areal one. Ancient pottery shards are set inside seemingly random circles of stones.
"It is believed that the caves are the entrance to the underworld, called Xibalba, the place of fear. This is where the Mayans contacted the world of the dead," David said, his voice echoing, the words are dripping slowly from his mouth, like the water on the stalactites. "This is the place to meet your fears, to face them, to challenge yourself."
David asks us to turn off our flashlights and sit quietly, and feel the place. Impenetrable darkness covers us like a shroud. My pupils strain for a little light, but in vain. I begin to worry: What if an earthquake strikes and the cave mouth gets blocked? I'm disturbed by the silence. Why am I not hearing anyone? I'm tempted to talk, but remain silent. My eyes give up on the murk and close. I wonder if there really are any ghosts here.
"This is the place to meet your fears" David's words are echoing inside my head as I go to sleep that evening in Candelaria Lodge, a beautiful bungalow resort in the middle of the jungle. The lodge is surrounded by tropical gardens overflowing with flowering plants and trees, set against the murky green of the jungle backdrop. I get to sleep in a villa, which has a traditional roof of palm branches and is adorned with Mayan-style decorations – sculptures, textiles, masks. But what appeared to be so beautiful during the day turned frightening at night. I hear the sounds of animals in the forest outside and recall Chichicastenango cemetery, César's ghost stories and the Xibalba. Mayan folklore about the world of the dead is everywhere on this trip. I think of my father who passed away recently, and can't help but wonder if he's with me. When I fall asleep, I dream that he smiles and hugs me. In the morning, I look outside and find out that the fog is gone.
Neotropic cormorants flying low over water in the tiny island village of Flores located in Lake Peten Itza