There are times in which the weight of circumstance becomes too great to bear often producing eclectic methods of mental coping. Morbid humor is employed, games of mindless distraction created or role playing in an imaginary land. Mental trauma brings the self to a point where the mind intervenes with reality in order to safeguard.
Enter rural Guatemala from the years of 1960 to 1996, a time riddled with conflict and death. It is reported that upwards of 200,000 individuals died during the civil wars that ensued in a manner that has led to trials of genocide among instigators. More alarmingly still, there were tens of thousands of individuals who simply disappeared throughout this period never to be heard from again. Too often, roving “death squads” as they were called, traversed the countryside blocking the narrow dirt entrances to dirt villages preventing escape from the fires, rape and death that ensued. Nearly twenty years since a blanket of peace came to the region these harsh memories are still woven into the fabric of the rural culture.
But time seemingly heals all wounds and the roadside smiles, often revealing gold teeth, testify to the recovery that slowly is taking shape. Even still, the effects of three generations of war can reveal themselves in peculiar ways. In the mountains of Northern Guatemala we learned that locals are wary of having their photos taken because of the legacy risk of kidnapping and the presence of a certain, peculiar legend. This legend is alive in the villages just outside of the town of Lanquin near the beautiful waterfalls of Semuc Champey. These villages are situated in a valley above a flowing, jade hued river shrouded by thick jungle on either side. Above the twists of the river, the smoldering cooking fires of women and the chipping machetes of men rises an enormous limestone rock face. Reaching nearly 300 meters, the wall is framed in dense green vegetation and is threaded by industrious jungle vines descending from its pinnacle. Approximately, two thirds up the cliff is the looming shadow of a beautiful, gaping cave pockmarking the rock face with personality and mystery. During the civil wars in this area the “death squads” visited the local villages and in their wake one is now hard pressed to find individuals of an elderly generation. Brothers, sisters and parents simply disappeared alongside the collective innocence of the area. This backdrop over time spawned a legend tying the ever looming cave to the pain of loss that was felt. Local Guatemalan legend states that a massive eagle of mythological proportions preys on unsuspecting villagers in the valley below and flies with the victims back to its lair to feast. This story likely originated as a way to cope with pain or possibly as a mother’s device to explain the disappearance of a father to a child, regardless it is part of the village lore and is very real to those who live in the area.
Exploration in a pure sense is a seemingly elusive quarry. But, on this journey Off-Belay we have committed ourselves to two things among others; being prepared and putting oneself in the way of adventure. After hearing we had come to the area with our climbing gear packed in the Land Cruiser our host in the area quickly proposed that we explore the cave on his behalf. Though exposed to the sheerness of the cliff and an approach that would require quite a bit of machete work he piqued our interest by mentioning that the cave had never been explored. Rarely is one offered a chance for pure exploration and here it was peering at us with eyes full of challenge and opportunity. After a few days assimilating to the area we assembled a crew of two Aussies, a Frenchman and a Guatemalan teenager named Francisco who would lead the charge up the mountain. We arrived at the top drenched in jungle sweat resting a moment to take in the astounding view of the valley below and to pause in vain for our perspiration to naturally cool us as it evaporated in the sun. Francisco set to clearing a path to the cliff’s edge with the machete we had packed along, Austin and I began to assemble the gear and the Aussies regaled us with a barrage of “down under” colloquial sayings heavy in accent and often times only fit for a sailing vessel. We found three stout trees and built a static anchor that our rappel rope could attach with two locking carabineers. As I worked, I narrated every move and knot for Francisco who expressed an interest in rock climbing but had always been in want of proper equipment. Soon enough it was go time and I began to lower myself from the edge following an adrenaline pumped high five from Austin.
Once over the edge the rappel was free standing and quickly heated my device as the applied friction slowed my descent. From the airy expanse I was soon able to swing into the mouth of the cave all the while keeping a keen eye on the open valley floor in full view a couple hundred meters below. With my feet reunited with solid ground I climbed into the cave, set two nuts and a cam as an anchor and radioed for Austin to give it a go. He made it to the cave seamlessly with a dress rehearsal look of assurance. Alas, no discovery of human bones from Guatemalan civil war victims was made but the cave clearly was home to a large, carnivorous bird. Littering the floor in some places five inches deep were the skulls and bones of smaller birds that had been somewhat fortunate to meet their demise in a place with such a stunning view. Measuring fifteen meters deep by ten wide, the cave was impressive but not of a grand scale. Our photo documentation of the rock orifice was suddenly interrupted by the agitated yells of villagers below who had spotted our rope leading into the cave. Soon we spotted a band of six individuals, machetes in hand, trekking the path up to where our lifeline rope was anchored. Fortunately, our comrade Francisco, machete also in hand, stood guard high above us. After using prusik knots to climb back up the rope, another sweat filled activity in the jungle heat, we met up with the excited locals who had followed our path up. In a Mayan dialect they asked, with Francisco translating, to see our photos as evidence of the contents of the cave. Their intent was two part, first they wanted to make sure there were no human remains of relatives present and second they wanted to make sure there weren’t Mayan artifacts hidden that we had planned to keep for ourselves. After satisfying them with the contents of the cave they asked to see every photo on the camera which took them on a half an hour journey north from Guatemala north to the Pacific Northwest back home, we were happy to oblige.
Adventure found us in the Northern mountains of Guatemala and pure exploration decided to come along for the ride. I am without the local insight to know if we altered the legend of La Cueva del Águila (Cave of the Eagle) for the villages in anyway but possibly we played a part in their collective healing process. Pain of the degree that genocide and civil war produce is not easily assuaged, but recognition of and relief from mental coping techniques can certainly help the process. The unbelievable beauty of the area and the deep pain written in its pages are strong ingredients for pause and reflection. From this, the burden of man’s ability to harm one another is usurped by the warmth and resilience of these local people and in its place can enter hope.