Perspiring heavily in the tropical heat, encased in neoprene suits and with scuba tanks strapped to our backs, we tramp through the jungle nearly two hours’ drive from Cancún. We stop beside a turquoise lake, its waters sparkling in the sunlight, and pull on our flippers. One by one, we slip into the water. I, too, wait impatiently for our dive guide to give the signal. Now!
Slowly, we paddle down into the cool blue depths. The cave in the Dos Ojos (Two Eyes) system grows darker and darker. We can only make out the passage at the bottom with the help of our flashlights. To the Maya, the cenotes – 2000-odd freshwater-flooded caves on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula – were gateways to the underworld. Today, they are paddling pools for swimmers and snorkelers, an extensive network of waterways forming a divers’ paradise and an underwater museum in which scientists still find centuries-old pottery shards.
In 2017, a German diver named Robert Schmittner discovered a link to a hitherto unfathomed cave and with it the largest submerged cave system in the region – approximately 350 kilometers long. Schmittner, who runs a hotel and a diving school in nearby Tulum, has been hailed as something of a folk hero ever since. Our tunnel opens out into a great cavern with colossal, treelike stalagmite and stalactite pillars. I am loath to tear my eyes away from the bizarre beauty around me, but our guide is already pointing to his watch – it’s time to head back to the surface. As I clamber out of the water a while later, my thoughts still linger far below.