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Geography, travels provide clues to history

Yucatan's sink holes and caves conjure up images of ice age glaciers, celestial collisions, and a bad day for dinosaurs

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I adjusted my snorkel and pushed off into the crystal clear pool at the entrance to the Grande Cenote. The cool water is a relief from the oppressive heat of the Yucatan jungle and I float on my back for a while, looking up at stalactites hanging from the roof of the cave. When my eyes have adjusted to the dim light I can look down through my mask at stalagmites projecting up from the bottom, 10 feet below me.

It makes no sense. Stalagmites are formed by droplets of water dripping off the roof, evaporating where they fall, and leaving behind calcium deposits that gradually build up into spikes resembling upside-down icicles. But the water in the Grande Cenote is part of an underground river system only a few feet above sea level, and stalagmites don't form under water.

Flashback:

On a hike into Singing Pass I pause for a snack before starting my climb up Piccolo. A large black boulder provides a back rest and a patch of shade. Unlike the angular chunks of green andesite and slabs of shale that have crumbled off Whistler and Piccolo the boulder is a well rounded chunk of amphibolite weighing several tons. Like the stalagmites in the Grande Cenote it is out of context. There is nothing like it on any of the nearby mountains. It doesn't belong here.

Flashback – Way Back:

About 65 million years ago a giant asteroid slammed into the earth. A cloud of dust and debris spread far and wide, blocking out the sun around the globe, dousing the plants with acid rain, and making life so unbearable for the dinosaurs that most of them packed it in, just rolled over and left the place to a few hardy warm-blooded mammals who managed to shiver through the crisis.

As unlikely as it seems there actually is a connection of sorts between these three random snippets of geo-cosmic trivia. But first, back to the Grande Cenote. It's one of hundreds of cenotes – steep-sided sink holes – that are scattered across the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. A flatter, less inviting bit of real-estate is hard to imagine. Made entirely of porous limestone and covered with scrub jungle, the Yucatan has no surface drainage – no rivers, no streams, not even a trickle. But the cenotes, which extend below the water-table, are filled with clear, fresh water. Rain that falls on the peninsula seeps into the porous limestone and flows out to sea through a system of subterranean fissures and caves.

The Maya, who arguably developed the most complex and advanced urban civilization of their time, used the cenotes as a source of water for their cities. They also revered them as openings to an underworld inhabited by vindictive Gods and a multitude of fearsome supernatural beings. The more sacred of these cenotes were used exclusively for religious rituals – places where offerings of jewelry, pottery and, on special occasions, young children were tossed in to placate the Gods.

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