In recent years, Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula has become a playground for sun-seekers from all over the world. Beginning in Cancun and Cozumel in the 1970s and then later spreading to Playa del Camen and the Mayan Riviera, the area’s spectacular Caribbean coastline has become the site of countless resorts and nearly endless new construction.
What is perhaps less known about the Yucatan is that it’s home to some of the most unusual diving opportunities in the Northern Hemisphere. Entering through one of the thousands of cenotes (pronounced “say-no-tays”) dotting the region, scuba divers and free divers can explore subterranean caves, over 300 miles of interconnected passageways, and a completely unique ecosystem filled with pristine waters and tremendous rock formations.
The origin of the cenotes
Millions of years of sea changes combined with the impact of a huge meteor worked together to form a gigantic system of underground caverns in the porous limestone of the Yucatan. Over time, many of these filled with water from rainfall or from the water table that exists below the surface of the earth.
A cenote is created when the roof of one of these watery caves collapses. It may take the form of an open lake, a small sinkhole, or just about anything in between. Some cenotes contain purely fresh water, some are salt water, and some have a combination of the two.
It is estimated that there are 7,000 cenotes in the Yucatan region, and together they comprise the majority of the world’s longest underwater cave systems. In fact, there are no above-ground rivers in the Yucatan; all its rivers flow underground, and they are accessed via cenotes.
Doors to the Mayan underworld
The word “cenote” is a variation of the Mayan word “dzonot,” which translates into “sacred well.” And the cenotes were indeed sacred to the Mayan people. Mayan cities like Chichen Itza and Tulum depended on the cenotes for their potable water, and most settlements were built up around a cenote. The mineral-rich waters that filtered slowly through the earth were thought to have curative properties as well.
Equally important, though, was their great religious significance. The Mayans believed that all life was a cycle, and that cycle included entry to the underworld after death. The cenotes were the doorways through which the dead penetrated that world.
A different kind of diving experience
Whether you’re a novice or an experienced diver, using scuba equipment or freediving, the cenotes offer an experience like no other. Entering into this peaceful underground world of crystal clear water, stalactites, stalagmites, and sudden arcs of light, there’s still an opportunity to explore places hidden away for centuries.
Divers seeking a truly unique experience should check out Dos Ojos (Spanish for “two eyes,”) a pair of cenotes located just south of the Mayan city of Tulum. Like a pair of eyes peering into the underworld, Dos Ojos provides entry into the one of the world’s largest systems of underground caves.
At its deepest point, the Pit, it measures a depth of 396 feet — and many of its mysterious passages remain undocumented. With the right equipment and a good deal of experience, it’s possible to enter Dos Ojos through one “eye” and exit from the other.
Walking through lush jungle, sensing the presence of the ancient dead and entering their nether world in the brilliant light and deep shadows thrown by the canopy overhead is a nearly mystical experience. And it’s a dramatic introduction to an unforgettable dive into an abyss — one hollowed out by the inexorable forces of underground rivers and time.