Off The Map: Cenotes in Mexico with Unmarked Taxis and Underwater Lakes
Cenote close to Cancun
Cenote close to Cancun
Looking out of the Cenote
Inside the Cenote
About to climb into the Cenote
If you know anything about Mexico, you know how this story ends; our unmarked cab turned off the main road into a dirt clearing, our driver slowed and asked us if we ‘make a good living doing what we do’. I was worried, the kind of worry that tickles your stomach and makes your hands and feet immediately wet.
My girlfriend and I hate to miss out on any experience, even if we do have to travel on a budget. While we are still working out all the kinks, we usually depend on cutting out some of the ‘comfortable’ parts of travel to free up money for adventures.
I had never heard of a cenote until the last days of our trip to Cancun, but I immediately had a ‘Goonies’ style image in my head of scrambling down under the earth to swim through a series of magical twisting caverns.
I had to go, and figured we could squeeze a daytrip in if we did the traveling by public transport. The decision was easy, but the planning was way more complex.
After an exhausting web search, we drew-up a plan that looked more like a hiking map than a trip route, bright solid lines for confirmed busses, dotted lines for possible shuttles, brackets around the areas that may or may not have either, and x’s for distances we definitely couldn’t walk; not straightforward but not impossible. Even if we started out going in the wrong direction on a solid line, nearly half the trip was made of positive busses.
When the positives turned to possibilities, we were standing in a concrete town square attempting to climb into a minivan that also served as a local shuttle. The only response we got from the riders was, “not for you”, and with that the van pulled away. Our makeshift route suddenly became nearly 60% brackets with x’s.
At this point, the unmarked cab entered our lives. Despite any apprehension a traveler might have about riding in an unmarked cab, when a man looks you in the eyes and says, “We need to go. A man was just stabbed in this square and the stabber is on the loose”, you go. So we did. We jumped in his car and headed off down the Route De Los Cenotes.
I don’t know what the driver was expecting, we were two backpackers who he had just watched try and climb into an overloaded van, but he came to our rescue. Moreover, he was warm, personable, and helpful; our connection seemed to be one of those that validates an entire trip.
We headed down the highway, turning under the Route De Los Cenotes sign that marked our way. We laid out our plans for the day, and he suggested a few cenotes that his kids enjoyed, one of which became our new destination, and, after a bit of a discussion about the impossibility of getting back to the town without him, he offered to wait while Jade and I went exploring.
Cenotes are an equal mix amazing and frightening. There is a palpable air of ultra cool Hollywood action film as you take in a series of swimming chambers interlinked by underwater passageways, drop offs that fade into black dozens of feet below your legs, and get hit with the feeling that one wrong move means at best you are lost in a pitch black cavern. Basically everything that makes it exciting goes against thousands of years of human evolution where smart people didn’t go diving in caves and dumb people drowned, that’s scary. This balance of fear and excitement was ultimately calming – a calm periodically interrupted by shivers- and we even got up the guts to swim down chambers not even chest wide that were definitely overrun with bats.
It couldn’t have been better, and we thanked the driver profusely as we headed back to the bus stop. Though translation was slow, we told our driver how we worked in photography and video and how great the cenote looked with our new camera. He told us more about his family, and in the distance the sign of Route De Los Cenotes came into view. We were almost back. The unmarked taxi slowed and pulled off the road.
“Do you make a good living, doing what you do?” the driver asked as we pulled behind some bushes, nearing a truck that sat stopped ahead.
“It’s hard.” I was able to eek out, trying to stay cool, calm, and collected.
The car stopped, the truck was directly in front of us. I realized I hadn’t looked at Jade since we pulled off the road, but we were gripping each other’s hand in silent agreement, this didn’t seem like a great situation. I opened by mouth to ask what was going on, when the driver honked his horn.
The truck pulled out of the way, and we were moving again. The dirt clearing stretched out in front of us.
Where we were didn’t matter, we weren’t stopped and hidden behind a bunch of bushes. The taxi found its way to something that looked like a road, and we relaxed a little. Mexico is home of a number of different stories, and our pulse calmed as we realized we weren’t in one that ended in a pile of people pieces. Houses began to cluster on either side of us.
“I’m going to take you right to the bus stop, since the man might still be loose.”
Sometimes, the moments after fear are worse than the actual scare. My feet were twitchy and I hoped our driver hadn’t looked back and seen my wide eyes right before he honked. I thought “This is Mexico” but I said it a number of different ways to myself that made me feel better and worse.
As we stopped again, this time next to where the hard, clear lines of our route, I didn’t worry so much about the proper tip amount, I gave him what was in my hand and thanked him profusely, as the uneasiness still hadn’t totally left me.
If you know Mexico, then you know there are a number of issues to consider before going, but, if you have been to Mexico, you know that most of the people are like everyone else in the world, kind, polite, and helpful. I’ve been scared in Mexico a number of times, but I’ve always had great adventures. The cenote was super cool, but when I think back, it’s really the whole experience, starting with the piecemeal route that made it memorable.
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