The next morning – BIG BREAKFAST – Luuk and Bas were due to leave for Bacalar, a lagoon town in the south. I’d heard that it’s more of a party place than anything, and it was in the wrong direction for my journey. Instead, I reluctantly hugged my jolly Dutch boys goodbye in the hostel, and that afternoon, along with Nienke, Olatz, and a cool New York stoner-screenwriter called Ian, we hired a car and headed out in search of cenotes.
Cenotes, I learned, were formed millennia ago. There are thousands of them across the Yucatan area. They were originally underground caverns, when an asteroid (the one that killed the dinosaurs, I think???) hit the area, destabilising the earth enough that they caved in one themselves. Over tens of thousands of years they grew deeper and wider, and today they’re filled with water, connected to the sea by some deep, deep subterranean passages. To the Mayas they were sacred places, filled with magic.
We visited three cenotes. The first was Secreto Maya. After the cenote at Chichen Itza, which was impressive but stagnant and quite void of life, I wasn’t all that fussed about visiting more cenotes, and would happily have given them a miss had the others not prodded me to come along. What a mistake that would have been.
You don’t see a cenote before you see it. They’re great big holes in the ground, hidden by jungle. You’re just wandering along and boom: cenotic majesty. From the lip of Secreto Maya we stared down at a huge expanse of deep blue water, with trees on the surface with roots creeping down through the earth to crop out over the void, reaching down and down over the decades to finally drink from the pool. Great knots of roots hung in the water like alien worlds. We took a rickety iron spiral staircase down inside, where all sides from the outside world stopped. There was nothing but the sound of dripping stalactites and our echoing voices.
A wooden staircase lead us down the twenty metres, to water level. The girls stopped for a photoshoot, and I followed Ian down. I thought I’d conquered my deep water fear with the whale sharks, but no: Secreto Maya is fifty metres deep. From the small wooden platform that hugged one small section of the cave wall, I placed my feet on the edge and stared down into the abyss. The water was clear enough that I could see the cave wall drop away below, and finally vanish into blackness. Tiny black catfish swam lazily at a depth of only a metre, and below them was a yawning void. Ian hopped in.
I watched him splash about, horrified. But I haven’t come all this way to be a fanny. Before my mind could think too much and panic, I hopped in after him. The water was cool, refreshing against the humidity of the afternoon jungle, and I paddled for perhaps ten seconds before getting the willies and heading to the safety of the platform to haul myself out.
Ian climbed out after me, and I pointed to a rope swing we’d passed on the way down – a good seven or eight metres above the pool.
“You think you’ll do it?” I asked.
Ian jogged up the wooden staircase, and I after him. It looked much higher from the jump-off point. The swing itself hung way out over the water, and we had to pull a string to bring it over to us. It didn’t quite reach the platform, so you had to lean out over the open expanse to grab it. Ian gripped the swing, took a second to steel himself, and leapt off. He swung through the open air, let go at the peak of the swing, and plunged into the pool with a thunderous splash.
“How was it?” I called to him when he broke the surface.
I knew that if I let myself think about it too much it would only get worse, so I pulled the string, grabbed the swing, and lifted my feet off the wood. My arms went taut and my first and only thought was “FUCK”, which I said out loud, and at great volume. The swing reached it’s end, and in a microsecond I had a hundred thoughts – but mostly, “FUCK”.
I let go and fell for a hundred years, and slammed into the water and far beneath it. When I popped up my friends were whooping and clapping, and there was so much adrenaline in my body that I completely forgot about the dark oblivion beneath. I swam around, smiling.
We all did the swing, in the end. I did it twice more, but Ian did it over and over, in a perfect pencil dive, swinging higher and higher each time. Nienke was scared, but when she finally jumped she jumped well. Olatz… less so. Her first attempt, she let go of the swing almost instantly and flopped down into the water on her side. We encouraged her to try again, and determined, she once more climbed up and leapt off. This time, however, she let go of the rope almost before her feet had left the platform, and she went flailing belly-first into the drip with an echoing SMACK. I got the whole thing on camera, including my immediate bellowing guffaw and subsequent guilty ‘are you okay???’.
She paddled to the side, groaning and winded, and we were breathless with laughter remembering the curse from the night before. We told her she should dive more like a burrito, and less like a quesadilla. We called her pancake, tortilla and quesadilla for the rest of the day.
The next cenote was Xcanahaltun. This was very different – a large watery chamber, almost entirely underground except for a few small holes at the top, through which shafts of light beamed to turn the water glowing turquoise. We swam around for an hour, chatting, as little tiny fish nibbled our feet and made us squawk in shock.
We had the place entirely to ourselves. Above ground there were a few huts and one building, a restaurant, where we were able to order food, which would be ready upon our return. A local guy from the huts followed us into the cenote and sat watching us swim. When it was time to leave and we were towelling off and dressing, he climbed up the wall of the cave like a mountain goat – terrifyingly high – and leapt off, easily ten metres, and exploded into the deep, clear water. We applauded, amazed and relieved for his safety. But then, I thought, he has probably done this his whole life.
Just as we were leaving, he stood at the water’s edge and cupped his hands to his mouth. He began to make the sounds of a tropical bird – a soft, mournful sound. I stood and watched as his song echoed around the cave, twisting through the light shafts and the rippling reflections on the stalagmites. Tricks of the light morphed the gleaming, mineral-rich walls of the cave into animal shapes. I saw a huge crocodile, an enormous bat, and human faces in their undulations.
We ate lunch above ground – I had a sensational poc-chuc again – and then made our way to the final cenote, Sac Aua. We got lost on the way, and four tiny local kids, two girls and two boys, told us to wind down our window. They pointed us in the direction of the last cenote, and bade us follow them through their village. They ran ahead of our car in the most peculiar bouncing jog, the four of them spread in a straight line, each step perfectly in time, little haircuts bobbing up and down. We searched for change and gave them 5 pesos each for their help.
After the previous two cenotes, I wasn’t sure how a third could be any different – but it was my favourite of the three. We parked up and walked a few hundred metres down a flowery path, and saw a long black snake on the way. From the rim of Sac Aua it looked much like Secreto Maya, but when we descended the wooden staircase inside, it transformed. Instead of being one deep pool, it was inverted: the water ran around a large central island on which large mounds of minerals sat, accumulated over millions of years. And I saw something I’d never seen before: one towering old tree loomed over the lip of the cenote, casting roots through the soil and out the bottom, as in Secreto Maya. But in this cenote, the trees roots shot all the way down through the open air to become re-rooted in the secondary earth far below.
“Whoooaaaa, double rooted,” said Ian, when I pointed it out.
And I’m no arborist, but it looked as though the second roots, after entering the silt below, sprang up into an entirely new tree. Is it even possible? I have no idea. But that’s what I saw.
There were a few leaky kayaks tied up at the water’s edge, and I clambered into one clumsily while Ian dived into the black depths from a little wooden diving platform somebody had rigged up. I paddled peacefully around the water’s loop a couple of times, looking at the catfish and the warped animal figures in the walls. Then, far up at the rim of the cenote, a face peered over.
“Kayak, one hundred pesos,” he called down.
We paddled and relaxed and talked about our lives in the cenote, as leaves floated down from high above, illuminated in the sunshine and then vanishing into shadow. At 5pm, the closing time for the pools, the same man appeared on the staircase high above. Rather than shouting something like ‘closing time’, however, he took out a fucking giant conch and blew into it for ten mystifying seconds. I looked at my friends, grinning.
“I fucking love this country.”