Exploration Diaries #2

Tight spaces and an all-male exploration team.

If you read my previous post and you’re here to learn about this explorer wannabe, thanks, and continue reading…

Cenote #2 There’s hope but later!

The second cenote “we” checked was an old and out of use well. Looking down, we immediately realised our ladder would never be as long as needed to go all the way but the walls of the well were narrow enough to be able to descend climbing down. Skanda took the lead on this one, went down and after checking underwater he requested his sidemount set and fins. We could see the light beams and blue water inside of the cenote from above. Skanda disappeared for a few minutes and came back with a surprise. He found line from Vicente Fito! The cavern was big, clear blue-blue water, and the yellow line went deeper than 145ft. Something we would enquire about later.

We had just been walking in the jungle with Vicente the day before so it would be fun to share the story with him and ask for details of that yellow deep line. Vicente happens to be my Cave Diving instructor and finding line from his explorations gave me the feeling that we weren’t that crazy to be there. Since we needed to check more cenotes and there was already exploration as well as the line was very deep, plus the difficult climb down (I knew I was saving my stamina for later!) we didn’t consider necessary for me to go down at that point, maybe another time. As a side note, it took a few days to scratch Vicente’s memory, it’s funny to ask an explorer “hey, I found one of your explorations, it’s a hole, deep, remember it?”. But after a few hints Vicente said he had once forgotten his exploration reel and the one he had was yellow line. That was it! We have plans to go back.

When Skanda was safely back on the surface we had lunch using the shade of a tree against the melting sun. We ate potato salad, guacamole and mushroom sandwiches. We weren’t going to be late for our next meeting so we packed the car and headed to Leona Vicario. Leona is a place somewhat stuck in time. Known for being a good spot to buy plants and soil. It’s the end of la Ruta de los Cenotes, this historical route that starts in Puerto Morelos and which I have walked and camped along twenty years ago when I was a scout (or as I used to say, I was a boy scout).

Cenote #3 and #4 – My turn

A few months ago, on a FB group, a guy had asked for the contact of a cenote explorer or someone who could “check” cenotes. While other people suggested that they had contacts for heavy machinery operators who could make a cenote for you, I was actually the only person who offered to dive the cenotes first and I asked the owner to wait on the cenote-making. That’s how we came in contact with the guys from Leona, who then took us north from there to a huge piece of land with only a few basic dirt roads, on the way they stopped to refill their old Ford pickup truck with fuel they had in a metal container, they also stopped to pick up another guy and ropes in a nearby ranch… when we parked after driving for a good half hour we thought we’d have to walk to the spot, we wanted to see it before deciding on a plan.

It turned out we were already at the spot, and it was merely a hole on the side of the trail, the opening was the size of a medium trash can. A crack on the ground in a tiny depression, if you could even call it that. This hole seemed to be at least 15ft deep but there was little water at the bottom. The vegetation was prominent, especially the wild Chaya surrounding this hole I was about to get into. Chaya is a type of plant that is eaten like spinach, part of Maya cuisine and also known for causing skin rashes if ever touched. There is the belief that you must ask the Chaya for permission before collecting the leaves. In my mind I asked the Chaya to let me in and out this hole of dirt safely, seen that I was already covered in rashes from the Chechen and the wasp stings of the day before I could really use some kindness from the Chaya. By the way, next time you’re in the Yucatan Peninsula try Chaya tacos and tamales, it’s a must!

I talked to Skanda for a second and we decided this was my turn to go down. I appreciated his encouragement and he didn’t seem to doubt that I was fit for the job. We were going through the basic plan when yet another guy arrived by foot and joined the “exploration team”. He was carrying a rifle. Not uncommon in the area where the land belongs to the Ejido (communal land given to the people to exploit it) and hunting is still tradition. Beers popped up (not for us) while the guys got busy setting up the ladder, although theirs seemed longer than ours it was still way down from the ground level. I wore my wetsuit and sidemount harness. I also wore my helmet and turned my primary light on for the descent. I felt the eyes of six men looking at me as I stepped down the slope and started approaching the hole. I was expecting a bit more fuss about the fact that I am a girl but they were either respectful to begin with or the diver attire gave me the superwoman look. Either way it was refreshing to be able to do this without anyone questioning my abilities, which is something, many women will agree, is standard practice in many fields.

Getting ready to perform, I didn’t hesitate but I needed to know where I was to place my foot exactly because once in the hole I wouldn’t have much space to wiggle, I planned where to place my hand, and my other foot, using the limestone as steps. The neoprene felt like Velcro against the rock. I then reached the ladder but felt it was too vertical and moved it up, swinging it and letting it fall further to the other side of the hole to be able to create an inclined angle that would help me, especially coming back up. I went down slowly; it was warm and the water below was brown like soil. I finally put one foot down in the water and confirmed the ground held me alright. There were maybe 40cm of water and I could feel there was no solid ground under my feet, it was leaves and branches. I put my head in the water and tried finding a clear spot, looking in every side of this rather narrow well. I used my leg to try and push under the wall, looking for an opening but my leg, every time, was blocked by the wall or the massive amounts of branches. There was nowhere to go. I started my ascent and met the guys at the surface with the bad news. No hay cueva. No cave. But they had Cenote #4 waiting.

Cenote #3, it’s getting tight!

A few meters away, they said, was the smaller of the two. And the smaller of all we’d check that day. The opening was probably smaller than any restriction I’ve been in and I only fit on one side, if I tried to turn it became too narrow so we’d have to place the ladder in the right position from the start. I was feeling quite good and quickly sat down with my legs in the hole, trying to visualize the way down and plan again where I’d put my feet.

The rock was sharper and I could feel it was catching my wetsuit. I started down. The hole opened a bit more once down and this one had a lot more life than the previous one. Spiders and crickets jumped. And the decomposing body of a bat lay on a ledge. I kept climbing down and started to feel the heat of the exertion (all this  time in a 7mm wetsuit). The weather, the hole, the effort. It was becoming tiring but I was already at the ladder. I didn’t look up but I could hear a lot of instructions from the guys this time. I did not think about what would happen if I couldn’t come out, nor I thought about an emergency plan. How would someone take me out of here if I would faint? I did not think of all that. I just thought about finding cave. As I stepped down into the clear water that covered a similar leaf filled ground my leg sunk until my knee, I took a deep breath and a bug got in my throat. I started coughing frantically.  I heard Skanda shout “if the air is bad you should climb back up right away!” I appreciated it but I couldn’t stop coughing and gagging. I calmed down and I decided to keep my foot on the last step of the ladder and scout from there to avoid the quicksand effect of the mud. This wall was even more vertical than the previous one. Not a single hint of cave or cavern, not a single space where I could stick a hand. Time to go back up.

Cenote #4, the smaller of all…

I exited the hole with a bit of difficulty, the guys offered to pull me out but I felt that it was riskier to be dropped than to fall by my own means, if worse come to worse. A few times the places I chose to support myself and climb collapsed in small bits so I had to find another spot, the whole seemed narrower on the way out. At some point, my head was at ground level and with all the different instructions I felt that I just needed a moment to breath fresh air and put myself together. I asked for water and drank it. I then made one last push and found the rock under my feet as perfectly placed steps. I was now half way out and used my arms to push my lower body out. I felt fit and accomplished, but I didn’t find cave.

We walked to the car, I drank all the water I could and took a few sips of coca cola. A huge fatigue then started hitting me as adrenaline went down and I just wanted to get out of my suit. I asked the guys to stay on the other side of the truck so I could change into dry my skin felt hotter than usual.

We packed our stuff again, this time not so tidy, promised to be in touch for more holes in the jungle and we snapped a photo of the 6 men, a rifle and me.

Tamara´s all-men Exploration Team

We parted in search of cenote 5 and 6. We were tired but we are the type of people who will park the car and go make photos of a dead (or alive) snake on the road. We enjoy the ride. We love spotting fox, coati, monkeys, birds and whatnot. Being tired is just a condition and a price to pay, we happily do.

Making guesses about this snake… My guess was I’m out of here before it wakes up!

Long story short, we never found cenote 5! Cenote 6 was another narrow well but easier to access, it was a quick dry check with a flashlight only and we knew there was nothing.

Find Skanda checking Cenote #6!

We were also hungry and tired so we drove back to Puerto Morelos. As we found phone reception again a message from my mom read: we made dinner, we’re waiting for you.

I wanted to share all the stories and talk about it endlessly over dinner, but there’s something about exploring caves that isn’t easy to tell and a silence that binds those who share the same passion. This day will forever be the day when someone asked if I knew who can check a few cenotes, and I answered “it’s me”. 

Please follow me on Instagram @Cenote_Girl and let me know if you enjoyed the read. More to come and more to explore!

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