The next day we had our cycling tour of Sarteneja, finishing with a swim at a cenote, ‘a natural pit, or sinkhole, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath‘.
My host family had a couple of bikes that they could lend to Canelle, the other girl living in my homestay, and me so we cycled down to the Blue Ventures building to meet the others. Once everyone was assembled, those of us who had bikes, wheeled them to the bike rental shop to get some more for those who didn’t. When everyone had something to ride we set off. It was a bit tricksome, especially for the taller members of the group, as the people of Sarteneja seem to be consistently smaller than our oddly tall group of volunteers (it’s very exciting, I’ve finally found some of my kind). However, once you had the hang of orienting your knees so that they didn’t hit your handle bars, you were pretty much good to go.
Cycling is a very lovely way of getting around Sarteneja as the village is very small, only about 5,000 people, but it is still comparatively quite spread out. We visited the community centre and a well in the back garden of a very nice family, which is where the name Sarteneja comes from. It literally translates into Mayan as ‘water between the rocks’. Then we cycled for a little while longer to reach an underground cave.
I say ‘cave’ but from the surface all you can see is a hole, a couple of metres in diameter, that goes down into a crawl space.
The ‘cave’ entrance, demonstrated by Lindy’s (one of the Blue Venture’s staff) son
When I scrambled down under the lip of the hole the space widened, so I could stand slightly hunched over, and I looked around. Bats flitted in and out of the light, clearly disturbed by our presence and resenting our waking them from their naps. The smell was damp and slightly fetid.
“The smell – that is the guano,” our guide informed us cheerfully, “It make very nice fertiliser for your plants,” I made a mental note to scoop up some guano for our garden to take home. We were led deeper into the cave and showed another ‘room’. The gap was too small for us all to fit through so we just watched as our guide clambered through the gap and illuminated the ceiling, igniting a cascade of bats that encircled him as well as flying over our heads. A couple of people yelped as the bats flew within centimetres of our faces, leaving you only with a glimpse of the silhouette of their wings to remember them by.
It was super hot in the cave so we didn’t linger. Pretty much everyone had made the transition from ‘human being’ into ‘walking puddle’ so we were all hoping that our next stop would be for a swim. We all got back onto our bikes and carried on through the roads of Sarteneja. They were all very wide, three people could fit side by side cycling along (as long as they didn’t veer too much in any direction) but still very bumpy, with large craters and rocks littering the pale surface of the road.
We finally turned down a dirt track and left our bikes under a tree, near a large-ish body of open water which we all assumed to be our swimming spot.
Our guide, however, led us past the large pond/small lake into the forest. We passed a small stagnant pool and joked that that could be our cenote if all else failed. But we pressed on until up ahead, through the roots of the mangroves, I could see the shimmer of the morning light on the water. This was a very good sign. As we got closer it became clear just how big it was. The bank on the other side must have been hundreds of metres away.
And we were the only people there.
I stripped off my outer clothes to reveal the swimsuit I was wearing underneath and, hesitating only to ask where it was deep enough to jump, I leapt into the water. After the sweaty, sticky heat of the cycle ride the water was absolute bliss. I swam out from the shore, relishing the feeling of cool water against my skin. It was murky, so I wasn’t missing out on anything by not wearing goggles, and green so that from the surface all you could see was the ghostly apparition of our limbs.
Justin, one of the other volunteers, decided to instigate a treading water competition to see who could last the longest keeping both hands and their heads out of the water. The cenote was deep (far deeper than any of us could reach) so there was no risk of cheating. There were about five of us taking part and one by one they gave up until it was just me and Justin. Tired legs were no match for my ridiculously competitive need to win and apparently he felt the same. This meant that after about fifteen minutes we had to declare a boredom induced stalemate, as neither of us were going to be the first to give in.
After our contest I was quite content just drifting at the surface for a few minutes, giving my legs a moment to recover and allowing me to stare up at the sky. Frigate birds swooped above us, occasionally sweeping down to the surface of the water to catch a fish. The cenote was surrounded by mangroves on all sides so above the dirty green of the water was a stripe of vibrant green and then the blue, blue sky, extending out over our heads in what felt like a giant dome.
And so I floated, a tiny dot in the deep water, looking up at the sky.