Grutas de Balankanché (Balankanche Caverns)
The Maya believe caves and caverns to be links with the underworld, or “inframundo.” Often containing pools of water, caves were thought to be the domain of Chac, the rain god. There is evidence that this idea was shared by other important civilizations in Mesoamerica, including the Aztecs, Teotihuacanos, and as far back as the Olmecs (predecessors to the Maya). Archaeologists have theorized that water channeled through a cave under the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, indicated that it was the domain of the pop-eyed rain god, whom they called Tlaloc. The Aztecs (who flourished in the Post-classic era, until the conquest of Mexico) believed that caves generated clouds and rain.
Although the outer chambers of this series of caves have been used by modern Maya, a sealed inner chamber was only discovered in 1959. Pottery found within showed that the caves were used in religious ceremonies for millennia. Incense censers with Chac faces were carbon dated to about AD 860, and it’s a wonderful thing to see them in situ instead of in the glass case of a modern museum.
As we wandered through the caves on a recent trip, we asked about the meaning of the word Balankanché, also written Balankanchen or Balancanchen. Our guide said that many people confuse the Maya word “Balan” with “Balam” (“jaguar”), mistakenly translating it as “the jaguar’s throne.” His interpretation, however, was “hidden throne or altar.” The altar-throne was an icon important to Olmec rulers.
For more information, check out our Balankanche Travel Guide.