Just back: an ‘enchanted cenote lake’ in Tulum Riviera Maya, Mexico
Louise Fernley wins this week’s travel writing competition for this story of a hair-raising dip in Mexican waters.
The ribbon of Tulum’s secluded, seaweed-strewn beach unravelled to the barbed-wired edge of jungle, signifying the start of a national park. On hot, dusty feet, we cut up the path of an old hotel to the road. Hot sand became hotter Tarmac and we hopped into the shade, stumbling upon a sign. “Cenote Encantado”: the Enchanted Cenote, one of the thousands of freshwater lakes dotting Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula.
The midday heat beat down hard and after a morning of walking our burned feet fancied a dip. We wove through the trees to find a young boy sitting outside a ragged, ripped tent. “May we swim in the cenote?” I asked in polite Spanish. Shy, unsmiling, he collected a couple of pesos from us as he led us through the forest, where the dense growth suddenly gave way to a huge, mangrove-fringed clearing, cupping a brilliant blue lake, round as a penny.
He left us as we peeled off our clothes and crept to the edge. In most cenotes, the water is aquamarine, but here it was dark and brackish. Birdsong had given way to a very still silence. We dived in. The water was cool, silky and thick. Wriggling happily, we shimmied across the middle. Then I felt a hard knock on my leg. “Why did you kick me?” I asked the boyfriend. “I didn’t,” he said. I rolled my eyes.
As we reached the centre, the water still dark and swirling around us, the first inklings of foreboding set in. Not even our white bodies showed in the water. “Let’s swim to the other side and get out there,” I suggested, starting off at a pace faster than leisurely.
As we neared the edge, the mangroves turned tangled and choking. Treading water, we glanced around; the only way out was over the rock we’d first dived off. The dark cenote suddenly stretched before us like a black hole, swallowing all sound, all minutes.
Against the heavy, silent air, we thrashed our way back across the expanse of rippling water. Hearts thumped. Our minds filled with what could be beneath us in the blind depths.
Nearly there. Faster still. My arm swung back in the water. The side of my hand clashed into teeth. Long, hard teeth. They jolted against my wrist and, as if in shock, retreated suddenly.
Kicking furiously, we hauled ourselves up on to the rock edge and lay panting. We looked back across the cenote, now brilliant blue and shining. Not a fly hovered above it. Finally, we put on our clothes and climbed up the path. The young boy said nothing as he ushered us on to the road.
“What’s in the cenote?” I asked him, just before he turned back. Shrugging, he glimpsed up and said in stilted, Mayan-tinged Spanish: “Who can say, Miss? I’ve never been in.”
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