A world going on underground

It was off to the caves in Tulum today, a prehistoric place where the Mayan or even pre-Mayan inhabitants had made had prints on some of the walls. Our Spanish guide called the caves naturally air conditioned, which was a good thing since it was again extremely hot.

He took us on a walk through two kilometres of weird semi-darkness, lit by occasional floodlights, explaining how the Maya used the caves as a water source. At several points on the walk, ancient bowls scraped from the limestone were used to collect the water as it dripped from the stalactites. I scooped some into my hand and drank it: was clean and cold. With only about 40 millimetres of rain per year and that all in one season, the area of the Ruta Puuc seems dry as a bone. But I guess the humidity must condense in the cool caves, to drip down and fill the ancient collection vessels.

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Photo gallery: The caves at LoltĂșn

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Slippery slopes

While the cave was fascinating, it was also unsafe in spots. There were plenty of loose boulders and in many places the mud floor was slippery. To help us see the more spectacular areas, the guide led us clambering up and down rough steps, formed naturally by fallen rock. I took a slight tumble on one incline but there was no damage, except to our camera, which bumped against some rocks on the way. One of the areas we saw was a chasm where we had to walk along a three-foot-wide ledge with no barrier of any kind to stop a 50-foot fall if you took a misstep. Fortunately, we had paid extra and were with a small group; I could not imagine how you would bring a group of 40 or 50 (the usual size) through some of these spots.

Another problem was the floodlights. Some of them were pointed right at our faces as we walked the treacherous paths, leaving us to grope our way along as we were blinded by the bright lights.

While the coolness was a blessing at first, the cave was very humid and all of us were soon panting and sweating as we made our way up and down the rock piles.

Along the way, there were many signs of human habitation from days gone by, including soot-blackened walls in areas where the ancients had lit fires, sites were bones had been found and the aforementioned hand prints.

Final challenge

The final challenge was the six or seven flights of stone steps we had to climb to get out. But at the top were a couple of Mayan vendors who had cold bottles of drinks. I ordered a vanilla, which seemed to be a mixture of milk (perhaps coconut milk, judging by the pulp at the bottom) and crushed vanilla beans. Ana had a bottle of chaya, made from the leaves of one of the plants that grow in the area and said to be an elixer for many ailments.

On the way back, our guide took us to an authentic Mexican restaurant where we stopped for lunch. But I was simply too hot to eat any of the meat that was on offer, settling for some delicious vegetable soup, a salad, home-made corn tortillas, rice and a bean dip. Once again, we scarfed down the piquante salsa.

On our return to Merida, the Palm Sunday fiesta was well underway in the zocalo. We stopped to watch some Yucatan dancing, the most impressive of which involved a man and a woman standing on small platforms with trays on their heads, each one with a bottle of beer and four glasses. They didn’t spill a drop. Afterwards, we sat in the plaza, looking at the stalls of the merchants who had gathered for the fiesta and watching the families walking around with their small children, who staged mock sword fights with the balloons that a clown was giving away.

For dinner, we ate La Bella Epoca, an Italian restaurant in a 17th-century mansion near the zocalo, a nice cap to an interesting day. We sat next to a balcony and listened to the music from the street. Musicians and craft vendors had set up shop on Calle 60 to open the festival marking Semana Santa, the week before Easter.

On the way home, I tried to buy a beer in a convenience store but was met with smiles and laughter from both customers and staff at the counter. They explained that beer sales were not allowed on Sunday after five o’clock. “Not even for a small one?” I asked. But the clerk just smiled at my little joke, so I was forced to buy a can of beer from the vending machine at the hotel.

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