It’s been four nights at Merida’s Dolores Alba hotel, an unexpectedly long stay. Since we arrived on Christmas, when it was completely deserted, Mexican, European and American tourists have been gradually arriving. By Tuesday, breakfast time is loud and busy. We see older couples, families with kids like us, a few solo backpackers and lots of mixed groups.
On Sunday, we rode out to Cuzama. We were pleasantly surprised by a backyard cenote we found nearby, but unpleasantly surprised by the two-hour lines to see the 3 main ones. It was also, apparently, (earworm alert) a three hour tour. (~a three-hour-tour…~) The kids were very dissapointed that we couldn’t do ‘Los Tres Cenotes’ so today we get started earlier, hoping that Tuesday brings shorter lines and we finish long before nightfall. We plan on having enough time to drive to Uxmal for the 7pm light show at the ruins there.
Saying goodbye to Merida, we wind through its busy, but polite, rush-hour traffic. We shut off the GPS. Last time it took us the long way. The bulk of the trip is the same crazy ride through small towns. It feels more familar, though.
On arrival in Cuzama, it’s obvious that our plan has failed. The departure area is already packed. There are at least as many people here on a Tuesday morning at 11:30 am as there were on Sunday at 3pm. Trish hops out of the car and talks to the manager. It’s still a 90 minute wait on a Tuesday morning! She puts us on the list but our name gets garbled.
We are now the ‘Rico’ family. Welcome to Ricoworld.com! I’m your host, Dabid Rico.
The Rico’s do what the Rico’s always do when they have 90 minutes to wait: get some food. The restaurant is surprisingly good. Everyone (but Emma of course) enjoys chicken fajitas. We change into our swim clothes and head back to the waiting area for our turn.
It’s a shady spot with some limestone boulders to sit on but there are a lot of bugs and it’s generally filthy. The girls handle it well. We have at least an hour to wait, maybe more depending on how the system works.
The system is so simple, almost naive. Our jaded, cynical souls find it difficult to comprehend. Basically, some guy keeps the list of people that want to go on a small piece of paper and calls out their name in turn. There are no tickets, no payments, no registration. The cart drivers accept tips only. This appears to be some sort of town collective enterprise run on the honor system. (It’s an eco-friendly one, too). We skeptically wait our turn, in disbelief that they will honor the Rico’s place in line without us having to pay a bribe, buy a ticket or negotiate in Spanish.
Around the list-manager, the crowd gets 6 or 7 deep. He gets hassle from the impatient crowd and there is a little pushing and shoving. He has to move every few minutes to keep the crowd from becoming so big that it gridlocks the small area. It’s really amazing, almost unbelievable, that this man politely, alone, maintains the integrity of the system without going crazy or giving in to bribery.
I fight to get close and ask ‘how long?’ “Under an hour’ he says. I frequently look over his shoulder to see the magic list, and he does seem to be crossing people off one-by-one. A woman flashes money and tries to get on a cart out of turn, but he firmly denies her. Finally the Rico’s are called. “DABID RICO! DABID RICO!” Trish slides in the car before anyone can argue and we pull the girls on-board.
Onboard is an exageration, perhaps. There isn’t much to “board.” Our vehicle is a horse-drawn 6×4 foot wooden platform with flat benches and a plastic roof on steel wheels. I notice some springs, but they don’t seem to move, and they definitely don’t help. The clattering ride rattles the brain and numbs the body. But it’s fun and we are relieved to be on our way after waiting.
The carts run on tiny track no more than 18 inches apart. We are pulled into the jungle on a small brown horse. To the sides we can see remnants of sisal fields that used to provide the purpose for this track-system. Farmers would cart the sisal back to the factories for processing. There is only one track, and drivers negotiate whenever an incoming and outgoing cart meet. One of them has to pull his cart off the track to let the other pass. We do this five or six times on the trip.
The cart ride is a blast, but mission is the cenotes. Each has its own beauty. The first is the largest and deepest cave we’ve seen. The second has an amazing tree dangling roots so think and strong that grown men climb up them for a high-dive into the crystal blue water below. The final one requires a vertical descent on a slippery wooden ladder and is so dark that it takes 2-3 minutes for my eyes to adjust, but it’s also one of the most beautiful. We’ve seen 7 or 8 cenotes now, and they have been the best part of our trip.
But they have also been a source of fear. Lily has been very afraid of the fish, but each time she gets more comfortable with them. By the final Cenote, she can swim out a few feet by herself without any panic.
Emma’s first apprehension was heights, but after doing the 20 foot jump at Ik Kil, she can do the smaller ones with ease. However, a few days ago she developed new fear after learning that some Cenotes have submerged caves that are dangerous. She is haunted, almost to tears, that she will get sucked down.
We’ve talked with both about gradually confronting the fear, citing our own personal examples. Emma takes a swim into the deeper parts of the cave with me, and lily swims into the fish, shooing them out of the way as she does the doggy-paddle. The cenotes are so engaging, so beautiful that the girls want to deal with the fear. It’s amazing to see them develop in front of our eyes.
The trip is so extrordinary that we lost track of time. it’s almost 5pm and are still on the track, rattling back to the departure point. We pay our guide 400 pesos ($30) and get no reaction. I have no idea if that’s above or below the normal rate. The town is deserted now, and we wander into the restaurant wet and hungry. Fortunately they have vanilla ice cream, and I get some coffee for the long ride to Uxmal in the dark.
Getting from Cuzama to Uxmal at night is a challenge. The speedbumps, pedicabs and stray dogs are impossible to see in the towns and the oncoming traffic leaves the brights on most of the time on the narrow highway. The GPS again directs us via the backroads, and we are pretty sure the main highway is the way to go. We switch it off and use the vague maps in our guidebooks. As the crow flies, Uxmal should be 45 minutes away, but we have to zig-zag through small towns, and it takes over 2 hours.
Uxmal is fairly remote, with only one town nearby: Santa Elena. It has a few expensive hotels on the grounds of the ruin. We have no reservations, but we confirmed at least one of them has avaliability. As we pull up, we are met by hordes of oncoming traffic exiting the sound and light show. Trish works her magic with the hotel manager and gets an incredible rate of $1200 ($100 US) with breakfast at the Lodges at Uxmal, directly across from the ruins. it’s a very nice place, with big rooms and good food. Again the girls are almost asleep at dinner, and we turn in early so we can see the ruins in the AM.