Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, home to Cancun, Cozumel, and many other cities that are typically swamped by tourists are now revealing secrets from an ancient and dark past.
Deep in the jungles of the Mesoamerican Yucatan many scuba divers travel great distances all in search of a unique geographic phenomenon only found in present day Mexico. Stretching from the Northern Yucatan Coastal region to the South near cities such as Campeche, Kantemo, and Tulum sits a vast array of caverns and underground rivers known as cenotes. These subterranean waterways are often times crystal clear and wind slowly around the mountains until they suddenly arrive to the ocean shore. For many inexperienced divers, this swim will not take place. The majority of amateur scuba goers will only be allowed to explore the caves origins in the middle of the jungle. Only the most experienced divers are now allowed to attempt the swim from the jungle, through the underground river, and all the way to the ocean. It’s a tough dive that requires an unbelievable amount of poise. However, for those that have completed the journey, they say it’s an otherworldly experience.
The trip begins with a trek up the mountains and through the dense jungles of the Yucatan. This is known as the climb. Eventually the diver arrives at a large hole in the earth. Ironically, it does look just like an entrance into the underworld. Inside the gaping hole, a huge body of pure clear water awaits the divers entrance. With the gear on and ready, a long plunge sends the swimmer into the entrance of something that represents much more than just a swim to the ancient people that once inhabited this land.
The Maya, as they are called, were a group of native Mesoamericans that lived in a portion of present day Mexico from 2000 B.C. to around the 1500’s A.D. These ancient people’s ancestors still live in the area we know as the Yucatan Peninsula. Visitors to almost every Mayan city ruin can today see the evidence of a highly sophisticated civilization that built monumental works and practiced an intense religion of their own. Most Mayan cities contain at least one pyramid. These were typically the central point of the village and were used as a temple. But why? Why did the Mayans insist on building these huge stone structures?
Believe it or not the people closest to answering that question are the modern day scuba divers. Deep in the heart of the Yucatan the vast array of caverns and underground rivers that greet modern day scuba divers once caught the attention of the Mayans. The Mayans formed a belief that these cenotes were the literal path to the next world.
Geographically, the river systems begin high in the central mountains of the Yucatan. and rush quickly to the oceans through the jungles. The Mayans understood this well. The rivers were their path to the next world, and the rivers began in the mountains. Therefore, the mountains were the key to the next life.
Unfortunately, many Mayan cities did not reside in the mountains. Many of them were much closer to the coast line. In their minds, they would need to be in the mountains to secure a ticket to the next world. For some Mayan leaders, they thought their destiny was to be be born again as a god. To fulfill this, they needed a solution. So how would the Mayan leaders cope with this religious delima. It’s simple. They would build their own mountain in their own back yard.
The large Mayan pyramids that are now explored by tourists every day were originally meant to be literal mountains built by the leaders of the given Mayan city in order for their life to be carried on to the next world. By building their own mountain tomb, the individual would be able to find the underwater rivers that begin in the mountains and make the transition to the next life.
Archaeologist are still studying the origins of this unique religion. We do however understand that this ancient theory of the Mayan transition to the afterlife was launched most likely because of the awe inspiring cenotes that dot the landscape of the Yucatan. They provided a visual conception to the Mayans that explained in their minds how human life progressed from this life to the next.
Recent studies have shown that Mayan culture of the time allowed for human sacrifice to these underground passages. Often times children would be tossed in and left to die as a gift to the gods. In theory, had one of the sacrificial humans attempted to swim through the underground river systems and actually survived, they would have witnessed something spectacular. The river would have provided them with an almost pitch black and blind swim for most of their journey. Their mind would have likely been terrified with the prospect of perishing alone and underground. Just when they thought the end of their life was upon them they would have felt a significant burn in their eyes, which ironically signaled their probable survival. Just yards ahead, the ocean awaited them. If they could make it just a few more feet, they would be able to return to their people and probably would have been viewed as a gift from the gods. As great as that sounds, the likelihood of anyone surviving the sacrifice is very low at best. However, we continue to search for that one person that made the journey and lived to tell about it. No evidence to date has ever been found indicating that a person survived the trip, but the search continues.
We learn every day more and more about the ancient Mayan culture. As their ancestors continue to inhabit the land of Yucatan, a re-engergizing of the Mayan religion has taken place. Many dwellers of the Yucatan today are carrying on the oral traditions of their fathers fathers. Although we have yet to see any modern day sacrifices, the cenotes of the Yucatan continue to hold a strong position in the Mayan religion.