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Subterranean scuba in the burial caves of Mexico

4th May 2011 Print

Most people associate cave diving with having a death wish. It features in the stuff of nightmares- running out of oxygen or getting lost amongst a labyrinthine network of pitch black caves full of water….

But for some people, the allure of inland diving away from the tourism masses in some of the world’s most beautiful scenery just about overcomes the apparent madness of it all. Travel writer and photojournalist Levison Wood talks about his recent diving trip to the Yucatan Peninsula.

"You don’t actually need any specialist qualifications, other than the PADI open water certificate" says Aaron, the local divemaster who has been exploring the cenotes of Mexico’s easternmost region for over fifteen years, "the most important thing is a sense of adventure." That’s putting it lightly thinks I, as we climb 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 dinausaurs 65 million years ago. The whole of the 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 world below the blooming jungle of the interior. I begin to realize 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.

As we don our flippers and masks Aaron points to a particularly dark corner of the cave’s lake. "We are going that way, make sure you follow me." He needn’t have reiterated that point. Up until now I had only ever dived off the coasts of Egypt and Thailand, civilized affairs where the boat stays as a reassuring image above one’s head. This was something totally different.

Aaron tells me that in fact the water in this cave is fairly new and has been steadily rising over the centuries. As we begin to descend into the water I am amazed at just how crystal clear the fresh water is, the visibility is incredible, despite the lack of natural light and I soon lose my initial fear. Cenote diving isn’t 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 actually open up into immense cathedral-like caverns where it is almost impossible to get lost. Aaron leads the way, following a pre-placed line to the bottom of the cave and as am surprised to see fish and even a turtle swim gracefully by.

I gaze in wonder at my surroundings, drooping stalagtites and stalagmites protrude to create an otherworldly feeling reminiscent of a journey to the centre of the earth. Even the water changes its appearance to give the impression of layers of air, but it’s just a different kind of water says my guide through the high tech inbuilt microphone system in my mask. At the bottom of the cave we find what Aaron has been so excited to show me. "He is maybe two thousand years old" he says, 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" and on the cave wall is a painting of what looks like a horse running.

The cenotes were seen by the ancient Mayan civilisation, which flourished in Central America until the coming of the Spanish in the sixteenth 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.

Since the conquistadors effectively ended many of the traditional practices and Christianity took hold, the cenotes were left to disappear into the jungle and were forgotten about for several hundred years. It wasn’t until the first European explorers and anthropologists became interested in the Maya in the nineteenth century 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 wasn’t really 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 still over 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 ascend toward the moon-like circle of light above I feel a tremendous sense of tranquility, 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 smiles and shows me his watch and I am stunned to realize that we have actually been submerged for over half an hour. "It’s the magic of the Maya" he chuckles as we climb out into the emerald lushness of the Mexican Jungle.

Levison Wood founded the pioneering 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 see: