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Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula

Sally Gall

Photo: Sally Gall

Like pilgrims who trek to far-flung places to catch the sun at equinox, I have come to Dzitnup cenote, in the center of the state of Yucatán, Mexico, at 7 a.m., to see a renowned sunbeam pass through the earth's crust and strike the surface of an underground lake. With temperatures hanging above 100 degrees, I also plan to immerse myself in the tepid, azure water.

To get here at dawn, I've followed a rope handrail down into a muggy cavern lit by electric bulbs, where I wait alone and in silence. At my feet, coal-black catfish drift through the water in dreamtime. High overhead, a lone subsonic bat wheels among stalactites and dangling aerial roots. As the slim wand of sunlight stabs the darkness from above, I'm mesmerized by the shimmering blue water and the bright white reflection undulating on the rock overhead.

Too soon the spell is broken. The tourist buses pull up, and within minutes the cavern is crowded and noisy, the sunbeam a spotlight on splashy antics, the catfish gone. If I'm going to get what I hoped for—something akin to those moonlit summer dips I took in the quarries of my childhood—it won't be in this Yucatecan version of a public swimming hole, extraordinarily lit though it may be. To bask in more tranquil and restorative waters, I'll have to head toward the capital city of Mérida, then plunge into the realm known as the Anillo de Cenotes.

The limestone plateau that forms the Yucatán Peninsula was once a coral reef in an immense inland ocean. When the Ice Age lowered sea levels, groundwater seeped through cracks in the limestone, creating the vast network of caves through which all the Yucatecan rivers flow today. Where ceilings wore thinnest, they collapsed, exposing round sinkholes—the natural wells of sweet freshwater the Maya called dz'onot (and the Spanish corrupted into cenote).

In 1988, Charles Duller, a NASA researcher scanning satellite images for signs of those ancient water sources, noticed a nearly perfect semicircle of sinkholes around Mérida—the Anillo de Cenotes, or Ring of Cenotes. At the same time, scientists seeking evidence that a catastrophic meteor had altered the global climate and caused the mass extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years earlier realized that this pocky 105-mile-wide arc of cracked earth could be the vestige of an impact crater. Four years later, Canadian geologist Alan Hildebrand and his team found the landing site of a six-mile-wide meteor just north of Mérida, near the coastal village of Chicxulub (in the Mayan language, x is pronounced sh). To my mind, this means that when I do finally dive into the perfect swimming hole, I'll be jackknifing darn close to the bull's-eye of the single greatest cataclysm life on earth has ever known.

At the ruins of Chichén Itzá, near Dzitnup, I once visited the famous Well of Sacrifice. Looking at it, you'd never guess that the ancient Maya considered this cenote, a roped-off pit of scummy green water, to be the most sacred place on earth. (Its significance was shrouded in mystery until archaeologist Edward Thompson dredged the well's depths in 1904, recovering not just the sacrificial remains of men, women, and children but also priceless gold offerings.) To the Maya, cenotes were portals to Xibalba, the Mayan underworld, where the sun slept at night and deities like Chac Xib Chac, the god of sacrifice, lived. Across the Yucatán, sacrificial candidates were thrown into these sinkholes at dawn on the Mayan New Year. At noon, those who had managed to survive were pulled out and queried about the upcoming year. It was believed they had been close enough to hear the gods whispering their plans for mankind. To me, that translates as he who swims in a cenote plays closest to the ancient gods. The temptation is too strong to resist.

HALF AN HOUR EAST OF MÉRIDA, THE PENINSULA'S FIRST AND MOST important colonial city, I steer my rental car into Tixkokob, a hammock-making center. Ten minutes later I'm pulling into Hacienda San José Cholul, one of three meticulously refurbished 16th- and 17th-century manor houses where I'll sleep between swims. After a short siesta on a rope-hung bed, I head for the pool to establish a benchmark of comparison. Overhead, nighthawks knit the evening air while mariachi duets waft from the shadows. I notice references to the ancient civilization that once dominated this area. The pool is lined with the same chicle-and-lime formula the Maya used to seal their aqueducts and cisterns. Its steps are like those of the nearby pyramids, while a monolithic slab at its center harks back to the commemorative stone stelae the Maya often placed before them.

Gabriel Castillo, a manager at the hacienda, directs me to a quiet sacbé (white road). It leads to three cenotes, he says, one of which is sure to suit me. As I drive down the gravel ribbon, hundreds of fist-sized sulfur-yellow and chartreuse butterflies move in front of me like petals in the breeze. I have always loved the first snowflakes of winter, and I can't escape the thought that these mariposas are summer's snow. I stop the car and step into a blizzard of yellow and green and orange. Though recent rains explain the mass migration, the butterflies' delicate dance reminds me that there is magic in the Yucatán. I have bathed in butterfly wings.

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