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Beneath the lush landscapes of the Yucatan Peninsula an intricate underground collection of river systems flow. The Yucatan is home to the three longest underground water systems in the world— the 270 km Ox Bel Ha; the 172 km Sac Aktun; and the 82km Dos Ohos—which have informed the distribution of human settlement on the peninsula for over 10,000 years. Those wishing to explore the subterranean waterways of the Yucatan must enter through a sinkhole opening called a cenote (pronounced say-NO-tay). The word cenote originated from the Mayan word “D’zonot” which describes any subterranean cavity that contains permanent water. Cenotes are natural pits of collapsed limestone that contain either shallow or surprisingly deep pools of groundwater. From the outside, a cenote often has the appearance of a small pond, but dive below the cool waters and a concealed river system may be revealed.

History of the Sacred Cenote

In Ancient times, indigenous inhabitants of the peninsula used cenotes as washing pools and locations for sacrificial offerings. According the University of Yucatán, evidence from Mayan mythology suggests cenotes and underground rivers acted as a connection between the living and the spiritual world or “Xibalba”. To honor and appeal to Chaac, the god of rain, Mayans may have thrown jewels, pottery, and sculptures into the water along with sacrificial human offerings. Beneath the clear waters, Archeologists have found many human remains (the oldest of which are approximately 9,000-years old), alongside the bones of giant sloths, elephants, and extinct bears dating back to the Pleistocene era.

Existing records indicate that the Sac Actun (Yucatec Mayan for “White Cave”) cave system is the second largest in the world and explorers have found 198 underwater archeological sites in it so far. On a recent trip to the peninsula, my friends and I explored the partially exposed caves of Sac Actun.

Our journey began at the opening of a semi-circular cavern whose bright blue waters immediately drew the attention of my eyes. As we dipped into the chilly waters of the cenote, our guide gave a brief history of the Sac Atun caves and the connecting chamber which natives once used as a location to bury their pets. In just under an hour and a half, we dodged millennia-old geological formations and made our way through a portion of the subterranean masterpiece to photograph the astounding landscapes.

Limestone walls and hanging stalactites. Photo credit: Lola West

What Lies Beneath

A combination of geologic events and climatic change has led to the development of these unique subsurface environments. Ages ago, most parts of the solid ground of Yucatan were covered by the sea. Over time, sea levels dropped and the remains of coral reefs, plants, and calcium carbonate rich marine life fused together to form the limestone walls that line the cenotes and underground rivers of the Yucatan Peninsula. Once a bevy of solid but porous limestone, thousands of years of rain and coursing underground rivers dissolved minerals and carved out caves. Today, the fossilized remains of marine animals are still embedded in the ancient stone.

Within the clandestine caverns exists a fragile ecosystem of geological formations and wildlife. The upper walls of the cavity are lined with icicle-shaped stalactites that have formed over millions of years while beneath the water, towering stalagmites as big as a Roman pillar decorate the cave’s floor.  These mineral deposits can be as small as a chopstick or as tall as a house.

Pillar-like stalagmites growing upwards from the floor. Photo credit: Lola West

Stalactites reaching into the water. Photo credit: Lola West

In darkest and most secluded cenotes, the wildlife has evolved to live in an environment devoid of natural light. Like the sea life that live in ocean’s abyss, inhabitants of the shadowy cenoteslack pigmentation and are often blind, so they are equipped with long feelers that allow them to find food and travel without light. In lighter areas, one can spot small bait fish, cat-fish, eels and frogs swimming through the caves.

Fish inside of the cenote. Wiki Commons

Be sure to check out some of these natural wonders should you ever find yourself in the Yucatan Peninsula.

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