By Karen Sloan
Sixty feet beneath the jungle floor in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, inside a limestone cave filled with water, Tom Stotmeyer was at an impasse. How was he going to get his stout frame through a foot-and-a-half wide opening framed by stalactites hanging from the cave ceiling and stalagmites poking up from the cave floor?
“No problem,” said Noe Raul, the Mexican guide, nimbly swimming between the rocky protrusions to the other side.
Stotmeyer, 58, of Grand Rapids, Mich., slipped off his life vest, took a deep breath and followed, albeit less gracefully.
His faith and effort were rewarded with a breathtaking view of a high-ceilinged cavern illuminated by underwater lights. Massive rock formations jutted out from the walls, while catfish swam lazily in the crystal-clear water. For several moments, Stotmeyer was speechless.
The stretch of Mexican coastline south of Cancun called the Mayan Riviera is best known for its white sandy beaches and turquoise sea. But a growing number of visitors are venturing away from the surf to discover the area’s other natural wonder: geologic sinkholes known as cenotes. More than 3,000 cenotes, (pronounced say-no-tays) dot the landscape of the Yucatan Peninsula, providing tourists a rare opportunity to scuba dive and snorkel in freshwater underground caves.
Enjoying a dip in a cenote is as easy as pulling off the main highway south of Cancun at the signs that advertise them and paying a few dollars to the property owners. But for visitors like Stotmeyer, who want a more intense experience, a number of tour operators offer guided diving and snorkeling trips. Open-water certified divers can scuba at many of the cenotes, though tour operators require cave-diving certification at certain locations.
Experts warn that divers should only attempt the dives with experienced guides and proper training. According to International Underwater Cave Rescue and Recovery, which monitors cave-diving safety around the world, there were five reported cave-diving deaths last year and two of them occurred in Mexico.
At Hidden Worlds, the private cenote park about 87 miles south of Cancun that Stotmeyer visited, the trip to two cenotes includes a wild 15-minute ride through the forest in the back of a “jungle mobile,” a cross between a tractor and a dune buggy. Wetsuits and snorkel or dive equipment are provided. Divers can explore below the surface in two different caverns with Hidden World guides or opt to dive in the Dreamgate cenote, which is one of the most spectacular with its delicate rock formations and natural lighting.
Go Cenotes, based in the beach town of Playa del Carmen, where the ferry to Cozumel docks, also offers a number of cenote snorkel and diving trips throughout the area.
The Yucatan Peninsula’s vast network of cenotes and underground rivers, which extend an estimated 350 miles, was formed approximately 18,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age, when sea levels rose and flooded underground caves that had been carved out of the limestone bedrock millions of years earlier.
For the Mayans, who lived in the area between 300 and 900 A.D., the cenotes were more than just a natural wonder; they were the only source of fresh water. It was thought that drinking clear water from a cenote would make you five years younger, said Raul, the guide.
The underground caves also had religious significance. The Mayans believed that the cenotes were the key to the afterlife, and they performed rituals at the sites to underworld gods. Even today, Mayan artifacts can be found in the caves.
In addition to spectacular stalactites and stalagmites, cenote snorkelers and divers are likely to encounter fossils in the rocks and hanging tree roots from the jungle above, which only add to the surreal effect of the enclosed caverns.
You don’t necessarily have to get wet to explore the cenotes, however. At Aktun-Chen, near the Mayan ruins of Tulum, visitors can walk through dry caves.
Like most tourists, Stotmeyer came to the small village of Akumal for the warm weather and the beaches. But it was the cenotes that captured his imagination.
After two hours of negotiating the alternatively wide and narrow waterways of a large and spectacular cenote called Tak Be Ha, or the Place of Hidden Waters, Stotmeyer was still awed by the series of underground caverns.
“It’s one of those things that's really hard to put into words,” Stotmeyer said as he emerged from a steep ladder through the sunlit opening onto the jungle floor. “You just have to see it for yourself.”