in search of merida’s cenotes
Fiona Hilliard is a travel writer and blogger from Dublin, Ireland. She counts Mexico as one of her favourite travel destinations and regularly provides Mexico travel advice for Argus Car Hire’s Glove Box blog. Here she shares her memories from her recent Mexico Unplugged Intrepid trip:
“Ok…he says to watch out…there’s a sharp turn coming up…! We clutch the sides of the rickety wooden carriage and get ready to be thrown every which way.
Over the course of our trip, our guide has taken on many different roles. This afternoon, he’s translating for the gap-toothed driver in charge of our horse. We are in Cuzama, on our way to visit some of Merida’s most famous sink holes.
With the railway tracks back on the straight and narrow, I look behind. Another cartload of giddy, shaken up day-trippers is gaining on us.
Butterflies are dancing between the cactus groves on either side of the tracks. They’re acid yellow and electric blue and they’re huge. Like, bird-sized big. In fact, I think some of them could almost span the size of my palm.
This is Mexico in all of her surreal, sun-scorched glory. Thundering through Cuzama’s dusty sisal plantations, it feels like we’re the luckiest people on earth today.
All too soon, our driver signals that our journey is nearing its end. With a final flick of his whip, he rounds the last bend in the tracks before bringing us to a standstill.
We had reached our destination.
On first impressions, there wasn’t that much to see here – a few gnarly old trees, some rubble and rocks, flies (lots of them) and a messy pathway caked in dried mud. Nonetheless, eager explorers were lining up barefoot, getting ready to disappear into a hole in the ground. All that was missing was a giant white hare with a fob watch. At least there was a ladder.
As it turned out, the path to this wonderland involved a very steep climb. Down the ladder. In partial darkness. Did I mention also that the ladder was long, old, rusty, wobbly – just about every adjective you don’t want in front of a sheer drop?
This sink hole had better be worth it I thought, as I wrapped my hands around the slippery rungs.
After what seemed like hundreds of feet later, I leapt jelly-legged off the last step.
This was no ‘sink hole’. It was a scene straight out of a Bounty commercial. It was a totally tropical hideaway, replete with shimmering turquoise water, shadowy caverns and mischievous little echoes. Exotic, ropey roots dangled like chandeliers from the cave’s ceiling. Ancient stalactites glistened on the walls. The sun gushed through a circular opening in the roof, expertly spotlighting daredevil cave divers swinging from the tree roots. Wannabe mermaids floated in the halo of light below. It was the perfect slice of paradise.
Sink holes or cenotes (to give them their proper, elegant Spanish name) have played an important role in Mexican culture since the Mayan era. In ancient times, the Mayans considered them to be highly sacred places. Not only did they represent an entrance to the underworld, but they were also a vital source of clean, fresh water in an otherwise parched landscape.
The Mayans called them “dzonot” meaning “abysmal and deep”. The closest translation that Spanish conquerors could find was “cenote” meaning “deep thing”. How the English language morphed this term into ‘sink hole’ is anyone’s guess…
All I know is it was a privilege to spend time in this heavenly underground sanctuary, even if it did involve a ladder from hell!
Long may these special places continue to exist.”
To find out more about travelling with Intrepid and for your chance to WIN a trip in every edition, subscribe to Intrepid Express, our free e-newsletter.
* photos by Fiona Hilliard