In case of anything going wrong, following the instructions on the two crumbled copy papers would be the difference between life and death. Roberto had hand-drawn the line we would take and all the supplies our group of “cavers” would need to make the grueling eight hour descent into the bowels of the Yucatan.
Roberto and his professional caver friends had found the mass of caves while hiking through the jungle years before. As of yet, only they had returned to the decrepit location. On official record, the underground cave-haven doesn’t exist- and that’s how we want to keep it.
“That’s everything,” Jerry patted the side of his van, stuffed to the brim with the packs of our group of twenty hikers, and we piled into the two cars. The energy between my siblings and friends was crackling with excitement for a day that would prove to be ethereal.
A couple minutes of rickety off-roading dropped our rag-tag band of cavers at the start of a forty-five minute hike into deep jungle. We slid into our weighty packs, turned back our hats, slathered two tough lines of sunscreen on our cheeks, and buckled down for the long haul, picking our way through poisonous chinchin trees, over steep ravines, and around sudden twenty foot drops in the rocky floor. I was paranoid with the notion of the spiders that I knew rested just underfoot and between the innumerable branches of the canopy.
We arrived at the entrance to the caves sweaty, thirsty, and filthy- but our adventure had just began. In the dim light of the narrow entrance, we found scraps to sit on and indulged in our first break. If this was the first hour, I couldn’t fathom what was in store.
Hour three, break three: we have finally arrived at the mouth of a shallow basin. The last two hours were spent weaving through collapsed Mayan ruins and vines fit for Tarzan.
“Ven conmigo Maia!” Coral and Chloe pull me into the water. It is surprisingly not as chill as other cenotes- even ones that are open to the sunlight. Although the cave keeps out the sun, it also keeps out the wind, and this is what made the water seem more fresh than cold. We swim around the lagoon for a while, digging our toes into a mound of quicksand and screaming in delight as we are sucked downward.
Roberto rounds the group back up with promises of an underground river further upstream, and the seniors pluck up the courage to brave the water. The sharp and unpredictable bed of the lagoon proved a challenge as we groped through the dark, dank caverns with only headlamps to poke pinpoints of light through the inky abyss. We ducked under dripping stalactites only hit our shins on protruding stalagmites, concealed in the pools.
At points we could walk over sand bars as the ceiling of the caves soared majestically into blackness overhead. However, getting cocky meant injury or death: the shallow sand bars dropped off into sinkholes- portals to deeper systems of caves straight out of a Jules Verne. I realized that the only way to survive the never-ending labyrinth was with a source of light. The treacherous terrain left us straining to keep our twenty-peso headlamps above the water as the floor suddenly disappeared underfoot at every turn.
We reached an area where Roberto’s friends had left inflated rafts, and we alternately floated and pulled those along with us. Above, the cave ceiling shone with water crystals reflected in the pools. It is a beautiful world; untouched, fresh, clean, sweet and alive.
The truth is that the system of caves has existed perhaps since the beginning of the world. Were these caves the product of air pockets during the formation of the crust? Shattered Mayan pottery, obscure marks on the walls, and conspicuous piles of rocks are a testament to the civilization that once made the caves their home. Legends tell of fierce battles, strange gods, and the sorcery that once graced the corners of the caves. Was this where Hernan Cortez and the conquistadors once searched for the Fountain of Youth? Animal skulls, empty tortoise shells, and broken bones left much to the imagination as we traversed the line Roberto and his friends had marked with colored ribbons every few meters.
“The caves continue until you reach a pool the size of a football field, but that’ll be another hour to reach. We should turn back,” Roberto advised us after a few hours.
The walk home was difficult- I won’t lie. After a couple hours of putting one foot in front of the other, we finally arrived back at the vans, utterly exhausted but filled with the excitement of the day’s expedition. It was a great day with great people, and we finished it off by rounding up everyone who fit on golf carts (and then some more), building a bonfire at a deserted, undeveloped bay, and indulging in a potluck spread. We ate, drank, and laughed even after the sun set over the vast jungle canopy and the tides began to nip at our ankles. The scene was out of some fantasy movie.
The thing that stood out to me most was the fact that the day was spent with people from all over the world: Mexicans, Londoners, Canadians, Europeans, Africans and Californians. These are people who left their homeland for some reason or other, yet all were hungry with the passion for the world and people that eventually brought them to convene. The most beautiful part of it all was that I know we are transient people. We will go out and have more adventures, meet more people and do more things, but through it all we will always reconvene because there is something in people like us that forges lifelong friendships.
The unspoken understanding that passes between wayward hearts is sweet and fresh as the waters of the caves. I think the conquistadors may have found the Fountain of Youth in those caves: the friendships they forged through those expeditions, trudging through caves and splashing through pools of liquid silver, bring more youth and happiness than any magic potion.