Journey to XibalbaChihuohol Cenote. Photograph by Michele Westmorland.
Honoring the Maya culture is our dive plan. The cenotes on our itinerary all hold artifacts that collectively paint a picture of how the ancient Maya lived, prayed and died. Because these sites are of immense archaeological importance, one expert, underwater archaeologist Guillermo de Anda, has made it his life’s work to find out the answers—and I have the unique privilege of diving with him for an action-packed week in several stunning cenotes that he discovered, mapped and continues to study.
Accessing the cenotes requires a challenging entry, since divers and their gear must be lowered on lines to reach the water’s surface, which generally is 40 to 70 feet below ground level. The openings can be small, but they usually lead to large, flooded caverns decorated with stalactites, stalagmites, and the dramatically long, ropy roots of the alamo trees that seem to thrive beside every cenote.
The Ancient Maya and Cenotes
For centuries, the Maya of Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula have had a complex—and still not fully understood—relationship with the region’s thousands of inland sinkholes, known as cenotes. With no rivers or lakes, limited rainfall, and limestone bedrock, the Yucatán can be an unforgiving (to say the least) environment, which is why the crystalline water in the cenotes has always been a vital lifeline for the area’s inhabitants. Evidence shows that the ancient Maya both depended on and feared these dark sinkholes, believing that their unfathomable depths were portals to Xibalba, the spooky underworld that loomed large in their cosmology.
Many questions still surround the cenotes, especially the ones hidden in the forests near Mérida, the Yucatán’s capital. Did the Maya ritually sacrifice virgins in them, as many people believe? Or were the cenotes used as subaquatic ossuaries, places to deposit the bones of the deceased? One expert, underwater archaeologist Guillermo de Anda, has made it his life’s work to find out the answers—and I have the unique privilege of diving with him for an action-packed week in several stunning cenotes that he discovered, mapped, and continues to study.
De Anda, who has logged some 10,000 dives, most in the Yucatán, has the mind of a scientist and the soul of an adventurer. A professor of archaeology at the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán and the first Mexican to be named a National Geographic Explorer, he has fastidiously researched centuries-old documents, testimonies and hieroglyphs to learn the locations and ceremonial uses of cenotes that were sacred to the Maya. For decades, de Anda has been unraveling mysteries that, this year in particular, have extra-special resonance.
That’s because, as the end of 2012 approaches, the ancient Maya will be making headlines in a big way. December 21, 2012, is the date that the Maya “long-count” calendar ends after more than 5,000 years—a supposed finality that doomsday believers, occultists, and other woo-woo types claim will be the apocalypse (see sidebar). De Anda, ever the rational scientist, dismisses this idea of impending doom. “Frankly,” he says, “the best thing we can hope to come out of this kind of mystical thinking is an increased honor of Maya culture.”
Diving the Dark Side
First, an overview: “There are tens of thousands of cenotes throughout the Yucatán peninsula,” de Anda says, “most of which have never been explored. Divers have found extensive cave systems connecting the cenotes near Tulum, in the state of Quintana Roo, but the cenotes we’re diving this week, in the state of Yucatán in the peninsula’s northwest corner, are mostly unlinked.”
Once we are at depth, de Anda says, we’ll need to exercise great caution so as not to stir up silt or disturb artifacts with a wayward fin kick. He will guide us into the caverns by unspooling a reel, so we’ll always be able to find our way out. We’ll need good lights to illuminate the pitch-blackness and excellent buoyancy skills to maneuver through tight passages. Above all, he emphasizes, no touching. Nada. Because some of the treasures we’re about to encounter are thousands of years old and remain in their original positions, archaeologists can glean from them precious information about ancient customs.
Sacred Spaces, Above and Below
Our first dive site, Kankirixche, is located several miles down an unmarked dirt path in the middle of the forest—and it’s a great place to learn the ropes (so to speak) of cenote diving. Our crew rigs a line and-pulley system at the opening, which is comfortably large—some 75 feet in diameter. One by one, we divers strap on harnesses, attach them to the ropes, and are lowered 40 feet to reach the water below. We wait for our equipment to be lowered next, and gear up in the water. Because Kankirixche has such a capacious opening, there is plenty of light in the chamber below, helping us get our bearings as we make our first descent into the Maya netherworld.
De Anda guides us down 80 feet, and we enter an ink-black cavern. We see a few critters at depth—blind catfish and shrimp, primarily, who’ve adapted to life in total darkness—and a gorgeous display of limestone speleothems. At bottom, we discover a pile of animal bones, deer perhaps, which may have been deposited here centuries ago as sacrifices to Chac, the Maya rain god.
Now, with Kankirixche under our belt and a bit more confidence in our cave-diving chops, we are ready to up the ante. Our next cenote, Noh Mozon, offers even more tantalizing mysteries. Well-hidden in the forest, Noh Mozon lies a good 45 minutes by car at the end of a narrow, rutted dirt path. It’s clear we are deep in Maya territory when we stumble upon a traditional altar en route, a small stone structure filled with offerings to the gods: candles, bottles of honey, crosses, and huipiles, the intricately embroidered textiles worn by Maya women.
When we reach Noh Mozon, we are delighted to see that it has one distinct advantage over Kankirixche: a sturdily built staircase that descends 50 feet from the ground to the water—which means, for the one and only time during this trip, we can avoid the rigors of descending by rope. The sun is directly overhead, spotlighting an iridescent, turquoise circle of water that pools in sharp contrast to the surrounding blackness.
De Anda tells us that we will find human remains at 110 feet, so we descend in search of them. Our most exciting discovery is a skull partially submerged in the silt; all that’s visible are the top of its head and its eye sockets. We can’t determine its age or sex, but it appears to have been an adult at the time of death. De Anda estimates it is at least 800 years old, probably dating to the post-classic Maya period.
As we make our ascent along the cavern’s wall, we encounter a dark passageway. De Anda unspools his reel, and we follow him into the narrow cavern some 200 horizontal feet, at the end of which is a glorious vertical space. The sensation is magical, like we are gazing up through a beautifully sculpted chimney. It is awe-inspiring, and we surface with the profound sense that we have just experienced a sacred space.
Deformed Heads, a Dozen Virgins, and an Unexpected Blessing
As the week unfolds, we find that each new dive is more challenging than the last—the openings get progressively smaller and the drops to the water deeper, but the rewards at depth get better and better.
It would be easy to drive right by Chihuohol Dos, a cenote that de Anda discovered 14 years ago. The entrance looks like a narrow slit in the ground, not more than six or seven feet across at its widest point. We descend to find a huge bell-shaped chamber, and then drop underwater 110 feet to discover a trove of ancient ceramics and the bones of dogs and deer.
Even more interesting is a human skull—a female—that shows evidence of cranial deformation. It was most likely flattened at birth as part of the traditional Maya “head-binding” process. The heads of newborns, as de Anda later explains, were often pressed between two boards for long periods of time to create elongated skulls. The reasons why are not fully know. Some experts speculate that the Maya wanted their children’s heads to resemble those of jaguars, which were sacred animals and symbols of power. Others maintain that the Maya flattened their children’s skulls in order to keep the soul from escaping the body.
When our crew hoists us back into the daylight, we learn we’d had a surprise visitor while underwater. It turns out that a Maya priest, accompanied by a dozen young virgins, had stopped by the cenote to get water for a ceremony in his village, two hours away; he brought the 12 virgins to bear witness to the purity of the water he was collecting. When our crew told him there were subsurface divers, the priest didn’t seem to worry that we might contaminate his water. Because we were diving the cenote to study it, he said, we would not compromise its purity. The priest said a prayer for our safety and departed before we could make his acquaintance. And whether it was due to his blessing or not, we all did, in fact, emerge safely and soundly.
Heart Extractions and Screaming Skulls
Until now, we haven’t known how the skulls we’ve encountered ended up in the cenotes. But our next site, Kanum, reveals some startling truths about sacrificial customs among the ancient Maya.
De Anda found Kanum in 2002 by doing some extraordinary detective work. Most Maya records and imagery had been destroyed when the Spaniards landed in the Yucatan in the 1500s, most notably at the hands of Bishop Diego de Landa, who went to villainous lengths to suppress the Maya, torturing them and persecuting them for “idol worship.” De Anda came upon records from these 16th-century idolatry trials that referred to a certain cenote in which Maya priests offered human sacrifices, throwing corpses into the water after extracting their beating hearts on the surface. The references all pointed to Kanum, today’s dive site.
Kanum is a tiny, rectangular stone well that sits on the grounds of a decrepit Spanish hacienda. It was surely the property’s water source back in the Spanish colonial times, but it is doubtful the owners knew what lay below. We shimmy down the well to reach the cenote, and descend another 60 feet, where we come across a ghoulish skull that looks like it’s screaming at us. It has a dislocated jawbone (hence the shrieking countenance) and an unusual incision in two of its teeth, which have been carved with the symbol for ik, the Mayan word for wind, or breath, or life force. We see several other skulls and a human skeleton lying in perfect anatomical position—which suggests that it was thrown in as an intact corpse, with its flesh still on it. De Anda has also found skeletons with slashes on their left ribs, indicating their hearts may have been cut out before the bodies were sacrificed into the cenotes.
When we surface, I ask de Anda what he still hopes to discover in the cenotes. “My biggest dream is to really understand which rituals happened where, to whom, and why. Because if cenotes were just cemeteries for the Maya, we’d have found hundreds of thousands of skeletons in them. But we haven’t. Clearly, only a select few people were sacrificed or buried in cenotes, and we are still learning why.”
Crucifixions in Xibalba
Our final cenote, called San Antonio, is again accessed through a stone well, with a small, nine-by-four-foot opening. Again, de Anda had learned about this cenote from Bishop de Landa’s chronicles, which indicated that San Antonio may have been used for human burials and sacrifices for millennia—from the Maya pre-classic era (2000 BC – 300 AD) up through the 16th century, making this site one of extraordinary archaeological significance.
We are lowered into the narrow well and descend to a subsurface depth of 90 feet. San Antonio contains lots of deformed skulls and bones, but perhaps most interesting is our discovery of wooden beams in close proximity to the human remains, suggesting that the bodies had been crucified before being deposited in the water. “This may be the first solid evidence of Maya crucifixions that occurred as recently as 500 years ago,” de Anda says. “The chronicles reveal that Maya priests came here to deposit corpses possibly thousands of years ago, and continued to do crucifixions up through the 16th century.”
The eeriness of these discoveries is both unsettling and exhilarating. We emerge from San Antonio feeling privileged to have experienced such sacred waters, even though their mysteries are yet to be fully revealed. And while we may never fully understand what actually occurred here, we divers are among the very few ever to glimpse the enigmatic Maya netherworld by taking an unforgettable underwater journey to Xibalba and back.
Cenote Diving: Gear and Training
The water in the Yucatán’s cenotes is dark and cool, typically 74-76 degrees F. Recommended gear includes:
- 5mm hooded wetsuit
- short, stiff fins
- dive lights
- cavern safety reel
Most cenote divers will be accompanied by an experienced guide who will operate the safety reel and bring extra air. Open water divers can do cavern dives—in which you never lose sight of natural light—but for those who want to hone their skills, PADI offers a cavern diving specialty course, with Advanced Open Water as the prerequisite. Cave diving—in which divers penetrate deep enough to lose sight of the light—is a technical specialty that requires advanced training.
Resources and Recommendations
To dive the cenotes in the state of Yucatán, contact Dark Side Divers, an outfit specializing in archaeologist-led dives. Visit www.darksidedivers.com for more information.
Dark Side Divers works in partnership with Catherwood Travels, which can assist with accommodations and logistics. Visit www.catherwoodtravels.com for more information.
To dive the cenotes in the state of Quintana Roo, visit www.padi.com for a listing of PADI dive operators.