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Yucatan's cenotes reveal underground treasure

"If the Yucatan Peninsula doesn't have any rivers, then where does its freshwater come from?"

It's a good question and one that provoked thought amongst my travelling companions when posed by Manily, our Mayan tour guide, as we bounced along a dirt road in a minivan, penetrating deeper and deeper into dense verdant jungle 30 minutes inland of Playa del Carmen's sun-soaked beaches.

The answer, continued Manily — who, to my bemusement, spoke fluent English with a unique Cockney-Mexican accent he'd acquired living in Britain for nine years (in addition to impressive French and German) — is found in one word: cenotes.

A cenote is a deep, natural sinkhole formed as rainwater infiltrates slowly through porous ground, eventually creating a sub-surface space in the soft limestone bedrock that is characteristic of Mexico. Some cenotes are connected to expansive cave systems that may stretch for dozens of kilometres. The Yucatan's native Mayan people considered these sinkholes as sacred gifts from the gods. The Spanish who colonized the region derived the word cenote from the Mayan dzonot, which refers to any location with accessible groundwater.

Disembarking at the Rio Secreto entrance, we were greeted by our cenote guide, Fabio. This particular cenote, he explained, was discovered a few years ago by a Mayan chasing an iguana on his land. Adding to the region's growing adventure activities, the landowner decided to lease out his land to the Rio Secreto tour operator.

Formed over centuries by an underground river, the extensive maze of passages, tunnels, channels and dead-ends constitute the longest known partially-flooded cave in the Yucatan Peninsula. Unlike fully submerged caves, which demand technical cave-diving expertise, semi-sunken caves can be explored by the average person. More than 12 kilometres of Rio Secreto's semi-sunken passages have so far been mapped out, including 15 natural outlets located in different areas.

After squeezing into "shortie" wetsuits and floatation jackets, and capped with headlamp-equipped helmets, we followed Fabio along a dirt path winding through a tangle of tropical trees and bushes. Reaching a staircase made of giant stones where a mini-shrine offered thanks to the gods, we stepped down into the cenote entrance, which opened like a gaping mouth framed by a ruff of ferns.

The Mayans, Fabio explained, believe in three levels of the world: the sky, the earth and the underground.

"So, when we go underground in the cenote, we die," he said. "If the gods are happy with us, we are reborn."

Stepping onto a rubber mat that protected the dirt floor from our feet, we were soon floating in water so impossibly clear I could count the wrinkles on my toes. In order to protect the natural environment, we'd been required to shower before entering. We were also instructed not to touch anything.

Bobbing along behind Fabio like a train of round-headed Playschool figures, we moved slowly from one passage to the next. The rock walls and ceilings were roughly textured with thousands of stalactites dropping like sculpted daggers from arched ceilings. Our voices echoed to a backdrop of plinking water. With passages and corridors breaking off every few dozen metres, I could not help but wonder what treasures they might harbour.

Countless precious stones and carvings have been found in the Yucatan's cenotes, most likely left as ceremonial offerings. As well, human skeletal remains are often found in the underground water-filled cave systems. Thousands of caves and cenotes exist in the Yucatan, with more passages and pools discovered every year.

While we saw no carvings, gold and aqua coloured lights fixed in the main passages made the chambers appear to be decorated in jewel-toned stalagmites and flowstone formations. Some resembled identifiable objects: a dragon, a seahorse, a totem pole, a crocodile. Tree roots dropped from one ceiling, snaking down like hanging vines and crawling over the rock walls like spider webs, a zillion threads reaching outward. Stopping in a large, cafe-sized chamber, Fabio gathered us in a semi-circle to sit on ground covered with only ankle-deep water.

"Slow down," he said. "Think of the simplicity of life, think in the present."

Then he instructed us to turn off our headlamps and close our eyes. The darkness was absolute.

"OK," he said. "Open your eyes and look up."

Shining his light on the ceiling, our mouths gaped in awe. The perfect dome ceiling was covered with tiny, thin stalactites, as plentiful as blades of grass.

"It's like a porcupine," said one of my companions.

It was exquisite.

The next ceiling we floated under dropped lower and lower until our heads nearly skimmed the rock spears clinging to it. It never felt claustrophobic though, as we floated smoothly along in the gentle current. Nearing the end of our 90-minute adventure, Fabio told us Rio Secreto offered a longer tour, lasting five hours. I began planning my return.

Minutes later, stepping back into the mid-day heat and brightness, I was startled to remember I was actually in Mexico.

My impression of the Yucatan had been completely reborn.

Getting There

Flights to Cancun are frequent with Air Canada or WestJet and other airlines with numerous bargains and hotel packages available throughout the winter months.

Touring the Cenotes

• Rio Secreto is open year-round and offers tours with or without return transportation from Cancun, Playa del Carmen or Riviera Maya hotels.

• Led by professional guides, the tours are suitable for families with children over the age of four. Guests must be able to walk without assistance and must not weigh more than 120 kilograms/250 pounds.

• Tours include bilingual guides, wetsuit, life vest, water socks, helmet with headlamp, towels, lockers and buffet lunch and fruit beverages.

• Skip the sunscreen and hair products before this tour to help protect the pristine natural environment. And use the washroom before you get in the water!

• Professional photographers follow your group to take photos in especially memorable passages and chambers. Don't forget your credit card.

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