Cuevas de Candelaria

Candelaria Caves


Useful Information

Location: Candelaria Caves Protected Area.
Near the town of Chisec, 10 km west of Raxrujá. Central Guatemala, state of Alta Verapaz, north of the city of Coban near the Mexican border.
(15.870134, -90.142158)
Open: Peña Blanca Cave: All year daily 8, 10, 13, 14.
The Births: All year daily 7-14.
Xibalba Expedition: All year daily 7:30-14.
[2021]
Fee: Peña Blanca Cave: Adults GTQ 50.
The Births: Adults GTQ 250.
Xibalba Expedition: Adults GTQ 175.
[2021]
Classification: SpeleologyKarst cave
Light: LightIncandescent Electric Light System
Dimension: L=22,000 m.
Guided tours: Peña Blanca Cave: D=90 min, Min=2.
The Births: D=3 h, Min=2, Max=15.
Xibalba Expedition: D=2 h, Min=2, Max=6.
Photography: allowed
Accessibility: no
Bibliography: Daniel Dreux (1978): Guatemala dans les gouffres du pays maya, Paris: Presses de la Cité, Connaissance du monde, paperback, 119 pages. 21 x 26,5 cm. ISBN-13: 978-2258004450, ISBN-10: 2258004454.
B Bordier (editor) (1976): Guatemala, Spelunca, supplement 3.
Dennis Tedlock [editor, translator] (2003): Popol Vuh: The Sacred Ancient Book of the Quiche Maya, 2nd revised edition, New York: Touchstone Books.
Address: Complejo Cultural y Ecoturístico, Cuevas de Candelaria, Comunidad de Mucbilhá I, Chisec, Alta Verapaz, Tel: +502-7861-2203, Fax: +502-7861-2205. 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

27-MAY-1974 explored by a Guatemalan-French caving expedition.
1984 Daniel Dreux returned and opened a hotel.
1989 land was officially declared to be owned by the community of Muq'b'il Ha'.
1999 declared a National Cultural Patrimony by the Ministry of Culture and Sports.
29-OCT-2002 land titles of the caves received by the communities of Candelaria Camposantos, San Miguel Sechochoc, and Muq'b'il Ha'.

Description

Cuevas de Candelaria (Candelaria Caves) lie in the east-west running Cuchumatán Mountains. The Cretaceous limestone are intensively folded and form a rugged landscape with many caves and sinkholes, covered with dense tropical forest. Most rivers of this area flow into Usumacinta River, which runs north, forming the border between Guatemala and Mexico.

North of the village Chisec the Candelaria River emerges the first time, winds through the valley for a few kilometers and then enters the San Simon Hills near the village Candelaria Camposantos. This is the begin of the Cuevas de Candelaria, a complex system of impressive caverns and passages, located inside enormous jungle-shrouded karst towers. The passages are huge, typical widths between 20 and 30 m, heights between 10 and 60 m. The largest chamber is 200 m long, 200 m wide, and up to 60 m high. The main passage with the underground Candelaria River is about 12.5 km long. The whole cave system is given with 22 km, though some say it's 30 km long, and we even read about 80 km. It seems there is no trustworthy data on the length of the cave, probably one of the reasons Guatemalan caves are not listed by Bob Guden. Some call this cave "one of the two largest caves in America and one of the six largest in the world". This is obviously nonsense, though it is possibly the longest known cave of Guatemala.

Between Candelaria Camposantos and San Antonio de las Flores, on a distance of about 13 kilometre, the river reappears six times in Karstpoljes or between Karstkarst towers, thus forming seven different caves which are all together called Cuevas de Candelaria. The number seven is exceptional, and so it is logical to assume some kind of connection between the old Mayan religion and the cave. Major rituals did actually take place at Cuevas de Candelaria, which probably involved bloodletting and large audiences. The Kings of Cancuén did not need artificial pyramids, they had natural ones: the karsts towers with suitable caves connecting to the underworld.

However, the interpretation of the caves as the site of the mythical Tulan Zuyua by Daniel Dreux seems to be a lure made up for the tourists. Tulan Zuyua is mentioned in the Popol Vuh, the K'ichee' equivalent of the Bible.

"Tulan Zuyua, Seven Caves, Seven Canyons is the name of the Citadel.
Those who were to receive the gods arrived there."
Popol Vuh, Part 4

Tulan means city, and Tulan Zuyua is the city Zuyua which was supposedly much older and far grander than any Toltec town. It is generally agreed, that it was located at Teotihuacan, northeast of Mexico City. Beneath the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan lies a natural cave whose main shaft and side chambers add up to seven. Nevertheless, the Cuevas de Candelaria are dubbed Sacred Mayan Caves in tourist brochures.

The touristic development of the caves was made by Daniel Dreux, a French speleologist and explorer, who explored caves in the area since 1968. In 1974 he participated on a Guatemalan-French expedition and explored Candelaria caves. In 1984 he returned and started to build a hotel. The whole story is rather strange, as the land was probably owned by the state at that time, and he bought the right to use 0.75 ha of land from a farmer. Around the year 2000 he had a hotel with an area of 22 ha and controlled 12 km of the 13 km of underground river passage in Candelaria caves. Living in France, he runs a tourist business, bringing French tourists to the hotel during August and December, who tour the caves and other nearby tourist sites.

The whole story is rather strange, as there is no legal base of his business. It seems, Dreux, as self-appointed owner and savior of the caves, became a little egocentric at last. He did not allow modern Mayan rituals or access to the caves to non-French scientists including Guatemalans. The growing self-assurance of the indigenous people resulted in the claim to own the land and the caves. The communities of Candelaria Camposantos, San Miguel Sechochoc, and Muq'b'il Ha' received their land titles on the 29-OCT-2002 and now manage it in co-administration with the Ministry of Culture and Sports. In other words: they really and officially own the site.

For a foreigner it is really hard to decide, what the true situation is. On one side, Dreux did the touristic development, brings guests, work and money to the country, and protects the cave from damages. There was neither a government nor locals who did much development, but now "locals" who moved in during the last decade, try to take over his business. On the other side he never owned anything, capitalised on the obscure political situation, does his best to keep all the money, does not respect the religion of the locals, does not allow non-French scientists in the cave, and "protects" the cave only if this does not interfere with his business. At the moment he ignores the legal rights of the true owner and still manages his business as before. We are not sure what implications this might have for his guests. Probably the government will shut down his business in the near future, which could be rather bad for his guests. It would to be better to visit the caves with the legal owners, but we could not find any information on their offers on the web until now. However, foreigners generally travel guided and do not have the chance to decide which offer they take, they have to follow their guide.

There are currently thre tours which are offered. The Peña Blanca Cave is a cave trekking tour for individuals. It starts at the Candelaria Lodge at Km 319, with a walk through the tropical gardens of the lodge. The Peña Blanca Cave is a dry cave with walking trails on the cave floor and no electric light. It is a level of the Candelaria cave system 30 m above the cave river. Several chambers have Maya ceramics on the floor which proove that the Mayans visited this cave as a place of worship and pilgrimages. The visit is very easy and requires only good walking shies and a lamp, we recommend bringing a headlamp.

The Births is a boat trip on the cave river with inflated truck wheels inner tubes. The tour is named after the most secret and preserved part of the cave which is interpreted as the place of creation and birth of the new sun, from the Mayan religious book Popol Vuh. Numerous karstfensters which are locally called siguanes provide a fantastic light during the trip. It starts at the Candelaria Lodge at Km 319, with a walk through the tropical gardens of the lodge. The boats are mounted in front of the cave then float down the river into the cave. At the end of the tour the participants are transported back to the lodge with a vehicle. The Xibalba Expedition is similar but starts with a short drive to a different part of the cave river. The cave is entered through a fossil passage and then inflatable gum boats are mounted. Highlight is the Sala de Xibalba which is said to an be ancient ceremonial center of the Mayans. The hall contains huge quantities of Mayan remains, mostly pottery. For both river tours we recommend clothes which may get wet and dirty, water shoes or gum boots and a headlamp. Life-saving vests and helmet are provided. Bring clothes to change, a towel and a plastic bag from the dirty clothes. The river torus are subject to weather conditions and the level of the river.

The Candelaria Caves are located in the limestone hills, 10 km west of Raxrujá where the Río Candelaria goes underground. Reputed to be 22 km long, with five entrances, they are thought to be the longest cave in Latin America. Typical passage widths are 20-30 m with a height of 10-60 m, with numerous karst fensters caused by collapse. One truly monumental chamber is the 200-metre-long Tzul Tacca.

The cave was considered by the ancient Maya to be the entrance to the underworld of Xibalba, and the cave contains archaeological sites. The Q'eqchi' Maya still come to pray in the Candelaria Caves. It is said that the Lacandon Maya (living in Mexico, just west of the border with Guatemala) believe that every night the sun is carried in a basket by the Dioses del Mundo Subterraneo through a long cave from west to east, to emerge again at daybreak. Perhaps the Candelaria Cave is the nocturnal pathway of the sun!


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