Naj Tunich

Cievas Naj Tunich


Useful Information

Location: Near the village of La Compuerta, 35 km east of Poptún.
In Poptún follow 7a Calle east, after 10 km turn right, after 5 km turn left, 10 km more to La Compuerta.
(16.264023, -89.260327)
Open: All year daily 8-16.
[2021]
Fee: Adults GTQ 15, Foreigners GTQ 25.
[2021]
Classification: SpeleologyKarst cave ArchaeologyPainted Cave SubterraneaPainted Cave Replica
Light: torch provided
Dimension: L=2,600 m, A=600 m asl.
Guided tours: mandatory
Photography: allowed
Accessibility: no
Bibliography: Andrea J. Stone (1995): Images from the Underworld, Naj Tunich and the Tradition of Maya Cave Painting, Univerity of Texas Press, Hardcover, 304 pp, ISBN: 029275552X. UTexas print-on-demand amazon.com ebook
James E. Brady (1989): An Investigation of Maya Ritual Cave Use with Special Reference to Naj Tunich, Peten, Guatemala. Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles.
Andrea Stone (1997): Regional Variation in Maya Cave Art. Journal of Cave and Karst Studies 59(1): pp 33-42. pdf
James E. Brady, Andrea J. Stone (1986): Naj Tunich: Entrance to the Maya Underworld. Archaeology 39(6): 18–25. pdf
Address: Cievas Naj Tunich, La Compuerta, Poptún, Tel: +502-5034-7317.
Finca Ixobel Hotel Ecologico, Guest House and Camping, Km. 376, Poptún, Petén, Tel: +502-5410-4307, Tel: +502-5514-9161, Tel: +502-4802-0069, WhatsApp: +502-4142-6525. E-mail: contact
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.

History

400 BC cave becomes a sacred site.
900 cave abandoned by the Maya.
1979 rediscovered by a hunter named Bernabé Pop.
1980 visited by Pierre Ventur.
1980 photographer Jacque Van Kirk takes pictures and officially reports the discovery to the Guatemala Institute of Anthropology and History (IDAEH).
AUG-1981 National Geographic cover article.
1988 photographic study completed by Andrea Joyce Stone.
1989 extensive and tragic vandalism occurred and many pictures were destroyed.
1998 cave closed by the Government of Guatemala to protect it.
2007 replica of the Naj Tunich Cave inaugurated.
2012 submitted to the WHL and added to the tentative list.

Description

Like all painted caves, Cievas Naj Tunich (Naj Tunich Cave) were first opened to the public, but soon the visitors started to destroy the artworks, unintentionally or intentionally. In Guatemala this is even more dangerous, as caves are normally open for everyone, and vandals can come and go during the night. As a result the cave was heavily vandalized in 1989, and as a result it was finally gated. It took until 1998, until it was necessary to get a permit to enter the cave. And finally, in 2007, a replica of the cave was opened, only 400 m from the original cave.

The Mayans started to use the cave around 400 BC, it was an established temple and holy site around 200 BC, and they finally abandoned the cave around 900, after more than a millennium. Later inhabitants of the area did not care much about caves, and so the jungle grew and hid the entrances. The places where caves are, are often rocky, steep, and not suitable for farming. The cave was re-discovered by a local hunter named Bernabé Pop, a Q'eqchi' Maya Native, in mid 1979, when his dogs chased a peccary into the cave. Something like this probably happened several times during the millennium before, but Bernabé did not ignore his discovery like others. Together with his father Emilio Pop he explored the caves and discovered rock art and inscriptions deep inside the cave. Mike Devine was an American expat who lived in Poptún and worked as a guide for tourists and scientists. They told him about their discovery, probably they guessed he could guide foreign visitors into the cave. The first one he brought to the cave was the Yale linguist, Pierre Ventur, who gave the cave its name. The next visitor was photographer Jacque Van Kirk, whose photographs of the cave were published in local newspapers. He also officially reported the discovery of the cave to the Guatemala Institute of Anthropology and History (IDAEH). Dr James Brady, the archaeologist and most important explorer of Guatemalan Maya remains, heard about the cave. He led a team of cavers through the site, which explored the caves and mapped them in 1981 and 1982. A photographic study was completed by Andrea Joyce Stone in 1988 and published as a book with 199 monochrome photos, 296 line drawings and 14 maps in 1995. In this book, she stated that the cave had been vandalized several times and that more serious vandalism occurred in 1989. Unknown persons "scratched, scraped or smeared into oblivion" numerous images and hieroglyphic texts. As a result the caves were closed to the public.

Naj Tunich is mayan Quiché language and translates Stone House, nevertheless it is our modern name of the site, we do not know how the Mayas called the place. The caves are huge and the representation of pictorial art is unique in its kind in the Maya world, not only for quality but also quantity. There are some 90 images showing anthropomorphic characters, animals, deities, musical instruments, and hieroglyphic texts. There are five groups of petroglyphs, images carved in stone, and four areas with a total of 80 positive impressions of handprints. On 27-APR-2012 the site was submitted to the UNESCO WHL by the Ministry of Culture and Sport, since then it is on the tentative list.

Today the cave is visited on day tours by the company Finca Ixobel. They organize transport and the cave visit, which includes the entrance area of the Naj Tunich cave, and a small cave 400 m away in which a replica was created. As far as we understand, it's not a cave replica, it's a natural cave which was used to make copies of the paintings and engravings. The reproductions of the murals were painted by local artists under the supervision of archaeological and cultural authorities. The site is operated by the community, La Compuerta is a Maya Kekchi community, and the authorized guides are from this community. They received courses in Mayan glyphs organized by two local NGOs, INTECAP and TURISURP, who work in community development and tourism. The idea is to provide work and income for the locals, who are actually the descendants and heirs of the creators. We recommend bringing good walking shoes and a headlamp.

The Naj Tunich Caves, where rediscovered in 1979. They can only be explored with the permission of the government. There are tour agencies that will get the necessary permission for you, as well as guide you through the caves.

These caves hold a wealth of artifacts and drawings, which are only now being discovered. The Naj Tunich Caves may, in fact, be the most sacred caves of the Mayans. Text written on the walls of the caves gives an idea that this is probably one of the most important caves in the area. Mayans considered caves to be holy shrines, and connections between earth and heavens. The caves have being closed for almost a decade, and they have been vandalized, like many other sites.

Recently a new cave has been discovered in the area, La Cueva de Las Pinturas. It has panels with glyphs. These wall paintings are the only ones with a lot of information that might help to understand more about the Mayan culture of that epoch.

How to get there: Contact one of the tourist agencies. Far Horizons offers trips to this caves.


Text by Tony Oldham (2004). With kind permission.