Three times Devon ran toward the precipice, and three times he stopped inches short of the 14-foot drop into a jungle swimming hole. After each rush to the edge, he stood motionless, his face half grim determination and half acrophobic fear. As much as his brain wanted him to make the plunge, his body did not.
Along with the others in a group of adventurers on the Yucatán Peninsula, I had already made the leap. Now, we treaded water in the warm, dark cenote, calling Devon’s name and offering encouragement. The internal conflict still writ large on his face, Devon swallowed hard, walked forward, paused for what seemed like minutes and finally stepped over the edge.
The easternmost projection of the Yucatán Peninsula is mostly a dense tropical jungle, but it’s a jungle unlike any other on Earth. This part of Mexico, a state with the musical-sounding name of Quintana Roo, is commonly known as the Riviera Maya — a sprawling waterfront tourist development of huge hotels and sandy beaches. But a bit inland from those beaches is the Ring of Cenotes, a mostly undeveloped watery paradise where adventurous travelers can walk in the footsteps of ancient Mayans.
In these cenotes (pronounced si-NO-tays), the ancient Mayans communed with their gods. Modern visitors also find this to be a mystical and compelling place. Swimming in a cenote feels like floating back to a time before cars or buildings or mobile phones. This is a place where the modern, built-up world is invisible, where zapote, ceiba and ficus trees loom, great masses of thick hanging vines sway, and fish dart through clear water. Large groups of raccoon-like coatis roam the forest clearings, iguanas sun themselves on rocky ledges, and eagles and hawks ride the thermals in sweeping arcs.
Sixty-five million years ago, an asteroid 6 miles wide smashed into the peninsula. The resulting impact crater stretched for nearly 100 miles. The violence done to the planet was so great that it altered the Earth’s climate, resulting in a mass extinction of three-quarters of its plant and animal species. Chicxulub, as geologists now call the extraterrestrial rock, ended the long reign of the dinosaurs.
That was a bad deal for the monster reptiles, but it eventually became a boon for modern-day vacationers. When Chicxulub hit, it fractured the rock beneath the Yucatán Peninsula, turning it into a water-filled subterranean paradise. When it rains, water drips through the shattered stone into a vast network of mostly underground rivers and lakes. Over time, the rock above these rivers has collapsed in some places, exposing the water. Such areas, sacred to the ancient Mayans, are called cenotes, a Mayan word roughly equivalent to sinkhole in English. But while the word sinkhole conjures up something muddy and dangerous, cenotes are clear, verdant and delightful.
Along with Devon and 11 others, I visited the cenotes on a tour with Experiencias Xcarat. We spent our day at four cenotes, exploring each in a different way.
Just getting to the remote jungle cenotes is an adventure. While there are about 8,000 cenotes in the area, most are accessible only by roads so pitted and rutted they look like they’ve been used by the air force for strafing practice. But our driver knows the roads and made good time, although he sometimes stopped to move sleeping dogs from the traffic lane before rattling on.
At the first cenote, Ha’, which means water in Mayan, we plunged in via a flying trapeze-like contraption. This required holding tight to a spiraling, sliding bar that descended rapidly from a platform on a rock to a splashdown in the cool water below. The experience tests even the best swimsuit elastic and actually smacks of Mayan tradition: the wire rigging is reminiscent of the suspension bridges of ancient Mayan civilization.
The second cenote is Lu’um, the Mayan word for earth. It’s an apt name, as the cenote lies almost completely underground, save for its spectacular entrance. To enter, we strapped into a harness at the cenote’s circular opening and rappelled 20 feet down to make a memorable splash among the stalactites in the subterranean water hole.
Other cenote adventures ensued — think swimming, snorkeling and kayaking — until the day culminated with the 14-foot cliff jump that gave Devon pause — and that our guide half-jokingly referred to as “Mayan Sacrifice.”
Such a jump looks plenty daunting, if you look up from the water. From the top, it’s twice as scary. And it comes with real risk. Land wrong and you’ll ache for a week. One bikini-clad woman in our group crash landed and suffered a backside bruise the approximate shape and color of an acorn squash.
Swimming on an asteroid
The day in the cenotes whetted my appetite for more Mayan adventures, so the next day I visited Xplor. The adventure park not far from Playa del Carmen offers rafting through an underground river, driving an amphibious vehicle through jungle tracks and watery caves, and zip-lining from towers 60 feet above the lush tree canopy. For my money, the best adventure was a quarter-mile swim through an underground river formed 65 million years ago by the impact of Chicxulub. To me, it felt like swimming on an asteroid.
After descending the stone steps to the river edge, I swam toward an opening in the cave wall. From there, the narrow ribbon of cavern snaked through the semidarkness. Dogpaddling, I passed stands of glistening rocky icicles, taking care to not touch the stalactites because the oils on human hands can destroy the fragile chemical balance that allows them to grow. In places, the cave walls formed large cathedral-like rooms where masses of twisted zapote tree roots dangling from the ceilings looked like great chandeliers in the dim light.
Near some of those roots were small, dark forms. As I stared at them in the gloom, they looked to be moving slowly as they clung to the nubs of baby stalactites growing from the cavern ceiling. All doubts as to the identity of the forms were erased when several bats swooped toward me, not too low, but close enough to see how large Mexican fruit eating bats are compared with the small ones we have in Minnesota.
After I emerged from the cave swim and readjusted to the tropical sun, I explored the aboveground world. Strapping myself inside the roll cage of an amphibious, knobby-tired ATV, I put it into gear and set out to explore the 5 kilometers of jungle pathways.
I wound in and out of the vine-wrapped tees and lush shrubbery. Soon, the path descended, gently at first and then quite steeply. I had entered the first of the many caves along the ATV route, necessitating use of the vehicle’s headlamps and a big reduction in speed as water splashed up and over the ATV’s floorboards. As I sloshed through the swells in the flooded cavern, it soon became clear that it was no place for timid drivers.
Exiting the cave, I entered a series of short segments containing straightaways where I could accelerate, but these short bursts were soon checked by a series of sharp turns and bumps. On one occasion as I came around a turn, a brown brocket deer darted out, necessitating a hard brake.
The Maya Riviera is a popular vacation spot, and every year it becomes more so. New hotels and roads are being built at a rapid pace.
But still, it is possible to experience the natural world of the ancient Mayans, if you know where to look for it.
William Gurstelle is a Twin Cities-based travel writer and author of several books.