WEB EXCLUSIVE: Diving cenotes - the place of the dead
Many people associate cave diving with having a death wish. It features in the stuff of nightmares - running out of oxygen or getting lost within a labyrinthine network of pitch-black water-filled caves. For others, the allure of inland diving away from the masses amid some of the world’s most beautiful and untouched scenery allows them to overcome the apparent madness of it all. Travel writer and photojournalist Levison Wood recently dived the awe-inspiring cenotes of the Yucatan Peninsula.
“You don’t actually need any specialist qualifications, other than the PADI open water certificate,” said Aaron, the local divemaster who has been exploring the cenotes of Mexico’s easternmost region for more than fifteen years, “the most important thing is a sense of adventure.” That’s putting it lightly I thought, as we climbed 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 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 water world beneath the jungle. I began to realise 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.
A sensational cenote scene
As we donned our fins and masks Aaron points to a particularly dark corner of the cave. “We are going that way, make sure you follow me.” He need not have reiterated that point. Up until now I had only ever dived off the coasts of Egypt and Thailand, civilized affairs where the boat - and therefore safety - was never too far away. This was something totally different.
Aaron told me that the water in this particular cave was fairly new and had been steadily rising over the centuries. As we began to descend into the water I was amazed at just how crystal clear the fresh water was. The visibility was incredible, despite the lack of natural light. I soon lost my initial fear.
Cenote diving is not 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 open up into immense cathedral-like caverns where it is almost impossible to get lost. Aaron led the way, following a pre-placed line to the bottom of the cave. I was surprised to see fish and even a turtle swim gracefully by.
I gazed in wonder at my surroundings, drooping stalactites and stalagmites protrude to create an otherworldly feeling. Even the water changed in appearance to give the impression it was layered with sections of air. “It’s just a different kind of water,” said my guide through the high tech inbuilt microphone system in my mask. At the bottom of the cave we found what we were looking for. “He is maybe two thousand years old,” Aaron said, 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.” On the cave wall is a painting of what looks like a horse.
The cenotes were seen by the ancient Mayan civilisation, which flourished in Central America until the coming of the Spanish in the 16th 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.
The conquistadors effectively ended many of the traditional practices and as Christianity took hold the cenotes were left to disappear into the jungle and were forgotten about for several hundred years. It was not until 19th-century European explorers and anthropologists became interested in the Maya, 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 was not 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 believed to be more than 3000 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 ascended toward the moon-like circle of light above I felt a tremendous sense of tranquillity, 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 smiled and showed me his watch - I am stunned to realise we had actually been submerged for more than half an hour. “It’s the magic of the Maya,” he said with a chuckle as we climbed out into the emerald lushness of the Mexican Jungle.
Levison Wood is the founder of the 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. If you would like to find out more or to apply to join the expedition, visit www.secretcompass.com.
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