I WONDER HOW MANY PEOPLE have been sacrificed here Thats what you think as you descend into Xibalba - the underworld, realm of Chac, the Mayan god of rain, receiver of sacrifices. Xibalba is usually known to us as the cenotes of the Yucutan peninsula.
Most people who dive the cenotes (cenote being a Spanish corruption of dzonot, the Yucatec Mayan word for sinkhole) tend to be taken to the Dos Ojos (Bat Cave) or Chac Mool (Kukulkan) systems, because you can do effectively two different dives at the one location.
Other cenotes require more travel time, and are further off the beaten track. But
if you can arrange a guide and the time, youll be rewarded with experiences that will stay with you for a lifetime.
After many trips to Mexico and quite a few cenote dives, we decided to organise some diving a little removed from the usual tourist areas.
For the past few years, Angelita (little angel) has topped my list of must-dive locations. Its an atypical cenote dive, as its a sinkhole in the middle of the jungle, and drops straight down to 60m. Being the furthest from all the other cenotes, and the deepest, pretty much guarantees that youll have the dive all to yourself.
We arrive at a nondescript locked gate just off the highway south of Tulum. Our dive guide Andreas honks the horn of the pick-up a few times before a little grinning Mayan man eases out of his wooden shack to unlock the gate.
We park up just inside, and wander along a small winding path through the forest for five minutes, avoiding the tree roots and vines. Eventually the forest opens up to reveal a mirror-like surface reflecting clear blue skies and dancing mosquitoes. Now the thing you want to watch out for here, says Andreas, is the freshwater crocodile.
Excellent, I think. If Jill gets eaten, at least Ill get some good pictures...
After kitting up, and a pre-dive check, its a long walk back to the waters edge in wetsuits, dive gear and with our lighting and camera rigs. In 100% humidity, it seems like the longest walk of your life!
Theres no dive platform, so you take
a leap of faith into the water. We run our lights and cameras up and drop past the protruding fallen trees and side walls, admiring the stalactites, which remind us how lower the water level once was.
The first 28m are in fresh water that at first appears to bottom out on a layer of sand and silt, with an island in the middle strewn with tangles of tree branches.
The bottom turns out to be less solid than it looked. It actually consists of a layer of hydrogen sulphate, given off by the decomposing matter that fell into the sinkhole and was trapped below the freshwater layer. Taking what feel like our final breaths, we say goodbye to daylight and descend into the Underworld.
The first thing that hits you is the smell, like rotten eggs and four-week-old boiled cabbage. The taste in your mouth is interesting too, not to mention that the hydrogen sulphate layer renders our torchlight in a blood-red hue. I was just waiting for El Diablo to pop up and welcome me to Hell!
Suddenly, we break through into the saltwater layer. The aroma disappears, as well as the daylight, and you feel you really have emerged on the other side of the Underworld, intact and aware that you have experienced something very special. Its almost a religious experience.

ITS DARK, BUT WE CAN SEE that the slopes of the island we saw earlier is actually the top of a mound of debris and trees from the collapsing roof (or ground, depending on your perspective).
Like an iceberg, it gets wider and more pronounced the deeper you go.
Once we have done a couple of laps round the debris, we slowly navigate our way back up through the Hell layer. If you time it right, you can make it appear to your buddy that you are being slowly born, with just your head appearing, then your upper body, then your legs.
Very surreal, if not slightly Freudian...
Taking our time to ascend, we work our way around the sides of the sinkhole, moving above and below the trees protruding from the side walls.
Getting out is an unusual experience, as the sides are quite steep, and covered in roots. We have to pull ourselves back onto terra firma using a couple of lengths of rope, before marching back through the jungle to the pick-up.
Our next port of call is Gran Cenote, which some consider one of the best, whether for snorkelling, cavern- or cave-diving. Like Angelita, it is some distance from the regular tourist haunts, so should be planned as a day trip or combined with a visit to Angelita or Aktun Ha.
Gran Cenote can be busy with snorkelling tourists following up a day-trip to Tulum, but they tend to disappear by early afternoon. Time it right and youll have the place to yourself.
The system isnt especially deep, at just over 10m, but the water clarity, combined with the amazing rock formations and white walls, make it spectacular.
The cenote is part of the Sac Aktun (White Cave) system. With a short walk to the top of wooden steps, we make our way down to the central platform, with lotus flowers blossoming all around. Then its a drop into the cooling waters, and a short descent into another world.
We pass metre upon metre of amazing speleotherm formations, with columns running from floor to ceiling, and vast curtains of rock casting mesmerising shadow patterns on the immaculate white walls from the probing torchlight.
The path around the cenote snakes around, with some of the narrower parts requiring careful navigation. Good buoyancy control is essential, to ensure that you dont damage any furniture in the home of the Rain God!

SEVERAL TIMES during this intricate, winding dive, we arrive at shallower parts of the cenote and bask in shafts of light penetrating through from the surface, marvelling as the rays dance through the clear water, with the ghostly reflections of the surrounding jungle shimmering on the surface.
After working our way back to the entrance, we relax in the shallows, watching the occasional Mexican molly or Mayan goby chase one another through the nooks and crannies.
After this tiring but exhilarating day, we kick back with a couple of cold beers outside La Fe cantina and reflect on our experiences at two unique cenotes.
How often do you visit the Underworld and return to tell the tale

Fourteen nights all-inclusive at Gran Porto Real Resort (www.realresorts.com), with flights and transfers, cost £1250 per head from First Choice, www.firstchoice. co.uk. Ten days diving with nearby Pluto Dive, including one day at Cozumel, cost US $500, www.plutodive.com