The sacred well

The sun began its descent, informing us that it’s time to call it a day. We picked up our books and towels from the beach and headed towards the swimming pool bar for one last drink before making our way back to the hotel room. We sat on the swings replacing bar stools and waited for our order. I could feel the last rays of sunshine gently drying my wet bathing suit as I swung slowly back and forth.

“Hi!” said a man with a clearly American accent. His name was Dominic and he was a New Yorker of Italian origin. His girlfriend, Luz, soon joined the conversation. Although this Colombian woman didn’t initially say much, there was something interesting in her silence. Luz just radiated a certain kind of warmth. The special kind  that only really good-natured, genuine people have. There was something very real and honest about both of them and I knew this was not  the last conversation we were going to have with these two.

Next day, after an evening and an afternoon spent with our new friends, Luz mentioned that she heard about a nearby cenote and suggested that we visit it before dinnerShe didn’t need to convince us – we grabbed our flip flops, Dom took the remaining bottle of champagne and speakers and we were ready to go.

Cenotes are one of Yucatan’s natural landmarks. These natural pools filled with crystal clear water are a result of collapsing of the porous limestone bedrock which reveals the groundwater captured underneath it. In a land surrounded by salted water with no overground lakes or rivers, life in the peninsula often centered around the cenotes, which provided access to freshwater supply. Many Maya villages and cities, like Chichen Itza, were formed in the vicinity of these reservoirs. The filtered ground and rain water not only sustained the lives of the local people, but  was also believed to be a gateway to the afterlife.

The Maya believed  cenotes to be the home of Chaac, God of Rain, as well as the entrance to the underworld. At times of drought a popular practice was to offer Chaac precious stones, wooden idols, textiles and human lives. The Sacred Cenote in Chichen Itza in particular was famous for its ritual sacrifices and archaeologists found a large deposit of human bones at its bottom. Many of the discovered remains have been dismembered, burnt by fire, and bear signs of violence suggesting that before the victims were thrown into the well, they were subject to various sacrificial rituals.

Luckily for the Maya people’s health, the ceremonial wells were mostly kept separate from the domestic ones used for bathing and as a source of drinking water. An interesting one is Ik Kil, a cenote situated 2.5 km east of Chichen Itza, which was most likely a bathing place of the city’s rulers . A long curved staircase carved in stone leads to this beautiful natural pool. The 40 meter deep well is surrounded by vertical cave walls and lit by the sunshine entering through the green opening 26 meters above. Although very popular with tourists and cave divers, the place is breathtaking and has a truly magical atmosphere.

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Cenote Ik Kil seen from the top

The Casa Cenote, to which Luz was leading us through the beach was quite different. Our walk turned out to be longer than we initially expected, but with the setting sun and local fishermen waving at us with their smiley “hola“s, walking on the shore, listening to Radiohead coming from Dom’s speakers, we did not mind the delay.

After about a half an hour walk, we turned into a sandy alley situated between two guest houses. As we crossed a dusty road, we saw a little shabby gateway. We walked in and greeted three young men sitting outside a little hut. It was past 5 and the place was officially closed, but after a short conversation in Spanish and the entrance fee, Ernesto, Antonio and Armando lend us some snorkeling masks and we got into the water.

As I stepped onto the well, I began to move slowly down the stone shelves leading to the deeper part of the pool. The water was ice cold, offering a pleasant cool after the day’s heat. Through the clear surface we could see the little fish swimming underneath. The cenote was an open air one and surrounded by the vivid greenery of the mangrove forest.  I lied on my back and looked up. Nothing but the sky and green tree tops. Except for the gentle song of a bird hiding in the branches, the place would have been enveloped in complete silence. Despite its depth, the clean water allowed us to admire the world underneath, uncovering the mysterious caves and mangrove roots suspended motionless in the water.  I felt peaceful and enchanted with the magic of this place. I now understood why the Maya believed cenotes to be the gateway to the other world.

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Bienvenido a Mexico

Nothing could have prepared me for that first sight of Mexico. After 10 hours of flying above the glimmering ocean, my eyes weren’t ready for the amount of green they were about to witness as the plane started its descent to the Cancun airport.

Yucatán Peninsula welcomed us with kilometers of lush green jungle. Staring through the tiny airplane window all I could see was the densely forested area with one, perfectly straight asphalt line cutting through it. That and a turquoise coastline, nothing more. I knew right away Mexico will be like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

Boarding the Virgin Airlines plane in London I don’t think I had a clear expectation of what Mexico would be like. I’m embarrassed to admit that my head was full of stereotypical images – colourful skulls, thick mustache of the mariachis wearing sombreros and white sandy beaches. Beyond the vague idea of Cancun being the Ibiza of the States and Mayan ruins in Tulum and Chichen Itza, I knew very little about the place I was going to. The only thing I did anticipate was rain – the weather forecast maliciously promised  abundant rain fall every day of my stay. Luckily it turned out that I knew about the local weather just as little I knew about Mexico.

 Upon arrival we passed the all-female boarder control very quickly and entered the United Mexican States without any trouble. Had we tried to bring in any food that may have traveled with us from back home, or, like some travelers coming through the States, tried to stock up on cheap cigarettes before the arrival, the situation would have been very different. Luckily however our passage through the Mexican customs was pretty uneventful.

The arrival hall of the Cancun airport was quite modern and easy to navigate. Amongst the mix of taxi drivers eagerly seeking clients, my husband managed to find someone working for the airport able to provide information on pre-booked transport (it turns out that all the vehicles, buses and tour representatives await the arriving travelers outside the airport – important thing to note at an airport that does not have free wi-fi access for those of you who like me don’t always check all the further travel details before departure).

 We were taken to our hotel by a kind Mexican man called Arturo Sanchez. Since our driver’s English was not great, I had a chance to practice my Spanish. Arturo, like most Mexicans as I soon found out, transformed from a quiet and grumpy-looking man, to a chatty individual excited to tell me about his country. Throughout the one and a half hour long journey from Cancun to Tulum, he kept on telling me about the local area and pointed out the avocado, banana and mango trees growing along our way.

The prolific, impenetrable jungle enfolding the grey of the modern highway constituted a peculiar contrast of the two worlds I entered. On one hand I was in the land of the Mayans, just meters away from the unruly world of nature that filled every free centimeter of space with yet another shrub or green vegetation. On the other, I was moving at a high speed through a smoothly paved road overseen by massive signs informing me about the closest mega-hotel or tourist attraction. On the side of the road, against the leafy background, stood giant billboards advertising the famous Coco Bongo night club or displaying photos of beautiful beach condos on sale. I felt as if someone created mini-USA in the heart of the Yucatan’s jungle. Further conversation with Arturo confirmed that the area, especially Cancun, was filled not just with American tourists but also many houses belonged to them, driving the local real estate prices up. Despite the inflated prices however, the Quintana Roo state’s economy is booming thanks to the visitors from across the border.

The high presence of the tourists also means higher investments in the local security, making Yucatan one of the safest parts of Mexico. Although visitors can drive safely through all the region’s major (toll) routes, any night travel is highly discouraged as theft, car hijacking at fake check-points and other crime are not uncommon after dark. Single women should be especially careful around Cancun where walking alone at night returning from a club can make them an easy target. Most resorts have tight security however and carefully check who gets into their premises. Despite the official reports, I personally felt very safe in Mexico, although  I wouldn’t risk driving alone at night.

Dusk comes quite early in Yucatan in September/October time, as we drove with Arturo to our hotel, around 6 pm the sun begun to set. By around 6.30, when we arrived at Dreams Tulum, it was already dark outside. Before our route became enveloped in darkness, I managed to notice that the closer we got to the city of Tulum, the less “American” it seemed. The billboards gave way to local colourful houses and chapels, mega hotel signs began to get replaced with eco-parks and directions to cenotes, natural pits or sinkholes with crystal clear underground water. Everyone recommended Tulum over Cancun when we planned our trip and I was beginning to see why.

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Tulum beach and jungle