As a stalagmite blocks the cave mouth from view, I find myself sinking into the noduled gullet of Sistema Sac Actun, the cave system running some 135 miles through Yucatan limestone that helped shape the Maya's Boschian vision of the afterlife. I'm here because, after hearing so much about the end of the world, I want to immerse myself into the rest of the local cosmology.
I'm getting a sneak peak at some real estate in Xibalba before the post-apolocalypse rush. Niels Horemans, a Flemish tree surgeon turned cave diver is acting as my broker.
And there are worse places to spend eternity than at the bottom of Tulum's Gran Cenote. The water is cool and still. Veils of light illuminate catfish sniffing their way around the bases of stalactites. Niels' breaths echo off the walls in basso profondo. Though my depth gauge tells me I'm hovering below 50 feet and my flashlight allows me to see three times that far into the caverns, I can't spot the underground rivers of blood, pus and spiders described in the geology section of the Popul Vuh, Maya's sacred tome.
What I see instead is waxen rock congealed into Gaudi spires of grey. These melting candles poke out from a carpet of khaki sand embellished with fallen jacaranda leaves. Pockets of air coruscate like mercury in the pockmarked ceiling. In front of me, Niels inspects a sunken sign that makes it clear we should go no further.
Niels makes a rather dangerous hobby of going further. Since moving to Tulum to start Dream Diving, he's become a part-time speleologist, a cave explorer.
"When you find a new cavern it is incredible to think no one has been there ever before," he told me as we unloaded our equipment from the back of his red pick-up truck. "So you want to find more."
Technical divers and adrenaline-junkies like Niels are responsible for keeping the rivalry going between Sac Actun and Sistema Ox Bel Ha, which regularly leapfrog each other's records. Ox Bel Ha currently ranks as the longest cave system in the world, but it appears a connection with the Dos Ojos system may allow Sac Actun to take back the title in the near future.
This is to say that beyond the dark spaces my light paws at but can't reach, are more vaults, chapels and naves of rounded limestone. There is an endless complex darkness below me and, when I stop futzing with my buoyancy to dwell on it, I must admit those black, motionless tunnels seem an apt metaphor for the monolithic complexity of death.
After the lords of Xibalba were done humiliating them, the dead were said to have their mettle tested in a house full of ravenous jaguars, a house full of shrieking bats and a house rattling with cold. Not the sort of neighborhood I'm looking to gentrify.
Fortunately, the sun and the surface are only a few hundred feet away. As I rise over a hollowed out boulder, I can see bikinied bottoms bobbing in redundantly aquamarine water.
I exit the Maya afterlife by moving towards the light.
After we're done packing up the gear, Niels thoughtful lights the cigarette hanging from his pierced lower lip and observes that though they spend time in caves, he's never seen a Maya swim in a sacred cenote.
"They'll let you go to their afterlife," he says. "They just won't join you."