One of Mexico’s greatest hidden treasures is the underground river system that spans the Yucatan Peninsula. While many visitors may be familiar with cenotes -- the limestone sinkholes filled with pure, clear water that dot the peninsula – few are aware that several companies offer the opportunity to explore parts of the rivers on underground snorkeling tours.
I had the opportunity to do just this when I signed up with Alltournative, an adventure outfit founded in Playa del Carmen in 1999 whose two-pronged mission is to introduce travelers to the extraordinary, mysterious world that lies beneath their feet, and to enrich and preserve local communities and environments.
My husband and I took part in the Jungle Maya Expedition. The day starts at a sprawling property in dense jungle called Rancho San Felipe, owned by a local Maya family, where entrances to the Nohoch Nah Chich Cenote System, one of the longest explored underground river systems in the world, are located. (Alltournative leases the property for their expeditions.) Our guide had us choose wetsuits, snorkels and masks before making our way to a fern-draped rocky cave mouth. There were no other people around, no signs, no booths selling snacks, just a cave entrance in the jungle. As soon as we stepped down into the cavern, a deep silence descended and the outside world melted away. We were in a huge, astonishingly beautiful cavern filled with clear water and lit eerily by the sun filtering through small openings in the rock above.
According to Maya spiritual beliefs, these river systems represent a complex underworld that is the source of life and fertility, and there’s certainly an otherworldly sense to being down here. We slipped into the water and snorkeled around the cavern, swimming around limestone stalactites and occasionally climbing up onto a rocky island to survey our watery domain. Tiny fruit bats chattered and swooped from small niches in the rock.
We spent perhaps an hour exploring the cavern before emerging into the dazzling light again. It was a short ride through the jungle in a “Unimog,” a German-built behemoth of an all-terrain vehicle that delivers a bone-jolting ride along a rutted and potholed track (for this reason alone, it’s recommended that those with health problems, back issues etc, don’t embark on the expeditions.)
Our next destination, still on the ranch, was a wider and more intricate part of the river. The entrance was an open-air cenote, deep green and dappled with sunlight, that narrowed into a series of caves. As soon as we jumped in and began swimming inside, our flashlights became crucial: unlike the last swim, this one was in a cave, not a cavern, where no natural light penetrates. The deeper we swam into the cave, the greater the sense of wonder. Our guide shone his flashlight towards the ceiling to illuminate a curtain of tiny filaments like pearls threaded on silk, the tireless work of minuscule worm-like creatures. The entire cave was hung with dripping limestone stalactites, while massive, pillar-like stalagmites rose from the floor. The effect was like being in a grand flooded cathedral.
At one point, deep inside the cave, where the ceiling was low and all around were the fantastically gnarled shapes of the limestone, our guide instructed us to switch our lights off. We lay, floating in utter, impenetrable darkness for several minutes, with only the gentle lap of water and the dripping of the stalactites to be heard.
When we finally emerged back into the sunlight of the world above and sat down to a traditional Yucatecan lunch prepared by local Maya women, it was with a renewed sense of wonder about the incredible, eerie majesty of this hidden world.
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