Two stories below ground, I peered through man-size ferns at a pool of translucent cobalt water, and wondered what the Mayan high priests would have thought of a Corona commercial being filmed in their portal to the afterlife.
Then again, I knew the azure waters of the Yucatan Peninsula’s cenotes had been a battleground for the sacred and the profane before. In fact, a controversy over rights to one of these otherworldly holes in the ground had roots reaching to Boston.
There are more than 3,000 Mayan 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 a Spanish word derived from the Mayan word dzonot, meaning "well.”
I had disembarked at Cancun International Airport on the Yucatan’s east coast feeling very much like a dry well. Like everyone else arriving here in mid-January, I had the winter pallor that marked me as a snowbird fleeing the frigid north. You would have thought the plane was destined for a Siberian gulag given the grim countenances of the 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 business class, I couldn’t get comfortable and restlessly shifted in my seat throughout the flight, chafing at the confined space.
I had begun 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. I had plans for a couple of excursions to Mayan temples, but that still left a lot of free time to spend in my own company -- which could often resemble a bad neighborhood. I had been feeling frustrated, thwarted and short-tempered, aggravated that various aspects of my life were not proceeding in accordance with my Master Plan.
A stroll down Playa del Carmen’s Fifth Avenue that afternoon was a refreshing antidote to my angst. A vibrant, splashy mural of colorful characters and many moods unfolded before me and my own mood lifted in response. To shouts of “Hey, Paparazzi” I pirouetted, snapped and shutter-bugged my way along Quinta Avenida, becoming happily absorbed in the rich tableau.
A mountain of a man precisely cut a cigar and lit it for a well-heeled customer, clouds of smoke billowing around their lowered heads. A trio of white-garbed musicians, complete with white cowboy hats, strummed a forlorn ballad and looked like they understood sadness. A tuxedoed-waiter stood between two man-size placards that advertised his restaurant, rhythmically folding napkins while he rocked on his heels, his eyes scanning the street for potential customers. A young woman sat outside a dress shop, holding her embroidery hoop up close to her face as she plied her needle. On opposing benches, an angry couple snarled at each other and the legs of a happy pair were intertwined -- I knew what it was like to be part of each equation.
Leaving the main drag to go down a block to the beach, I passed a banana-yellow building with a string of gleaming black wet suits draped across the balcony. In the golden light of the photographer’s “magic hour,” hand-woven hammocks in bold hues hung in front of small shops, seemingly glowing. In a serendipitous still life scene, a bag of oranges was propped up against an orange chair. The turquoise tide gently rolled in between rocks bright with lime-green algae.
Playa del Carmen is a small city on the Caribbean coast in the northeast of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. Originally a tiny fishing town, “Playa” as it is casually called by locals, is the center of the Riviera Maya, which runs from south of Cancún to the Maya ruin of Tulum. Playa is growing rapidly and is now the third largest city in Quintana Roo, after Cancún and Chetumal. The village was named for Our Lady of Mount Carmel, who is the patron saint of Cancún. The first recorded visitors to what was then called Xaman-Ha, or “waters of the north,” came during the Early Classic Period of the Mayan civilization, which extended from 300 to 600 A.D.
The next day, I headed south to the Mayan site of Tulum, which dates back to the same period, although its zenith was later, between 1200 - 1521 A.D. Tulúm is also the Mayan word for fence, and the walls surrounding the site served as a defense against invasion.
From the site’s entrance, where a hodgepodge of vendors sold trinkets and tired tourists sipped soft drinks at a cluster of casual cafes, I walked along a dusty path to a small triangular archway within a stone wall. Once through it, I felt as though I had wandered into another, timeless world.
Although a popular destination for visitors, the site was largely empty during my visit. With the silhouettes of gray stone temples back-lit by a lavender sky, amid palm trees rustling in the breeze, the other-worldly atmosphere was so vivid it was easy to imagine being one among its earliest settlers, part of another civilization. Crossing the compact grounds, which are much smaller than many of the other sprawling Mayan metropolis, I saw what looked like bloody handprints emblazoned on the façade of one of the ancient structures. I learned that it was customary to paint over the exteriors of the buildings with bright colors that the Maya associated with the cardinal directions. Other themes reflected in the murals that adorned the buildings were everyday rituals and the natural surroundings. Some believe that the murals were repainted to mark the beginning of each new katun, which is a Mayan measurement unit of time, equal to 7,200 days, and part of the civilization’s intricate Long Count calendar.
I reached the complex’s outer edges, perched on the sea above brilliant turquoise waters. It is the only such-located Maya ruin, with all the others built further inland. Looking down, I realized where all the tourists were -- playing on the sandy beach and in the foaming waves. The sight actually enhanced the effect of being amidst an inhabited community, creating a sense of the site being enjoyed and alive.
From the outskirts of Tulum, I headed inland and after a short drive north on Route 180, I soon saw the sign for Grand Cenote. After paying for my ticket, I followed a boardwalk to the edge of a precipice, eager to get my first glimpse of this curious feature of the Yucatan landscape. 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. I later learned that the waters of cenotes closer to the sea tend to be at land level, like a lake or pond, while the pools of the craters further inland are generally at the bottom of deep open-air shafts in the ground.
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 gave me pause, prompting me to consider how often I can take for granted the beauty that is in my own backyard.
Yet I am certainly not alone in finding the cenote experience, celluloid and otherwise, awe-inspiring.
“I remember watching films of people cenote diving and wondering why on earth people submerged themselves into these dark holes through choice--not knowing what gruesome monster was going to be waiting for them round the corner!” exclaimed Corrie Watkins, a dive instructor with Abyss Dive Center in Tulum. “I have since executed a number of cenote dives within the Mayan Riviera. The only way to describe it to someone who has never been is that it is like you are diving on the set of a Star Wars film. They are decorated with stalagmites and stalactites with the most amazingly perfect visibility.”
“There are a few cenotes where you can comfortably surface half way through the dive, such as Dos Ojos,” she explained. “There, you are surrounded by an overhead cavern, where bats hug the ceiling and spiders balance within their crystal webs. If you look carefully you may see ancient fossils on the floor, walls and ceiling. Also look out for the haloclines in some of the deeper areas--this is where the fresh water meets the salt water and there is a mirror-like effect.”
Farther north, in the jungle near the Mayan ruin of Coba, is the village of Kuau, where my guide introduced me to Alberto and Victoria Uc Chan, a Mayan couple in their sixties. They invited me into their two-room home, where a festively-decorated altar held a place of prominence. Victoria pressed cornmeal dough into flat pancakes and then cooked them on a skillet over an open fire in her hearth. I was humbled by the Uc Chan’s circumstances and generosity, and felt privileged to have a glimpse into their daily istence and share a simple meal with them.
Before leaving, Victoria and Alberto took me across the street to Cenote Yaax Ek, a circle of shimmering aquamarine water far below a white-washed cement pavilion with a thatched roof. It was explained to me that community celebrations, including weddings, are held here.
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” -- my visit was indeed mystical in an unexpected way. Watching the excited teenagers lined up on the precipitous stairs, chattering and fidgeting while waiting their turn to take the plunge, I was reminded of my own poolside antics as a youngster and felt anew that ability to experience the utter joy of the moment.
Ik Kil’s facilities include a restaurant and palapas--oval Mayan bungalows--for overnight stays. I was told that the owner had continually made improvements to the property and judging by the crowds streaming in, he was making good on his investment.
A short drive away, eighteen Mayan women have improved the fortunes of their families and village by turning their local watering hole into the Yokdzonot Ecological Cenote Park. The women spent a year clearing the surrounding land, and then designed, and now operate, the community enterprise, which also includes a small restaurant.
The scores of cenotes speckling the Yucatan landscape are among the only perennial sources of quality potable water. Early settlements in the area sprung up around these natural wells, including the famous Mayan site Chichén Itzá, built around 600 A.D. The Mayan name "Chich'en Itza" translates as "at the mouth of the well of the Itza," with itz meaning “magic.”
My guide at the site, Julian, told me he was from the neighboring town of Piste, where two of the seven cenotes are used for drinking water -- but are only safe for locals, who have built up immunization to its impurities.
Julian and I toured the architectural wonders of El Castillo and the Temple of Warriors, and stood on the Great Ball Court, the largest in ancient Mesoamerica. We then headed toward Cenote Sagrado on Sacbe Number One. The term sacbe is Mayan for "white road" -- these routes were originally coated with limestone stucco, making them visible at night.
It was easy to see why the cenote here was sacred to the ancient Maya, inspiring pilgrimages -- and human offerings. Two hundred feet in diameter, the “Well of Sacrifice,” as it is also known, is a perfectly round circle of jade waters from which flaky cream-colored walls rise, their crest enclosed with a ring of luxuriant plants in emerald hues.
Julian told me that virgins--both boys and girls--were sacrificed here as offerings to the rain gods, or chaacs, during times of drought. These youngsters were chosen for this honor from birth, based on the day of the year they were born. Parents actually tried to bring their children into the world on the five specific days of the year important in this regard in the Mayan calendar -- August 6 - 10. Julian said the sacrifice needed to occur before the children reached the age of 13, when they became adults in the eyes of the community. When a sacrifice was required, priests would test the children to see which ones were “ready,” with successful memorization of a certain song or lesson indicating their time had come.
While it seems certain cenotes played an important role in Mayan rites; exactly what that role was seems less clear. I was later told by another Mayan guide that only the civilization’s elite could be laid to rest in a cenote, and were bound in a fetal position. He said the belief was that the cenote represented a “womb” to reincarnation.
What is known for sure is that Chichen Itza’s Cenote Sagrado yielded a veritable goldmine of artifacts for Massachusetts native Edward H. Thompson at the turn of the twentieth century.
In 1879, Thompson wrote an article for Popular Science Monthly on ancient Mayan monuments that attracted the attention of a wealthy patron of the American Antiquarian Society, who persuaded Thompson to move to Yucatán to explore the ruins on his behalf. A Massachusetts senator helped subsidize Thompson's efforts by recommending him for the post of United States consul to Yucatan.
Thompson arrived in the Yucatán in 1885 and nine years later, he purchased a plantation that included the site of Chichen Itza. Over a six-year period beginning in 1904, he dredged Cenote Sagrado, finding the skeletons of men and children -- as well as gold, copper, carved jade and the first examples of what were believed to be pre-Columbian Mayan cloth and wooden weapons.
Thompson shipped the bulk of the artifacts to Harvard University’s Peabody Museum. In 1926, the Mexican government seized Thompson's plantation, charging he had removed the artifacts illegally. The Mexican Supreme Court in 1944 ruled in Thompson's favor.
New wonders -- and sources of debate -- continue to bubble to the surface along the Yucatan’s cenote circuit. Adding to an already long list of possible reasons the Mayan cities were abandoned is a fresh theory now making the rounds. This conjecture centers on the cenotes being responsible for the civilization’s 9th century decline -- with the cumulative effect of eons of human sacrifice having contaminated the water supply.
From the Cenote Sagrado, Julian and I headed to a complex on the other side of the site, nicknamed Las Monjas, or "The Nunnery,” by the Spanish, although in fact the structure was actually a governmental palace. In the heat of the afternoon, we paused to sit under the shade of one of the few trees. The conversation faltered, with an awkward pause between two strangers whose lives had randomly intersected briefly for the span of a couple of hours.
In one of those small acts of courage required to stretch beyond polite chit-chat, Julian shared something personal about himself. I ventured to do the same and in an extraordinary coincidence, as the conversation gently unfolded, we discovered that we shared a similar stretch of painful personal history. The striking similarities of what had ultimately been a powerfully transforming experience for each of us produced a profound connection. Despite the thick, humid air, I felt goose bumps and tears sprang to my eyes and his too. It was hard to know which was more incredible, the likelihood of he and I having had such a common past, or that we came to speak of it.
As we parted company on a stretch of sacbe, Julian and I exchanged a heart-felt hug, and he said to me “Now it is time for joy.”
The mysteries associated with the Mayan society endure. And, whether motivated by a purpose that is spiritual, commercial, or recreational, the Yucatan’s cenotes and ancient Mayan ruins continue to draw devotees and inspire connections. I was grateful for a glimpse of a Master Plan other than my own.