The first time I stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon I couldn’t stop thinking what it must have been like for the very first person who saw it. I imagined an American Indian emerging from the dense pine forest that surrounds the canyon and stopping in his tracks, overwhelmed by the vista that spread before him. His first reaction must have been astonishment. Once recovered from the shock, his second thought must have been about how he would get across.
That same scenario plays out in my mind each time I see another geological wonder of the world. What did indigenous Africans think when they first encountered the roar of Victoria Falls in present-day Zimbabwe? How did Australian Aborigines explain Uluru, a behemoth red rock protruding from a flat, featureless plain in the center of the Australian outback? So strong are these images and questions that I’ve often joked that I must have lived a previous life as an explorer. I’ve always yearned to feel the sense of wonderment that accompanies the discovery of a place so beautiful and spiritual that it takes the breath away. Last month my wish was granted.
During my recent press trip to Iberostar Resorts in Mexico’s Riviera Maya, the resort arranged for our small group of travel bloggers to tour Rio Secreto, an underground river and cave complex deep beneath the surface of the Yucatan Peninsula. Following an extensive orientation and briefing to ensure we understood how important it was not to touch any surface within the cave, we descended through a cenote, a sinkhole whose roof had collapsed, revealing the maze of underground passages and caverns below the surface. Eons ago, the entire Yucatan was covered by a shallow sea. Year after year, sea creatures died and fell to the sea floor. Slowly, pressure and heat condensed these calcium sediments into a thick layer of limestone. As colliding plates of the earth’s mantle gradually forced the limestone plateau up the seas receded, exposing the limestone to weather and the elements. Over time, acidic rains percolated through the limestone, dissolving the sediments until they resembled one giant chunk of Swiss cheese. It was into this Swiss cheese, rife with tunnels, passages, stalactites, stalagmites, and an underground river, that we descended.
At first we walked on uneven dry ground, trying our best to keep our balance so as not to touch any of the formations, which stop growing the moment they are contaminated by oil from a human touch. At times we inched along in single file, each of us holding onto the life vest of the person in front of us. About half-way through, our path was blocked by water; we had no choice but to swim the rest of the distance. I crept into the chilly water, suddenly grateful for the cumbersome wetsuit that had me sweating just moments before. Soon, the water was so deep I couldn’t touch bottom. Continue reading