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Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula

Sally Gall

Photo: Sally Gall

On I drive. At Chunkanán, where several mini-gauge railroad lines converge, I am greeted at a store called Tres Cenotes by a man named Silvario. With a warm smile he asks if I'd like to see the cenotes. "Si!" I reply. "And to swim!" He spreads a horse blanket on a four-by-five-foot flatbed railcar called a truk and offers me a clean New York Yankees cap for shade. After hooking up Bolas, his chestnut pony, to the truk, he shakes the reins and we're off on a clanky glide along the rails that still serve this hacienda town.

As Bolas picks up speed, we pass a healthy patch of pineapple-y henequen plants. Related to the prickly agave, which is the source of tequila, henequen was used by the Maya to make twine for hammocks, sandals, and other objects. It's the raison d'être for the rails, the smokestacks scattered across the landscape, and the prosperity of the haciendas themselves. In fact, it was the demand for wheat-sheaving twine in the United States that started shipments from the nearby port of Sisal, sparking a boom in the late 1800's. Five hundred haciendas converted from Mayan settlements to growing "green gold," and until the revolution in 1910, Mérida had more millionaires than any other city its size in the world.

As thunderheads build in the afternoon heat, Silvario assures me that the prettiest, más bonito of the three cenotes is also el ú ltimo, the farthest one. I decide to bypass the first two and head straight to the best, Bolon Chohol. Brilliant blue birds with cuckoo-clock tails flash out of the small porthole entrance as I begin to descend the long ladder made of rail sections. I have no idea what I'll find. Reaching the bottom, I dive into the warm tarn, come to the surface, and hear the clop of horse's hooves and the zing of rails: two more flatcars pull up, carrying a dozen swimmers from Mérida. My dream of swimming solo with the underworld gods may be a silly gringo fantasy, but I now have a rule of thumb: Avoid cenotes in towns, on major roads, and on functioning rail lines. They draw crowds.

The next day, at the southwestern extreme of the Anillo de Cenotes, I check into the 11-room Hacienda Santa Rosa de Lima, the former estate of a Spanish nobleman. This place is less grand than the other haciendas I've visited, more intimate. And while I haven't yet found my postcard cenote, the pool is a welcome substitute in the midday heat. Small and elegant, it recedes through four arches into an artificial grotto topped by a breezy dovecote—a room where you can roost in a hammock for an after-swim nap. Margarita in hand, balancing effortlessly in the rope-slung net, I make a plan: tomorrow, I will drive directly to Hacienda Temozón, in the very heart of the Anillo de Cenotes. And I will get a guide.

Twenty-four hours later, the palatial, stately Hacienda Temozón—which even has its own church on the 15-acre estate—makes the heat infinitely more bearable. My guide is Temozón's groundskeeper, Fidel Cocum, a descendant of the last ruling pre-Conquest clan in the Yucatán. When he appears with a basket of fluffy rolled towels, bottled water, and flowers, I get the feeling this cenote safari is off to a good start. And with four cenotes within a 20-minute drive on serviceable sacbés, I have plenty of choices.

We spend the afternoon checking them all. I descend the long, steep metal ladder that leads directly into the dark, mysterious water of Kankirixche, where I share the stillness with no one. I follow the cement steps of Chihuohol past a rubble pile, once a small pyramid, and into an empty amphitheater-shaped cenote overhung with the mud nests of chittering swallows. At Sambula, I head down square Mayan temple stones, the kind that haciendados once pilfered to pave their courtyards.

Near the village of Cacao, past a tumbledown hacienda at the end of a secluded but car-friendly sacbé, we stop in a quiet, shade-spattered spot. Here, Fidel tells me, is Yáx Ha (Green Water). "Careful," he warns in Spanish, pointing to a rickety ladder that leads into the 30-foot-wide chamber. Startled, I gasp aloud when I see the shaft of laser-blue light penetrating the gin-clear water in the pool's center, frozen in space and time like a titanic sapphire crystal. I have no doubt this is it, my fantasy plunge. When I slide into the 82-degree water, powder blue and soft as velvet from traces of calcium carbonate, the vibrant beam oscillates at my presence. The bottom, 60 feet below, is so clearly defined that I'm sure I can reach down and touch it. And it is quiet. So quiet that when I close my eyes I can hear meteors hurtling through the vacuum of space, the wings of a thousand yellow butterflies, and whispers I'm sure are in Mayan.

I wait, but other swimmers never come.

Then I lie back and float, fairly certain I am close to the gods.

Hacienda San José Cholul, Hacienda Santa Rosa de Lima, and Hacienda Temozón 800/325-3589 or 52-99/443-637, fax 52-99/448-484; doubles from $234.

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