The BBC documentary investigates the sacred cenotes of the Yucatán Maya of Mexico, their mythological underwater world of freshwater sink holes.
BBC Documentary: Secrets of the Maya Underworld Explores Underwater Cenotes, Sacred to the Ancient and Modern Maya
“Secrets of the Maya Underworld” a 2004 documentary, delves deep into the history of this ancient civilization. They settled in the Mexican Yucatán, a peninsula the size of England that separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Caribbean Sea. They continue to thrive today, and also inhabit large areas of Southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras.
In 1841, the intrepid explorer John Lloyd Stephens connected with the local Maya inhabitants across the region who introduced to him evidence of their ancestral civilization. The grandeur had been hidden from the European invaders for centuries under the lowland tropical jungles and highland pine forests of Central America.
Stephens wondered how the ancient Maya survived in the Yucatán Peninsula, an area of limited rainfall with little surface water, not even a small river or lake. Unlike other great civilizations such as the Romans and the ancient Egyptians, the Mayan empire did not arise from the banks of a river.
“In the square of the village was a great cenote, or subterranean well, which supplied all the inhabitants with water. On a nearer approach, we found a great orifice or opening in the rocky surface, like the mouth of a cave. The descent was by irregular steps cut and worn in the rocks. Over head was an immense rocky roof, and at a distance of perhaps five hundred feet from the mouth was a large basin or reservoir of water. The water had no current, and its source was a mystery. During the rainy season it rises a little, but never falls below a certain point, and at all times it is the only source of supply to all of the inhabitants. Women, with their water jars, were constantly ascending and descending; swallows were darting through the cave in every direction, and the whole formed a wild, picturesque, and romantic scene.” — John L. Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, 1843
Cenotes as Sacred Portals to the Underworld
The Maya believed that the freshwater sink-holes, or cenotes, dotted across the area were sacred portals to the mythical underworld. They called this hidden world Xibalba, or “Place of Awe.” They are indeed portals to an incredible underground labyrinthine system of rivers. The term “cenote” derives from a word used by the low-land Yucatec Maya, to mean any location with accessible groundwater. The thousands of natural pools are only now being explored, bringing more information to light about how this secret world was created by nature in a unique chain of dramatic events.
Technology has allowed deeper exploration of these cenotes, revealing a world of contorted caverns, underground rivers and dark recesses alive with stalactites, stalagmites, bats and some very ancient species. But how were these underground watercourses formed? Scientists conjecture it involved the birth and death of a coral reef and the impact of massive asteroid that is thought to have extinguished the dinosaurs.
In this program, two divers — one British and one U.S. — explore the pools of the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico to discover new elements of the Mayan culture and civilization.
Dangers of Exploration of the Deep Cenote Caves of Yucatán
US explorer and diver Sam Meacham came to the Yucatán in 1994 to spend six months exploring…and lived there for 16 years. He has recently returned, and now works with El Centro Investigador del Sistema Acuífero de Quintana Roo A.C. (CINDAQ), which facilitates research, promotes education, and supports the conservation of the natural and cultural resources associated with the cenotes and underground rivers of Quintana Roo, Mexico. British-born Steve Bogaerts joined him as they mounted in the video explorations deep into the Yucatán’s interior. They were attempting to track the thousands of cenotes and see how this underground system links up, underneath the flourishing tropical forest of the Yucatán.
At the bottom of many cenotes, Sam and Steve found offerings to Mayan gods, including pots and even human remains — that could be from human sacrifices. A whole food chain has been found in the deepest recesses of these cenotes — over 20 species that have never seen the light of day. Some of the underground caverns are not totally full of water, instead, they are home to thousands of bats.
“Cenotes really present us with the truest form of exploration found today. When we come up to the side of a cenote, we literally have no idea what we’ll find at the bottom of it until we investigate and for me, that is one of the greatest thrills about what we do,” Sam explained.
The history of the Yucatán and the way the Maya civilization flourished there, is now becoming clearer.
Updated 31 March 2023