An underground cenote at Ecopark Kantun-Chi // © 2015 Thinkstock
Relax on the white-sand beach. Enjoy unlimited pina coladas. Descend into the Mayan underworld. These are all items that should be on your Cancun to-do list.
Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is brimming with thousands of cenotes, limestone sinkholes filled with crystal-clear water. In Mayan culture, cenotes are sacred, and they represent the entrance to the underworld. The Mayas once used cenotes as part of human sacrifice rituals, but these days, the unique saltwater and freshwater pools are perfect places for travelers to explore the more mysterious side of Mexico.
On two recent trips to Cancun, I took two cenote excursions. Much to my surprise, they were vastly different experiences — each an unforgettable underground journey all its own.
On your first visit to the underworld, perhaps it makes sense to jump right in, feet-first. Local tour operator Alltournative offers an excursion to what is known as the Jaguar Cenote, located deep in the jungle near the village of Pac Chen. This cenote can only be accessed by rappelling down through a hole in the ground and then into a dark subterranean cavern.
On a sunny day, light streams in, penetrating the clear water and casting a shimmering glow that gives the cenote its name: The patterns of dappled light on the rock emulate the spots of a jaguar.
Once you descend into the chilled water, you can paddle around in an inner tube, watch bats dart from rock to rock overhead and listen to the water lap against the edge of the cavern.
When you’re ready to return to the land of the living, you can choose between being hoisted back up by your rope and harness or climbing a long rope ladder. But consider yourself warned: Climbing the ladder is much more physically demanding than it looks.
For a more illuminated journey through the mysterious Mayan under-world, visitors can explore meandering underground cenotes such as those at Ecopark Kantun-Chi. This eco-park, located about 1 mile south of Puerto Aventuras, comprises a system of pools and tunnels, all subtly and beautifully lit.
Guests are outfitted with helmets, water shoes and life vests, then accompanied by knowledgeable guides through the underground cave system. You’ll find yourself floating in expansive, still pools one moment, then walking through tight spaces full of limestone columns, stalactites and stalagmites the next.
The illuminated space allows you to examine the details of limestone formations, and the freshwater pools are lit from below to display their depth and crystalline quality. Although it involves some scrambling, crouching, ducking and swimming, the experience as a whole is tranquil and otherworldly, and the atmosphere is breathtaking.
Taking a swim in a remote cenote can be the perfect complement to a vacation spent in Cancun’s glitzy Hotel Zone. With countless unique cenotes on the Yucatan Peninsula, there are plenty of opportunities to explore.
During your trip to the Riviera Maya region, consider visiting a variety of underground caverns on a guided tour or on your own. You could even make a day of it by renting a car and mapping out your own sampling of cenote adventures. There’s a wealth of crystal-clear waters and staggering beauty to draw you deep into the alluring underworld.