At 7:30am on Saturday morning I met with Franzista and Ester (I think -- they're German students studying Spanish here in Merida that I met two nights earlier, and I never got the correct spellings) at the bus station. After about an hour on a local bus "grinding out its last years" on the Mexican roads, we arrived in the small village of Cuzama, deep in the Yucatan wilderness. The moment we set foot into the empty town square (which was, strangely, filled with tinny music from a big mounted speaker on a large town hall), we were approached by two boys -- perhaps twelve and fourteen -- on hybrid rickshaw/bicycle contraptions.
To visualize these devices, imagine a 3'x2'x2' steel-tube basket, open on two sides (the front and top), and covered by a cloth roof about 2' above. Spanning the rear lengthwise is a 10" unadorned wooden seat on which 1-2 passengers sit. On both sides of the basket are normal bicycle wheels (with beads on the spokes that click up and down when going slow), affixed in such a fashion that the basket rolls with the open face forward. Behind the basket is the rear half of a standard bicycle, with the steel basket attached to the vertical steering column in place of handlebars and the front wheel.
The driver, in my case the 14 year old whose name my ear failed to capture despite my asking twice, rides the bike like normal using the wheeled passenger basket as a giant set of handlebars. The net result of this is a really great ride for the passengers with an unobstructed view forward, shade from the sun, and a cool breeze.
The two German girls and I divided into two bike-carts and headed away from the town square down a paved but unmarked country road. Along the road we passed several small houses (some in what I believe is the Mayan style, with a single room with open doors on four sides, a thatched roof, and a big hammock strung up inside), an overgrown football (soccer) field that hadn't seen a ball in quite some time, and many fields of agave (from which Mayan hammocks and clothing are made, as well as the cruel mistress tequila).
Perhaps two miles and several rolling hills later (on which our drivers struggled, sometimes hopping off to push on foot), we arrived at a small cluster of buildings in the midst of several milling horses. Dismounting the bike-taxis we then boarded and even more unexpected vehicle: the horse cart.
Now, as we approached the end of the taxi ride, the street was mirrored by what appeared to be a tiny train track. No more than 2' wide with the cross-section of each rail about 1" square, the railway looked as if prepared for the tiny toy train found in the Silver Spoons mansion. However, it turns out that the miniature train tracks are actually in active daily use by the agave farmers, as well as tourists such as ourselves.
We climbed onto a basic flat rail cart, separated from the steel wheels beneath by four large springs which had negligible shock-absorption value but looked cool. Our extremely nice caballero (whose name I forgot to ask) then brought over a horse by the reigns, pushed the cart into a bit of a roll, sot on the front, and looped the reigns over a simple iron loop. With a flick of the ropes, we were jolted off away from the buildings and even further away from civilization.
The trip town the tracks was at times hot, at times dusty, but always very exciting. From the convenience of the rolling cart we sat back and watched the trees for long fluted black birds (with a terrific blue sheen when the sun caught their feathers just right), lazed in the sun, and just listened to the "chink chink" of the rails underneath bounce and rattle from our crossing. We were accompanied on our trip by a small and very lean dog who, from all his runing ahead and backtracking behind, likely traveled twice the distance as us. On occasion the horse would start or rear, such as when a group of dogs were barking and playing nearby. However, our well-practiced driver would simply and fluidly unloop the reigns and stand off the cart, walking the horse away as we rolled along the tracks. Once the horse had calmed and we stopped, he'd remount and reattach, flick the reigns, and we'd be on our way once again.
Eventually the cart stopped in what appeared at first to be an entirely unremarkable plot of land surrounded by pointy agave plants. Looking closer however, I noticed a large hole in the ground some distance away, with a steep poured-cement staircase leading into the depths of the first cenote.
Now, and interesting aspect of the Yucatan, as I understand it, is that it has no rivers. Because it's composed almost entirely of chalky rock, when rain falls it just soaks into the ground, forming underground pools and caves. Eventually, these caverns collapse openings to the surface, creating "conotes" (seh-NO-tays).
The first cenote we visted had a tall, steep staircase -- strikingly similar to the dwarven designs used in Mordor. The 30' of stairs led to a smooth, flat rock surface next to the cool, still waters of the cenote. Morning light poured through the ceiling entrance to create a pillar of light through the clear water to the submerged floor, a full forty meters below. This pillar of light reflected chaotic patterns onto the ceiling off the surface, and a faint green glow onto the rear wall off the sandy bottom.
The stillness of our gazing was then broken with a splash as our guide stripped off his shirt and dove into the pool, joining the small fish that could be seen swimming at all depths. We quickly followed suit and jumped in ourselves, the cool water quickly washing away the surface heat. After a time the guide left us floating alone in the pool, as we lay on our backs watching tiny birds dart with terrific speed through the small opening to their hanging nests on the jagged ceiling.
At some point our limbs dired and we drug ourselves out of the deep, up the stairs, and back into the growing heat of the day. After another trip on the horse, cart we arrived at the second conote. Unlike the first, this had no stairs and only a vertical hand-made rebar ladder strapped to the wall with loose ropes. We climbed down the swinging ladder, one by one, to find a cavern more tall than wide with a single tremendous bundle of roots hanging from the roof above into the water below. This central root structure was sillhouetted by the opening's light, casting an incredible shadow through the crystal water to the bottom. Braving the nest of bees that seemed to guard the only convenient entry and exit points, we lept into the surprisingly chilly water to drift lazily for some time.
The final cenote reached by yet another rumbling journey was the biggest and steepest yet. A terrifying ladder drove straight through a hole hardly big enough to fit, down to the bank of the last pool of the trip. At this point in the afternoon the other cenote explorers began to appear, so we waited for the water to clear a bit before jumping in. While sitting we admired the giant root bundle hanging down from the central spire of light, dangling just over a clearly-visible underwater mound of rocks that dropped in over the cenote's long lifetime. On this trapeze, swimmers would each try their luck at swinging and climbing out of the water, hand over hand.
Finally, we could wait no longer and jumped in to take our turn. The water was clear and cool, and we swam and dove amongst the dark and light. In the end, we spent a long lazy time clinging to the rear wall in a solemn silence.
But, like every journey, ours had to end. We climbed out of the pool, up the ladder, onto the cart, into the bike taxis, and onto the bus for the final ride back to civilization.
(The associated picture is of the third cenote)