A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
An adventure in the sacrificial sinkholes of the Yucatán jungle
On a sunny winter morning in a remote patch of scrub jungle in Yucatán State, I stood knee-deep in the mouth of Xibalba, the Maya underworld, tugging impatiently at my wetsuit and scanning the crystalline pool for signs of my guide, Guillermo "Memo" de Anda, who was somewhere below making a quick check of the conditions. I was also keeping an eye out for the crocodile that state ecology officials warned us about when they heard we were planning on diving the site for the first time. They thought it was only a four- or five-footer, but they couldn't be sure.
De Anda surfaced in a rush of bubbles. "It's beautiful down there!" he blurted, yanking off his mask. "So clear, and the size of some of the pots! And the cave..." He shook his head, "It just goes and goes and goes. Wait until you see it!"
I flipped on my flashlight and popped my regulator into my mouth as the warm, fresh water began to swirl up above my head. It was time to check out the underworld for myself.
Thousands of entrances to Xibalba lie half-hidden in the dense scrub of the Yucatán peninsula. These water-filled sinkholes, or cenotes (a Spanish corruption of the Yucatec Mayan word for sinkhole, dzonot) are formed when rainwater eats away at the peninsula's fractured limestone bedrock, creating underground caves. Eventually, the roofs of these caves collapse, exposing subterranean water sources ranging from small caverns that link into vast underwater cave networks to large, sun-filled basins that can begin a hundred feet below the surface.
These cenotes served not only as passageways to the afterlife but as lifelines for the present: In this riverless land, the Maya depended on the cenotes as their primary source of water. Great cities like Chichén Itzá and Mayapán centered around life-sustaining cenotes, and small villages in the Yucatec hinterland still rely on them. The cenotes are also the abode of Chac, god of rain. To ensure that the rains would come, Chac was appealed to with gifts and human sacrifice.
Deep in the interior of Mexico's Yucatán State, where Maya is still spoken in thatched-hut villages and you can find crocodiles in your cenotes, I spent a week accompanying de Anda as he continued his daunting exploration of the state's 2,500-odd cenotes. The professor, a 46-year-old father of two and a garrulous fireplug of a man with a salt-and-pepper beard, currently teaches underwater archaeology at the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán in the picturesque city of Merída, but he once ran the most successful dive shop in the neighboring state of Quintana Roo. It was in cenotes there that he first discovered the allure of the underwater world of the Maya. He shuttered the shop and entered the staid halls of academe when Francisco Fernandez Repetto, director of the university's anthropology department, asked him to establish an underwater archaeology research center, the first of its kind in Latin America, at Merída. "It's so important that people realize some cenotes are archaeological sites with unspoiled access to a whole new wealth of information on the Maya. The artifacts in these particular sites need to be protected," says de Anda. "They are not just places to go swimming or scuba diving."
Kristin M. Romey is managing editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.
InteractiveDig Yucatán: Diving with the DeadDive along with Guillermo de Anda and editor Kristin Romey as they explore new cenotes in the Yucatán this spring!
Kristin Romey (Paul Wilder)