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Saturday, May 18, 2013

A dive into the darkness in Mexico

Cave diving is dark, dangerous, and mesmerising. The cenotes of Mexico's Yucatan offer an underwater realm renowned among savvy scuba divers for their stark beauty and seemingly limitless exploration potential. Dive in with us to discover the secret grottoes of Riviera Maya's ancient underground passages

  • By Brandon Cole,
  • Published: 00:01 March 1, 2012

Diving in Mexico

  • Image Credit: Brandon Cole/
  • The ancient Maya believed the openings served as portals to Xibalba, the Mayan underworld.

The seat belt of the four-door pickup cuts into my shoulder as I bounce down a rutted path through a buzzing, sticky swathe of Yucatan jungle. With the truck bed full of air tanks and scuba gear, I’m rolling shoulder to shoulder with Nat Wilson, an Arizona-born cave diver who moved to the Riviera Maya to feed his addiction for underwater exploration in the world’s largest underground river systems.

As we drive, he’s holding court on the mythology behind the freshwater-filled caverns that perforate this landscape. “The ancient Maya believed the openings served as portals to Xibalba, the Mayan underworld,” he says, before slamming on the brakes and swerving to the shoulder. “You see that?” he interjects, his index finger pointing out the side window. “Through this hole in the trees, see its tail?” I look harder; fairly impressed that he could spot anything through the dense underbrush, let alone from a moving vehicle. And then I see it, a small blue bird with a scissor-like tail.

“That’s the motmot,” Wilson exclaims. And without missing a beat, he launches back into his previous story, adding that the Mayans considered motmots to be the guardians of the cenotes. “In reality, they hang around the caverns because it’s the only access to fresh water out here,” Wilson says. And these days we cave divers watch for the birds to find the entrances.

Of course, as a long-time guide to scuba diving in these caverns, Wilson doesn’t need a motmot to help him find where we are headed today. Of the dozens of cenotes open to divers, snorkellers and swimmers, Dos Ojos (Two Eyes) is one of the most popular; increasingly subjected to throngs of visitors who splash around the mouths of its two caverns, or ‘eyes’. But Wilson assures me that deep underground, its popularity is well deserved.

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In order to get underwater before the tour buses and dive groups from Playa del Carmen can crowd us out, we park at the trailhead early in the morning, quickly strap on our scuba gear, and make our way on foot down the trail to the east eye.

I notice smoke billowing up from brush fires around the opening, and when I ask, Wilson explains that the locals, modern-day Maya who own the land around the cenote, build the fires as offerings to the gods. “Really?” I ask hesitantly.

“No, not really,” he laughs. “They are for the bugs.” I slap a handful of mosquitoes slurping from my ankle. “It’s a good story,” I counter. “You should’ve stuck with it.”

Despite the bonfires, the mosquitoes are drinking their fill from our exposed feet and hands so we make quick work of a backflop from the slab of limestone that overlooks the gin-clear water, do one final gear check and slip underwater. Dropping slowly to the floor of the pool, we fin to the tied-off guidelines that stretch into the shadowy mouth of the cavern.

To the right, the Barbie Line follows an easy, well-lit path that explores the entrance of the west eye. To the left, the Bat Cave Line extends 25 metres into the opening of the submerged cavern before hanging a sharp left into a darkened side passage. We take the latter.

Wilson assumes the lead, hovering skilfully half a metre above the thin rope to avoid stirring up the fine sediment on the cavern floor, a move that would cut our visibility to nothing. I kick gently to keep pace as we slip into the dark passageway, torch beams bouncing off stark, white limestone formations, thick floor-to-ceiling columns and hanging stalactites that formed eons ago before these tunnels filled with water.

After swimming for a few minutes, we make another left turn into a large chamber, where a narrow beam of light coming through a small hole in the distance provides dim illumination while we follow the contours of the wall, dipping and weaving past tumbled boulders and towering rock formations. Eventually, the guideline slopes upwards, leading us into the cave’s eponymous feature.

Once we fin into the Bat Cave, we swim slowly for the surface, watching it ripple with the agitation of our rising bubbles. And as our heads break through the water, the vast, circular cavern expands into a dry chamber tinged green by sunlight from a small opening in the roof. Popping up into the air pocket, I remove my regulator and take a breath of the cool, damp air.

True to its name, the ceiling of the cavern boasts clusters of small bats; occasionally one swan dives from its upside-down perch and glides over the electric green pool only to arc upwards and alight once again on the moss-covered ceiling.

All too soon, it’s now time to turn back from this secret grotto beneath the Mexican jungle. Dropping again below the surface, we take one last underwater tour of the chamber, circumnavigating a jumbled pile of rock slabs that had fallen from the ceiling to create a mesa-like mound in the centre of the room.

Along the edges, we squeeze through a fissure beneath the limestone walls, and meandering through the tight maze of stalactites and stalagmites, we pass underneath some of the most delicate formations I’ve seen in any dive through these cenotes. Huge swaths of the ceiling bristle with soda-straw stalactites, pencil-thin protrusions that blanket the surface en-masse like beds of nails.

Eventually we reconnect with our guideline and follow it back along the edge of the west eye. Moving slowly, we cover the beams of our torches by holding them to our wet-suited chests. From this vantage point, the sunlight filtering through the main entrance puts the whole cavern in silhouette, and laser beams of light filter past the edges of the pillars and formations that line the mouth of the cavern like a jumbled collection of craggy teeth.

Just like that, it’s over. We scale the limestone slab at the edge of the pool by way of a rusty swim ladder, and Wilson matter-of-factly starts back up the trail. But I hesitate for a moment, looking back over my shoulder. And just as I’m about to turn and leave, I spot it again from the corner of my eye. A small blue bird, tail bouncing disjointedly, perched on the lip of the cavern as if overseeing our departure.


Finding the early humans

Submitted by Editor on Wed, 25/04/2012 - 16:37

Discovery of prehistoric remains in the Yucatan

Finding the early humans

Published in X-Ray Issue: 32 - Nov 2009

Authored by: Kurt Amsler | Photography: Kurt Amsler | Translation:

Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is a relatively flat landscape where no rivers flow for the rain sinks quickly into the limestone and runs unseen to the sea. The ground is pocked by vine-draped sinkholes—cenotes, as they are called locally—where the roofs of underground caverns have collapsed.








For centuries these openings have provided inhabitants with access to fresh water, and the inaccessibility of the deep caves beneath the openings has long beckoned the adventurous, though physical challenges limited how far they could go.

In recent years, however, technological developments in underwater equipment have made it easier for divers to go farther into the networks of dark tunnels branching out from the submerged caves, and reports began to emerge about this dark underworld and its store of human and animal remains.

Arturo González, a Mexican biologist and underwater archaeologist working with the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, decided to launch a systematic examination of the flooded caverns in 1999. He worked together with a team of specialists including cave divers, archaeologists, palaeontologists and photographers, who would face technically difficult and physically challenging dives of up to six hours. The multidisciplinary team excavated three human skeletons from the depths, then carefully studied and analysed them. What they found startled the scientific community.

The skeletons are possibly older than any other human remains in the Americas. One in particular has been estimated by three foreign laboratories to be more than 11,600 years old. Furthermore, the skeletons bear no resemblance to the Maya who came to dominate the region thousands of years later, and whose remains and artefacts are found near the openings of the cenotes.

If anything, according to González, the newly discovered skeletons have a cranial morphology resembling that of people in eastern Asia. The findings are forcing the scientific community to reassess its theories about when and how early humans travelled to the Americas.

“What we’ve discovered is a piece in the puzzle of human evolution,” says 44-year-old González, who has been director of the Museum of the Desert in the northern Mexican city of Saltillo since 2002. “But there are a lot of other pieces missing from the puzzle. We have one important piece, but it doesn’t match any other existing part in a way that would help us understand how early humans colonized the Americas.”

González first learned scuba diving as part of his university studies on biology, but it was a National Geographic documentary about the discovery, by underwater explorer James Coke, of an ancient fireplace 30 metres below the surface that inspired him. “For me this was unbelievable,” says González. “Caves have always interested me, this space below the ground that for many indigenous groups signifies the mother’s womb.

When I saw this documentary about fire pits under the water, I began to travel to these areas to explore them. We got to know James Coke, a pioneer in the exploration of these spaces, and he alerted us to other discoveries he’d made. Thanks to him we began to form a project that since 1999 has been making important discoveries about the ancient history of the Americas.”

Cave exploration
Cave divers and speleologists have been exploring Yucatán’s submerged cave systems since the 1980s, collecting geological, archaeological and palaeontological evidence that is now crucial to González. Deep in the caverns, González and his colleagues retrieved fossils that are between 10,000 and 60,000 years old, including those of extinct camelids, giant armadillos and horses. All are from the Pleistocene Epoch, when the Yucatán was covered not with low forests but with dry grasslands. In at least one submerged cave north of Tulum, near the Caribbean coast, the divers found another ancient fireplace, whose carbon traces of partially burned camelid bones suggest that the prehistoric humans there survived in part on the meat of an animal whose species disappeared at the end of the Pleistocene.

When prehistoric people were cooking camelid meat, the sea level was more than 100 metres below where it is today. González believes these people may have used the caves not only as rudimentary kitchens, but also as pathways to water sources.

There is also strong evidence that dead bodies were placed in special caves far below the ground, perhaps to protect them from natural predators. But then a massive shift in global climate produced rapid rises in the sea level, as well as the intricately linked water table inland, and the burial sites and kitchens were all flooded – to remain unseen until cave divers discovered them millennia later.

Rolex funds research
Funds from the Rolex Award will allow González to field a team for at least another year of research; the group intends to focus on the Chan Hol cave, where a fourth skeleton has been discovered, but not yet removed or analysed. The more skeletons examined, González says, the ...

Download the article to read the full story Discovery of prehistoric remains in the Yucatan

Finding the early humans


Maya Water World

By Priit J. Vesilind
Mission to the underworld complete, Arturo González rose up the narrow well shaft dangling in a metal chair, his black wet suit dripping, the rope inching through the squeaking pulley above his head. González, a Mexican underwater archaeologist, had just dived to the bottom of a hidden sinkhole that lies 70 feet below an old stone well in the thorny jungle of the Yucatán. In his hands he held a lidded plastic tub.

Encircled by the strong arms and expectant faces of his team when he reached the surface, González sought out Carmen Rojas, the young archaeologist who was co-director of his research project, and handed her the tub. "Don't drop it," said González, a boyish 37-year-old with a stout heart and a perpetually quizzical look on his face. Rojas ignored the comment and carried the tub to the open-sided conservation lab behind the abandoned hacienda, where Alejandro Terrazas, a physical anthropologist, waited impatiently.

They removed the lid and looked inside. Terrazas slowly picked up the skull and cradled it in his hands. He smiled. It was hundreds of years old and darkened to the color of burled oak, but he could envision how flesh and skin had filled out the young man's Maya face, and how his dark eyes might have stared, if not smiled, back at him.

The man had been about 25, with a forehead that slanted radically back from the eye sockets because boards had been clamped around his malleable cranium when he was an infant, for fashion. He had died violently; the skull was cut, as if someone had hacked it with a knife.

Terrazas peered closely at the cut marks. "That looks like defleshing," he said, the process of removing the muscles from the top of the victim's head down the face.

Perhaps a human sacrifice. It was the first skull with signs of defleshing found in the clear depths of the 20 or so freshwater pools, or cenotes, explored in the past two years by the team from the Underwater Archaeology Area of Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). Terrazas, himself a young man, with a thin black beard and the kind, moist eyes of an undertaker, betrayed no sense of horror. He gently placed the skull into its nest of wet cotton swaddling in the tub—a gesture you might see in a hospice.

"For the Maya the body was a vehicle for the journey to the afterlife," he said. "When a Maya priest made a sacrifice, he was operating in his special universe—helping that universe to continue. Good or bad aren't factors. I don't want to make moral determinations; I want to understand."

The INAH team was first led to the site by Wes Skiles, a bearded, broad-shouldered explorer and photographer from Florida, with crinkling eyes in which vulnerability and bravado tend to tussle. Skiles headed up a documentary team that joined the INAH scientists for a three-week expedition.

The expedition—part of an ongoing six-year survey to inventory all cenotes of scientific and cultural interest—was spurred by a sense of urgency. In recent years the cenotes and submerged caves that riddle the porous limestone of the Yucatán Peninsula, both Yucatán state and neighboring Quintana Roo, have been probed, explored, and sometimes damaged or looted by a growing number of sport divers. Along the coast known as the Maya Riviera, as many as 10,000 a year enter cenotes. The INAH archaeologists were eager to work with sport divers to document as many cenotes as possible before they were compromised further.

"Every time a sport diver moves something, we lose a piece of the puzzle," said Pilar  Luna, director of underwater archaeology at INAH, who founded the discipline in Mexico almost three decades ago. Only in the past five years have archaeologists here acquired the necessary skills in cave diving to do a systematic survey of the cenotes. "We're finally getting wet," she said.

Camped among the ruins of a plantation in a thorny forest, the INAH team was hoping to learn more about the ancient Maya, who considered the cenotes sacred entrances to the underworld, and also about the fossil evidence and geology of the formations, which offer clues to the prehistory, and pre-Maya history, of the peninsula. Already the team had found evidence, in the form of carbon-dated ash, of a 10,200-year-old bonfire—the oldest recorded site of human occupation on the peninsula. The multidisciplinary team hoped to use its findings to produce scientific articles, a book, and a traveling exhibit. It also hoped to leave local communities better equipped to protect the sites.

The Maya civilization arose around 600 b.c. and dominated a vast area of what is today Central America and Mexico from the time of Christ to a.d. 900, when many of its city-states collapsed amid political upheaval. It produced sophisticated architecture and art and developed math and astronomy that rivaled that of the Arab and Hindu worlds.

Many Maya still live in the northern Yucatán Peninsula, a tough, hot, prickly country—a slab of limestone roughed over by tropical scrub forest. It has no rivers, no runoff. Rain percolates swiftly into the cenotes and flows to the sea unseen, through an underground labyrinth. It's like a still photograph, rather than a film: timeless, if not a bit stifling. Rivers have always provided a sense of motion, a narrative of beginnings and endings, travel and discovery. Without them the physical world stands still, drip-drying.

To ensure rain and sunlight, and to keep the subtle balance of nature, Maya priests appealed to Chac, the sustainer of life and the god of rain, who lived deep in the cenotes. (Pronounced suh-no-tays, the word comes from the Maya dzonot, meaning abyss.) When drought, war, or other dangers threatened, the Maya performed elaborate rituals and pierced their tongues and earlobes with stingray spines, collecting their blood on parchment for burned offerings. On occasion, a high priest would open a victim's chest with a stone knife and tear out a beating heart.

"Most rib fractures from accidents occur from the outside in," Terrazas said, examining a skeleton, "but ripping out the heart caused breaks from the inside out." He looked up from this horrendous technicality and offered, blandly, "This is a good indication of intentionality."

Such rib fractures would have been welcome news for the archaeological team, clearly signaling a sacrificial victim. None had been found, yet there was still the skull with signs of defleshing, another type of sacrifice.

"At first I didn't think we would find these kinds of sacrifices in rural cenotes," Terrazas said, "but now it seems I was wrong." He grinned. "It's wonderful to be wrong."

Many of the cenotes formed as a result of a city-size meteorite slamming into the region 65 million years ago, generating a global cataclysm. Giant waves inundated shorelines, and fine dust blotted out the sun and cast the world into darkness. Most scientists now accept that the meteorite helped trigger the K–T (Cretaceous–Tertiary) mass extinction, which included the dinosaurs.

Millions of years later fractures appeared in the limestone that overlaid the perimeter of the 110-mile-wide crater, leaving a ring of underground chambers that filled with rainwater. Over time, the limestone that covered the chambers eroded, thinned, and collapsed, exposing the waters and the complex of fractures as cenotes.

These ring cenotes, whose epicenter is near the village of Chicxulub on the mangrove-fringed north shore of the Yucatán, extend, remarkably, into the sea. At high tide the offshore caves expel fresh water, which bubbles at the surface. Local residents call these fountains ojos de agua, eyes of water.

For now the eyes of the underwater archaeologists were on the inland cenote that yielded the skull. While they camped around the entrance, the U.S. documentary team made its headquarters in a small village nearby. I joined the explorers, technicians, and biologists as they hung their hammocks in the village's 16th-century colonial church, on the plaza where the buildings flashed bold colors and music honked as a traveling carnival dismantled its carousels and popcorn stands. It was the week before Holy Week, two weeks before Easter. That first evening our host, the local padre, pulled his VW into the sanctuary and parked between the pews, as he always does, to guard the church. The night air was heavy with woodsmoke and henhouse smells. The sky outside throbbed with stars.

The village was in the selva espinosa, spiny forest, a region routinely cut since Maya times, and so ravaged by centuries of grazing animals that the only vegetation left protects itself with spines or needles. Yucatán had once thrived on henequen, or sisal, a spiky agave used to make rope fiber. Sisal peaked in the early 20th century, then collapsed, leaving grand haciendas abandoned and the economy destroyed.

The cenote the teams were exploring is one of about a hundred in the immediate area. At the top, it appears like a simple three-foot-square stone well, sitting in the courtyard of a vine-choked hacienda, where only a few cattle pens remain. An old man, Tenne Chuk Awum, arrives each morning on a bicycle to herd the cattle to pasture and to pump water from the cenote for their trough. But now the teams had formed a small town here, with roaring generators and air compressors for diving tanks, a dusty parking lot of 20 cars, and more than 250 crates and boxes of gear that weighed five tons.

Wes Skiles's team had lugged two remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), the size of microwave ovens, to the Yucatán to probe below the halocline, the boundary layer where lighter fresh water gives way to heavier salt water.

"I think we've been diving in the attic spaces of this system," said Tom Iliffe, a marine biologist from Texas A&M University who studies aquatic cave-dwelling animals. "Most of the structure of the cenotes is below what we can reach with scuba, which has a limit of about 200 feet deep. It's like the far side of the moon. No one knows what's down there."

Day after day the underwater archaeologists formed an ant-like parade as they descended in masks and black wet suits down the well shaft to silent, sunless waters where most creatures are blind and white. The goals were to map the cenote, locate artifacts, film them as they lay, label them with numbered tags for future studies, and bring up samples. Canoes and a rubber boat served as diving platforms on the water's surface. Nothing came easy in the cenote. Each diver took three light sources, and two of everything else: breathing tanks, regulators, masks. Some wrestled with cameras, lights, and video equipment, others with slates and pencils. In charge of all these logistics was the third co-director of the project, diving instructor Octavio del Río.

One day the sheer size of the electrical gear and lights blew the circuit breakers. None of the winches worked, and the batteries for the lights had drained like dishwater. The teams ended up hauling equipment and men by hand, like stevedores, up and down with a rope attached to a metal basket. They later settled for an old, muffler-challenged VW that belonged to one of the workers. The car became the winch.

But the system was hazardous. Once four 60-pound diving tanks broke loose from the lift and plummeted through the shaft, wiping out part of the lighting system laboriously laid just above the water. The tanks missed diver Scott Braunsroth by about a foot.

Pedro Tum Ortiz, one of the local men who'd been supplying muscle to the ropes, later confided, "Holy Week is a dangerous time to go to the cenotes. God is resting, and the waters will move. Sometimes you hear noises, cocks crowing, and jaguars. Once I went to a cenote with friends to bathe, and we had to grab on to the ladder so the water wouldn't suck us under."

On the third day it was my turn to test God's vigilance, letting the metal chair plop me down into the cool pond like a piece of bait. Treading water, I adjusted my eyes to the moonlight of the cave. The cenote was shaped like an old Chianti bottle—a narrow neck leading to a wide chamber about 90 feet across and 120 feet deep. The bottle was half full, the water surface 35 feet below the domed ceiling. Stalactites dripped, and the roots of trees were spread on the walls in delicate dark webbing. Spanish records tell how live victims were thrown into the sacred cenote at Chichén Itzá, a major Maya city, on the premise that, as sacrifices to the gods, they would not die—even though they were never seen again. I scanned the slick limestone walls, and my heart pounded, feeling their terror.

Sinking deeper into the white noise of pressure, I bottomed out at 50 feet and glided across piles of shattered limestone. A side cave, shaped like a sock, spun down and off to the west. Resting in the sand was a mahogany-hued skeleton, already tagged, the eye orbits of its skull bleak with expectations of eternity.

A few days later the INAH scientists brought him up. It was the first skeleton of its kind—with all its bones in their natural positions, undisturbed—ever found underwater in the Yucatán. He was a large man, perhaps 50 years old, well past the Maya life expectancy. "His health was bad," said Terrazas after examining the bones, "with arthritis so severe that he could barely flex his hands. He had terrible teeth problems — gingivitis — and he probably had a very hard time chewing."

He was lying face up on the sand. Was it an accident? "No," said Terrazas. "There are nine skeletons down there [eight are partial]. Maybe one is there from an accident, but not nine."

When the car winch pulled up the bones of the old man, the three women who had made quesadillas for us the previous night were standing by the well. I asked them what they thought of our mission.

"We didn't expect skeletons," said one, Olegaria Chiku. "For us, a cenote is just a hole with water. But my mother lived around here, and she said that we needed to give the cenote 15 virgins, and God would open up a road to bring in the gold that we know is down there."

Until the 1960s many people, including many archaeologists, thought virgins were the only individuals whose stories had ended in the cenotes. "We learned then that they were not all young girls," said Carmen Rojas, the underwater archaeologist who oversees data processing for the survey project. "And now we know that they were not all sacrifices."

The most striking evidence came one Saturday afternoon when Wes Skiles discovered what turned out to be one of the most important finds of the expedition. Only eight feet underwater, in a small hidden niche, was a full skeleton in a funerary position on its back, its knees up. In front of it were three ceramic pots of offerings, one containing the skull of a dog. The bones of a bird lay buried in the silt nearby. The Maya held both animals to be supernatural, often mixing their physical features in art and legend. They were to the Maya, as to the Aztec, potent symbols of death. The remains must have been deposited there when the water level was lower, said Rojas, by people swimming with the body, or using a boat.

"The condition of all the bodies we've found tells us that the Maya deposited their dead in cenotes in at least two ways," she said. "Some bodies were deposited with care, while others were thrown into the water."

The day the archaeologists brought up the skeleton, the old herder from town showed up wearing a white shirt, his Sunday best, and sat solemnly by the well. "I just wanted to watch my ancestors come home," he said.

There would be other ancestors. By the second week the INAH team members had charted the remains of 15 individuals. In the mornings they would huddle around a computer screen to review the finds. After everyone had weighed in, Rojas and González would select the items they wanted to bring to the surface for study.

"By bringing the conservation lab and specialists of many disciplines to the sites, we can make a diagnosis quickly," said González. "It has worked well. We will be analyzing our results for years to come."

The finds here in the countryside are much different from those at extravagant cities like Chichén Itzá and Dzibilchaltún, said Terrazas. "Here we don't have the rich deposits of gold and jade."

To explore the offshore half of the ring, Skiles's documentary team drove to the coast, hired a fishing boat, and motored up to a fearsome boil on the sea surface a quarter mile out, as the wind raked the water into whitecaps. The hole was expelling fresh water; low tide would reverse the flow. Veteran cave diver and biologist Tom Morris dived in with mask and fins. "It goes down into a small hole about the size of a manhole cover," he said when he surfaced. "It's gonna be a kick-butt flow."

We threw on our scuba gear and plunged in. Skiles and Morris forced themselves straight down into the cave, like swimming into a fire hose. I followed them, gripping the rocks, pulling through the blurry convergence zone of fresh and salt water, pumping furiously with my fins. A disk of brilliant blue shone at the bottom of the tunnel. It was Morris's lamp in the clear water, but it looked like the bright eye of the sea, as wondrous as anything Alice saw down the rabbit hole.

Soon after I caught up with them, Skiles and Morris disappeared, penetrating the two caves that led off from the bottom. I waited and waited and then returned to the boat. They were gone for two hours, under the sea, under the ground. I worried.

But they came back happy as puppies. Both fractures ran in line with the rim of the old crater, Skiles said, confirming that we were on the ring; one was reaching toward a spring in a mangrove swamp that we had already explored. They followed one for at least a thousand feet, wriggling through crevices so narrow that their face masks were dragging in the mud. Foot by gritty foot, pushing the limits of human ability, they were burrowing into the corpus of the ancient disaster site, a vast underground world that has defied examination.

"It's inhuman to lie comfortably in that scenario," Skiles said later. "Being under the sea bottom, one by one your senses are taken away from you. It's most people's worst nightmare. It's a tomb you're moving through, and if your brain switches over to think those thoughts, you become very dangerous. You end up making stupid and deadly mistakes."

The cenotes are true time capsules, and the Maya finds were only part of the yield. Debris and deposits have rained into the cenotes for centuries, and depth and darkness have protected them. The rise and fall of ice ages is written on their walls, and the fossilized bones of prehistoric animals are preserved in their sediment. The INAH team found fossils that are 10,000 to 20,000 years old—a camelid, a giant armadillo, an extinct horse. All are from the Pleistocene, a time when the Yucatán Peninsula was covered not with low forests but with dry grasslands.

It was Good Friday when we left the inland cenote and hauled all the gear to the front room of the church. A procession of villagers was re-creating the stations of the cross. Jesus was portrayed by a young man with a beard painted on his chin. "All my work involves the way human beings confront their death," Terrazas had said weeks before, "because it's a good indication of the way they have confronted their lives. We need this death in order to understand life. The key moment of Christianity is also a human sacrifice—the Crucifixion. I think we are touching on some delicate parts of the human being."

At the church, right by our equipment room, Jesus was raised up on the cross, his feet resting on a small platform. Mary mourned. And then, when the villagers had carried him away, there was a joyous rush for the cold rice-water drink, served every year on the corner of the church steps.

That night the padre's VW again sat, bug-eyed, between the pews. I hung my hammock in the hallway, between the damp walls, and suffered through the mosquitoes until the roosters crowed. The sun rose. It would set tonight. And it would rise again, confirming the Earth's capacity to amaze.

Diving the Maya Underworld
Volume 57 Number 3, May/June 2004
by Kristin M. Romey

An adventure in the sacrificial sinkholes of the Yucatán jungle

Archaeologist Guillermo de Anda inspects a stone block carved with a Maya glyph amid the rubble of the cenote's debris pile, which was formed by the initial collapse of the sinkhole. Ceramic vessels and animal and human remains are also frequently found inside cenotes, and archaeologists examine their context to determine whether the Maya used the sites for domestic or ritual purposes. (Melisa French) [LARGER IMAGE]

On a sunny winter morning in a remote patch of scrub jungle in Yucatán State, I stood knee-deep in the mouth of Xibalba, the Maya underworld, tugging impatiently at my wetsuit and scanning the crystalline pool for signs of my guide, Guillermo "Memo" de Anda, who was somewhere below making a quick check of the conditions. I was also keeping an eye out for the crocodile that state ecology officials warned us about when they heard we were planning on diving the site for the first time. They thought it was only a four- or five-footer, but they couldn't be sure. De Anda surfaced in a rush of bubbles. "It's beautiful down there!" he blurted, yanking off his mask. "So clear, and the size of some of the pots! And the cave..." He shook his head, "It just goes and goes and goes. Wait until you see it!"

I flipped on my flashlight and popped my regulator into my mouth as the warm, fresh water began to swirl up above my head. It was time to check out the underworld for myself.

Thousands of entrances to Xibalba lie half-hidden in the dense scrub of the Yucatán peninsula. These water-filled sinkholes, or cenotes (a Spanish corruption of the Yucatec Mayan word for sinkhole, dzonot) are formed when rainwater eats away at the peninsula's fractured limestone bedrock, creating underground caves. Eventually, the roofs of these caves collapse, exposing subterranean water sources ranging from small caverns that link into vast underwater cave networks to large, sun-filled basins that can begin a hundred feet below the surface.

These cenotes served not only as passageways to the afterlife but as lifelines for the present: In this riverless land, the Maya depended on the cenotes as their primary source of water. Great cities like Chichén Itzá and Mayapán centered around life-sustaining cenotes, and small villages in the Yucatec hinterland still rely on them. The cenotes are also the abode of Chac, god of rain. To ensure that the rains would come, Chac was appealed to with gifts and human sacrifice.

Deep in the interior of Mexico's Yucatán State, where Maya is still spoken in thatched-hut villages and you can find crocodiles in your cenotes, I spent a week accompanying de Anda as he continued his daunting exploration of the state's 2,500-odd cenotes. The professor, a 46-year-old father of two and a garrulous fireplug of a man with a salt-and-pepper beard, currently teaches underwater archaeology at the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán in the picturesque city of Merída, but he once ran the most successful dive shop in the neighboring state of Quintana Roo. It was in cenotes there that he first discovered the allure of the underwater world of the Maya. He shuttered the shop and entered the staid halls of academe when Francisco Fernandez Repetto, director of the university's anthropology department, asked him to establish an underwater archaeology research center, the first of its kind in Latin America, at Merída. "It's so important that people realize some cenotes are archaeological sites with unspoiled access to a whole new wealth of information on the Maya. The artifacts in these particular sites need to be protected," says de Anda. "They are not just places to go swimming or scuba diving."
"Memo" de Anda (Melisa French) [LARGER IMAGE]

Kristin M. Romey is managing editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.




Cenote Kankirixche, Mukuyche, YucatanThe natural wonders of the Yucatan Peninsula are countless, but some of the most unique to the area are the cenotes. Cenotes are created by an underground river system and are fresh water sink holes that the Maya considered to be sacred. In addition they were an incredibly important resource as a fresh water source, and the Mayans also believed they were the entrance to the underworld. Cenote, (say-NOH-tay) called dzonot (ZO-note) by the ancient Maya were defined by the Motul dictionary, a dictionary of Mayan hieroglyphics, as "abysmal and deep" or "hole filled with water".
Millions of years ago, the Yucatan Peninsula was covered by the ocean. Some 15,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age, the sea level descended approximately 250 feet.
For thousands of years, the porous land surface, formed by fossilized coral and limestone, has filtered rainwater, which dissolved parts of the subsoil. This process created a system formed by flooded underground rivers and caves. This phenomenon is truly unique, and makes up the largest network of caverns in the world.
Cenote Dzitnup, Valladolid, YucatanCenotes are formed when the roof of a cavern collapses due to erosion. The level of the water also contributes to the creation of cenotes: if it is too low, it does not provide enough support, which causes the roof to weaken and cave in.
The depth of each cenote depends of the amount of natural debris that has accumulated through erosion in addition to the remains of the roof that collapsed. The water that gathers in these amazing natural wonders is a crystal clear turquoise color with a very pleasant temperature of 78°.
The stalactites and stalagmites that form inside the cenotes are true natural works of art. In many, holes in the ceiling allow the sunlight to filter into the cenotes, giving the scene a magical feeling. The cenotes of the Yucatan Peninsula are a true natural gift that should be seen by all, but keep in mind that they should be protected so that they are here for generations to come. You can do your part in local conservation by not using any lotions, sunscreens, perfumes, or repellents prior to swimming in a cenote. Many cenotes provide showers that you can use to rinse off before going in.
There are four different types of cenotes - those that are completely underground, those that are semi-underground, those that are at land level like a lake or pond, and those that are open wells. Some of them are accessible for swimming and cave diving, some of them are not accessible at all, and some are actually dry cave systems that can be explored.
Sizes and shapes of the cenotes differ according to their location. Some cenotes have been found to hold quantities of ancient offerings and jewelry, apparently thrown in the depths by the Mayas who once inhabited the area.
Currently, an estimated six thousand cenotes have been found in the Mexican states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo. In the Riviera Maya, many cenotes have become famous, for their individual features offer different types of amusement for their visitors.
And remember..."take only memories and pictures leave only bubbles"
In most cases, cenotes offer basic facilities such as bathrooms, dressing rooms and parking. Entrance can run anywhere from free to 100.00 pesos depending on where you go.
·   Tres Bocas
·   Cristalino
·   Cenote Azul
·   Chemuyil
·   Dos Ojos
·   Yax Mul
·   Casa Cenote
·   Gran Cenote

Tres Bocas:
tres_bocasHeading south from Cancun on 307 just south of Puerto Morelos you will see a huge arch on your right hand side. There will be signs for various cenotes, and if you are a freshwater lover this is truly heaven on earth. With over 100 cenotes scattered over the next 19 kilometers west bound there are many fun adventures to be had. There are multiple spots along the way that have signs posted out front, and you can certainly venture out on your own and find some incredible cenotes. However, if you travel the 19 kilometers to Tres Bocas, you will surely enjoy the experience. Tres Bocas, meaning three mouths, is a ranch that has (you guessed it) 3 different cenotes. The first is located about 10 minutes on foot from where you are able to park. It is a great spot, with a shaded palapa area, an amazingly clean (and beautifully tiled) composting toilet, and a screened in palapa for camping overnight. There is also a Temazcal located on the property that is available for you to use. There are 2 other cenotes on the property, however, they are a bit of a hike in, and make SURE you have a competent guide with you. You may want to seriously consider a local Mayan guide rather then someone from Tijuana, no offense Lalo! If you want to hear more funny details about the debacle I had when I got lost please click here . Tres Bocas is well worth the haul, and it is very rarely crowded so you get the place to yourselves.
Entrance is 90 pesos per person, and onsite camping is available for a nominal fee.

Cenote Cristalino, South of Playa del Carmen in the Riviera Maya, Mexico
Located just past Puerto Aventuras Cenote Cristalino is located on the right hand side heading South on 307. Known as a local hangout, you can bring in a cooler, and blanket and just chill out for the afternoon. There is a great jump off point, a cave to explore, and a bathroom facility by the entrance.
Entrance is only 30 pesos for adults and 15 pesos for children. On Sundays it overflows with locals trying to beat the heat and enjoy their only day off. So if you are opposed to crowds we suggest you try going during the week.

Cenote Azul:
Cenote Azul South of Playa del Carmen - Riviera Maya Mexico

Located just south of Cenote Cristalino, Cenote Azul is a smaller cenote compared to other ones in the area. They do cut off entrance once the area gets to full. The grounds are well maintained, there is a fun jump off point, and a wooden lounging deck that juts over the cenote. Cat fish are in abundance so if you have a mask it is fun to check out. There is a snack shack and bathroom facilities at the entrance as well as snorkel equipment rentals.
Entrance is 45 pesos, and it does tend to get very busy on Sundays.

Cenote El Jardin del Eden:
El Jardin del Eden, near Puerto Aventuras in the Riviera Maya Mexico

Located just South of Cenote Azul, El Jardin del Eden, or Ponderosa as the cave divers call it, is a fun spot to check out. It is a main entrance point into the underground cave system so you will see many divers as well as diving instruction happening here. There is a high jump off point that is a must do, and if you are feeling really brave you can climb a tree for more height. They do not allow coolers in here at all, but we always bring one in our van, and when we get hungry or thirsty we take a break from swimming to enjoy refreshments or a snack in the car. Due to the open nature of the cenote it can tend to get a bit of algae in the warmer months of summer.
There is a changing area and bathroom facility on site and entrance is 60 pesos per person.

Cenote Xunaan-Ha:
Located just south of Akumal is, Chemuyil , a small Mayan village home to many locals who work in Akumal and the surrounding areas. If you take a right off of the highway you can wind your way through town, and there will be signs for Cenote Xunaan-Ha It is a small cenote off the beaten path tucked away in the lush jungle landscape. You can swim, float, or snorkel, in the cenote. Don't forget to bring your mask; there are bountiful fish to follow, and an occasional freshwater turtle that will come out of hiding to tease you! Watch out for mosquitoes! Use of repellents is prohibited unless they are biodegradable (but none is best). If you stay in the sun, or the water, they don't tend to bother you. No bathroom facilities are available.
Entrance is 30 pesos for adults and 15 pesos for children.

Dos Ojos:
Dos Ojos Cenote between Akumal and Tulum, Riviera Maya MexicoLocated just south of Cenote El Jardin del Eden it is hard to miss the signs for Dos Ojos.
Dos Ojos, meaning "two eyes," has become a world famous dive spot for obvious reasons. Divers and snorkelers alike flock to this natural wonder to experience this expansive cavern, which is considered to be one of the longest, and most decorated, underwater cave systems in the world. Enter through one of the two separate pools, which look like two large eyes, and explore an intricate, and surprisingly clear, maze of caves and decorations. Decorations is the term used to describe stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, and rim pools which Dos Ojos has an incredible abundance. Entrance is 100 pesos per person, and there are full bathroom facilities, snacks, and souvenirs available.
Right next door to Dos Ojos is Hidden Worlds . This spot has become world renowned after being featured in the IMAX film, "Amazing Caves" and for the thriller movie "The Cave".

Cenote Yax Mul (As of April 2007, this cenote was closed to the public. Sadly it was purchased by a large tour operator and it appears the public closure is permanent) :
Yax Mul, South, between Akumal and Tulumin the Riviera Maya, MexicoCenote Yax Mul is one of the most spectacular cenotes I have yet to visit. It is pretty far off track so either hire a guide or make sure you know where to go. The turn off is marked, but it can be missed if you are not not paying attention.The entrance is located south of Dos Ojos and Hidden Worlds on you right hand side. Take a right off of the highway and someone will greet you to take your entrance fees. The last time we were there they had the cutest baby monkey! Once you park it is a short walk into the jungle, and then you will come upon a set of wooden stairs that allows you to descend into one of the most amazingly decorated cenotes you have ever seen. They have it lit throughout with a generator (don't worry the generator is located outside of the cave and unobtrusive), and the guide will make sure to light copal to ward of bugs and mosquitoes. Changing facilities and bathrooms are available.
It is well worth the 80 pesos to check out this cenote.

Casa Cenote /Cenote Manatee:
Cenote Casa or Canote Manatee near Tulum MexicoLocated 20 miles south of Puerto Aventuras, and just north of Tulum, there is Cenote Manatee often referred to as Casa Cenote. The cenote is located in a residential area called Tankha. There are signs for Casa Cenote on the highway that will direct you to the left hand turn off. Once you drive through the residential area of Tankha you will come upon an open lagoon on your left (Casa Cenote). Entrance to the Cenote is free, but if you want to park in the lot directly across from it there is a small fee. There is a great restaurant on the beach side which has great BBQ on Sundays. Right off the beach from the restaurant is great snorkeling with huge parrot fish, and massive schools of a variety of different fish.
The Cenote is a large open lagoon that has a strong current. If you swim up the canal a bit you can float down as you snorkel and check out the freshwater fish and deep waters below. This cenote is used frequently by cave dive instructors to do skill drills and training. The freashwater flows under the road and when on the beach side you can experience the freshwater bubbling up into the sea which makes for fun currents, and a great variety of fish.
There are full restaurant and bathrooms facilities

Gran Cenote:
gran_cenote_thLocated just outside of Tulum Gran Cenote lives up to its name, it is both amazing and grand! To find it take a right off of Highway 307 when you get to the second traffic light in Tulum. You want to head towards the Coba ruins, and go about 3 kilometers where you will see a sign for Gran Cenote on your right. Pull into the parking area, and there will be a gate where you can pay your entrance fee. You will walk on a short, well-maintained path until you get to the stairs that bring you down into the cenote. There are wooden decks and ladders to allow easy access to various points of the cenote.
This is a hugely popular spot for cave divers so you are more then likely to see a diver or 5. My favorite thing to do is to track them with my snorkeling mask as they glide across the bottomless abyss with their dive lights. They light up the caves below that would go other wise unnoticed by the oblivious snorkeler.
This is by far in my top choices of cenotes in the area for pure natural beauty. A must see in my book. Bathroom and changing facilities are on site as well as snorkeling equipment and life vests that you are able to rent.
Outside food and beverages are strictly prohibited, and entrance fees are 80 pesos per person.