Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Mexico, part 3: The deep end

Now comes the part where not only are there beers at breakfast, lunch and dinner -- now we're actually drinking them IN A MOVING VEHICLE!

DAY 4:
Who doesn't love a nice Mayan ruin? We sign up for a daylong excursion to Chichén Itzá, a large pre-Columbian archaeological site a couple hours from Cancun. The concierge tells us the trip includes lunch, plus "a sticky bun" for breakfast on the bus drive there. Because it wasn't even 10 a.m. when we left, we are surprised when this sticky bun is accompanied by cold Corona, poured into plastic cups and refilled with a smile as often as you please.

The drive to the site is fascinating. Always something to look at out the windows. Beautiful old thatch huts sit strangely alone in the middle of nowhere. Dark smoke rises from a couple of fires burning on the side of the road. We see log lean-tos, burned-out cars, women scrubbing laundry in buckets, stern-looking federales with machine guns, pigs and cows, and lots and lots of crosses and colorful virgin statues. My favorite part was an neat old village called Valladolid, which seemed like our most authentic glimpse of Mexico. I took these pictures from my seat on the bus:

Before we arrive at the ruins, we stop to visit a cenote, a natural underground pool. Much is made of Yucatán cenotes in brochures and tourist guides, but to me they seem a bit gross. In photos the water looks thick and green, almost putrid. Our concierge had suggested that we wear bathing suits in case we wanted to swim in the cenote, but I had pretty much decided that was not going to happen.

But when we arrive at the Ik Kil Eco-archaeological Park, I'm surprised that the cenote looks much prettier in real life. Very deep blue, and so clear you could see hundreds of fish darting around in the water. There's a big hole in the ceiling, so sunlight pours into the cave, and waterfalls stream down into the pool.

Turns out most folks are like me and have no intention of leaping into this thing. A tightly packed crowd of tourists watches from the ledge above while just a handful of people splash around in the water. But a very unusual thing happens as I stare down at the pool: I begin to feel a tiny bit brave. I wonder, just how cool WOULD it be if I could say I actually did this? Like, a little bit cool? Perhaps even a whole lot cool? And before I know it, I'm shucking off my clothes, shakily handing Sal my backpack, and then I'm standing on the ledge with all these jostling, noisy tourists and clicking cameras behind me. My heart is pounding.

The most difficult part is that there's no wading into a cenote. Can't even dip a toe, because the ledge is a good 6 or 8 feet above the water. The pool is 130 feet deep, so there's no easing your way in, no putting your feet down if you get tired. Basically, it's ALL the deep end.

So I push out of my mind thoughts of all those wiggly fish, and of how I will most definitely die today. And I leap. I close my eyes, pinch my nose, and cannonball myself down into the water. Don't know how deep I sink, but it's far enough that I'm in total darkness. As I kick my legs a faint cloud of light begins to appear above me, and it grows bigger and bigger, and then I'm at the surface. My pulse races as I float on my back and see the blue sky, and the vines coming down from the hole in the ceiling. I watch those tourists up on the ledge snap pictures, and water from the ceiling rains down on my face. It was THE BEST.

For about 90 seconds. Because then I paddle myself over to the rickety old wooden ladder and climb out. I jump in one more time, for good measure, and then I head for the showers and lunch, where we toast my bad-assness with mas cervezas.

Next it was on to the ruins, where we hear about Mayan human-sacrifice rituals. For instance, to please the sun god, the victim is laid atop a pyramid, arms and legs held down, while an executioner carves out the living heart and raises it to the sky. Then the corpse is rolled down the steps flayed, its bloody skin worn by a dancing priest. Gah!

The most impressive structure is El Castillo, a step pyramid with 91 steps on four sides. They don't let you climb it anymore because a few years ago someone fell off and died. But it's easier to marvel at the structure and imagine 11th-century living without a bunch of dumb sweaty tourists climbing all over it. The park also contains many beautiful carved stones and columns, temples, a ball court and another cenote. Only this one is where they used to dump chopped-off Mayan heads and stuff. We skip the swimming.

Time to go home, so we return to the bus and cool off with chilled wet washcloths and an open bar. "The Bucket List" plays on the TV while we try not to doze off.

The happy adventurers:

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