I entered the Tarantula’s Mouth just like a spider, dangling from a long white thread of nylon rope, with my arms and legs stretched out, hoping to catch something solid and real.
But there was nothing. Only the black void of an empty hole and a dozens of tiny, translucent bees orbiting my head—“Mayan bees” I was told—the kind that have no sting but fill hollow tree trunks with their “magical” honey.
Then my body dropped one whole meter—the average length of the human arms that were lowering me into the abyss, hand over hand, “On three muchachos!”
I inhaled the cool underground air from below, stared purposely into the black until grey stalactites came into focus, along with long root vines that stretched from the trees above me to the water that lay some 60 feet below.
An echo of shrieking bats taunted me. In the dark, I could sense them flitting past but only saw the shadows chase across the flat limestone walls. Obviously, I was news to them—the bats kept up their high-pitched twittering until my final drop.
My toes hit the water first—a split second of ice to the brain before my whole body was immersed in the inkpot pool of the cenote (say-no-tay).
Cenotes are sinkholes—subterranean pockets typically created by acidic erosion of limestone landscapes. In Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula and Central America, these caverns fill up with clear water and are called cenotes, a word that derives from the Maya Dzonot or “well”.
Nearly every major ancient Maya city was built near a cenote—for millennia, this was their main source of water and it still is for many modern Maya today. The water is clean, cool and potable—the Maya man lowering me into the cenote explained that this was Zuhuy Ha or “virgin water”, both pure and healing.
Treading in virgin water did not calm my fears. As far as my kicking feet were concerned, this was a blind bottomless ocean. And for the Maya men safely eating lunch on the surface, I had just disappeared into Chihuo-Hol (chee-wa-hol)—the “Tarantula’s Mouth”. Such is the warm and inviting Maya name for this particular cenote in central Yucatán—a name that is only slightly better than the place I was headed: Xibalba.
For the ancient Maya, Xibalba (chee-bal-ba) was the Underworld, which in their language translates literally as “Place of Fear”. I was trying very hard not to be afraid as I pulled on my fins and strapped on my dive gear. I told myself that this was like hundreds of other dives I’d done—except that I had just rappelled through a tiny little manhole into a dark bat-filled cave and was about to submerge myself into total darkness.
The Maya believed that the cenotes were windows into the underworld, a crossroads of the living and the dead. In ancient Maya writings, “entering the water” was a euphemism for someone dying, a reference to the watery underworld of Xibalba.
Slipping below the surface, I saw the underworld exactly as the ancient Maya described it: cold, dark, wet and forbidding. I breathed in from my air tank and began my downward descent to a place very few (living) humans have ever visited. A single turquoise ball of light quivered below me, a patch of sunlight piercing through the Tarantula’s Mouth and shining on the white sand bottom of the cenote. The tiny light offered some small comfort and I followed it.
Another smaller (yet stronger) light appeared on my right. I was not alone but diving with a student of underwater archaeology, Dante García Sedano. Dante’s research focuses specifically on cenotes and their role in ancient Maya ritual. I followed Dante’s flashlight beam and where it rested—upon what looked like a smooth, round white ball. I kicked closer and came face to face with a human skull, resting on the sand with big empty eye sockets that stared back at me.
The skull was pre-Colombian, with a wide flat forehead that was likely modified (the ancient Maya used coils and boards to modify their head shapes to look more like certain animals). I also noticed how large it was—to me it seemed like the largest skull in the world.
Dante led me to another skull, buried deep in the sand, along with other separate piles of bones—most of them belonging to animals. Most archeologists believe that these derive from animal sacrifice. In 16th century Yucatán, Spanish conquistadors observed sacrifice rituals to the rain god Chaac, where a youth was lowered down into the well—to drown or to be lifted up later with messages from the gods.
Animal sacrifice to the gods of the underworld was common, and the practice did not disappear with the end of the ancient Maya civilization. Earlier that morning, Dante had explained how in the Maya town we had driven through, they still conduct an annual animal sacrifice—usually a bull—which the people throw down into the cenotes.
Scuba diving among ancient sacrificial remnants is kind of spooky, so I was quite happy when we turned on our larger lights and made the underwater underworld glow a brilliant teal color. Suddenly I could see the monstrous limestone walls, flowing with fluid shapes of nature. Mineral stalactites glowed violet-blue, shimmering in our artificial sun.
Dante showed me the ancient objects, placed exactly where he had found them: whole clay pots from long ago, beautiful amphora with carefully-crafted handles and shards of broken dishes. I brought my mask within inches of these terrific ceramics and imagined the people who had used them—the same people who had climbed up and down the steps of the pyramids I was visiting.
However many centuries ago, someone had dropped a pot through a hole in the ground and here it was, sitting undisturbed and upright before me—an everyday object that had outlived the civilization it served. Dante believes these pots were either dropped when Maya were collecting water, or they were part of the funerary rituals where food was sent down to accompany the dead on their journey to the underworld.
The Maya realm of the dead was made up of nine specific layers, a numeric structure that is evident on so many of the great pyramids in Mexico, including that of Kukulcan in Chichen Itza. The nine levels of the temple represent the nine layers of Xibalba.
Unlike the hot red hell of Judeo-Christian canon with its eternal fire and brimstone, the Maya underworld is a cold, dark and unhappy place. What’s more, every astronomical deity has an underworld avatar—which is why a Who’s Who of the Maya pantheon of gods is extremely complex.
The important thing to understand is that so much of Maya mythology details the struggle between the people of earth and the gods of the underworld—a struggle of life and death, creation and destruction.
For the ancient Maya, water was life—it was cleansing and brought life to crops and whole cities. At the same time, water was death—the cenote was a place of sacrifice and a window to the underworld. Life was pulled up from the well and death was pushed back down into it to ensure the cycle continued. In my travels among so many Maya ruins I have seen the carvings that illustrate human life as the ongoing water cycle: raindrops (birth), the river (life), and evaporation (death). Like all things Maya—there is no beginning or end, merely a cycle that goes on forever.
Diving in a cenote is like swimming through the Maya creation myth. I submitted to the watery burial and floated through the clear darkness, encountering the very real world of the dead. Then, after more than 45 minutes, I followed the shaft of light that was pouring down from above and surfaced safe and sound and alive. Slowly but surely, I was pulled back up towards earth, or “Middleworld” (as the Maya called it)—born again through a hole in the ground.
Dripping wet and smiling, I rubbed my squinting face in the bright light of day, my eyes still sensitive after so long in the dark. I will probably never forget the “Place of Fear” but for now, I was back in the world of the living.