'Those 45 Minutes Changed My Entire Life'

Travel with diver Luis Leal to the Mayan Peninsula, home of cave diving's most spectacular spots.
By Will Gray

Cave diving is not for those looking for a quick thrill. It requires extreme dexterity, patience and skill. Diver Luis Leal has been on his fair share of expeditions to this hidden underwater world, but he's taking it one step further. Leal's passion lies in exploring the magical world of "cenotes" — a sensation he describes as “like being in the entrance to the circulatory system of the planet.”

Go inside the secret world of these beautiful undiscovered caverns below:
 

RedBull.com: What is a cenote?

Luis Leal: It’s an opening into the underground aquifer systems caused by the collapse of a roof section at a water spring. The word is derived from the Maya word "dzonot," which meant a "sacred pristine water hole that connects the outside world to the underworld known as Xibalba."

Diving cenotes in Mexico
Into the light... © Luis Leal

Where are they and how big are they?

They can be anything from an inch to 300 feet or more, and they are found all over the Mayan (Yucatan) Peninsula. They are countless. There are thousands of them.

Luis Leal and buddy explore stalactites in cenotes in Mexico
Light coming in from above © Luis Leal

What first got you into cenote diving?

The first dive of my life was in a cenote and the feeling of flying, the full experience of no gravity. ... Those 45 minutes changed my entire life. I would call it an epiphany. From that moment I assumed the responsibility of becoming a guardian of these windows to the underworld.

Diving Cenotes in Mexico
Looking around a corner to the next mystery © Luis Leal

What does it feel like to dive in a cenote?

It is the most peaceful sensation. It is like being inside yourself, but you also get the feeling of belonging to a bigger place, like being in the entrance to the circulatory system of the planet. It is a journey into the veins of the Earth. There is no room here for adrenaline searchers or macho divers. The best cave divers I know are disciplined, respectful and very skilled women.

Luis Leal diving amongst the stalactites and stalagmites in a Mexican cenote
Swimming amongst the stalagmites and stalactites © Luis Leal

What’s the most dangerous thing about diving in a cenote?

Probably the journey to get there! Driving on a dangerous road full of crazy drivers is dangerous. Once you get to the cenote and connect with real nature, everything makes sense again.

The green room... © Luis Leal

How often do you explore new cenotes?

Not as often as I would like, as my time is almost entirely dedicated to training serious divers to dive the flooded. When I do explore a new cenote, I do a full survey. I feel like the luckiest person on earth to be able to see these places for the first time.

Have you ever found anything down there?

Yes, I’ve found Mayan civilization remains, but the most important remains I found are much older than that. They are related to prehistoric humans and other mammals from the Ice Age. I always report what I find and some have been dated between 13,000 and 15,000 years old. They are now in the Mexico City Anthropology Museum.

Luis Leal creeping through the caverns of a cenotes in Mexico
Creeping through the caverns © Luis Leal

What is your biggest fear about diving in a cenote?

I don’t have any fear in a cenote. The only thing I fear is when I see things like a bulldozer working in a construction close to a cenote. I fear the man-made destruction of these natural wonders.

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