The Mayan Riviera on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is a coveted destination of Americans and Europeans alike for its balmy tropical climate, its stunning beaches, which have made destinations such as Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum, the three places I recently visited during a family holiday, extremely popular.
Well, the spanking clean beaches with their cotton-like white sands, the turquoise blue waters of the Caribbean Sea and the clear blue skies,
coupled with the buzzing bars and night clubs in Cancun and Playa del Carmen (Tulum is a charming and laid back town) do come together to give you an amazing holiday. Long spells either in the sea, if the unseasonal weeds do not hamper your swim in the sea, or soaking up the ambience by the swimming pool, are certainly the usp of a Mexican holiday. But Mexico is much more than its beaches and tequila; those interested in history and culture will come away enthralled from this country.
What I was not prepared for was an entire day of unadulterated fun, relaxation and education through an experience totally new for me. When my sons insisted that we do a full-day tour of the famous Cenotes of the region — reaffirming what guides and travel agents have told me in Africa and some European countries that more and more Indians are opting for adventure tourism — I tried my best to opt … or rather chicken … out. Overruled, one just decided to fall in line.
The Swiss travel agent on the buzzing Fifth Avenue from whom we booked our tour to Xenotes Oasis Maya (privately owned by the company) was not only reassuring about the modest rigours of the tour but also made it sound exciting. My first education on the evolution of the cenotes and what they denote came from him.
He explained how the Mayans (one of the most dominant indigenous people of Mesoamerica, a term used to describe Mexico-Central America before the 16th century Spanish conquest) held the cenotes to be absolutely sacred and worshipped them by offering human and other sacrifices. Apparently research carried out in the 20th century by deep diving into the cenotes has revealed human traces and precious stones such as jade, proving that sacrifices were offered both of humans and prized possessions to appease the gods and their ancestors. The rain god Chaac was the most important one, and was believed to reside right at the bottom of the cenote and the sacrifices were made particularly to please him. Through such offerings the Mayans would pray for good rains, bountiful harvests, good health and prosperity for the family. Often priests would collect water from the sacred cenotes for rituals at temples.
With cenotes being so important and central to the Mayan culture, their depiction in the art and artefacts of this period was inevitable. So the regional art has many depictions of gods such as Chaac, the water lily serpent, etc, and the gods are shown pouring water into a cenote or creating storms. Water lilies growing at the edges of the cenote also symbolised the purity of the water.
Cool clean waters
The cleanliness of the cenote water was the first thing that strikes me as I am gently lowered into the first cenote several metres below the surface through rappelling. As we are strapped up and harnessed, a bit of apprehension, if not fear, is invariable. But the whole set up is so professional and the personnel strapping us up and lowering us into the cenote several metres down are so competent and handle each visitor with such calmness and caring that you soon revert to breathing normally. And at each of the four experiences — rappelling, zip lining, kayaking and snorkelling, not to mention the last bit which is a relaxed stretch of swimming through a considerable length of the open cenote — you have to compulsorily wear a life vest and these are available in various sizes. All the cenotes are of course part of an underground water network. The different cenotes — in this property four of them representing the four elements, earth, fire, wind and water — have been formed by the collapsing limestone; the Yucatan peninsula rests on a bed of limestone.
What takes your breath away is the greenery and rustic beauty of the entire property which is kept absolutely clean. In fact, the organisers are quite strict about preserving the ecosystem and only chemical-free sunscreen and insect repellents are encouraged. Actually, you need neither as most of the time you are in shade in the cool waters of the cenotes. Near the entrance of each of the four cenotes there are spanking clean toilets and changing rooms.
The first cenote where we rappelled down on the rope was rather dark and semi closed and represented the earth. Despite my apprehensions, it was easy. At the second one that represents wind, there was a lot of excitement and screaming — mercifully each group is limited to 16 in the tour — as the group ziplined over the pool of water. As you pass nearer to the central point you have to jump … a depth of 15 to 20 ft. There were more women in our group and hence you can imagine the decibel levels as each participant hit the water! Needless to say most in the group used the chance to zip line and jump multiple times.
At the third cenote there was considerable exercise in the form of kayaking and I chose my partner wisely in my younger son, and the passage through the open water body was smooth without crashing too many times into kayaks of fellow visitors.
The snorkelling was good but having done sea-walking in Mauritius where you see such an exotic mix of fish and coral, I can say I’ve experienced better. Once these four activities were over, we were taken to a spot for a refreshing swim in the gentle currents of an open cenote. As energy and vitality flow through you at the end of an activity-packed day, and shafts of gentle sunlight play hide and seek, you soak in the ambience and can understand why the Mayans established villages around these sacred wells or pools of water, their only source of fresh water.
The caves and the fauna add to the richness of the cenote experience, which at $100 is value for money, including as it does transport — a 45-minute drive on a smooth motorway in a comfortable mini-bus — lunch and snacks, with an unending supply of beer, wine, and hot and cold beverages. A photographer accompanies you all the time, recording all your high and low moments — of exhilaration as well as fear!
Who can say no to the pen drive she dangles at the end of the trip for a little more than $100?
This charming break from the beaches and the pubs into the Mayans exquisite underground world of cool blue waters, where they once communicated with the gods in these sacred pools, is highly recommended. These natural swimming holes formed by the collapse of porous limestone bedrock have fresh and mineral-rich water naturally filtered by the earth that really perk you up and do good to your skin too.
And what better place to learn about another country, another culture, and delve into the history of the Yucatan peninsula than in the subterranean realm of such unique natural beauty!