Cenote Sac Actun (from the Spanish and Yucatec Maya meaning “White Cave”) is an amazing underground river that is only surpassed by Rio Secreto for a river cave experience for the casual tourist. Located conveniently in Riviera Maya, it is a must see if you can do so.
Sac Actun cenote is part of the much larger Sistema Sac Actun (White Cave System) which is a mostly underwater cave system that totals 319 km (nearly 200 miles) of discovered passages, making it the second longest discovered cave system in the world (after Mammoth Cave). The water in Sac Actun, like in most cenotes, is constantly refreshed by fresh water moving from the Yucatan inland to the ocean. At Cenote Sac Actun, a couple sink holes provide convenient access for a wonderful cave tour.
We drove up to the spot located down a dirt road a few miles further inland than Cenote Dos Ojos. We found a guide waiting and arranged for the tour with him. A few other guests showed up over the next few minutes to bring our little group of about 10. One of the groups had a guide who brought them here in his car. He spoke with the guide and told him that his group only had time for one cenote, and he believed that if you can only see one, that Sac Actun was the best choice. He may be right.
I do not understand how the best cenote in the area is so little visited when others just a few miles closer to the main road are many times busier. No doubt this improves the experience for those of us who make the trip, so make sure you add yourself to the list before more learn of this amazing spot.
From the parking area, it is a short walk to the first cenote that provided access. Called Pet Cemetery, we were shown some prehistoric bones under water that gave the place its name. We first journey in one direction in the cave that appeared at the end of the boardwalk, wading in waist-deep water. The ground is not muddy and the walk is easy and fun, although the coolness of the water takes a bit of getting used to. The cave soon opens up into a larger room where a hole in the ceiling served as a reminder to us about the oddity of the geology of the area – throughout the Yucatan, the very ground we walked on might contain an underground limestone passage – dry, fully or partially filled with water.
The natural sky-light allows a focused bit of sunlight to penetrate the dark cavern, turning the water a light blue that reminds us of how clear this water is. A couple of small plants have managed to grow up on the little island of rocks below the light and vine tendrils reach down to tap the life-giving water along the edge of the hole.
We pose for pictures and then, doubling back, we return to Cenote Pet Cemetery and continue on in a more cave like passage on the far side. Soon, the water grows deeper and we are bobbing along like corks supported by our life jackets. Stalactites cover the walls, often dropping into the water. We move amongst them and I’m surprised how close we are allowed to get.
Into the Dark
Cenote Sac Actun’s passages are lit at intervals by basic artificial lighting as we use our arms to propel ourselves slowly along the watery passage, not wanting to miss any of it. Using the snorkel gear, we go face down when we take the notion and study the sunken stalagmites, columns and other formations below water in the dim light. After moving along in this manner for a while, we eventually came out in a larger passage complete with an opening in the high ceiling accessible by a set of installed stairs. I feared that our tour was already at an end, but we went around the stairs and deeper into the cave.
The ceiling closes down on us, and we find ourselves having to watch our way regularly to avoid bumping our heads on the stalactites growing increasingly dense. No artificial lighting exists here at all, and soon the only light we have is the single flashlight carried by our guide. When asked, he says that he has only ran out of batteries once and then chuckled privately at the memory without offering us any consolidation as to what happened or if we might not repeat that experience. I wonder for the first time why I left our own waterproof flashlights in the car.
Bobbing along, cenote Sac Actun makes a couple of turns and the ceiling gets down to the point where even in the center of the room it feels like too little space above us. We could each easily reach up and grasp the smooth stalactites above our heads, but each is well behaved knowing the damage to ancient formations such an act could cause. The guide stops in a small room that barely fits us all and lets us sit there for a minute. It appears to be the crescendo of the tour. The room is covered in stalactites in a density that belies belief. No portion of the room is devoid of them, and all are barely above our heads. The lone light creates shadows about the place and shoots long tendrils of shadow and light into the two narrow passages of water and stone that lead off to either side. We grin to one another and in hushed tones revel at the wonder of it.
Who Turned Out the Lights?
Soon, the guide decides that he must adhere to the long tradition of shutting off his single light and we are all plunged into complete darkness. If you have never been on a cave tour, you cannot know how deep this darkness is, for we never encounter complete darkness in our normal lives. Even on moonless nights, the stars and reflected sunlight from the upper atmosphere provide a modicum of light. But here, the darkness is absolute and it seems to take on a palpable form of its own. I can sense the others around me trying as I am to not drift to one side or another knowing that in the darkness are pointy rocks that now seem more like spears than welcoming natural wonders and none want to have their heads pierced by them.
The guide’s flashlight works as he switches it back on and visibility is returned to us. He now leads us back toward the last set of stairs that we saw and we climb out, our adventure in cenote Sac Actun complete.
If you’d like to learn how to bob along in Cenote Sac Actun yourself, go here.
To see a gallery of pictures from our journey, click here.