Jungle pools of the Yucatán

The Yucatán Peninsula is located on Mexico’s Caribbean coast. It is home to a robust tropical rainforest, a crystal-blue coastline, and mystical Mayan ruins. The Peninsula’s most magical natural wonder is the cenote.

Cenotes are freshwater pools in the middle of the jungle. Below them extend massive underground cave networks, many of which remain unexplored. Scientists estimate that there are over 6,000 cenotes in the Yucatán, but who knows? It is impossible to quantify a phenomenon so sacred an unearthly.

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While in Tulum, Mexico, my family and I went cenote hopping. Here’s what happens when you visit a cenote.

You dive in and the surface is bright. Light rays illuminate streaks of shallow teal. Small, flighty, neon fish dance through the water and turtles splash around the surface. The limestone walls glisten a sparkling white. You venture beyond the shallow end, from aqua green to navy blue water. The bottom, 12 feet down, is darkly visible. The fish here are grey and big and slow. Submerged stalagmites cast underwater shadows. You go several feet deeper, and suddenly the water is black. Dark passageways extend into obscurity, the stalagmites like teeth above black cave mouths.

You turn on your flashlight and see a sign staring you in the face: “Peligro. NO PASA.” You realise that there are reaches of this cave never seen by human eyes. You dart to the surface and bolt to the shallow blue happy teal turtle-splashing water.

Cenotes exude an ominous sense of foreboding. The ancient Maya were the first to pick up on it. They believed that cenotes were gateways between Earth and the underworld, and sent their human sacrifices into the watery abyss. There are still bones at the bottom.

I was just swimming around with a mask and a flashlight, but someday I will go back with scuba gear. The same sinister quality that scares me away from the dark caves compels me to return.

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