Eventually the rain subsided. In our last hours in Tulum, the sun broke free and cast the beaches in their more traditional azure hues. Desperate to enjoy the offerings of the area beyond its spectacular talent for storms, we visited a cenote, the Mayan word for the natural wells that dot the peninsula. The cenotes are freshwater swimming holes, elaborate volcanic cave networks, and the source of water that formed the backbone of the Mayan civilization on the Yucatan. Now, the biggest cenotes are touristy underground light shows where stalactites are dramatically lit and guided snorkeling tours are given through the natural chambers. Turned off by these glitzy (and expensive) extravaganzas, we visited a lesser known cenote that had been left in its natural state, the only added feature being a sturdy ladder to help crawl out of the water.
Because of the floods, the cenotes were higher and murkier than usual. A man charging admission, essentially to a convenient attraction in his back yard, assured us that the water in all of the cenotes were currently the color of tea. If they were open at all. We changed in his dismal bathroom, and walked back to find an enormous hole in the earth. The water was brown and deep, it was impossible to see the bottom. Once the clouds had broken, the air had become stifling hot and the despite its rough looks, the cool water beckoned us in. It was deliciously refreshing, but we were hounded by cave-fish that nipped at our skin and clouds of bats that flitted around in the shadows. The bloated body of one dead bat floated towards us at one point, and we splashed at it and shrieked like children. We decided that our bargain cenote was a miserable place to spend any more time so pulled ourselves out onto the lava rocks, dried off and squished back past the man snoozing by the entrance, waiting for the next pair of suckers to fall into his sink hole.
Before the cenote we’d rented a car to drive to the headline attraction of Mexico’s Mayan ruins, Chichenitza. The roads to and from Chichenitza were solid and drying fast from the rains. Despite taking a few wrong turns, we made decent time across monotonous low scrubland. Dozens of tarantulas, perhaps having been flooded out of their holes, were on the move, creating mobile little road hazards that I slalomed around.
The sky was blue and the sun was blazing hot when we arrived in a parking lot already filled with giant tour buses. A crowd of merchants that was almost as large as the tourist hordes had created a phalanx at the gates of the ruins, aggressively hawking their goods. Sliding through the melee, we stood in a long line for tickets. The price took us aback, given what we’d paid to enter a half dozen other Mayan ruins so far. We were shocked to find that as we tried to enter we were missing a second pair of tickets that needed to be purchased from another window. The first was the state ticket office, the second, the national. It made exactly no sense and put us back a few more pesos.
One of the first sites you approach in Chichenitza is one of the most famous runs in the world, the Temple of Kukulkan. This pyramid is the poster child for Mesoamerican ruins and was as grand as the pictures made it out to be. It helped, at least aesthetically, that a large black cloud was approaching from the east while the pyramid was brightly lit from the scorching sun in the west. Unfortunately the cloud soon overtook the sun and we, and the rest of the tourist crowds, were pummeled by another onslaught of torrential rain. Thunder clapped loudly above our heads, applauding our futile efforts to find shelter. Aside from a few trees, there was none, and our little umbrella only barely served to keep Magda’s camera dry.
The ruins were worth the trip, and possibly the price of admission, but the experience couldn’t compare to Tikal or Yaxha. In those grand cities we’d found ourselves almost alone, and because there were fewer visitors, able to climb to the top of some of the pyramids. The top of the great pyramid of Kukulkan was aloof and unattainable.
We drove back to Tulum and got a bus to Merida, where we were to meet the cousin of our friend Irene. Jose Carlos, his wife Liisa and their little son Teo picked us up in the town square and showed us a bit of the city. Later we rented another car and returned with them to the little seaside village of Sisal where Jose Carlos was studying for his PhD. As we were driving in different cars they offered to meet us in the center of town so they could lead us to their house. We insisted that we’d be fine, that we’d found some very remote and confusing addresses in the world, but they insisted. After we regrouped in Sisal’s rustic town center, they led us through back streets and over sandy roads speckled with car swallowing puddles. I was starting to begin my clockwork regret of not having rented an SUV when they turned down an unmarked grassy lane and headed straight for the shore. There at the end of civilization was their little house, tucked into the sea grasses next to a deeply turquoise bay. This was apparently student housing in Mexico.
We stayed two nights with Jose Carlos and Liisa. We played with little Teo, an angelic child fluent in both Spanish and his mother’s native German. We tried to speak a little of both to him, and some English, but he mostly looked at us sideways like we were intentionally trying to confuse him. We stayed up late drinking mescal that Jose Carlos’ uncle brewed, talking about travel and Mexico and their upcoming trip to study in Delaware. We assured them that Delaware was far more beautiful than life in the last house on the Yucatan Penninsula, hoping they would forgive us before visiting us in New York. We took a side trip to the beautiful and far less crowded ruin of Uxmal where once again we had the run of the place, climbing up pyramids to gaze out at the forests beyond.
Because of the rain, and because Magda’s work schedule had been radically moved up, we’d been forced to rework our schedule in Mexico. We would have loved to stay in Sisal, sipping mescal and starting the day with a plunge into the azure sea, but with our time suddenly short we needed to say goodbye. We hugged them all as we left and Liisa encouraged Teo to come outside and give us kisses farewell. Suddenly shy, he hid inside. As we pulled away though, he appeared in the bedroom window waving gracefully as if from a renaissance fresco, framed by palm trees and the white sand driveway that led to their doorstep.
On the way back to Merida for our flight to Mexico City, we first stopped in a little town where Liisa had described an old cobbler who sat making uncommonly nice shoes of the sisal fiber. After searching the market in vain, losing valuable time before our flight, we stumbled across his house out of which he made and sold his product. He was the type of big personality who’s confidence is born of an undeniable talent. His shoes were beautiful. The whole family gathered together to help us each pick out a pair in their living room, while the cobbler lectured about shoemaking in the modern era. As we settled our ridiculously small bill (two pairs for $14) we thought we heard him mention a cenote, and when he offered to show it to us we were sure. We were led through another cluttered room and out into a little yard. There, down at the bottom of some crude ancient steps was a cave filled with tea colored water. The cobbler apologized for its state, like on the other side of the peninsula the rains had flooded the cenotes and made them murkier than usual. It was a small, precious resource hidden in the family’s yard. They seemed to have no interest in charging foreigners four dollars to jump into it.