I’ve been living in Playa del Carmen for a while now and even though I’ve explored the area quite extensively, I have rarely ventured off to places more than an hour and a half away from here. But this past Saturday, my friend Liz and I decided to rent a Jeep Wrangler and take off in search of some more distant adventure, opting to follow a route into the heart of the Yucatan peninsula that leads towards the great Mayan ruins of Chichen-Itza.
However, our destination was not Chichen-Itza.
We were interested in two lesser known locations instead, the small historic city of Valladolid and the cenote of Samula.
THE HISTORIC CITY OF VALLADOLID
About two hours after leaving Playa del Carmen, and an hour after being stopped in the absolute middle of nowhere by a kind, yet heavily-armed, soldier for driving too fast in an area with orange cones placed on the road, we arrived in Valladolid.
And coming from the tourist-influenced Caribbean coast, I was more than happy to discover that Valladolid is a typical Mexican community, complete with a beautiful central plaza, pastel-colored buildings and not a single sign for a timeshare complex or ATV tour in sight.
As a result, it didn’t take long for me to start walking with that extra skip in my step, the one that often accompanies the excited traveler who has stumbled upon a place they are eager to explore. The first matter of business was breakfast, which included some wonderfully filling and dirt cheap huevos rancheros at a local loncheria just off the main square. Perhaps I enjoyed this meal so much because it reminded me of India when I noticed a boy in the back of the kitchen washing the dirty dishes with just one swift wipe of his hand. Regardless, I was more than satisfied and with stomachs filled and fresh pineapple juice in hand, we then set off by foot into the unknown.
We ended up walking around Valladolid for over three and a half hours straight. We wandered down every street and lane, rested in every shady (as in tree-filled) plaza and semi-successfully tried to speak with the locals despite their poor Spanish and our non-existent Mayan, all while managing to get sunburned and dehydrated in record time. Despite using sunscreen and drinking five liters of fluids, our red faces and sweat-soaked shirts seemed to provide some early afternoon amusement for the traditionally-dressed locals we passed along the way. Nothing like playing the role of silly tourists for a day.
Whether or not it was the sun-induced delirium or the actual vibe of the city, I loved Valladolid. With each step I took, I became more and more hooked. In fact, Liz and I even knocked on the door of a semi-crumbling, yet classically beautiful, colonial building located on a stunning cobblestone lane that had a “For Sale” sign out front. And after the kind, toothless owner gave us the grand tour of the property before informing us of the ridiculously low price he was seeking, I seriously started thinking about buying it.
Luckily, Liz suggested that we cool down a bit before making any rash decisions, so at this point, we just decided to drive over to the cenote that we had heard so much about. (A cenote is a deep, freshwater-filled hole, cavern or in this case, cave.)
This cenote was located along a small, unmarked road about five kilometers south of the city, along the Carretera Libre (free ‘highway’) that leads to the city of Merida. There are actually dozens of cenotes in the Playa del Carmen area, but I’ve never found it to be worth the $30-$40 USD entrance fees that they charge. So when some Mexican friends recommended Samula as ‘impressive and cheap’, we decided it was the perfect opportunity for some cenote exploration.
It was definitely cheap, with an admission of only 27 pesos ($2.50 USD).
As for impressive, well, that’s an understatement. I was absolutely blown away by what I saw.
We first had to climb down a steep flight of slippery stone steps that led into a dark hole in the ground about the size of a fruit basket, with our views limited to the rocky wall inches from our faces until we reached the bottom. And when we finally did step onto the landing, which seemed to be located somewhere between the inner and outer cores of the Earth, we were greeted with this captivating sight…
Prior to our arrival, I had no idea what I expected to find, but I never would have envisioned anything remotely this spectacular. The combination of near silence mixed with the mesmerizing effects of the rays of light against the walls of the cave and the emerald green water below, was enough to keep my eyes open wide in amazement for a long while. In a word, this place was AWESOME.
Eventually, I snapped out of my trance and decided to climb down the three flights of additional steps to the water’s edge. I was ready to jump in and join a small group of happy Japanese tourists who were taking advantage of the cool, yet supposedly therapeutic water. Unfortunately, I was not able to jump in as my life-long aversion to cold water forced me to spend twenty minutes involved in the preparatory splashing and inch-by-inch movements more commonly found in the pool of a senior center.
However, as soon as I did manage to fully enter the water, I understood exactly why the Japanese tourists were so happy. Instantly, I forgot about my troubles, about the confusion, the questions, the doubts of life. I forgot about ‘important’ emails and phone calls and about my constant ‘need’ to sit in front of my computer all day long. I forgot that there was even another world beyond the awe-inspiring environment that existed in that cave.
A CHUNK OF CLARITY FOUND
For the first time in a while, as the fish nibbled on my ankles, I was fully present in the moment. And while I know that I should feel this way every day, while walking along the white sand beaches in front of my apartment, swimming in the clear waters of the Caribbean Sea or just glancing up at the deep blue sky, I just haven’t felt it that often as of late.
But the two hours I spent inside that cenote seemed to provide me with the wake-up call I needed, as when I finally emerged from the small hole in the ground, it was as if I was seeing everything – the trees, the birds, the children, the buildings and the fresh coconuts for sale – for the very first time.
As we climbed into the Jeep, ready for the long drive back to Playa del Carmen, we decided to listen to a CD that Liz had borrowed from her sister. We were ready to bounce along the lonely jungle roads, while singing along to the songs of the popular Mexican band “Mana”. However, we soon discovered that Liz had accidentally grabbed a CD labeled “Mama”, which was actually a collection of sappy, Spanish-language Mother’s Day songs! I absolutely could not stop laughing as I felt as if I was laughing for the first time as well.
It’s been quite a tough couple of months lately – mostly for reasons that I am unable to write about at the moment – as I’ve been trying to figure out the next stage of my never-ending adventure. But this past Saturday, thanks to the city of Valladolid and the cenote of Samula, I managed to re-discover a good chunk of the clarity that I somehow had misplaced.
Have you been to Valladolid or Samula? Or want to share a similar moment of clarity that you’ve had somewhere else? Comments are always welcome!