Cenotes! Et Cetera

A cenote (sen-OH-tay) at its most basic level is a hole in the jungle floor that opens to the waterlogged sponge of limestone that is underfoot everywhere in the Yucatán Peninsula. This definition covers a pretty broad range of features, however. Some of the countless cenotes are unremarkable little holes in the middle of thick brush, waiting to be discovered or to swallow an unwary passer-by. Others are huge both physically and in terms of popularity, drawing crowds of swimmers and snorkelers daily. Some, where the water table is high, look like small ponds; others have entrances that open into deep bat-inhabited caves with the water far below, ultra-clear without photosynthetic algae. They are full of history: millennia-old stalactites, preserved skeletons of prehistoric megafauna that took a wrong step, and stained limestone walls marking water levels at past ice ages. The Mayans used cenotes for drinking water and occasionally as sacrificial sites. Nearly all are interconnected in a vast subterranean spiderweb of caves and tunnels through which freshwater flows.

P3110005
the top of Casa Cenote

Okay so that all sounds pretty cool, and you may be pleased to know the above description is not a Wikipedia recitation, I learned and observed these things while actually here! What really got us excited about these geological features was not just seeing them, or swimming in them; it was diving through them.

P3250100
in Dos Ojos
P3240077
a juvenile tarpon in brackish Casa Cenote

What we did was ‘cavern’ diving, substantially different from its more intense big brother cave diving. The latter involves multiple tanks on multihour out-and-backs and traverses (one cenote to another) where dive skills, navigation, and planning all need to be flawless. For us, we simply tagged along with a guide (full cave certified) under overhangs and around limestone columns along set lines with with daylight always in sight. Still it’s a lot more cave-like than I would have guessed – and absolutely stunning.

P3250120

Caves are often beautiful. Many of you have probably been in one somewhere. The transition from small openings to large open spaces, the otherworldly molten-wax look of rock formations, and the way darkness and light sources play off to create dramatic scenes and shadows are all combine to make caves weird and awesome. Now imagine being able to fly through the cave instead of shuffling and ducking, with clear water multiplying the lighting effects and the occasional little fish passing by. Add in a halocline, where the sometimes-blurry, sometimes-mirrored interface between fresh and saltwater is visible. It’s really incredible!

P3110041
some cenotes have freshwater tropical fish, like guppies and tetras

We spent a full month in Tulum while Elaine took a yoga instructor course and I got ramped up on job hunting. Over that time I got to experience diving several cenotes, only some of which I have pictures to share (our camera is only good to 15m). Angelita is a deep sinkhole where at 25m a pile of decomposing jungle matter makes a dense cloud of hydrogen sulfide: it looks like Yoda’s home on Dagobah. Aktun Ha has lots of greenish light shining in; Calavera has a circular line at halocline depth with beautiful white-blue limestone. Our favorites, however, were The Pit and Dos Ojos.

P3250119
sorry it’s blurry. Barbie line in Dos Ojos

P3250149

The Pit is a deep cenote (hence, no photos) with a relatively small opening that broadens out into a huge clear space with rays of blue light shining down. It’s like floating around inside a vast cathedral, complete with a church-organ-like array of limestone columns. Dos Ojos is nearby and is more shallow, with a couple set lines routed through amazing limestone features and (again) beautiful blue/white colors.

P3250121
Barbie Line – one of the routes in Dos Ojos – is named for this lady halfway along.

P3250135

P3250114
Elaine checks on me
P3250162
the “Bat Line” in Dos Ojos brings you, of course, to the Bat Cave.

P3250170

Our friends Jordan and Lauren, visiting from California, joined us for a snorkel trip to Casa Cenote. Jordan brought his monofin which made everyone jealous and we lucked out by getting an up-close look at Panchito, Casa’s chill resident croc. We later made a dive in Casa Cenote with another friend Marc, and Panchito visited us again! This time he lazily swam along over us as we made our way along under the mangroves.

P3110027
Casa Cenote’s mangroves
P3110064
Elaine tries out the monofin (I couldn’t fit in the shoes!)

P3110021

Okay now here’s Panchito in two acts: the first while we were snorkeling and the second while diving.

P3110045

P3110047

P3240074
Panchito isn’t in this one, but this is us starting our dive in Casa
P3240085
can’t say I ever expected or hoped to have this view!

We can now move on from cenotes and briefly cover through photos some other meaningful events from our month of March: Elaine’s new yoga certification, the visits of our friends Jordan+Lauren and Marc+Rori, going to see Tulum’s own Mayan ruins, and, as always, food.

DSC08427
sunset on the beach

DSC08440

DSC08439
a trio of frigate birds overhead
DSC08446
a walled boundary of Tulum’s Mayan ruins, which are the most scenic ones we have seen
DSC08471
the Temple of the Wind
DSC08444
a coati family browse around the entrance to the ruins

Elaine’s birthday brought us to a really nice restaurant in Tulum called Kitchen Table, which we enjoyed so much that we went back there later on with Marc and Rori when they visited.

20180331_145259
this is a huitlacoche quesadilla; huitlacoche is very weird but this was very tasty 

We made a dinner with Marc and Rori that adventurously tried out a bit of a mystery ingredient: chorizo verde, shown below next to it’s more familiar cousin chorizo rojo. It’s actually super good!

20180331_145437
a mystery we debated at length: how can approximately one thousand delicious fresh tortillas only cost 10 pesos (60 cents)?

That’s about it for our time in Mexico! Right now we are in Playa del Carmen to catch a couple more days of diving before heading back to the States, but I doubt we’ll have new photos to share given our camera’s limitations. (It will be fantastic though, don’t doubt it). Still to come, at the very least however, is a summary post or two for revisiting our amazing year! So don’t go away. And congrats to our friend Rori, who got her open water diver certification while visiting us, and to Elaine who is now a yoga instructor!

P3250174
Rori (right) on her final open water certification dive
DSC08532
Elaine and her group of instructor trainees!

Chichén Itzá and Tulum

Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula doesn’t exactly fit our globetrotting theme of hard-to-reach places. It’s home to Cancún and Cozumel, two of Mexico’s biggest draws for beach resorts, and is pretty easy to get to for a long weekend from the States. Even further south where we are staying in Tulum, the area is rapidly becoming more developed and mainstream. So why are we here?

DSC08403
Tulum coastline

Well touristy or not, it’s still a pretty delightful area to be. The winter weather is perfect, food is cheap and delicious (if you eat like a local), and the beaches are indeed lovely. And there’s diving! We’d briefly been to Tulum before and thought it would be a good place for us to unwind and gear up for getting back into the real world, polish up the resume et cetera – so when Elaine became interested in a yoga instructor course here that sealed the deal.

DSC08418
watching pelicans fishing is (for me) endlessly entertaining

Tulum isn’t perfect: the area is undergoing rampant development and unfortunately not all of it is done responsibly. Garbage and wastewater management are big problems. Being here a little longer, and seeing dramatic changes from just 15 months earlier, has helped me understand how easily the situation could be spiraling downward; it’s a problem shared with many other beautiful places around the world as more and more people – like ourselves! – find the means to travel. There are lots of strategies to try avoiding being part of the problem and that’s not my topic here, but certainly awareness is a big first step.

OK rather than talk about issues of modern society, let’s talk about the ruins of old ones! The Yucatán was home to the Mayans who along with their calendar left some pretty cool stuff to see. Last time we were here we visited Cobá, a former city not far from Tulum, and Tulum has ruins all of its own, but the big name in the area is Chichén Itzá. It’s only a couple hours outside of Cancún so it’s pretty touristy, but with time to spare we definitely wanted to make sure we saw it this time.

DSC08374

Most people shuttle back and forth on long day trips, spending the hottest and busiest parts of the day at the site. We opted to stay nearby which was a great idea. We were there when the gates opened and headed straight for Chichén Itzá’s most famous structure, the step pyramid now called El Castillo – which we had all to ourselves!

DSC08299

DSC08302

A better name for the pyramid is the Temple of Kukulcan, to whom the temple was dedicated and who’s feathered snakelike visage adorns the staircases. Like many sights we’ve seen while traveling, images of this temple had already been burned pretty deep in my head; yet up close the real thing quickly tops any photos. It’s very aesthetically pleasing and I especially liked the rounded corners of each tier which make the steps appear much more natural.

20180226_145726

DSC08307

DSC08309

20180226_145836

There’s a lot more to Chichén Itzá than El Castillo. Unfortunately access is a lot more restricted here than to other sites we’ve visited so it’s hard (or impossible) to get up close looks at a lot of the structures and carvings. But there’s still plenty to see! I won’t regurgitate everything from Wikipedia here though. Here are some photos instead.

DSC08313
Temple of the Warriors (who are carved on all of the columns)

DSC08316

DSC08317

DSC08327
The Osario Temple, a smaller pyramid, is built over a cavern where human remains were found

20180226_145954

DSC08332

DSC08340
El Caracol or The Observatory

DSC08348

DSC08352

DSC08363
carvings at the entrance to the Great Ballcourt, where the Mayans played their ritualistic sport which sometimes culminated in beheadings
DSC08365
goal ring in the ballcourt. It’s pretty high up…
DSC08368
temple at the end of the ballcourt with paintings surviving inside
DSC08375.jpg
Tzompantli (rack of skulls)
DSC08379
Eat your heart out! Carvings of jaguars and eagles eating, yup, hearts
DSC08385
iguana basking on a Chac Mool rain god statue
20180226_150112
back to the main plaza to watch the tourists all take the same tacky photo

DSC08388

That’s it for this post! Hope it brought you some sunshine and enough – but not too much – of a dose of ancient civilization. And now, a photo of a far more ancient lifestyle and a pretty good job location to boot: fishing in the surf!

DSC08400

Snapshot of Valparaíso

Our route from Punta Arenas at the bottom of South America up to Mexico’s Yucatan Penninsula gave us a couple extra nights in the Santiago area. Rather than stay in the capital, we decided to take the 2 hour bus ride to the coastal city of Valparaíso.

DSC08266

Valparaíso is a hillside maze of colorful corrugated-metal houses wrapped around a busy commercial harbor. Late 18th/early 19th century funiculars – called “ascensores” here – are scattered around the steep inclines and most are still operating: a lift costs a mere 20 cents.

DSC08253

DSC08276

20180222_123511

DSC08272

One of the city’s claims to fame is as a gallery: the walls everywhere are covered in top tier street art. We wandered around for miles and found unique paintings around every corner, along with admirable views of the city and bay.

DSC08265

DSC08249

DSC08250

DSC08269

DSC08282

DSC08258

Dining in Valparaíso was a welcome respite after a month of the Patagonian white bread diet. We found excellent Thai, seafood, and – most exciting – really good falafel!

DSC08279

DSC08286

The poet Pablo Neruda – who I confess I hadn’t heard of though Elaine had – kept one of his homes in Valparaíso and we made the short tour. This guy really had life figured out! He was a lover of good food, good whiskey, naps, and his comfy lounge chair. The house isn’t huge but it’s thoughtfully laid out, has amazing views of the city and bay, and is decorated with some of Pablo’s amazing collection of maritime and other antiques. It’s like how I’d like to live someday – just without the poetry bit.

DSC08295
La Sebastiana, Pablo Neruda’s Valparaíso home
DSC08292
our hillside hotel

All told we were really happy that we took the extra ride out to Valparaíso. Really it deserved more time than we had – there are some nice areas just outside of the city including wineries that we didn’t get to see. If you’re in Santiago, go catch a bus – there’s one literally every thirty seconds, no excuses!

20180222_104647