Slowly, we swam through the dark, cool water, snorkeling along an underground river that carved its way to the edge of the Yucatan peninsula. Centuries ago, the Mayas had bathed at this site before crossing the sea to worship on the island of Cozumel.
Life's a beach at Xcaret.
PHOTO CREDIT: PARIS PERMETER & JOHN BIGLEY
Although snorkeling an underground river in the Mexican jungle may sound like an Indiana Jones-type adventure, it's an experience open to any traveler visiting Cancun or Cozumel. The 1,500-foot river is just one activity at a park called Xcaret (pronounced "esh carett"). Located 34 miles south of Cancun, Xcaret is an ecological and archaeological park opened in 1990. Combining water sports, and natural and cultural history, Xcaret offers a full day of activities ranging from swimming with dolphins to touring botanical gardens to feeding iridescent fish in the lagoon.
We had traveled to Xcaret from Cancun, a cosmopolitan contrast to the natural park carved in the lowland jungle. After several days of hedonistic leisure spent on chalky beaches at high-rise hotels, in modern shopping centers, and in high-tech discos, we were ready to search for the spirit of the Yucatan peninsula in the state of Quintana Roo, where steamy heat is found in the dense jungle rather than on the dance floor, and the cacophony of exotic birds replaces the ring of cash registers.
So we first booked a day trip to Tulum, a walled Mayan city 100 miles south of Cancun. Perched high on a cliff above waters as clear as Mexican tequila, Mayan priests had worshiped here as far back as the 9th century. We walked among the 60 structures that had survived Spanish invasion in the 16th century, and hurricanes, including Hurricane Gilbert which had demolished much of Cancun almost a decade ago.
The Mayas were once the dominant culture of the Yucatan peninsula, their cities dotting the sea level jungle. Their culture is considered as important to the New World as the Greeks and Romans were to the Old. This visit, we only had the opportunity to tour Tulum but we admired models of 26 of the most important Mayan settlements the next day at the museum at Xcaret. Scale models introduce visitors to other cities such as Chichen Itza, a massive site with a pyramid that soars 70 feet in the air and Coba, a giant city where as many as 5000 residents once lived.
Several small Mayan ruins have been restored at Xcaret, just off paths that wind through the park's 200 acres. Others lie buried in the jungle, awaiting future exploration.
Xcaret is a Mayan word meaning "little inlet." This settlement was at its peak from 1400 to 1517 A.D. The Mayas came to this magical spot to bathe in the clear inlet, purifying their bodies and souls before traveling to Cozumel to worship Ixchel, Goddess of Fertility.
We started our visit at Xcaret at the underground river, donning life jackets and snorkel gear before lowering ourselves into the clear, chilly waters. Ranging in depth from 4 to 19 feet, this river winds through dark limestone passageways. We snorkeled through dark waters then found ourselves back in sunshine when we passed through a cenote, a collapsed sinkhole. Above us, the canopy of the jungle was visible, if only for a few moments before we floated further downstream.
Although fish are scarce in the underground river, we noticed their numbers increasing as we neared the sea. The spotting of colorful sergeant majors, combined with the growing taste of salt in the water, told us we were nearing the inlet.
After about 45 minutes of snorkeling, we were finished with the underground river tour, but our day at Xcaret had just begun. Our gear was waiting for us at the end of the river, safely locked in the large plastic bags in which we had deposited our cameras and clothing at the start of the journey.
Quickly drying in the heat, we were ready to see more of the park. We headed to the dolphin swim area to watch guests frolic with dolphins. Three times a day, six people spend an hour swimming with these mammals. We stood under the palapa of one of three restaurants at the park and watched lucky guests pushed across the pool by the soles of their feet by the bottlenosed dolphins. At the end of the hour, the dolphins made a spectacular leap over the guests' heads.
We moved on through the park to an inlet and returned to the water, this time armed with food for the fish. Within seconds, the water was churning with a cloud of yellow and black striped sergeant majors. Feeling refreshed after a swim in the clear inlet, we were ready to continue on the path the Mayas had taken centuries before. We were to travel to Cozumel, the island the Mayas called "the land of swallows." Our sea passage, aboard a high speed catamaran with air conditioning and videotape viewing, was a far faster and easier one than the Mayas had experienced. We departed the mainland at Playa Del Carmen, a small town just north of Xcaret.
We docked at the village of San Miguel at sunset. The quiet town, with its traditional Mexican plaza and small shops, is the largest community on Cozumel, but a quiet contrast to bustling Cancun. Residents and visitors mix on the street, engaging in shopping, dining, or conversation.
Nightlife, except for a few fun-loving bars such as Carlos 'n Charlies, is quiet on Cozumel. On Sunday nights, the town turns out for the weekly fiesta, held in the downtown plaza. Musicians fill the air with the sounds of Mexican ballads, salsa, and even some '50s rock 'n roll. Dancers of all ages, locals and vacationers alike, fill the plaza. Children shop for candy and trinkets at carts, and dedicated shoppers look for bargains in silver jewelry and glassware.
Cozumel is easy to see in a day. The western side of the island is the most developed, with calm seas and chalky beaches. The eastern side is more rugged, with strong surf (and often strong undertow as well.)
Considered one of the bes dive locations in the world, Cozumel is home of an expansive coral reef that extends all the way to Belize Dives are available for divers of all abilities. Snorkeling is also a popular activity on Cozumel. We headed to Chankanab National Park, located south of San Miguel. Although the clear waters were tempting, we resisted for a while to tour recreated Mayan ruins and homes. Deep in the jungle stands a simple thatched roof building with mud walls typical of those used by a Mayan family. Our tour guide pointed out that, even today, 40% of the residents of the Yucatan speak Mayan, a language with Oriental origins. One syllable family names are customary.
After a tour of the homes and the steamy botanical garden filled with labeled native trees and plants, we sought out Chankanab's water. The water, as clear as Mexican tequila, was dotted with snorkelers following colorful fish. Concessions at the park rent snorkel gear and lockers, but visitors are not allowed to wear diving gloves to protect the delicate coral. As our day at Chankanab drew to an end, we reluctantly left the water and sought out the shade of a restaurant beneath a tall palapa. After a dinner of ceviche and enchiladas, we followed up with a taste of a unique Mayan specialty: Xtabentun. This Mayan liqueur is made from anise and honey, and it's as sweet as the destination that today's travelers have inherited from the Mayan visitors of yesterday.
Xcaret: The park is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. October through March, and 9 - 6 April through September. Admission is $N50 (about $17 US). Admission for children 5 to 11 is half price, and children under 5 are free. With the admission, guests receive a paper bracelet that allows use of showers, dressing rooms, restrooms, lifejackets and admission to the underground river, museum, botanical gardens, farm and fish area.
Snorkel gear is available for rent, or you can bring your own. To swim with the dolphins, make reservations as soon as you arrive at the park.
Xcaret does not allow the use of sunscreen. You must check in all lotions at the front gate. This is to protect the marine life in the river and the inlet. To protect your skin, bring along an extra shirt to wear while swimming. Gloves are helpful (but not necessary) while snorkeling through the limestone cave. Buses to Xcaret depart form Playa Caracol by the Coral Beach Hotel in Cancun. No reservations are required. For information, call 83-0654 from Cancun or check at your hotel front desk.
Quality Texas Guidebooks by Paris Permenter and John Bigley