One travels so as to learn once more
how to marvel at life in the way a child does.
-Ella Maillart, 1903 – 1997
I arrived at Cancun International Airport on the east coast of Yucatan feeling like a dry well. Along with everyone else disembarking the flight from Boston’s Logan airport in mid-January, I had the winter pallor that marked me as a snowbird fleeing the frigid north. One would have thought the plane was destined for a Siberian gulag given the grim countenances of its passengers. The husband and wife across the aisle from me exchanged icy stares and made brittle conversation. The pair in the seats in front of me had matching frowns and furrowed brows. Despite having upgraded to a business class seat, I couldn’t get comfortable and restlessly shifted in my seat, chafing at the confined space.
I began to question the wisdom of my impulsive decision to make the trip, and solo at that, to an all-inclusive resort that was likely to be Party Central. While I had plans for a couple of excursions to Maya temples, that left a lot of free time to spend in my own company—which could often a bad neighborhood, particularly lately. I had been feeling frustrated, thwarted and short-tempered, aggravated that various aspects of my life were not proceeding according to my Master Plan. Happily, an impulsive detour the next day led me to realize that perhaps my life could benefit from less planning and more spontaneity.
At the outskirts of Tulum, I headed inland and after a short drive north on Route 180, a sign caught my eye and piqued my curiosity. After pulling over and paying for a ticket, I followed a boardwalk to the edge of a precipice. About twenty feet below, I saw a ring of rippling teal water encircling a small island, from which sprouted mounds of prehistoric-looking plant life. Chalky limestone walls rose from and encircled this vivid scene, resembling white waves of soft stone. The curling lip of the cliff face extended out several yards, through which the long roots of above-ground trees dangled all the way down to the water far below.
Descending stairs to the floor of the abyss, I walked to the right side of the little islet, where a handful of middle-aged friends were donning snorkeling gear. Goggles and flippers in place, they swam off down a low-ceilinged passage that extended from the lagoon. I watched them paddle toward a luminous glow, created by sunlight filtering through another opening in the earth. Their exclamations echoed back to me after they were out of sight, squeals that sounded alternately anxious and delighted.
On the other side of the cenote, it was all business as a commercial television crew readied to tape an ad for Mexican beer. Pony-tailed technicians tinkered with a giant camera lens and an aggravated-looking man with a goatee and a clip board paced around and snarled into his cell phone, apparently waiting for the “talent.”
Their jaded nonchalance about the extraordinary surroundings they were in the midst of gave me pause, prompting me to consider how often I can fail to appreciate the abundance in my life.
There are more than 3,000 cenotes on the Yucatan Peninsula, a thumb of land in southeastern Mexico that separates the Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Mexico and borders Belize and Guatemala to its south. The Yucatan is a flat plain of limestone with thousands of miles of below-ground, water-filled caves interconnected by subterranean rivers. When the roof of one of these underground caverns collapses, the result is a deep, water-filled sinkhole known as a cenote. Cenote is Spanish but derived from the Mayan word dzonot, meaning “well.” The Mayans considered these pools sacred.
Motoring west, I next visited the picturesque provincial city of Vallodolid, where the pastel shades of the colonial buildings seemed to glow in the late afternoon light. In the midst of a busy city block at the intersection of Calles 39 and 36, I found Cenote Zaci, which means “white hawk” in Mayan. With a diameter of 150 feet, Zaci was hard to miss.
Descending a series of steep steps carved in the rock, I reached water level at the bottom of the deep underground chamber, 260 feet down. I looked up just as a gang of teenagers leaped from a two-story ledge above, drenching me with spray from the terrific splash they made as they hit the water. Their exuberance as they surfaced from the crystal clear water was contagious, and I laughed out loud from my perch on the cenote’s perimeter.
Deeper inland, not far from the town of Piste’ and the Mayan ruin of Chichén Itzá, is Cenote Ik Kil. Lush greenery wreaths its 196-foot wide circular opening and then spills down the interior of its 130-foot sides. From beneath the canopy of plants, waterfalls gush, jungle vines hang and beams of sunlight fall, creating a verdant and vibrant underground world.
The eco-park is also known as the “Sacred Blue Cenote” and my experience was indeed mystical, in an odd way. Watching the excited teenagers lined up on the precipitous stairs, chattering and fidgeting while waiting their turn to take the plunge, I saw my own poolside antics as a youngster and felt anew that ability to be so thoroughly in the now.
It occured to me that maybe the cenotes aren’t portals to the after-life as the Mayans are thought to have believed, but rather fountains of youth. In these magical holes in the ground, one can re-claim wonder by being immersed in the moment.
Today’s blog is an excerpt from the Compass Rose article “Cenotes: Mayan Waters of Life”
For more images of cenotes and the Yucatan see my Travel Photos.
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