A few years ago, we were fortunate to be able to visit the Actun Tunichil Muknal (Cave of the Crystal Sepulchre, a.k.a. ATM) cave in Belize. It’s a 3-mile long wet cave (i.e., there’s a stream flowing through it), and a pretty “tough ticket” in that only a few guides are permitted to take tours through it — and the number of groups passing through on any given day are strictly limited. It’s a physically demanding visit, too — you wind up climbing over and under boulders, swimming a significant part of the way, etc.
But the restrictions are all for good reason. The cave was used for sacrificial offerings by the ancient Maya, largely during the classic period (roughly 250 – 900 AD). As the classic period wound down and the local situation worsened, increasingly dear sacrificial offerings were made increasingly far into the cave. Tours extend as far as “The Crystal Maiden,” the calcified skeletal remains of a teenage girl sacrificed near the end of the classic — but she is only one of 14 individuals whose remains have been found in the cave, and less macabre offerings predominate anyway.
Sadly, in 2012 a tourist dropped their camera on one of the 1,000 year old skulls in the cave and fractured it — the skull was repaired to some degree, but as a result of that one tourist’s inattention, visitors are no longer allowed to bring cameras into the cave.
One of the iconic sites at the ancient Maya ruins of Chichén Itzá, seen from its north end looking to the south:
For some reason, this view doesn’t show up as often as does its opposite from the south end of the field. Still, you can really get a feel for the ball court’s size — particularly since those are two people just to the right of this two-frame panorama’s center.
A straight-on frontal shot of the House of the Cenote, in the ancient Maya ruins of Tulum in Quintana Roo, Mexico:
No, it’s not the most artistic angle on this structure, but it does give you a good feeling for its size and design. This photo was shot from roughly the southeast (from the point of view of the sea, basically) and shows the face of the original part of the structure.
Some years later, a small shrine was added to the back of this building, directly over a small cenote that gives the whole construction its modern nickname.
This is the Denver-resident half of a pair of panels, which together tell a story of the still-lost Maya kingdom of Sak Tz’i’ (White Dog). We know the name of the site from inscriptions on the panels, it was once one of a number of kingdoms that battled along today’s Guatemala – Mexico border. But while we know the site’s name, and the rough area in which it was located (since its name glyph appears throughout the area), no one knows the location of Sak Tz’i’.
Such is the ambivalent nature of many ancient artifacts you can see in museums today. You get to see the artifacts, but many were ultimately purchased from looters (and by continuing such purchases, museums in the more-affluent parts of the world perpetuate the vicious cycle). By removing the panels from their original site, looters destroyed evidence about the site’s history.
Seen at the Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
The “marquis” structure at the ancient Maya ruins of Chichén Itzá, El Castillo (a.k.a. the Pyramid of Kukulkan):
What most tourist brochure photos don’t show you, though, are its two faces. The pyramid’s north and west sides have been fully restored (so, look as close to “new” as we can get), while the south and east sides have just been consolidated and stabilized (and so, look rougher). In the shot above, north is to the right — the pyramid’s north face is what you’ll most often see on postcards and such.
Along with all the amazing ruins, the ancient Maya site of Palenque also offers some really nice waterfalls not too far from the site center. Dubbed the “Queen’s Bath,” it’s actually a series of waterfalls with terraces. It can be a really amazing thing to see and photograph.
But can it ever change its appearance with the seasons.
Our most recent trip to Palenque was timed to fall just after the end of the wet season, in early December. Enough water was flowing in the Otolum creek to give the Queen’s Bath some life:
Note that this is a 1/13 second exposure, so you can see that you can get some nice blurring of the water without a tripod (note that you can’t use a tripod in the ruins without a permit requiring paperwork in advance, etc.). At least, an exposure like this will work if your camera or lens offers image stabilization.
For comparison’s sake, here’s a shot taken from nearly the same spot two years earlier (but at the end of the dry season, in mid-May):
With a bit of help from some HDR software (NIK HDR Efex Pro), here’s a scene of building storm clouds behind the Temple of the Seven Dolls at the ancient Maya ruins of Dzibilchaltún:
As I mentioned in a previous post, you can’t climb the steps of this structure any more. Still, there’s plenty of cleared and accessible space available around it — so it’s not too tough to make a good photo of it. Here, one of the structures called “Adjoining Rooms” blocks your view of the fencing around the Temple’s base.
I made this photo from just west of Structure 12 (which is also now fenced off). On spring and autumn equinoxes, the Sun rises in the temple’s door, directly in line with the stela that frames the left side of this image. As you might imagine, that means those dates are quite crowded ones at this (normally sparsely visited) site.