Jane hanging Henk below Cenote Maya

Jane and Henk rappelling into Cenote Maya *Photo Credit AllTourNative

I had just celebrated my birthday a week earlier in Toronto, and now here I was, suspended from a pair of ropes 80 feet in the air inside the largest cenote cavern in the Yucatan, rappelling my way down with Henk to take a dip in the underground pool’s clear, cool waters. As I dropped down past huge stalactites dripping from the roof above me, I purposely slowed my descent so that I could really appreciate the natural beauty of the cavern surrounding me, all the while thinking: if this is what 57 looks like, I am all in!

Adventure is a state of mind

I’ve always said that ’50 is the new 35′, especially when it comes to the adventurous attitude that Henk and I and many of our peers have. As travellers, we love to explore the world from a different perspective, whether that’s dangling from a rope in a Mexican cavern, climbing barefoot to the top of a pagoda to watch the sunrise in Myanmar or even just learning bits and pieces of a new language so we can say hello to the locals.

Bagan pagoda stairs Myanmar

The steep barefoot climb up a Bagan pagoda

So when we were invited to take an excursion to rappel into an underground freshwater cavern in the Yucatan Peninsula, in spite of Henk’s fear of heights, we jumped at the invitation. Because even though we may not be hard-core adventurers, there are just some things that are too exciting to turn down.

AllTourNative Lifetime Experiences

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Our excursion was organized by tripcentral.ca through a local Mexican company called AllTourNative Lifetime Experiences, and as soon as we were introduced to our guide Teresita (“Tita”) Henk and I knew we were with a great company. Not only was Tita personable, well-educated and conscientious, but the tour company she works for embodies some of the values that Henk and I look for when travelling: sustainability and authenticity. AllTourNative is a local company that partners with indigenous Mayan groups to deliver experiences that respect Mayan lands and culture and help to educate visitors about the local people and the place they call home.

Revenue from these tours goes back into the local communities to help maintain the Mayan language and heritage, improve local infrastructure and provide employment opportunities that are close to home. The excursion we took to Cenote Maya is a perfect example of how this all comes together in an exciting adventure for visitors that also gives back to locals.

Visiting Cenote Maya (Nohoch Na Chlich in the Mayan language)

Many people do not know that the Yucatan Peninsula is home to the world’s longest underground river, flowing through a vast system of connected caverns known as Sac Actun that includes more than 150 cenotes. Cenotes are formed when the limestone that makes up the Yucatan Peninsula is eroded over thousands of years by rainwater, resulting in large ‘sinkholes’ that appear on the surface, exposing hollowed-out caverns below that act as natural cisterns for water.

Many of these caverns, like Cenote Maya which has the largest ‘dome’ in the Yucatan at 85 feet high, contain giant stalactites and stalagmites as well, and the waters contained within are rich in minerals that filter through these limestone formations.

jane swimming Cenote Maya

Cenote Maya has the largest dome in the Yucatan, at 85 feet high

The ancient Mayans were well aware of these underground rivers, as these cenotes were their source for fresh water in a region with very little surface water. For this reason, these sites were – and still are – considered sacred to the Mayans. Beyond their value as a natural resource, cenotes were also believed to be the entrance to their underworld where gods and spirits resided after death. So before we could enter the waters at Cenote Maya, our group took part in a ceremony with one of the shamans from the local community.

Mayan shaman at Cenote Maya

A Mayan shaman welcomed us to Cenote Maya

Although we couldn’t understand the Mayan language spoken by this spiritual leader, we understood that we were being welcomed as guests of these lands, and the ritual helped to reinforce the importance of the site we were about to see.

Shrine at Cenote Maya

A mini-version of ancient pyramids at the Cenote Maya blessing site

Leave the chemicals at home

Because Cenote Maya is still part of the local water supply, anyone who plans to swim here is advised not to wear any sunscreen or chemical bug repellants, and must take an open-air shower before entering the cavern. The cold shower is also a good way to prepare for your first ‘dip’ into the waters inside the cavern, which can be quite refreshing (unless you’re used to swimming in Canadian lakes!). From the shower area it was a short walk to a wooden platform cantilevered out over a large ‘hole’ in the ground, where Henk and I somehow found ourselves volunteering to the be first of our group to ‘couple-rappel’ into the darkness of the cenote 85 feet below!

I’m definitely not fearless, and you won’t find me skydiving or bungee jumping EVER, but I was only a little nervous as I climbed out over the edge of our platform. Bracing my feet on the step below and leaning back into the ropes that were my lifeline, I listened to the instructions of the guide VERY carefully and prepared to descend the 8 stories into the water (but not before posing for a photo!)

Jane Henk laughing rappelling

Apparently, adrenaline makes you smile! *Photo Credit AllTourNative

Having never rappelled before, I was surprised at how easy it was to control my drop with the ropes, and how little strength was actually required.

Jane Henk Cenote Rapelling looking up

Henk and I dropping down into ‘blackness’ at Cenote Maya.*Photo Credit AllTourNative

In fact, I soon realized that I DIDN’T want to do this too quickly, or I would miss taking in the natural beauty of the cavern around me and it would be over too quickly. Honestly, I would have taken half an hour to drop down if I could have, because I was loving this whole rappelling thing!

Jane Henk scissors over Cenote Maya

Feeling like Cirque du Soleil acrobats in the Cenote Maya. *Photo Credit AllTourNative

(I can’t say that Henk was as thrilled as I was when he first looked down, but I give him full credit for taking this on even with his fear of heights. I think part of his confidence came from the fact that the equipment, guides and safety procedures at Cenote Maya were top-notch.)

TIP: For non-swimmers, or those who don’t want to rappel the 85 feet down into the water, Cenote Maya also has a large wooden staircase that provides alternative access for these visitors, and because the staircase is built right in the centre of the pool, even these visitors feel ‘immersed’ in the cavern.

Cenote Maya staircase

In the centre of the Cenote, there is a large wooden staircase for visitors who don’t want to rappel

Cenote Maya Rappelling Adventure: Swim, Zipline, Tarzan-drop, Repeat

Rappelling into the cenote was only the beginning of the fun. Once in the water at the bottom of the cavern, visitors can also try out one of two ziplines, flying out over the water until they release their grip and drop into the pool.

Ziplining at Cenote Maya

A woman (bottom left) creates a ripple effect after dropping into the pool from a zipline inside Cenote Maya

There’s also a ‘tightrope’ stretched a meter or so over the water with guide wires to hang onto for balance, or you can just grab a tube and float around, marvelling at the giant roots that extend from the surface to below the water, forming natural columns connecting our ‘underworld’ to the sky above.

roots at the Cenote Maya

Sorry, but you can’t swing from these vines!

Roots from surface at Cenote Maya

Giant roots form natural columns

All in all, our group hung out in the cenote for more than an hour before it was time to return to the surface and head home.

Photographic proof of your adventure

Having just rappelled into a Mayan Cenote, I was keen to get photos of the adventure to prove this to everyone at home, and AllTourNative has taken care of that as well: ImagiNative is their on-site photography service where you can purchase any number of photos of you or your group. Photography students take courses to learn their craft, and some of the successful graduates are employed on-site where they are stationed inside and around the cenote to capture images of visitors rappelling, zip lining, etc.

Guide Tita, photographer and Henk Cenote Maya

Our AllTourNative guide Tita, one of the local on-site photographers and Henk in Cenote Maya

Computers are set up at the admin office where visitors can review the photos from their adventure and order the ones they want which ImagiNative will print out right then and there.

Jane Henk suspended Cenote Maya

Visitors can’t bring cameras (or flip-flops or anything that could fall into the water) inside Cenote Maya, but you can purchase photos like these afterwards. *Photo Credit AllTourNative

Or you can purchase the entire CD of all your images, that also includes information about the Mayan culture, the tour company, and dozens of photos of flora and fauna taken by local Mayan photography students as part of their final exam.

Bird photo from Cenote Maya students

One of dozens of images included on souvenir ImagiNative CD at Cenote Maya *Photo Credit AllTourNative JM 43

Cenote Maya hector 3 gekko

Colourful gekko *Photo Credit AllTourNative hector3

At $60 the CD may seem a little pricey, but remember that you’re also contributing to the community with these funds.

TIP: AllTourNative provided everything we needed on our Cenote Maya jungle adventure: transportation from the Grand Oasis Tulum resort where we were staying; a tasty buffet lunch served in a large open-air palapa; towels, lockers, washrooms and change rooms; all the safety gear you’ll need including life jackets; and an unforgettable experience guests will remember for years to come.

57 and Counting (my blessings!)

As we left Cenote Maya I couldn’t help but think how grateful I was that Henk and I were fit and healthy enough that we could experience this kind of adventure together. There are so many things to see and do in the world that aren’t accessible for many people, and the older I get, the more I am aware of that fact. Travelling is a privilege, but health is a blessing. And while Cenote Maya may not be a fountain of youth itself, it did provide the motivation for me to keep my New Year’s resolution to get back to the gym more regularly so Henk and I could continue to have more adventures like this in the future

Shaman and group Cenote Maya

Feeling blessed (literally and figuratively) at Cenote Maya *Photo Credit AllTourNative

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Special thanks (“Yuum bootik” in the Mayan language) to tripcentral.ca and Oasis Hotels & Resorts who hosted Henk and I on our Mexican adventures.SaveSave

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