Mexico, The Hole Trip!
DOWN A HOLE IN MEXICO.
After only a few days in Cancun, the largest resort destination on the Yucatan Peninsular, I had overheard one to many people demanding a club sandwich and a freaking Long Island Iced Tea, whilst demanding to pay their cheque in dollars. I needed to find some tranquillity, escape the tourist hoards and get off the beaten track. I didn’t envisage this desire leading me down a dark hole and leaving me bobbing slowly in absolute darkness 40 feet under the Mexican jungle. But that’s exactly where I found myself, down a dark hole pondering Mexican health and safety standards and fearing for my F*±%ing life.
I had read about the amazing underground caves and rivers that stretch for miles underneath the Yucatan peninsular and I couldn’t think of anywhere better to escape the tourist hoards than a cave below the Mexican jungle. Surely here, I could guarantee there would be no Seignior Frogs theme bar. I bade farewell to the Mariachi band that had stalked me for the past two days, made my way to the local bus depot and requested a ticket to Tulum, which was apparently home to the best ‘Cenote’s’ (underground cave) in Mexico.
Ironically, demonstrating exactly the same brand of cultural elitism I was attempting to flee, I envisaged our journey would be shared with peasants, pigs and chickens. I couldn’t have been further from the truth, the Mexican coach network is modern, clean and most importantly cheap. You can travel long distances in relative luxury for virtually nothing. Cancun to Tulum, a journey of about four hours, costs under £2. For about £1 more you can travel first class with in flight movies and a bathroom. Take care to avert your eyes from the on board entertainment however, as the movies are generally comically violent Hollywood rejects. We endured Dean Cochran and a cast of tens, in Air Marshal; one mans battle against Islamic terrorism in the sky. Dodgy airborne xenophobia aside, we were transported, in some comfort, down the Caribbean coast to the beautiful deserted beaches and stunning Mayan ruins of Tulum.
My next step off the beaten track saw my wife and I sat on the side of a road in the middle of nowhere waiting for a ride that would never arrive; not an unusual occurrence in Mexico and not something that impressed my wife. It was 10.20 in the morning and the temperature was already well above 80 degrees. As we sat there an Iguana perched on a rock eyed us suspiciously, probably assuming us to be cold blooded creatures like him. After all, why else would you bake yourself on a nondescript highway in the mid day sun? We stared down the road into the haze and realised nothing was coming or going.
For our escape, we had chosen a cave diving site outside Tulum, in the heart of the Mexican jungle. But, as this organisation couldn’t even be bothered to pick us up, our next step into the unknown had got off to a rather inauspicious start. We decided to hike back to Tulum, where we had booked the incredible invisible tour, to remonstrate with the tour operator. The temperature was still rising and my argumentative powers had deserted me by the time we arrived. The operator explained that, “In Mexico, It happens” and we lamely agreed to wait for the next pick up that afternoon. We cracked a beer, settled down and hoped for the best. Thank god for Mexican beer!
Eventually, a small decrepit white pick up truck driven by an enthusiastic, but equally decrepit middle-aged man pulled up. He hiked our bags into the rear of the pick up and we were banging along the freeway and out into the jungle before we could draw breath. Half an hour later we swerved violently off the road, flew through an arch which read, ‘Jungle Cave Dives, it’s a wild experience’, pulled into a clearing cut from the bush and came to a sudden juddering halt. Things often don’t happen when they are supposed to in Mexico, but when they do, they invariably happen at speed.
We had been snorkelling in some stunning locations on our travels around Mexico. We had enjoyed some spectacular experiences and encountered nothing more dangerous than an out of date San Miguel beer, (although people have said that me in my Speedo’s is as dangerous as it gets) but when the man behind the desk asked for our signature on an indemnity form, which incidentally was two pages long, I began to think this might be a little more serious. I was concerned as nothing in Mexico is deemed dangerous enough to warrant a waver, you can climb over crumbling ruins and swim in shark or crocodile infested waters without anybody batting an eyelid. I wondered what the hell we were getting into!
Once we had been kitted out with wet suits, snorkels and flippers we were brought together into a group of six. The introductions were difficult as we had five different nationalities in our group. It was at this point I realised that nobody had actually explained to us what we would be doing. All we knew was there was a cave and we were going into it. As my insecurities grew, I wondered how we would communicate in an emergency? At least in ‘Journey to the centre of the world’ James Mason’s team all spoke English.
The caves were a few miles into the jungle and we were to get there by truck. The wagon, with its exposed engine, oversized tyres and decidedly flimsy looking wooden frame looked and felt like a monster truck Mad Max reject. Our driver was a pudgy looking young man with one ear. He introduced himself as Miguel as he loaded us into a stripped down wagon. Miguel probably wouldn’t have been out of place in the Thunder-dome either.
The track leading away from the centre quickly became un-drivable, although, as Miguel slowly climbed through the gears he obviously didn’t think so. We bounced around wildly. With each peak in the road we were thrown skywards and with each trough we would come crashing down on the bare wooden boards, which, incidentally, were the only thing separating us from the rear axle whirring beneath our feet. We hung on for dear life. I glance across at my wife but quickly looked away as she had that ‘what the hell have you got us into’ look in her eye. The drive seemed to go on forever. My arms and my ankles were becoming sore but we ploughed on, deeper and deeper into the jungle. Eventually, we came to a shuddering halt in a clearing next to another identical wagon. There appeared to be no one around. The clearing in front of the two wagons was deserted. All we could see was what appeared to be a hole in the ground and a half demolished Stone Wall.
We climbed down from the truck and wandered obediently forward following Miguel towards the clearing. Miguel took this opportunity to engage me in conversation. “You Like Mexico” he asked. Yes, I replied, I love the sunshine and the Tequila. “You like women? We have lots of women, I love women, ” he said rather obliquely.
We came closer and the hole revealed it’s self to be some kind of Well. There was a set of old iron steps leading down vertically into the ground. I didn’t realise we would be going down this Well, or ‘Cenote’, until someone’s head popped out and a young woman came blinking into the daylight. She was followed by a group of five bemused looking tourists. They smiled politely as they silently filed past. ‘What was it like’ I enquired. They smiled nervously and walked by. They either don’t speak English, or they are so shook up they can’t speak, I thought to myself. Miguel, disappeared down the steps before we could rationalise going down a hole no more than four feet in diameter in the middle of the Mexican jungle. I followed gingerly.
The steps were wet and slippery and my footing was unsure. I stepped slowly into the darkness and had my feet firmly on terra firma before I allowed myself to look around. I turned to survey the cave and blinked to adjust my eyes to the darkness. It was cool after the heat of the jungle and surprisingly large. Water glistened under the sparse lighting at the base of the half submerged cave and huge stalactites and stalagmites protruded from everywhere. We had stepped from a dry, hot jungle into Fingal’s Cave. Miguel was already in the water spitting into his mask and gesturing towards the tunnels that led off in every direction. Within minutes and after the briefest of instructions we were snorkelling into the darkness, gliding effortlessly through the crystal clear underground caverns and tunnels to god knows where.
Although there are virtually no rivers above ground, the fresh water caverns and caves stretch for 700 miles below. Hopefully we wouldn’t have to go the full distance but as I watched the shoals of fish dart in and out of the rocks I didn’t care. I wanted to be in this wonderland for as long as possible. I followed the splash of Miguel’s flippers a couple of yards in front of me and marvelled at this beautiful hidden world. I felt like Jacques Cousteau.
As we went deeper into the labyrinth of streams I took care to look up and down so as to avoid impaling myself on the stalactites from above and the stalagmites from below. In places the clearing above my head was no more than 12 inches and my snorkel would drag along the rock. The ceiling undulated, encroaching from above and then opening up into another green blue cavern. After a while we entered a passage leaving the artificial spotlights that had been regularly dotted under and above the water.
There was now no light except for the single divers light that Miguel was carrying. Every time he turned a corner we were plunged into absolute darkness. The walls appeared to be closing in around us and I began to hyperventilate. My snorkel scraped slowly along the ceiling dropping rock finings into my mask. The walls of the cave were sharp against my knuckles as I attempted to gauge the extremities of my environment. The only thing I held sure in my mind was that British Health and Safety would never ever allow this. Miguel had stopped in a space no bigger than 5ft across. There were about 10 inches of space between water and ceiling and the only light was Miguel’s divers torch. He took off his life jacket, freed his snorkel from his mouth, took a deep breath and plunged under the water. He disappeared through a tiny hole taking the light with him. We were left bobbing slowly in the absolute dark for what seemed like an eternity. Nobody spoke. You could hear each of us breathing more heavily than we had ever done before. Eventually, Miguel reappeared. I couldn’t rationalise which I was more grateful for, Miguel, or the light. He gestured for us all to take off our life jackets. One thing was evident; we were going to go wherever Miguel had just been. I remembered what I had overheard an American tourist say when confronted with a public beach in Cancun. She said, “You know, I am soooo a resort girl. I always want to do this adventure shit, but then I get there and I am like, oh my god! Get me back to the freakin resort!” At this moment I was right behind her. Why did I leave the pool bar?
How far, I pleaded, gesturing towards the underwater passageway. “Not far” was Miguel’s casual reply as he put his hand on my head and began to push me down. I reeled up nearly impaling myself on a stalactite. He looked me in the eye, saw panic and rage and backed off. “After you Seignior” he said quietly, gesturing for me to go forward. There was no alternative, I was first in the queue and there was no room to reorganise. I filled my lungs and plunged forward aiming straight for the light. I stroked once, twice, three times. I cut my hands on the rocks as I pushed as hard as I could. I broke the surface seconds later gulping for air! I was in the corner of a large well-lit cavern. I sucked the air as if I had been under water for minutes, not seconds. The distance had turned out to be no more than two yards. I felt like Shelly Winters, after Ernest Borgnine had slapped her for panicking, in The Poseidon adventure.
As the rest of our group bobbed up beside me I also realised that this cavern was in fact the same cavern we had entered some 45 Minutes earlier. We had gone full circle. I could have screamed with joy. Not only had we made it out, we wouldn’t have to retrace our steps and dive back into the darkness. I spent the next few minutes swimming like a water baby, safe in the knowledge that the surface was only a few yards away at the top of the decrepid steps.
The saying proved right, I was happy to walk towards the bright light. As we filed out of the water and up the iron steps into the searing heat of the jungle, we passed another group about to embark on their ‘Cenote’ adventure. “What’s it like, is it scary?” someone inquired. My eyes struggled with the light and I couldn’t see who was talking. Just as the girls who had passed us earlier had done, we smiled politely and filed by in silence. As we boarded the truck, to be bounced out of the jungle the same way we had been bounced in, I reflected on our experience. In Mexico, there are far fewer safety ropes, far fewer restrictive barriers and far more opportunity to come to grief. The truck then pitched into the jungle leaving the road completely to avoid an oncoming vehicle as if to endorse my thoughts. But attempting anything without a safety net is always more exhilarating and as I helped my wife to her feet and Miguel wrestled the truck back onto the track, I wanted to do it all over again!
I never did find out whether my travel insurance would be invalidated by that indemnity form, and Somehow, I think it’s better not to know! If you stick with what you know you don’t end up in a hole called a Cenote in Mexico. You may however, end up in a hole called Seignior Frogs, Fat Tuesdays or Tequila Sunrise, in a nonediscript resort just like any other.