Cenotes – Underground Sinkhole Exploration for Dummies

Sac-Actun cenote

Let’s play a word association game. I’m going to give you a term, and you tell me what comes to mind. Ready?

“Mexican underground tunnels.”

And the correct answer is…awesome tourist destination! Who had that?

Yeah, I didn’t think so.

The Riviera Maya is a stretch of coast on the East side of the Yucatan peninsula. It has the beautiful beaches and resorts you’d expect of any place that self-applies the term “Riviera.” But just a bit inland, in the state of Quintana Roo, is a tourist attraction that is the opposite of wide open vistas and sunny skies. There are the Cenotes, caves that serve as the gateway to some of the world’s longest underground rivers. Many of them are currently being explored and charted by the National Geographic’s specialized cave divers.

Others are being explored by slightly less qualified adventurers, namely me.

I started my caving adventure in the Sac-Actun Cenote system by rappelling down into an enormous dark mouth of a cave with assistance from the Alltournative adventure agency.

A few slightly nerve-racking moments later, found myself in the the second longest underwater cave system in the world, one that stretches 110 miles, that we know of (most it is still unexplored).

Near the entrance, I could see the mighty stalactites and stalagmites glisten in the humidity, and see single drops of water fall from the ‘tites onto the ‘mites, knowing that the same drop had been falling for millions of years. (And yes, I’m a cave explorer now, so I can use ‘tites and ‘mites in conversation, as long as I can remember which is which). I swam through the amazingly clear water, purified by the underwater system, the bottom and sides of the river as smooth as a swimming pool or waterslide (at a good water park anyway.)  There are over 130 Cenotes within Sac-Actun, which translates from the Mayan language to mean “The White Cave.” They call it this because you can actually see in this cave, and because of the nearly-organic looking limestone that the caves are cut out of. The other caves, the deeper, darker ones, don’t have names with visual descriptors. That’s because they are caves, they are black, and they are both terrifying and serene at the same time.

Next, we snorkeled into the Nohoch Nah Chich cavern, which had continually breathtaking rock formations, including millenary stalactites and stalagmites, which had a strange coral look that made me think “hmmm…this looks like where sharks live,” even though I knew that no sharks could possibly live there. Totally sure of that. Yep…no doubt about it. No way I was getting attacked by any monsters while snorkeling in the dark of an underground cave.

I jokingly confirmed with my guide that this was the case. He assured me that the danger was getting lost, which would lead to a slow, painful death as opposed to the quick release of a shark/monster attack. So I felt totally better.

Before entering the water I participated in a traditional Mayan purification ceremony.

This involved lots of smoke Mayan chants, that the priest claimed was purifying my soul. I tried to ask why I needed my soul purified, since usually you worry about having a pure soul RIGHT BEFORE YOU DIE, but apparently it’s more like you want to be clean because the cave has holy significance. Or he could have been purifying me so I wouldn’t give a monster an upset stomach. (Did Mel Gibson make me mistrust Mayan ceremonies? Why do I keep associating them with death?)

After I got into the Cenote, we traveled  by a combination of doggy paddling, climbing over and between the jagged limestone rocks, and jumping off the rocks into pools (depth mostly unknown. These were literal leaps of faith).

Our guide, an Archeologist from Rio Secreto, assured us when it was safe to jump. He knew the caves, and would occasionally stop us and tell us to point our flashlights up, and we would realize the cave roof, which had been a few feet above us before, now was 100 feet above our head, and were standing in a cathedral, a monument to the church of Geology, formed by processes and forces that view all of human history as a blink of an eye.

And this was only minutes from the tourist resorts on Playa del Carmen. I think this is especially exciting, because it means that as a traveler, you’re close to both a ton of clubs and relaxation type spots, but also adventures like this. If you’ve got even a week to kill, it’s easy to find cheap flights to the area and get a wonderful blend of action and relaxing.

In one particular dry spot, I climbed over what appeared to be a pterodactyl fossil (it was dark, but still – not a good sign) and sat down.

I sat in pure darkness for a few minutes, the first of which were discomforting. I could feel my brain search for stimulus, my thoughts accelerated, the constant input from the outside world cut off, and synapses fired just for the sake of firing. But after a few minutes of anxiety, I could felt myself accept the silence and darkness, and I entered the meditative state where could feel the air on my skin. I waved my hand in front of face and saw nothing. But I could smell the odor of my dirty hands. Could I have smelled them normally? Or were my brain’s visual resources being diverted to olfactory areas? Was I becoming Daredevil? Soon we moved on, and the moment was over. After that, however, I felt more confident about anticipating pterodactyl attacks.

When we got out, I felt happy to be in the sunlight, and to see and hear the busy life of the jungle. But after the initial happiness of surfacing, I felt like I wanted to go back down. Being so out of one’s element, splashing and jumping off of limestone slides and platforms into mysterious pools is not like anything else. People don’t consider cave diving a serious tourist attraction and this is a shame. There are only so many environmental variables on the planet to experience. There is really hot, really cold. There is forest and jungle, and there is ocean and desert. There are mountains and valleys. But they are always outside. Being in a cave, one that extends hundreds of miles, is one of the few truly alien experiences you can have right here on Earth.

Are you not done reading about weird stuff in Mexico?

Try Shamans, Spas, and Mel Gibson: Spiritual Tourism in Mexico, Mexico, Beyond the Border and the Hype: Adventure Travel in Veracruz, Cenotes – Underground Sinkhole Exploration for Dummies, or Pre-Urban Exploration Mexico: Hilton Puerto Vallarta Resort

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