Today being Cinco de Mayo got me thinking of a fantastic trip I made to Mexico’s Mayan Riviera back in 2011. And I especially keep coming back to our underground exploits from that visit!
The northern half of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula has no surface rivers, due to the soluble nature of the mainly limestone rocks. But beneath the arid surface exists a complex network of subterranean caves and passages, which have been gradually carved out by underground rivers over thousands of years. And linking these two worlds are cenotes, or sinkholes, formed when the roofs of subsurface caves collapse.
Our initial encounter with the Mexican Underworld was at the Eco Theme Park at Xcaret. Just one of the attractions there is the chance snorkel your way through a system of semi-submerged tunnels. Some of these passages are clearly natural, while others look like they’ve been artificially excavated, or at least enlarged.
Our first decent into an actual cenote was during an excursion with Playa Del Carmen Tours to visit the magnificent Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza and the Spanish colonial town of Valladolid.
At Chichen Itza, our knowledgeable guide, Miguel, introduced us to the two cenotes within the confines of the site. The most famous of these was the Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Cenote), into which the Maya once cast offerings to their rain god, Chaac, including human sacrifices! You’ll be pleased to know that this wasn’t one of the cenote-related activities on our itinerary.
But our first up-close-and-personal experience with a cenote came later that same day, on the way from Chichen Itza to Valladolid. Cenote Samulá was an absolutely incredible Journey into the underground world of the Yucatán. The majority of its domed roof is still in place, so that light and tree roots penetrate into the circular cavern through a relatively small hole in the ceiling. Steps cut by locals allow access to the crystal clear water, turned a stunning shade of blue by the shaft of sunlight. And on one of the hottest days I’ve ever experienced, we were overjoyed by the opportunity to swim in that cool, clean water.
Our next encounter with a cenote actually began with us flying through the treetops at Selvatica Adventure Kingdom. We love to go ziplining whenever we can, but our Selvatica tour had a unique ending. After we’d finished whizzing through the Mexican jungle, we headed back to the camp, where we changed into our swimming gear for a ziplining experience with a difference.
This final zipline involved no safety harness or headgear. You simply grabbed hold of a metal handle and stepped off into space. Then, as you gathered speed, the wind rushing past, a shout from one the guides instructed you to, “Let go!” After falling for at least half an hour (or perhaps only a second or so), we’d splash down into the refreshing waters of a cenote, swim back to the side, and do it all over again!
Our final foray into the Mayan Underworld was at the wondrous Río Secreto. Unlike the other activities described here, we’d never even heard of Río Secreto before arriving in Mexico. But I’m eternally grateful that we had just enough space in our typically gruelling schedule into which we could squeeze this natural wonder.
Our guided tour followed a subterranean route roughly 600 meters long (about a third of a mile) through caverns and tunnels full of stalactites and stalagmites. But unlike other cave tours we’ve been on, there were no carefully laid pathways along the Secret River. Instead we part walked, part waded and part swam between the incredible dripstone formations. And the only illumination on this untainted underground expedition was from the lamps on the helmets of the participants. It was absolutely magical!
While you’re still marvelling at the beauty of the Mexican Underworld, why not sign up and follow my continuing Journeys here at Jaspa’s Journal, or through my website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram?
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This blog is a revised version of one called Things To Do In A Cenote I originally wrote for Bucket List Publications.