Text by Curt Bowen
Photography by Jeff Toorish and Curt Bowen
For thousands of years the Maya Indians thrived throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, a platform of layered limestone over 200 miles wide that is located in eastern Central America. Due to the porous nature of limestone, this platform contains virtually no rivers or streams. All water movement occurs below ground through a labyrinth of underground cave systems. The only access to this water is where the rock has broken or eroded and exposed these natural wells. The Maya called these openings cenotes. Given the lengthy dry season,
the cenote was considered a sacred opening into the underground because it supplied life-giving water; and they took advantage of these natural sources of water, and built their villages and cities—and especially their temples—around these life-giving cenotes.

Above: An evening lightning storm
illuminates the Yucatan’s horizon.
Photo taken from the roof
of the Homun church.

Left: An exploration diver ascends out
of a newly discovered cenote.
At the height of the Mayan civilization, more than two million people are believed to have lived and flourished throughout the lands of the Maya. The rulers held power as divine kings, ruling over permanent cities filled with art, monumental architecture, centers of commerce, and great temples. The Maya participated in human sacrifice and brutal games in which the loser (or, some would argue, the winner) would pay the ultimate price of death. During these religious events, the Maya offered special sacrifices into these cenotes in an effort to satisfy their gods. These offerings included religious artifacts, animals, and even human sacrifices.

The great civilization of the Maya did not survive into the 10th century. Nobody knows the exact reason for the collapse of this culture, but it is believed that over-population, perhaps disease, a dramatic change in climate that could have led to drought and then famine, decline in trading, and Mayan political battles could have contributed to the downfall. Their ancient cities still remain in the Yucatan. They are forgotten now, the great ruins taken back by nature and covered with thick jungle growth.

Above: Diver illuminates a possible
virgin underwater passage

Left: Explorer Jon Bojar returns for
another exploration dive into a new cenote
The breakdown of this society continued until the Spanish conquered the region. Spain justified its presence in Mexico on the basis of converting the native Indians to Christianity. The Spaniards built large Catholic cathedrals, often utilizing the very stone taken from Mayan temples to erect their mission buildings. And all the while using the same cenotes for water as had the Maya for thousands of years before the priests and conquerors of Spain arrived in the Yucatan.

During the 18th century, large sisal plantations developed throughout the Yucatan peninsula. Sisal was the primary plant used at the time for producing rope. This process required large amounts of water to supply the massive steam engines and the hundreds of field workers. These haciendas were also built literally on top of the cenotes.

In the early 19th century, man developed synthetic materials that produced rope that was much cheaper and stronger than the old sisal. And again change came upon the Maya as the haciendas fell into ruin. Today, the thousands of years of Maya history can be seen scattered along the poverty stricken village streets. 150-year-old dilapidated sisal haciendas surround the 400-year-old Spanish church, whose foundation is built upon the ancient base of a 2000-year-old Mayan temple. Stand beside the church and throw a rock as far as you can in any direction, and someplace within this radius will be the ever-present cenote that has provided water for thousands of years.

While the surface of the Yucatan has gone through multiple changes in human culture, the Maya underground has remained practically untouched by human hands—with the exception of what has been lost, discarded, or sacrificed. Our team of explorers was guided into this unfamiliar territory by native Sherpas. We would be the first humans to ever enter the mysterious underground world inside those caves, so excitement was building.

Introduction of the modern day explorer

With the invention of scuba, and its evolution into modern underwater cave exploration, the once impassable environment of submerged passages beneath the Yucatan’s surface has opened into an explorer’s dream world of endless untouched cave systems. Many of these openings reveal the secrets of the Maya with artifacts, and the remains of both animals and humans from past cultures.

Curt Bowen, publisher of Advanced Diver Magazine, and his team of eager explorers have been visiting the Yucatan peninsula for many years. The team explores under permit from Mexico’s Department of Ecology, and within strict regulations from INAH - (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia).
All cave systems explored are recorded, documented with GPS, photography, video, and illustrations. All significant archeological discoveries are left undisturbed, documented, and reported to the proper authorities.

The January 2006 Yucatan expedition returned the team of twelve explorers to the small village of Homun, located about 70 kilometers to the southeast of Merida, the Yucatan’s capital city. In past expeditions, Bowen had gained permission to set up base camp in the village’s 400-year-old Catholic church. The Homun Hilton, as Bowen calls it, provided the team with large rooms, electricity, showers, and ample hammock hooks for sleeping accommodations. The priest of the church and his smiling round-faced apprentice greeted the team each morning as they prepared their equipment for the day’s activities.
Top photo: A weathered Mayan herds his cattle down the roadside.

Second photo down: Diver Rusty Farst prepares for a dive inside a farmer’s well shaft.

Third row down (left to right):
A local policeman watches the foreign strangers descend into the village cenote.

Intrigued by something she has never seen, a young Mayan girl watches as an explorer prepares for a dive in the church cenote.

Elmer, the local well pump fix-it man, and our main guide, is our secret weapon for discovering new cenotes.

An unusually large Mayan joins our team as a Sherpa and helper.

Bottom: Children gather around the church’s well / cenote as an explorer returns with news of underwater caves the locals never knew existed
Above: A makeshift ladder was built from old railcar tracks providing the local children access into the cenote for swimming.

Below left: Explorer Tamara Thomsen returns from an exploration dive into a farmer’s well.

Below\ center: Rick Murcar prepares for another drop into a new cenote. He discovers an enormous water-filled pit with depths in excess of 240 feet.

Below right: James Kelderman returns to the surface after a quick recon dive into a small pit. He discovers a large underground air chamber and a small water pool.
Each day the twelve-member team split into two exploration groups: the film team and the digger team. The film team came initially to explore for new cenotes, then using the newest in HD video technology capture footage for an up-coming documentary about the team’s discoveries, the lives of modern day Maya, and the role the cenote has played throughout time. The digger team consisted of a group of agile explorers; experts in both dry and wet caving, survey, and cave biology. These diggers scrambled quickly from cenote to cenote. Like a pack of happy monkeys in caving helmets, they crawled, climbed, and plunged into the dark underground in search of new passages and old mysteries.

The Yucatan’s surface is not a friendly place. It contains many poisonous plants designed to inflict pain and horrible rashes, such as the chechen tree whose black dripping sap creates a nice blister rash, and the ever-eye-awakening pica-pica plant whose leaves deliver an exciting dispensation of pain.

The Yucatan also provided our team with a wide selection of biting and stinging insects. Small black wasps that build their nests just inside the cenote entrance are sure to deliver a red-welt welcome to those who venture too close to their nest. Swarms of freckle-sized ticks are eager to jump from plant to leg as you swish your way through the low underbrush. Ample spray bottles of white cattle dip and dog flea / tick soap help to control the inevitable
Above: The crystal clear, cobalt blue water invites Jason Richards in for an exploration dive. He discovers a few hundred feet of low sidemount passage.

Left: Curt Bowen prepares for a rappel into
a cave with the Armadillo sidemount harness.
infestation of tick bites you will receive up your legs and under your underwear line. Worst of all are the Africanized killer bees that build their VW Bug-sized nests into the cenote walls. Each cenote must first be evaluated quietly so not to disturb these easily angered bees.

The water table in this area of the Yucatan is usually 45 to 70 feet below the surface. Access into many of these cenotes requires the use of climbing and specialized cave diving equipment. Standard back-mounted double cylinders normally used for cave exploration could no longer be used due to the weight, and difficulty in hauling them on a long trek through the jungle and through dry cave passages. A new system called the Armadillo harness was designed on past expeditions just for this type of exploration. This system provides the exploration diver with a stable harness in which he/she can easily climb, rappel, and squeeze through tight cave passages, then simply attach side-mounted cylinders once in the water.
Above left: James Kelderman waits for the return of explorer Rick Murcar from a rancher’s windmill well. Below the photograph
is an illustration of what Rick discovered.

Above middle: Tracy Raz gets covered in bat poop
as she explores some dry cave passages.

Above right: Chrissy Richardson climbs out of a farmer’s tight well shaft

Bottom left: Professor Thomas Iliffe returns from a cave biology collection dive with a possible new species of life.

Bottom right: Capturing the action as it happens in real life, Thad Bedford, the expeditions HD videographer, sets up for
another shoot inside a newly discovered cenote.
During the twelve-day expedition, the team covered over 200 kilometers of roads, trails, and jungle brush. They were able to document and explore over 60 new uncharted cenotes. The film team managed to capture 12 hours of film footage for the up-coming documentary, and shoot 4000 still photographs. The biology teams captured and preserved dozens of possible new cave specimens.

While many of the cenotes explored turned out to be small cave pools with no extending passages, many require additional exploration due to their size, passage, and extreme depths. Several of the cenotes discovered yielded archeological discoveries from pottery to animal and human remains.

For an extended story with hundreds of additional photographs, illustrations, and cenote data sheets visit
Above left: Curt Bowen captures a beautiful jungle cenote with his 10.5 mm Nikon.

Above right: Explorer Chrissy Richardson prepares for a recon dive. She discovers amassive underwater passage that comes to an abrupt end at 145 feet.

Bottom left: Ethan Brodsky and Professor Thomas Iliffe pose beside a massive root system of the Banyan tree.

Yucatan 2006 Team Members
Back row (left to right) Rusty Farst • Curt Bowen • Rick Murcar • Jon Bojar
Front row (left to right) Jeff Toorish • Enrique Soberanes • Prof. Thomas Iliffe • Thad Bedford • Tracy Raz • James Kelderman • Tamara Thomsen • Ethan Brodsky
Not Shown: Chrissy and Jason Richards
Special Thanks: Roberto Hashimoto, Elmer, Leonor, Ana, & Lady,