By Levison Wood
YUCATAN, Mexico -- Most people associate cave diving with having a death
wish. It features in the stuff of nightmares- running out of oxygen or
getting lost amongst a labyrinthine network of pitch black caves full of
water…. But for some people, the allure of inland diving away from the
tourism masses in some of the world’s most beautiful scenery just about
overcomes the apparent madness of it all.
“You don’t actually need any specialist qualifications, other than the
PADI open water certificate,” says Aaron, the local divemaster who has
been exploring the cenotes of Mexico’s easternmost region for over
fifteen years, “the most important thing is a sense of adventure.”
That’s putting it lightly thinks I, as we climb down a rusty set of
ladders some twenty metres down a natural bore hole in the middle of the
jungle, an hour’s drive from the nearest town.
Cenotes are a natural phenomenon unique to this part of Mexico and
neighbouring Belize, a result of the huge meteor that wiped out the
dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The whole of the peninsula is dotted
with these holes, ranging from cavernous wells to tiny potholes- many of
them are linked by an underground network of tunnels. Because of this,
there are no natural rivers here and all water flows underground
creating a vast undiscovered world below the blooming jungle of the
I begin to realize that there is more to Mexico than meets the eye --
the luxuriant grandeur of Cancun and bustling markets of the Spanish
Colonial cities are a world away from this remote spot.
As we don our flippers and masks, Aaron points to a particularly dark
corner of the cave’s lake. “We are going that way, make sure you follow
me.” He needn’t have reiterated that point.
Up until now I had only ever dived off the coasts of Egypt and Thailand,
civilized affairs where the boat stays as a reassuring image above
one’s head. This was something totally different.
Aaron tells me that in fact the water in this cave is fairly new and has
been steadily rising over the centuries. As we begin to descend into
the water I am amazed at just how crystal clear the fresh water is, the
visibility is incredible, despite the lack of natural light and I soon
lose my initial fear.
Cenote diving isn’t cave diving in the truest sense (for which you need
specialist certification and nerves of steel), because when you get
below the small entry points they actually open up into immense
cathedral-like caverns where it is almost impossible to get lost. Aaron
leads the way, following a pre-placed line to the bottom of the cave and
I am surprised to see fish and even a turtle swim gracefully by.
I gaze in wonder at my surroundings, drooping stalactites and
stalagmites protrude to create an otherworldly feeling reminiscent of a
journey to the centre of the earth. Even the water changes its
appearance to give the impression of layers of air, but it’s just a
different kind of water says my guide through the high tech inbuilt
microphone system in my mask.
At the bottom of the cave we find what Aaron has been so excited to show me.
“He is maybe two thousand years old,” he says, pointing at the human
skull, sitting incongruously on a rock shelf next to a pile of bones.
Nearby is a pair of perfectly preserved ceramic jars about the size of a
keg of beer -- each containing yet more bones. “They are from animals-
probably cows” and on the cave wall is a painting of what looks like a
The cenotes were seen by the ancient Mayan civilisation, which
flourished in Central America until the coming of the Spanish in the
sixteenth century, as gateways to the afterlife. Many of the caves were
then dry and became used as burial chambers and places where human and
animal sacrifices took place.
Since the conquistadors effectively ended many of the traditional
practices and Christianity took hold, the cenotes were left to disappear
into the jungle and were forgotten about for several hundred years.
It wasn’t until the first European explorers and anthropologists became
interested in the Maya in the nineteenth century and discovered such
architectural riches as Chichen Itza and Uxmal that cenotes were even
heard of. Sketches were made and, later, photographs taken of these
natural wonders but it wasn’t really until the 1970s that the first
intrepid divers decided to explore the underwater treasures.
Even now only a handful of the cenotes have ever been dived and there
are still over 3,000 left undiscovered. Aaron hopes to enable more
visitors to experience what he has seen and is one of only a couple of
qualified diving guides that operate in the region.
As we slowly ascend toward the moon-like circle of light above I feel a
tremendous sense of tranquility, but also real privilege to have been
able to explore this fascinating underground world. It only felt like we
were under water for five minutes but Aaron smiles and shows me his
watch and I am stunned to realize that we have actually been submerged
for over half an hour.
“It’s the magic of the Maya,” he chuckles as we climb out into the emerald lushness of the Mexican Jungle.
Levison Wood founded the pioneering expeditionary service Secret
Compass which specialises in taking clients to the world’s most remote
and undiscovered destinations. He is leading a one-off dive trip to
explore the cenotes of the Yucatan in September. www.caribbeannewsnow.com