Tonight I sit on the porch of a bungalow in the jungle. I sweat and slap mosquitos and listen to the cacaphony of insects and the funny chirp of a gecko while a small orange cat winds around my ankles. My first night here I dreamt I walked out the front door to encounter a man sitting on a bird’s nest. He started and flew away, knocking the nest over. I went over to put the eggs back in the nest but they were all broken. I think the mystical nature of this place is seeping in already.
The Yucatan peninsula is known for it’s cenotes or limestone sinkholes. The cenotes were sacred to the Mayan people as gateways to the underworld and as the habitation of Chaak the god of rain. Chaak stored rain in earthenware pots in these caves. A thunder-clap was Chaak breaking a jar and releasing the water down onto the earth. Bits of pottery, double-edged knives, and even the remnants of human sacrifice have been discovered in some of the more than 30,000 cenotes that dot the landscape. This is why I am here. Some friends of friends have allowed me to crash their cave diving trip. I am claustrophobic and reluctant to admit it and am hoping that the fact that the visibility is virtually endless in this freshwater underwater cave system will make my nervousness irrelevant. Our guide is a Spaniard with one blue eye and one brown. I feel like there’s some significance to a magical looking Spaniard guiding us through the gateway to the underworld.
The entrance to the Dos Ojos cenote is a medium size cave with trees clinging to the entrance, their roots grasping the edge of the entrance like tentacles. The water is an impossible turquoise and there are a few divers already working their way backwards down a wooden ladder to the water. The water is 75 degrees but it’s so, so hot outside that it feels shockingly cold when the first trickle works its way down the back of my wetsuit. Our guide and the three of us bob at the surface while she reviews the rules and what to do in case of an emergency. Gloves are not permitted as it makes it difficult for her to see our fingers in the dark. Since we cannot speak underwater, we must rely on sign language. We are each given a high-powered flashlight which will be used to admire the formations and also call for help. We all agree we are ready to descend and I’m grateful that this is a shallow dive, never more than 20 feet because the thought of being in a tunnel in the dark already has my heart going pitter pat.
We touch down on bottom and I listen to my Darth Vader breathing, double-check that I have a full tank of air, and that I know where my back up regulator is. We convene in a little group, all look each other in the eye, and give the ok signal. Our guide tips to the side, gives a small kick and we are off. Fresh water diving is different from diving in the ocean. You only use half the weight because the lack of salt water means you are not as buoyant. Also, our movements seem to have exaggerated effects and I confirm this later with the guide. It takes only the tiniest puff of air or flick of a flipper to send you jettisoning off in one direction or another. One in our group touches down on the floor and then floats up to bounce off the ceiling. He’s having trouble controlling his buoyancy in this new environment.
It’s a much bigger cavern than I would have imagined and it’s so fascinating that I soon forget to be nervous. The water is so clear you almost can’t see it, lending a magical flying feeling to the experience. Have you ever been on a walking tour through Carlsbad Caverns or similar? This was like that only you’re swimming through it: stalactites, stalagmites, columns, formations like wedding cakes, merengue, melting wax, arches, formations delicate as lace. A few tiny, silver fish flit into my flashlight beam and then disappear. How do fish get into groundwater, I wonder? I stick like glue to the diver in front of me as he rises and dips according to the underground terrain. Suddenly I hear a deep rumble. I look around, alarmed. I see nothing. The sound continues but no one else seems to pay it any mind. God forbid an earthquake now, but nothing happens and Dory’s song from “Finding Nemo” comes to mind. “Just keep swimmin’, just keep swimmin’…” I find out later that all the air bubbles from the divers find their way to certain cracks in the limestone and work their way out in a rush, causing the rumbling sound.
Our guide gives us the thumbs up which in this case means go to the surface. Are we done? No, but we have reached another ojo or eye in the cave system, another opening. We break the silvery surface and float, our voices echoing loudly in the cavern. This is the bat cave and many wriggling bats are clinging like cute, furry vampires from the ceiling. We ooh and ahh and shine our flashlights to see the furry squeakers on the ceiling. Once we’ve had our fill of looking we don our masks and regulators and sink to the bottom again. It’s so mysterious, this underworld. What is real and what is reflection? Where is that green light coming from? Is that a hole in the rock or an air bubble? A sudden movement as something dark slides across the wall. No, it’s just a shadow created by my flashlight. Another cave is large and dark but for three beams of light shining down like blue spotlights from holes in the roof. We learn later that these beams of light only happen at mid-day during the summer. One beam shines directly down on top of a mound and it looks for all the world like a scene from Indiana Jones but there needs to be a treasure chest or an ark of the covenant on top of the mound. I think I see a stalactite hanging from the water’s surface, but suddenly it moves. It’s a pair of legs! And suddenly, too soon, we are done. The blue light glittering at the end of the tunnel is the main entrance and we have safely returned from our short excursion into the underworld. We may be done with the dive, but the mysterious feeling will stick with me all day.