29 November 2016. Arriba! Arriba! He shouts at us with urgency as the boat heaves up and down and the Jet-Ski I’m sitting on bucks in the waves. Somehow I manage to stand on the Jet-Ski, twist around ninety degrees and flop my butt down on the deck of the boat. I scramble out of the way and Don follows me. We’re going parasailing, which is not in itself a high-energy activity, but we’ve chosen a windy day and the sea is rocking and rolling.
Once on the boat we wait our turn. There are two other couples ahead of us, and one in the air.
The boat speeds through the pounding waves and we are drenched with spray. At this point I’m really glad the people on the beach who sold us the ride persuaded me to leave my camera with them. I doubt even in plastic bags it would still be dry.
We watch as the couple in the air is winched in,
and the next couple harnessed up and sent flying up into the air.
So now it is our turn. I’m frankly scared. What if the harness breaks? What if the air is sucked out of the balloon? What if, what if? The wind is strong and we are dangling in the air swinging back and forth. We have no control over anything. And then we are high up above the sea with a clear broad view of Playa del Carmen on one side, and all the way over to Cozumel on the other. The swinging has stopped, the air is warm, and we drift along in a kind of serenity, peaceful at last.
After ten minutes or so sitting in a sling gets to be a bit uncomfortable, and soon after we are winched in straight onto the flat platform at the back of the boat and immediately hustled onto the Jet-Ski. I accomplish an inelegant sort of sitting sliding jumping motion onto the Jet-Ski as both it and the boat heave up and down in the water. I clutch around the waist of the driver as if he’s a long lost lover for another pounding dash through the waves. Behind me Don is far more nonchalant, his hands resting on my shoulders. We clamber off into the waves close to shore and hi five on the beach in glee! We did it! At least once a week do something that you’re afraid of. It’s so enlivening!
The man at the beach offers me fifty pesos in exchange for my camera. After a split second we all burst out laughing.
2 December 2016. For thirty pesos ($2) we get a taxi to the collectivo meeting point. Collectivos are air-conditioned minivans, at least in Playa del Carmen they are. In Oaxaca they’re decrepit taxis. In both cases they take on more and more passengers until they are full. In Playa we pay thirty-five pesos each on the collectivo to be taken to Akumal some twenty kilometres south.
The village of Akumal, on the inland side of the highway, is, as far as we know, unremarkable. We didn’t go there. The beach on the other hand, and on the other side of the highway, is probably one of the best places in the world to swim with turtles.
On the collectivo Don, by chance, sits next to Miguel, who speaks good English and is the manager of the only restaurant on the beach. He tells us that we don’t need a guide to swim with the turtles. It’s as if Miguel is our guide, explaining what to expect when we arrive, that there is a dive shop where we can rent life jackets, and that has lockers. He says we can just go into the water and the turtles will be there. It’s about a ten-minute walk to the beach. Miguel heads off to work. Several guides along the way try to convince us we need them, but we walk on by.
We get a locker. We rent life jackets. We change into our swimsuits and jam our stuff into the locker. While we’re doing this we chat with an English couple who had just come from the water. They say to just go straight out where all the other people are and we’ll see the turtles. It’s as if we have our own private guides every step of the way.
With our facemasks and snorkels in place we walk into the water, and then start swimming slowly, searching. The water is not perfectly clear because the sand has been stirred up a bit, but it’s clear enough. Suddenly I see one and stick my head up to alert Don. He sees it too. Then we see another, and another; the bay is full of turtles. They move through the water with an easy grace, and I’ve become a sea creature and have entered their world. They are untroubled by us and the other snorkelers.
Then I see a small stingray! There is a fish, almost as big as the stingray, swimming with it, holding steady along the back of the stingray a few inches above it, like a guardian. I watch for a while until I see a turtle coming towards me. I can see it is about to surface to take a breath. I do the same, and suddenly there we are, our heads above water, not more than three feet apart. For a split second we stare at each other, and then we both dive back down again.
After a while Don and I leave the water, dry off, and have lunch at Miguel’s restaurant – a divine roasted vegetable Panini for me, and mixed seafood ceviche for Don. Miguel is of mixed Mayan descent as are most of the people in this part of Mexico. He told us that 80% of the staff at the restaurant are Mayan and still speak Mayan. It’s very much a living culture with a living language used by more than six million people.
Our hearts full of the wonders of swimming with turtles, and our bellies full of good food, we sit in the shade of palm trees on the beach soaking up paradise,
and watching the lazy water as divers and snorkelers pass by.
And then we see the pelican! It’s fishing, right in amongst the people. Flying high then diving into the water over and over not more than a metre from where people are swimming or standing, at one point just about landing on top of someone.
Then it stands on the shore while a whole bunch of us gather around it, seemingly at ease with our presence, until suddenly it has had enough and takes off.
11 December 2016. After driving through the jungle for seven kilometres,
the first thing they do is make us take a cold shower! Then we wriggle into wetsuits and a life jacket and strap a miner’s helmet onto our heads. We are going underground. After a short hike through the jungle we switch on our headlamps and begin the descent.
The stairs that take us below ground are the only man-made structure we see for the entire tour.
We are in the channel of an underground river that has carved out a system of caves over thousands of years. It was only discovered in 2006 and is known as Rio Secreto, the secret river.
Following gentle slopes of slippery stone and narrow passageways we eventually find ourselves more than 20 metres (65ft) below the surface. There is no light down here save our headlamps and our guide’s small flashlight, and as we descend further it becomes even darker, and the air cooler.
We wade through the shallow river of clear brilliant blue and green water, finding ourselves in huge magnificent caverns of stalactites and stalagmites. It is a glorious and surreal landscape.
The water is pristine and cold. There are tiny fish that live here in absolute darkness, and small black furry bats clinging to the high crevices.
We keep moving forward through the river system, at times having to squeeze through narrow passageways with only our heads above water, always emerging into another expansive cavern.
I feel as if I’ve suddenly woken up to find myself a player in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and a frisson of fear passes through me.
At times the water is so deep we have to swim.
And then we are standing in shallow water in a wide, open space and we all turn our lamps off. In uncompromising darkness, so dark we cannot see our hands in front of our faces, we listen – to the drip drip drip of the water from thousands of stalactites hitting the water below, to the far off squeaking of the bats, to the soft lapping of the water. I feel the moist air on my face and the chill of the water, and smell the earthy smell. It is a moment of aching beauty.
7 December 2016. We are down the south end of the island of Cozumel drifting offshore with the current. The boat is nearby, and in the water we stay close to our guide as we swim along the Palancar and Colombia Reefs. I don’t know how he knows where to go but we follow him, immersed in the underwater world. We drift for about two hours, the boat keeping pace with us. Every now and then our guide squirts seafood from a plastic bottle and the brightly coloured fish swarm around. It’s magical. This video was made by John Riddle, one of our fellow snorkelers.
Eventually we scramble back into the boat
and Enrique, our captain
takes us to the starfish at El Cielo.
Stingray! I shout. I’ve just landed in the water on one side of the boat. Our guide is at the end of the boat. Everyone come this side! he shouts, indicating the other side of the boat. Stingray! I shout again. But no one hears me, and anyway by this time it has disappeared into the sea grass. I join the others and we follow our guide to the starfish. They are everywhere. Our guide picks one up, and we are allowed to hold it. It’s rigid. All the starfish I’ve ever seen are soft, but not these ones. It’s one of the highlights of the tour, seeing and touching these bright tangerine starfish, all motionless and rigid.
Years ago, back in Australia, my family rented a house at the beach for a couple of weeks. One morning I looked out over the end of the deck to the house next door. There on the lawn was an echidna. It’s so unusual to see them in the open in daylight. I called the others and we all watched it for a while. Then I went over to the garden where it was. I went closer and closer. It never moved. Finally I went right up to it. It was plastic! We had all been fooled. The starfish remind me of the echidna, but they are not plastic.
We travel a little further after the starfish and all flop into the water to play in one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Someone mentions they’ve seen a barracuda. Then Don tells me he saw it but didn’t go too close, because – it’s a barracuda. I’m swimming by myself, apart from the group, when suddenly there it is, like a ghost about four feet long moving silently through the water. I too stay away.
On the long boat ride back to Cozumel port we drink beer and pop, and eat tortilla chips and guacamole and salsa. A forty-five minute ferry ride brings us back to Playa del Carmen.
Next post: The other end of the beach at Playa, and Cenote del Eden.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2016.