A view of one of the pools at Cara Blanca.
Cara Blanca's sacred Maya pools, hidden in the warm hills of Belize, still beckon.
Cobalt blue waters, draped vines and beads of sweat are what you remember from your first visit to these forest cenotes, as the pools are known.
Two years ago, a USA TODAY report filled readers in on researchers' plans to dive deep into the cenotes, surrounded by the ruins of Maya sweat lodges from 800 A.D. And a look at the first dives into the pools this summer was a Top 10 video on National Geographic's website this year.
But it's worth a second look at the ruins there, and not just because winter has fully arrived in the Northern Hemisphere and the fact that the location's average temperature is a balmy 79 degrees.
In fact, the continuing story of exploration at the pools in the northwestern forest of tropical Belize, offers more than warm thoughts. Archaeology doesn't happen overnight and the progress at Cara Blanca has raised more questions so far than answers, says archaeologist Lisa Lucero of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who heads exploration efforts at the pools, located a few miles from the Maya ruin of Yalbac.
The Classic Maya are famed for the pyramid-topped cities, which were abandoned throughout Central America sometime around 900 A.D. Xibalba (Shee-BAL-buh), the underworld where various evil spirits and the rain god, Chac, could be found, was part of their mythology, a particularly important place for people dependent on rain to water their crops.
"Cenotes were seen as an opening into the underworld by the Classic Maya," Lucero says.
Cenotes at sites such as Mexico's Chichen Itza have yielded sacrificial objects, human bones and the famed "Maya Blue" pigment in sediment layers explored by scholars for a century.
At Cara Blanca's pools, mapped by archaeologist Andrew Kinkella of Moorpark (Calif.) College, Lucero and colleagues such as cave diver Patricia Beddows of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., sought to plumb the depths of the cenotes, looking for similar activities among the Maya of Belize, some 250 miles south of the Yucatan.
A diving team explored the site in May, finding hydrothermal vents, overhanging caves and fossil beds lining the walls of the cenotes. Two divers, Robbie Schmittner and Kim Davidsson, discovered a 90-foot-tall entrance to one cave some 100 feet deep down on the north wall of a pool lined with Maya ruins. The team namedthe cave Actun Ek Nen (Black Mirror Cave), which should give some idea of lighting conditions at that depth. The underwater cave is at least 120 feet wide, 100 feet tall and at least 250 feet long. It may be much longer, as its depth, size and dimness, along with diving equipment limitations, kept the team from exploring the big cave to its full extent.
"But the pools were even deeper than we expected," Lucero says. The very deepest parts of the pools, where sacrificial objects might lay, reside below 180 feet depth, according to findings made by seven deep divers who searched there for two days in mid-July. A diving team will return to the site next year, with some luck, to resume the search.
In the meantime, archaeology at the site has not stood still. "It looks more and more like the Maya intensified ritual activities at the end," Lucero says, around 800-900 A.D., when a long-term drought is thought to have contributed to the collapse of the society at Yalbac and surrounding centers. Sacrifices might have picked up at the pools, she says, "to beg the gods to bring forth rain and to end the long drought. The majority of ceramics date to (that era), and most are water jars!"
The slash-and-burn milpa farming of the Maya, still practiced today throughout Central America, heavily depends on rainfall during a long rainy season that typically starts in May. Although the Maya continued farming at nearby sites in Belize at least until the 1500's, Lucero and other archaeologists suspect that when the sacrifices and ceremonies at pyramid temples no longer delivered the rain, the common farmers walked away from a culture that had lasted for centuries.
If so, getting to the bottom of Cara Blanca's pools may help get to the bottom of how that collapse played out in at least one corner of the ancient Maya world. "We'll be back," Lucero says. USA TODAY