The Eyes of Death ... and Life

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Beneath the resorts that line the Yucatan, underground rivers run through ancient coral bedrock, making for mellow water adventures. Scuba divers risk getting trapped in these cenotes (sinkholes formed by collapsed rock), but for snorkelers, who can’t penetrate as deeply, only a fool would come face-to-face with death in them.

I am that fool.

I came with my twin 12-year-old stepsons and their cousins, boys 8 and 15. My wife’s family is Mexican, and before the twins moved to the United States, the cousins had lived just blocks away in the town of Cuernavaca. They’re close in age, allied in spirit, and before life turned to iPods and Xboxes, they entertained themselves by pelting guavas at one another from their grandfather’s roof.

After spending half their lives north of the border, the twins were back in Mexico for the first time, so my wife and I made a family occasion of it. We set off with the four boys and my father-in-law to the Riviera Maya to do the sorts of things tourists do, at least the ones who come with grandfathers and eight-year-olds. We swam, played in the sand and explored Mayan pyramids. The kids exchanged dirty Spanish words for dirty English words.

While my wife and her father worked out some family business, the boys and I went cenote-bound. I picked one my wife and I had been to a few years before: safe for kids, with just one spot I remembered as tight and creepy, where the walls closed in before opening into a beautiful chamber. This cenote also had two “eyes” where the caverns opened to the sky, connected by an underwater corridor for scuba divers and a footpath for snorkelers.

Photo via Flickr/Travis Wise

We hired a guide, a slight young Mayan woman with the un-Mayan name of Wendy, who spoke less English than I spoke Spanish. She outfitted us in short-sleeve wetsuits, snorkels, masks, fins and underwater lanterns we strapped to our wrists. We would need those, she told us, to light our way.

I mostly worried about the 8-year-old, but he had the courage of a younger brother forced to keep up with older kids and the body of a flotation device: short, round and virtually unsinkable. There wasn’t much to worry about. Wendy would lead us. An underwater cord would mark the way.

“Don’t leave the cord,” she told us in Spanish.

We waded into the first pool, unexpectedly cool in the tropical heat, unbelievably blue in the green jungle. The youngest swam like a seal. I brought up the rear like a border collie. Occasionally we stopped as Wendy waved her lantern and explained the cave formations. I missed the first part of these explanations while my face was underwater and the second part when the Spanish went over my head. I heard something like:

“Blrb bgrfm brmfmnd Quetzalcoatl Salma Hayak Acapulco.”

Wendy led us on again and stopped.

“Blrb bfrmn bglmndb Corona Dos Equis mariachi.”

She gestured to the cave wall with her lantern, illuminating a narrow opening that led into darkness. “There,” She said in Spanish. “There. There,” I remembered the skinny corridor from the last trip. A few seconds and it opened up. Still, it looked tricky in there. Was this where she wanted us to go?

I pointed. “There?”

She nodded. “There. There. There.”

I saw no cord to follow and Wendy didn’t seem inclined to go first, but she seemed very insistent. “There. There. There.”

I looked at her, at the hole and back at her again. She looked at me, flashing her lantern at the opening.


She nodded.

I slipped in my snorkel and plunged ahead, following the light into the tunnel. The limestone ceiling sloped down, down, until it plunged beneath the surface. I didn’t remember that from before.

I was nearly out of breath when I surfaced in a tiny dome, just high enough for my head to emerge. The snorkel scraped the ragged ceiling. My breath echoed off the walls. The sounds of splashing bounced and magnified.

I turned. Nobody followed. I waited. Nobody shouted. What had I done?

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