As I bounce around in the back of a land rover on a rocky, dry track with a half dozen other adventurers, I’m reminded of previous trips into the Australian outback exploring sinkholes. But here in Mexico, it’s just a little different. A local man working for the landowner at Dos Ojos takes our 300 pesos (AUS$20) without a smile and within a few minutes’ drive, you arrive at what some might call a carpark. I would call it a small clearing – with nothing else around. Nothing! With unpleasant muggy temperatures rising, I’m looking forward to escaping the hot afternoon heat by floating in pristine clear water.
The Yucatan peninsula is riddled with cenotes which translates to sacred well. They are underground caves and rivers, accessible usually from the flat ground above. In fact, if you weren’t told they were there, you’d probably walk past them so narrow are some of the entrances.
We are led along a narrow, crude path to where there is a makeshift handrail of local tree branches. Australian OH & S would love this place. The guide points down and we spy a crystal clear azure blue water 12 metres below and he tells us the water is ten metres deep. As we get closer to the entrance, a rickety set of stairs weaves down into the cavern. Some of my companions, confident with the depth, immediately leap in from the edge like kids from the 10m high diving board. Others grab their snorkelling gear, navigate their way down to a small platform above the water level and jump into the enticing pool. I sit at the top of the stairs and soak in this sunlit subterranean world in front of me. I relax, take a breath and let time trickly by as I absorb in everything in front of me. This is truly extraordinary.
The squeals of excitement from my companions lure me down the now slippery stairs made wet from exiting tourists. In my own time, I carefully slip into the deliciously tepid 25 °C water that stays the same temperature year round. I’m engulfed with what seems a bottomless pool of cerulean, small fish zipping around below me, bats, hummingbirds and stalactites above me. The water is so transparent that visibility is only limited by the available light. As I swim through the pristine waters I feel like I’ve been taken back into a Jurassic world with vines draping wildly on cathedral walls up to the shafts of sunlight peeking through the roof.
There are three scuba divers who I later meet and show me photos they’d taken that morning of skeletal remains of animals who’ve accidentally fallen into the cenote. They were part of an archaeological group exploring, surveying and mapping each cenote in the area. With over 6000 to explore, they have their work cut out for them. The cave system in some cenotes is around 82kms with 28 separate entrances. The deepest passage is nearly 120m and recent investigations lengthened the combined system to nearly 320kms making it one of the longest underwater cave systems in the world.
I chatted with diver John from Florida who had been coming to the caves for many years and was eager to share his historical knowledge. The Mayans revered cenotes because they were a water source in dry seasons. They believed them to be a portal to speak with their gods and a gateway to the afterlife but they were also used for important Maya rites. A number of expeditions in the last 20 years have discovered pottery, artefacts made of gold and human skeletons which probably means the legends of human sacrifice could be true. More recently, three human skeletons were found that carbon-dating has shown that one of those skeletons known as Eve of Naharon was 13,600 years old. On another expedition at 57m, the divers found the remains of a mastodon and human skull, which is probably the oldest evidence of human habitation in the region.
What started out as an afternoon of relief from the relentless heat turned into one of the most exciting days of my trip. For hours John and his partner shared stories of their diving adventures in the area, me with my mouth open in awe of their drive and passion.
Here is a video of how you can leap into a cenote – note the perfect entry. Click here.
If you’re thinking of visiting, here are some helpful tips to know beforehand. With nearly 100 visitors a day to some cenotes, come earlier than later. Don’t wear any lotions or sunscreen when you enter a cenote as it can poison fish, plants and other delicate marine life. Swimwear is acceptable plus wear sandals or thongs. Bring a towel and light refreshments as there are no stores nearby. As a safety precaution, I’d leave your valuables at home.
As printed in the Warrandyte Diary September 2018.
Now it’s your turn.
What are your experiences in Mexico?
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