Cave divers, archaeologists and biologists have been unlocking the secrets of the cenotes (sinkholes) and underground rivers in the Riviera Maya for many years and have mapped an intricate network of channels hidden deep in the limestone rock. The world’s two longest underground river systems found to date Sac Aktun and Ox Bel Ha are in the Riviera Maya and the neighboring state of Yucatan has its own famous sinkholes and caves once held sacred by the ancient Maya. Amazing discoveries of Mayan offerings in cenotes and caves have been followed by finds in the Riviera Maya that cast new light on the earliest settlers of the Americas and the creatures that roamed the area in prehistoric times. Yet of the estimated 6,000 cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula only a few have been explored. This is about to change with the launch of a five-year expedition called Gran Acuifero Maya funded by National Geographic, the CAF-Latin American Development Bank and the Aspen Institute of Mexico.

Expedition leader Mexican archaeologist and Nat Geo explorer Dr. Guillermo De Anda and a team of divers, archaeologists, geologists, biologists and oceanographers from Nat Geo, INAH, UNAM and the Universidad Tecnologico de la Riviera Maya will begin by exploring cenotes in southern Quintana Roo and Felipe Carrillo Puerto. They will then move north to the Coba area and explore a chain of lagoons and cenotes on the Quintana Roo-Yucatan border. Future stages of the project will take them to Yucatan and Campeche to unlock the mysteries of this secret submerged world.

Guillermo De Anda has been exploring cenotes since 1983 and led his first archaeological research expedition in 1996. Since then, he has made many discoveries in the depths of cenotes and caves.

The Maya believed that cenotes and caves were the gateways to the Maya Underworld they called Xibalba, the home of the gods. Cenotes were the source of life-giving water and a place of worship. During his research, Anda has found offerings of ancient ceramics, human and animal bones, altars, pathways and even evidence that some cenotes were used as observatories marking the passage of the seasons.

As part of the Gran Acuifero Maya project, the team will be using 3D mapping and data sensing software developed by a Nat Geo engineer that will enable them to study and create imagery of artifacts, bones and structures without moving them.

The scope of Gran Acuifero Maya goes further than archaeological and paleontological research and mapping, biologists will be analyzing water quality and registering cenote and cave-dwelling species. The underground rivers and cenotes of the Yucatan are the only source of fresh water in the Yucatan Peninsula and the project will also make recommendations for the management of this precious natural resource and the exploitation of cenotes for sustainable tourism.