A ‘hole’ world of sur­prises

Deep in south Mex­ico lies a net­work of nat­u­ral won­ders wait­ing to be stum­bled across by the un­sus­pect­ing vis­i­tor, writes Yvonne van Don­gen.

Sunday Star-Times - - ESCAPE | COVER STORY -

Sink­holes never looked so good. Filled with deep blue wa­ter, fringed with trop­i­cal fo­liage and draped in cur­tains of long ropey roots, the sink­hole prac­ti­cally screams ‘‘jump’’. Be­low, fish flick sil­very tails and above, swal­lows zig-zag across the open bowl of the sky. There are no sub­merged cars, re­mains of a house or pool­ing of muddy sludge in sight. Some sink­hole. Nei­ther the word nor the ex­pla­na­tion that this is ac­tu­ally a col­lapsed lime­stone pit does the mirac­u­lous struc­ture jus­tice.

That is prob­a­bly why no one calls them that in Mex­ico. Here they are cenotes (pro­nounced ‘‘sayno-tay’’), a word de­rived from Mayan, re­fer­ring to any lo­ca­tion with ac­ces­si­ble ground­wa­ter.

If I’d done any re­search be­fore I got there I might have known that there are 6000 dot­ted around the Yu­catan penin­sula. I might even have made an ef­fort to tour the Route of the Cenotes, where I could sam­ple more than 57 cenotes.

But since I did my usual thing of ar­riv­ing blind and just ask­ing around as if guide­books and apps hadn’t been in­vented, I was a lit­tle slow to catch on to th­ese glo­ri­ous nat­u­ral won­ders.

It’s easy to crit­i­cise my ap­proach as sloppy (don’t worry, many have), but I’d ar­gue that apart from nat­u­ral lazi­ness, it’s a way of trav­el­ling that means you’re bound to be sur­prised. Any­way cenotes were the best sur­prise ever, and af­ter dis­cov­er­ing one I made sure to seek out a few more.

It isn’t just that the air is so weighed down with heat and mois­ture in this south­ern part of Mex­ico that your melt­ing self longs to plunge into cool clear wa­ter. Nor is it the added ex­tras of criss­cross­ing swal­lows, the oc­ca­sional tou­can, maybe a bat, a tur­tle, rac­coons or coatis – not even those fea­tures are the cenotes’ big­gest draw­card (al­though they’re a close sec­ond).

Hon­estly, it’s some­thing else that pulls you down the rick­ety, wooden, slip­pery rock steps, some­thing spooky and mag­i­cal, like some­how you’re de­scend­ing into the un­der­world, the way you have to stoop low, in places al­most crawl, un­til you reach the bot­tom of this se­cre­tive blue-green world where the small cir­cle of sky looks a very long way away.

Hu­mans have been go­ing there for nearly 10,000 years, and no won­der – cenotes of­fer de­li­cious clear fil­tered rain wa­ter, though a few are mixed with salt­wa­ter. Cenotes were the only source of wa­ter for the Mayans in this jun­gle-clad part of the world and they did in­deed think of them as the en­trance to the un­der­world, home to gods and their spir­its af­ter death.

It wasn’t like this though. Not with en­trance charges, life­jack­ets, chang­ing sheds and restau­rants and, in the worst cenote site I vis­ited, with mu­sic, shops and out­door show­ers where I wouldn’t have been sur­prised if they’d added a wa­ter­slide to the ex­pe­ri­ence. No, it wasn’t like that.

That is why you want to avoid Ik-Kil, the most fa­mous cenote of all and eas­ily the most dis­ap­point­ing, near the most fa­mous and most dis­ap­point­ing World Her­itage site in Mex­ico – Chichen Itza. Al­though to be fair, it’s tremen­dous if you like ne­glected, crowded, jun­gle-draped ru­ins filled with hawk­ers and stalls sell­ing tourist tat.

For­tu­nately not far away is Yokd­zonot, set in an eco-park and tended by Mayan women.

This is where I slipped into the blue-green wa­ter and swam to where sta­lac­tites drip from the craggy over­hang (com­mon to par­tially col­lapsed cenotes), look­ing out for swal­lows tucked away in one of the many hun­dreds of nests glued to the rock face.

I could have sought out cenotes to ab­seil down or cenotes to dive in, es­pe­cially those linked to

The Yokd­zonot sink­hole in Mex­ico’s Yu­catan re­gion is filled with deep blue wa­ter fringed with trop­i­cal fo­liage and draped in cur­tains of long ropey roots.

A pack of rac­coons add to the at­trac­tions at the El Cor­chito Eco­log­i­cal Re­serve in Yu­catan.

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