Exploring the Maya Underworld

Last Updated: October 2, 2012 by
Categories: Mexico

ScubaModern rituals celebrate life: cocktails on the terrace, siesta beside the pool. Yet, back from the coastal glare of sunlight on beaches, dense forests guard portals to a limestone underworld: the Yucatan’s labyrinth of solution caves.

Do you have what it takes to explore?

Modern adventurers find an array of edgy options: hiking through steamy jungle; snorkeling in hidden cenotes; rappelling down cliffs; diving one of the longest completely submerged cave systems in the world. The ancient Maya found shelter in the same domed caverns; crawled through narrow, rubble-strewn corridors; and bathed in freshwater pools. They believed that cenotes were gateways to the subterranean world of Xibalba, a dark realm where souls went after death and the gods of death ruled.

Xibalba today offers lively, if ever descending, levels of challenge. Will you follow an unmarked, thorny path to reach a hidden cave? Climb a rickety ladder to dive into a dark blue pool? Squeeze into a musty wetsuit to explore these dark, wet cavities below the earth? The ancient Maya used caves for sacred rituals. Within such flooded caves, archeologists have found even prehistoric human skeletons that predate the Maya civilization. Such Maya artifacts as incense burners and ritual metates are still being found. Centuries later, ritual drinking and feasting take place at Alux Restaurant & Lounge. Named for a mischievous spirit, the cave known as Alux has been through several transformations. At one time, the cavern had dining tables and a wishing well. Later it became a dance club. It came to life yet again in August, 2006.

Cenotes are deep natural wells that appear when the surface above them collapses. The ancient Maya had many uses for these sacred portals to Xibalba.

“Now, as in ancient times,” says author Richard Harris in Hidden Cancun & the Yucatan, “cenotes link the surface world of light and air with a deep, cold, secret underworld.” Stand at the entrance to Cenote Dzitnup, and the tropical heat seems stifling. A tunnel with rickety board steps curves down into a dark hole; there‘s only a rope for a hand-hold. Yet, step out onto a rocky platform, and you’re inside a limestone cavern enclosing a natural pool. High above, thin tree roots sway like ropes among stalactites and the angled shapes of sleeping bats. Through a hole in this canopy, a dark-eyed boy in a red T-shirt watches three snorkelers push out from massive boulders. Plunge into this pool, and its cool, fresh water is a blessing.

Click here to see photos of the Mayan underworld