I arranged our itinerary to be in Merida on Saturday night and Sunday, the days on which the city is supposed to have elaborate street fairs, big open markets and many festivals. We are unimpressed. It’s a lively, friendly atmosphere. But it’s just a lot of t-shirt stands, french fry carts and a couple of street performances. Maybe after one has seen Marrakesh, everything else seems uninteresting. Aside from the street closings, we don’t see much difference between day and night, nor day of the weekend.
Sunday morning is our shopping time. The girls each get $20 pesos – about $15 dollars – to spend on whatever they want. Each quickly buys a stuffed animal they hang on to all day. Lily can’t resist a helium balloon and a plastic headband. They jump around in a grimy moon bounce. We have fun test-driving hammocks at the hammock shop and are taught how the locals make quality sisal thread. After some consideration and urging by the girls, we buy two for about $150 each. Hopefully they will hang nicely on our new porch and not in the closet for eternity.
At the hammock shop, we tell them our plans to go to Cuzama for the “tres cenotes.” Cuzama is a day-trip south of Merida that is barely mentioned in the guide books, but seems really cool. The shop-keepers eyes light up! ‘Cuzama, it’s great!’ They look at their watch, it’s around eleven am, and shrug. ‘Go now!’ they recommend. It doesn’t register with us yet, but being told to ‘hurry up’ by a Mexican is generally a sign that you are already too late.
It’s nice to not have driven for a day. We are definitely happy we skipped the bus rides. The girls have been really well behaved in the car and Yucatan traffic is very manageable. We pile into the car and set the GPS for Cuzama – a difficult task since we don’t have any street addresses. The GPS in Mexico has been invaluable, but no substitute for good directions and common sense (and we seem to be missing one or the other most of the time). Very few sites have addresses that are registered in the database and it does not have all the new roads.
We aren’t very confident that the GPS knows how to get there. It winds us through small town after small town. Trish has to dodge hundreds of cyclists, dogs, pedicabs, loose soccer balls and motorbikes. It’s probably more congested as people travel to Sunday market. The speed bumps are early invisible and frightening – we scrape the undercarriage several times. Streets are closed and/or one-way for Sunday market and we are diverted frequently. Half the time the the GPS says we are off-road, nowhere. The other half is drones ‘Recalculating… recalculating… recalculating.’ We laugh nervously because we wonder if we are completely lost. A gas station attendant nicely gives us detailed directions we don’t understand, but at least confirms we are in the right direction.
It’s been almost 2 hours and we finally approach Cuzama. There are hennequin/sisal fields on the outskirts. Sisal is thread made from a Yucatan native, agave plant. It’s harvested for the fibrous threads in the ‘leaves’ and was the major export of the region for several centuries. Among other things, it doesn’t decay in salt water, making it ultra-valuable for sailing ships.
What makes the cenotes in Cuzama special, is they are situated along a six-mile ‘train’ track made for horse-drawn carts that were used to move the sisal from the field to production houses. Visitors are pulled along the track, stopping off at each cenote for a dip in the underground water. The whole event takes two-and-a-half hours. Finally we see a sign for ‘Cenote!’ and we pull off the main road onto a dirt driveway. Two little scruffy boys jump eagerly in front of our car and wave us into their front yard as if there is a lot of traffic to manage. But we are the only people there, save for the boys and an unmoving man sitting under a tree. A rafter of turkeys runs in front of us as we skeptically get out of the vehicle. There is a house off to the left that is presumably their home.
‘Cenote, Senior?’ ‘Si, Cenote’ he replies and points 20 feet behind him, where we see a ladder poking through the earth. We get closer and see an 18 inch wide rusty, steel ladder that goes down a 4ft wide hole through the limestone (pictured above). It’s at least 60 feet down, maybe more. But it’s hard to tell because we can’t see the bottom. The Mayans believed Cenotes were earthly entrances to their version of hell, albeit watery and dark, not fiery and hot. ’25 pesos’ he says. My initial alarm turns to cocky courage and I realize I have to go down that ladder. I hand him a fifty. Trisha grabs a flashlight from the car for me.
The joy of travel is the stuff you don’t expect, good and bad. I didn’t expect this. As I carefully climb down the ladder, and my eyes adjust to the dark, I see a 200 foot diameter cave, with red rock sides a crystal blue pool of water and thousands of tiny stalagmites and stalactites. I may be drunk on adrenaline, but this is among the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.
I urge Trish to go down, but I’m nervous about taking the girls down that long narrow ladder. (I later come to regret that decision, but we may get a second chance in a few days.) An American dad and his teenage boys show up, telling us that the ‘Tres Cenotes’ our original destination, is a littel farther down the road but they had left because the lines were at least 2 hours, maybe longer. TWO HOURS!? The warning to get moving by the hammock sellers rings in my head. Apparently these cenotes are so popular with the locals that weekend visits are almost impossible.
Back in the car, the girls get teary. We came all this way and all they saw was a hole in the ground. It’s a fair complaint. We decide to find some lunch and see if the lines get shorter in the late afternoon. We’ve learned to read the ‘advertisements’ for restaurants painted on the street walls. Restaurant ‘Il Cenote’ is a cute place with a typical menu: rice and beans, grilled chicken breast, enchiladas. A lot of people walk through the open-air restaurant wet with towels on. That can mean only one thing: another cenote is nearby.
This one is a busy public cenote from the town Harmon, and like Ik Kil and Dzitnup, it has a stairway/tunnel blasted through the earth with a paved platform for easy access to the water below. It’s not the most beautiful cenote, but it holds its own. Lily more willingly gets in the water with fish and we cool down from the hot day. Phew! At least we found a cenote the girls could swim in.
We stop back at ‘Tres Cenotes’ and the line is still at least 2 hours, maybe longer. Anything locals are willing to wait 2 hours for must be pretty fun, so we rearrange our itinerary to come back here in a few days when it is, hopefully, less busy. The girls feign dissapointment, but really they are exhausted. The drive back is quite. Night in Merida brings another restaurant. This one makes poor, but plain pizza. It’s a nice change from the pureed black beans and sticky rice for the girls. The singer is much better than the night before.