Why you should care

Because we don’t know of any swimming pools that double as portals to the Mayan underworld.

Thunk, thunk. Thunk, thunk. I’m bumping along in a tiny, horse-drawn wooden cart, my head nearly hitting the canvas-covered roof, as the driver yells, “Curva! ” And whap! We jerk around a corner in the middle of the jungle. The cart is attached to miniature train tracks, and this is the expedited form of transport from the road to our swimming destination in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. But I’m not in view of the coast. Instead, I’m an hour outside Mérida, the Mayan capital of Mexico — I saw some stone temple ruins along the route to prove it, smushed between some tiny dilapidated homes — to go swimming in one of the region’s thousands of cenotes.

These cenotes are giant sinkholes, formed when the limestone earth collapsed into the ground long ago. Some 6,000 of these magical caves dot the region and can be reached from any of the peninsula’s beach destinations, like Cancún, Playa del Carmen or Tulum, now a hipster paradise. But they aren’t just rocky caves. They are filled with crystal-clear, blue-green waters and are connected by underground rivers. Some are shallow and others are hundreds of feet deep. Our tour guide, a Mayan man in his forties self-dubbed Mel Gibson, told us that in previous times, only upper-class Maya were allowed to swim in the cenotes. Today, though, any tourist with a swimsuit can venture into the depths to do exactly that. “You’re in this underwater cave half full of water and it’s super breathtaking. Gorgeous,” says Lindley Battle, a 25-year-old from Greensboro, North Carolina, who rented bikes in Tulum and pedaled to two cenotes last September. One day she had a cenote all to herself, but when she visited the bigger Grande Cenote, it was “jam-packed” with tourists.

One cave diver and archaeologist found centuries-old bones, from a deer, a dog and a human skull, clearly placed as offerings to the gods.

These caves were special to the Maya, who used them as wells for freshwater to grow corn in times of drought. And they are said to be the portals to Xibalbá, the Mayan underworld, as well as the watery lair of Chaac, the Mayan rain god. Today, farmers still pray to Chaac for rain, but ancient Maya were particularly reverent. In one cave, Mexican archaeologist and cave diver Guillermo de Anda found centuries-old bones, from a deer, a dog and a human skull, clearly placed as offerings to the gods. The Maya “needed to keep the balance in the universe by offering … the most precious gift, human blood,” de Anda says. In return, they expected the gods to provide good weather and food.

Luckily, when I arrived at one cenote, we already had good weather and plenty to eat. This cave was almost camouflaged among the rocks and trees; I couldn’t even see the mouth to the cave from 30 feet away. But when I walked up to the edge, I peered down into the dark depths below and could see sparkly clear water. A steep concrete staircase, barely big enough for a tall person’s feet to fit comfortably, led me down 50 steps on a rocky base. The cave opened up underneath the earth in a giant expanse, and a platform leading up to the edge of the water begged me to run and jump. One … two … three!

But beware. When you take a dip in the cenotes, you won’t be alone. Aside from Chaac and the nearly microscopic silvery-gray fish, expect to see small bats flying around and dangling from cave ceilings. And even though you can’t see it, know you’re swimming in a dash of guano too.

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