For many travellers, visiting a cenote is one of the highlights of the trip to the Yucatán peninsula. Swimming in these freshwater-filled sinkholes is a fascinating, unforgettable and exhilarating experience and an excellent opportunity for underwater photography thanks to the unbelievably clear water. Touring cenote Sac Actun you’ll see more than just a cenote – you’ll have the chance to explore the world’s longest underwater cave-network known today. Read on to learn more about cenotes, how to visit Sac Actun and what to expect.
Imagination or reality?
The light from the flashlight illuminates the icicle-like stalactites dangling from the ceiling of the cave, making them sparkle as if encrusted with thousands of tiny diamonds. It takes a hundred years for just one square centimetre of stalactite to form and there are thousands of them here in Sac Actun, some long enough to reach the surface of the water. Everywhere from the ceiling thin spiderweb-like threads hang, evidence of the continuous growth of new stalactites.
We reach a cavern and a small, dark shadow swishes by. Suddenly, I notice there are tens of shadows flying about or just chilling upside down, hanging from the ceiling – bats! As we float further into the underground cave-system I realize this is the type of experience that could usually leave me feeling pretty uneasy, but somehow I feel surprisingly calm. Maybe it’s the beauty of it all or how fascinating it is to see what nature is capable of. Or maybe it’s the fact that everything looks so unbelievably other-wordly that it’s hard to grasp this is actually real.
It’s almost like being part of a fantasy or exploring some fairytale-world and even though I’m an atheist I get the feeling there’s some greater power present here, keeping me safe. Perhaps it was the same feeling the ancient Mayans got when they entered these sites over a thousand years ago, for the cenotes quickly became a very significant and sacred part of their lives. Of course, back then the cenotes also supplied the population – and all living creatures of the peninsula for that matter – with the only source of vital fresh-water.
Photo: Swimming around Sac Actun is an experience you’ll never forget!
New archaeological discoveries in cenotes
Ancient Mayan people believed that cenotes were portals to the underworld Xibalba, so sacrificial objects were often thrown into cenotes. Even humans are believed to have been sacrificed into the cenotes from time to time! Many remains have been found in cenotes, which today have become increasingly important underwater archaeological sites. In fact, due to recent discoveries in the cave-system Sistema Sac Actun, many are now calling it one of the most important underwater archaeological sites in the world! In this article by the Telegraph, you can find out more about the recent archaeological findings in Sac Actun – prehistoric animals for instance – and the work scientists are doing.
As the water starts to get deeper swimming through the cave my thoughts suddenly go to all those people who died in these places. I peer into the deep abyss (as deep as 100 metres at some points!) to my side and can’t help but wonder how many undiscovered remains there might still be down below for future archaeologists to find. Not every archaeologist is a certified diver and diving in caves requires some pretty advanced diving skills. Therefore, obviously underwater cave-systems aren’t the most easily accessible archaeological sites, thus also making them fairly unexcavated and well preserved.
Photo: The water in Sac Actun was unbelievably clear, just look at the visibility, those people are over 10 metres away (and this isn’t even a good camera, the quality of this photo is fairly poor)! At the left side you can see the water growing darker as the depth grows deeper – up to over 100 metres at the most.
What is a cenote?
The Yucatán peninsula is known for many things, among them its vast number of cenotes. There are believed to be around 6000 cenotes just in this area and more are being found every year. Many of these holes have filled up with fresh water over time (ground water), forming cenotes. In other words, cenotes are like natural wells of fresh water and have provided humans, animals and vegetation with a much-needed source of water.
The reason cenotes have been able to form in such large quantities in this area is the porous limestone that can be found here. The Yucatán peninsula is often described as a great Swiss cheese filled with these cavities and sinkholes. There are small cenotes, large cenotes, open-air cenotes and underground cenotes. Many cenotes are connected to each other, form large networks – like the Sistema Sac Actun.
Photo: Have you ever seen water this colour? It felt almost magical dipping into it, although it can be quite cold if you’re not used to cold water (around 20 degrees Celsius according to the guide).
How to see Sac Actun
Photo: There were only a handfull of us on the tour. I recommend arriving before lunch to be sure to be able to enjoy the cave in a nice, small-sized group.
You can tour Sac Actun snorkelling or diving, but for the latter you need a lot of specific diving experience. Sac Actun is only for the very experienced diver. Since that description doesn’t apply to neither my boyfriend nor me, we opted for the snorkelling tour, which was excellent! The water is so incredibly clear that you could see even without the mask on, but the mask really came in handy when the ceiling started closing in and we had to go really low through tight passageways.
Coming from Finland, I’m no stranger to cold water-temperatures and I didn’t feel cold without a wetsuit until the last ten minutes of the tour. Some of the others joining our group didn’t feel the same, though, and were freezing even in a wetsuit. The temperature stays at around 20 degrees Celsius according to the guide, so bear that in mind while deciding on whether or not to splurge on the added cost of renting a wetsuit for the tour.
Photo: Admiring the beautiful stalactites in Sac Actun was one of the highlights of exploring this cave-system.
As I understand, seeing Sac Actun on your own is not possible – you need to be in the presence of a guide. Considering how fragile this environment is, I think this is a good thing. Plus the caves and passageways really are like labyrinths and believe me – you don’t want to get lost here! The entrance fee, guide and gear (lifejacket, snorkel tube and mask) are included in the price (450 pesos). However, consider renting a flashlight! We weren’t told about this option until during the tour and it would have been nice to have our own light. Two of the people joining our tour hadn’t been told about the possibility to rent a wetsuit, so I guess it’s good to know these things in advance so you can ask about them at the site.
The lifejacket seemed to be non-negotiable, I felt I didn’t need one, but wasn’t allowed to go without. On the bright side, there’s a minimum of swimming to do if you wear a lifejacket. On the downside it was pretty uncomfortable and hard to navigate through the small passageways and trying to stay low with the lifejacket pushing me upwards.
While touring, remember to avoid touching the stalactites since this will interfere with their growth due to the oils on the human skin and avoid wearing sun block unless it’s biodegradable (you won’t need it in the cave anyways!).
Photo: The story of how Sac Actun was discovered is like the plot of a movie. According to our guide, the owner of the property just bought himself a regular piece of land and started walking around, checking out his domains. Suddenly he fell through the ground ending up in the water-filled cave! The legend has it, it took him some 9 hours to find his way out of the pitch-black cave. Of course this does sound like one of those stories guides make up to entertain their audience, but who knows, it might be true!
How to get to Sac Actun
Photo: We rented a car and drove to Sac Actun, which is probably the easiest way to get there. However, watch out for the very bumpy road! The sign in the picture was also just about the only sign we saw, so make sure to check out the map in this blog post before you head towards your destination.
Sac Actun is not one of the main tourist attraction-cenotes (at least not yet!), and it’s located on privately owned property, so you won’t find big tour organizers taking hoards of tourists there. This of course is a good thing; at least we got to explore the cave practically by ourselves! This was refreshing considering the crowds at the Tulum ruins for example. However, it also means that getting to Sac Actun can be tricky. There’s no colectivo (those Mexican shuttle buses) going there and it’s located at some 20 kilometres from Tulum, so walking is not an option.
In other words, there are two ways to get to Sac Actun: taxi or car.
If you’re taking a taxi it’s probably best to have the driver wait for you while you do your tour, so you can get back from Sac Actun as well.
If you’re driving on the other hand, be careful! The road is in pretty atrocious shape at some points with gigantic craters and holes everywhere. You can make the drive, but just watch out and don’t speed – take your time.
Leaving Tulum, head towards the highway that leads to Playa del Carmen. Take the exit for cenote Dos Ojos and just keep going past the entrance to Dos Ojos (they might stop you, but just tell them you’re headed for Sac Actun and they’ll let you pass). Sac Actun is some 6 kilometres further inland. There aren’t a lot of roads or turns and basically you just go straight forward for a while and then take a left turn. But since there aren’t a lot of signs for Sac Actun you might get a bit unsure, so my advice is to check a map beforehand (screenshot of a map of the road down below).
There’s plenty of parking by Sac Actun and it’s free.
Sistema Sac Actun – in a nutshell:
- This cave-system is believed to date back to the Pleistocene epoch, around 2,6 million years ago
- 101,2 metres is the deepest point.
- 346 kilometres is the length of the cave-system, thus making it the longest underwater cave-system in the world and the second-longest cave in the world. The longest being the Mammoth Cave Complex in the U.S.A.
- Home to many archaeological discoveries, some dating as far back as 2,6 million years ago!
The fast facts – Read this before touring Sistema Sac Actun:
- Arrive before lunch to avoid crowds (there’s no big crowds here, but it’s still nicer to enjoy this tour in as small a group as possible).
- Entrance fee is 450 pesos and includes gear and a guided tour (for the snorkelling option). This may seem like a pretty steep price considering you can visit some cenotes for around 30 pesos, but I really feel this is worth the investment.
- The tour lasts around 40-60 minutes.
- You can expect to see: stalactites, clear water, bats and most likely catfish, prawns and maybe even a tarantula hanging out on one of the stalactites (I did not enjoy this in particular considering I’m terrified of spiders and wasn’t expecting to be confronted with one).
- There’s parking free of charge.
- Water is around 20 degrees Celsius. If you’re not used to cold temperatures consider renting a wetsuit for an additional expense.
- Bring an underwater camera, you’ll want to take pictures.
- Bring your own flashlight or rent a flashlight on site. You’ll be fine without one, but having one will allow you to see more and gives you that extra comfort.
- Considering taking a towel with you for afterwards.
- You can change into and out of your bathing suits in the toilets on the site. You might also want to consider using those toilets before hitting that cold water!
- You can find the website for Sac Actun here (there’s not that much information, but nice pictures and contact details if you need them).
- This tour is NOT FOR YOU if you have severe anxiety in cavelike places (for example if you’ve had a panic attack in a cave before), if you suffer from claustrophobia or can’t stand water temperature below 28 degrees Celsius (in that case I don’t think even wearing a wetsuit will help you).
Photo: At some points of the tour the ceiling starts dipping pretty low (here in this picture it’s just getting started, it got to the point where the stalactites were basically scraping our heads!). If you are prone to claustrophobia, you might be more comfortable on a different kind of cenote-adventure.
Photo: After the tour we had some time to check out the entrance to Sac Actun on our own. Sac Actun provides the jungle above with much-needed fresh water. Many trees will share a root, so these intertwined roots you see in this photo can function as “straws” for dozens of trees above. Fascinating how trees can work together like that!
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