Workshops by Focus: Cave Photography

Expedition January 24 - 30, 2012
6 spaces | $8,249* Register

In the final year of the 5,126-year Mayan calendar cycle, we bring you a very special expedition for six photographers into this land of hidden cenotes, stunning pre-Columbian cities, elegant haciendas, and abundant tropical life.

The Mexican state of Yucatán, on the west side of the peninsula, is a world apart from the more familiar tourist Mecca of Cancún.  It is a wonderful, safe, and intriguing place, rich with human and geological history and overflowing with haunting beauty. Subtropical forest conceals beneath its roots a geological sponge of porous limestone. The Chicxulub impact crater, created by the asteroid that ended the age of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, filled with water that dissolved pockets and channels in the subterranean limestone around its periphery, creating myriad caves and underground rivers.

Whenever these caves and sinkholes open to the outside world, they are known as cenotes (seh-NÓH-tehs). The inspiration for countless Mayan legends, these crystal clear underground pools and grottoes will be a primary focus of this expedition, which will also feature pre-Columbian Mayan sites, elegant and updated 19th-century haciendas full of historic character, and the largest pink flamingo colony in the world at Celestún Biosphere Reserve.

Of the thousands of cenotes distributed across the Yucatán, some have wide-mouthed cave entrances, inviting the visitor to walk in to discover the fantastic subterranean grottoes they conceal. In the darkest cenotes, we’ll creatively illuminate the walls, stalagmites and stalactites, and other formations both above and below water, using lamps and strobes that we bring along. Others admit brilliant shafts of natural light that spotlight the blue water and reflect to illuminate the interior. Some cenotes are open-air sinkholes holding inviting pools of cool, clear water. Most are undeveloped and virtually impossible to find without the benefit of a knowledgeable local guide.

We have arranged for our friend Alfredo Medina to lead the way. Since 1992, Alfredo has lived in Quintana Roo on the peninsula’s east coast, where he owns a high-end printing business. He carried out extensive photographic coverage of Yucatecan cenotes for his beautiful book Cenotes: Imprints of Water and Light in the Jungle, published in 2008. Alfredo is also co-photographer for the book Birds of the Yucatán Peninsula (1997). Alfredo and his wife, Sara, serve as trustees for the non-profit conservation organization Amigos de Sian Ka’an, promoting conservation action on the Yucatan peninsula.

Jack Dykinga and Justin Black collaborated with Alfredo in October 2009, during a Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition (RAVE) in the Yucatan operated by the International League of Conservation Photographers, while Justin was the ILCP’s Executive Director. Guidance by Alfredo and his wife Sara was critical to our RAVE assignment, accessing beautiful cenotes off the tourist routes, known only to the friendly and gracious Mayan locals. Alfredo is a true gentleman explorer, a gifted photographer, and an absolute pleasure to work with.

In addition to several cenote excursions, our group will visit the pre-Columbian Mayan City of Uxmal, spectacularly situated in the Puuc hills south of Merida. Considered by many to be the most architecturally beautiful Mayan city, Uxmal was built between 600 and 900 A.D. Due to excellent construction, it is one of the few Mayan cities to remain sufficiently well-preserved to provide the modern visitor with a good sense of what the central ceremonial district would have been like at its peak. The pyramids, temples, hieroglyphs, mosaics, and sculptures here are sublime and full of mystery.

Another Mayan pyramid rises immediately behind the main house at Hacienda Itzincab-Cámara, our lodging for the first four nights of the expedition. “Itzincab,” as it is known locally, is a photographer’s dream in itself, with recently restored 19th-century architecture, lush tropical gardens, and excellent bird habitat. We were welcomed as guests at Itzincab during the ILCP RAVE and were singularly impressed by the hospitality of the staff, the comfort and elegance of the accommodations, and its exceptional suitability to serve as a workshop base. Read more about this special place below under “Accommodations.”

For our final two nights, we will relocate to Eco Paraiso near the estuary of Celestún Biosphere Reserve, where 30,000 pink flamingos gather in January each year to form the largest colony of the species to be found anywhere on Earth. Celestún is also host to over 300 other species of birds and many species of reptiles, including Morelet’s and American crocodiles, four sea turtle species, iguanas, land turtles, and boa constrictors.

Map via Google