Cenote cave in Quintana Roo

“Yo Soy Maya” – A Descendant of Rebels and a Hidden Cenote

Part of the fun of visiting foreign countries for me is meeting new people and communicating with locals. Besides finding out-of-the-way places that no one seems to know about, except those who live in the vicinity.

Discovering a Hidden Underground Cenote

A few years ago, during one of our many trips through the Yucatan, we learned from a local family about a cenote we didn’t know existed. By then we thought we knew every tiny road, every cave, every hole filled with water on the peninsula after almost three decades of exploring it. But in a land as holy as cottage cheese, you’ll always find a new cenote somewhere.

No tourists go to this one, only locals know about it, our host assured us. Miles off the highway, with only a narrow dirt road leading to it, we should have it for ourselves, she said.

Following her directions, we drove off on a dirt road that eventually turned into a one-lane path, filled with potholes and tree-roots growing across it. We kept driving and driving, way past the time we thought it would take us to get to the cenote.

Though it was the only road in that direction, we knew we were lost. And even if we weren’t, we realized it was not a good idea to keep driving the rental car on this path. But we couldn’t even turn around, trees were growing so close to us on both sides, the car barely fit through.

Just when we started seriously worrying about getting stuck in the middle of the jungle, we noticed a place ahead wide enough to turn around.

When we tried turning around, we realized that we were at the entrance to the cenote. With no other cars around, the only tell-tale sign of this was a beat-up bicycle leaning against a tree, and a hammock strung between two trees that looked heavy like it wasn’t empty. The bicycle’s owner was resting in it. Only when he saw us park and get out of the car, he got off and came over.

“Hablo Poco Espanol. Yo Soy Maya”

“Habla Español?” he asked, when he realized we were foreigners.

Since I tend to be the one to communicate with locals when in Mexico, I answered.

“Poquito” – very little.

“También hablo poco español,” he answered, slowly. “Yo soy Maya.”

I guessed it looking at him, but it was nice to hear it. Even if it meant we would not be able to communicate much.

Looking around, trying to figure something out, my husband had a question for him and he asked it in English.

“Was this the land of Jacinto Pat?”

I’ve met many Maya over the years. They are a reserved people, I rarely see them smile. But when our new friend heard this name from a tall gringo, who didn’t even speak Spanish, his whole face lit up.

“Si, lo es,” he nodded. “El fue mi bisabuelo.”

I was pretty sure he said the person in question was his great-grandfather and his descendants, his family, still owned the land.

“Who are we talking about?” I asked my husband.

“One of the Maya leaders of the Caste War. I read he owned the land around here. I guess his family still does.”

Caste War?

The Caste War was a relatively recent development in Yucatan’s history, between 1847 and 1915. Basically, the indigenous Maya rebelled against the Mexicans landowners of European descent who treated them like dirt. It’s a long story I know little about, but I’ll try to explain in a nutshell.

First of all, I’ve always been confused about the name; why did they call it a caste war if it was a rebellion? To understand it, I had to figure out what a caste was. Basically, it was a hierarchy, a legal power system of Yucatan in colonial times.

The higher officials and landowners, born in Spain, were at the top of the system, the highest level caste, with all the rights possible. Next in line were those born in Yucatan but of pure Spanish descent, followed by the mixed population, of Spanish and indigenous descent, and at the very bottom was the indigenous Maya population, born on this land.

That sounds about fair, right? The Maya didn’t think so, either. But I guess for a while they didn’t care much, they figured this would pass. When it didn’t and they had enough, they picked up their machetes and attacked the highest castes. Yes, it was somewhat of a bloodbath from what I read. Don’t ever push people past their limits.

The rebellion turned into a full-fledged war

Outside forces got involved, supplying weapons for either (or both) sides, among other things… In the end, the rebellion turned into a full-fledged war, mixed with a fight for independence.

The Maya could’ve won, and they could’ve had an independent Maya state. Except that no war was as important for them as their crops. I get it. After all, what would be the use of winning a war, if you and your family would starve because you have nothing to eat, you neglected your crops? They couldn’t count on all these outside forces to supply them with food for a full year. So, when it was time for planting, they exchanged their weapons for their tools and returned to their lands, or milpas to plant their corn. Or so the story goes.

I have a feeling they didn’t really care about independent states, all they wanted was to be treated fairly and left alone. So they didn’t get their independent state but gained more rights, showed the landowners that they needed to be treated like humans, and went on with life.

And, the descendants of the rebel leaders are proud of their heritage to this day, telling stories about their grandparents and great-grandparents.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t talk about any of this with the rebel’s great-grandson we just met since we didn’t speak his language. Instead, we followed him into the cenote.

Zots. Bats

He asked us if we needed life vests, which I was grateful for, and accepted for myself and the girls. After he gave us some, he led us underground through a tiny hole one person could barely fit through.

But the narrow stairs were sturdy and perfectly safe. As we were walking down the stairs, we looked up and noticed bats.

“Zots?” my husband asked.

Though his pronunciation was bad, our Maya friend recognized the word he was trying to say. Of course, it helped that we pointed to the bats flying above our heads.

Bats on top of the cave-cenote
Bats on top of the cave-cenote

“Si, zots.” He smiled, repeating the word correctly. We both repeated it, too, finally feeling confident that we could say it right.

Though I am a linguist and understand a few languages, I am also insecure when it comes to talking in a foreign language. Self-conscious about my pronunciation, I rarely attempt to say a word I haven’t heard a native say, even if I understand it in writing.

We tried to learn a few more Maya word on our way down while enjoying the coolness of the cave and watching our steps on the slippery stairs. The cenote was deeper underground than most others I’ve been in.

Once we reached the water, I was standing there, in awe. It’s not like I haven’t been in cave-cenotes before, but this one seemed even more beautiful than most. The crystal-clear water reflected the rock formations of the cave, visible in the dim light. Farther in the depths of the cave, it was pitch-dark, but we could see it went farther. Bats were flying above the water, others hanging in the crevices.

in the cenote-cave
The water in the cave was crystal-clear.

Swimming in the Cenote

Even wearing the vests I am scared of deep waters in cenotes, where I can’t see the bottom. They always remind me of the Hungarian folktales of my childhood about bottomless lakes where man-eating dragons lived. I know, I’m too old to be scared of fairy tales, it’s more like a general uneasiness when looking down into a seemingly bottomless hole.

underground cenote in Quintana Roo
Farther from the shore the water was much deeper.

I am also overprotective of my kids in these bottomless waterholes. So, while my older daughter swam off to explore the cave-cenote with her dad, I kept my younger one with me, close to the shore. She didn’t mind, She’s a great swimmer, but seems to share my general mistrust of extremely deep, dark waters.

The water is deeper than it seems...
Even close to the shore, the water is deeper than it seems…

Floating close to the shore, I enjoyed the crystal-clear water and the rock formations of the cave. The light cast shadows and bats were flying around, woken up by our movements, though we tried to keep quiet. We were trying to have somewhat of a conversation with our host, who stayed with us underground, but even as we talked, I found myself whispering, to not disturb the silence of this place.

The one downside of spending time in ice-cold water, at least for me, is that inevitably I will need to use the restroom. This time it was no exception. Besides, I was freezing, so I didn’t mind walking up into the sun. So I got out and asked our host where I would find a restroom. Instead of trying to explain it to me, he accompanied me above ground. Sure, he could’ve just pointed up, I would’ve found them.

Trying to Communicate

We walked up in silence, but once above ground, in the bright sunshine, I felt like talking. I told him the cenote was beautiful. Yes, he said, the word they use in Spanish doesn’t even describe it, but the Maya word they use for it doesn’t have an equivalent.

I understood. “Yes, Maya language has more words to describe cenotes, water, and caves, because they have so many of them,” I said. At least I hoped I said it in a semi-intelligible Spanish. He seemed to get it.

He looked at me and smiled. “Yes, exactly. You understand.”

I did understand, and I wanted to tell him how I could relate not only to the way his language works; I wanted to tell him how I grew up as a minority in a land of my ancestors, similar to his people being a minority in modern Mexico. But I didn’t know enough Spanish to explain it, and he probably didn’t know enough to understand.

So, instead, I just nodded.

“Yes, I do,” and walked on.

We Were not the Only Visitors of the Day

By the time I got out of the bathroom, a small group showed up. They spoke French and had National Geographic Explorers logos on their clothes and on the van they drove.

Our friend was busy with them, so I just pointed down into the cenote and descended to join my family.

We didn’t linger much after the National Geographic tour came down. Though they were relatively quiet, it still seemed too noisy with so many of us, and we left shortly after chatting a little with them, commenting on the beauty of the cave and the bats flying around. Yes, I speak French, better than Maya. I grew up in Europe, after all.

Saying Goodbye

We didn’t linger much after ascending back into the sunlight. It was getting close to lunchtime and we were hungry. We thanked our new friend for taking us down into the cenote, returned his life vests and drove off, hoping that we would return someday. If we could ever find that road again, or remember the name of the cenote.

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