22 Dec 2016 – 3 Jan 2017. We’re waiting on the sidewalk. We can see the doorbell but don’t ring it knowing it’s not yet ten o’clock. There’s another couple also waiting. They ring the bell. To our surprise the door is opened immediately and we’re invited inside. I find myself in a place of jaw-dropping joy-rising splendor. We are in the large front foyer of a very large house, and I hardly know where to look first. The room is crammed with dozens of pieces of Mexican folk art, each one singing with the whimsy and playfulness of creativity. But don’t be mistaken, within each traditional piece, passed on through the generations, there is a potent spiritual significance.
There’s a papier-mâché deer strung from the ceiling. The wooden frame on the deer’s back is loaded with fireworks. The deer would be held high over the head in a ritual dance while the fireworks exploded with thunderous brilliance.
There’s a papier-mâché clown also with fireworks attached. There’s a life size wooden skeleton in a blue skirt and a deer head attached to the top of its skull, and next to it a huge delicate ceramic platter on a pedestal. There’s a floor to ceiling ceramic piece depicting village life, and a bench of Frida and Diego. There’s a second wooden skeleton holding a spear sticking into the skeleton of a deer, and paintings, and ceramics, and carvings, filling every space. And this is just the beginning.
In the year 2000, after many visits to Mexico and a lot of searching, John and Dorianne Venator from Chicago purchased a property in the city of Valladolid, Yucatán. It was a crumbling Spanish Colonial hacienda that had not been occupied since 1964. To call it a fixer-upper was an understatement: renovation and remodeling took nine years.
Now behind the austere walls that face the street half a block from the zocalo, or town square, is an exquisitely restored 18,000 square foot palatial mansion: a private home, and a museum housing the largest collection of museum-quality Mexican folk art in private hands. It is known as Casa de los Venados – House of the Deer.
The couple has been passionate collectors of Mexican folk art for over thirty-five years and their collection now includes more than 3000 pieces, most acquired directly from the artists.
Several years ago a friend pointed out to John that he’d given seven private tours during the previous three days and suggested he make a business of it. The Venators had no desire to start a business but were happy to make their collection available to the public. So now every day at 10am they open their doors to visitors to tour their home and view this extraordinary collection. Tours by professional guides are in English and Spanish, and last about an hour. John himself sits in the courtyard greeting visitors. There is no charge. Visitors are asked for a donation and all monies collected go to local charities.
What a place! We enter into the spacious entrance hall, then on into a couple of reception rooms leading to a beautiful open courtyard.
There are four self-contained guest suites each with living room, bedroom, bathroom, and small private garden.
Deeper into the space is another wide-open courtyard, which is entered by a bridge over a grand infinity pool bordered by a covered barbeque area. Beyond this is the suite of rooms where John and Dorianne live day to day, and we are shown the kitchen, dining room and living room.
All the while the guide points out some of the more significant pieces. We hear where each came from, how it was made, and how the Venators acquired it. There is everything from ceramics to metalware to woodcarvings, papier-mâché, mirrors, hats, tile work, bead work, and piñatas made from hundreds of tiny scrunched pieces of crepe paper individually glued on.
There is so much, and so much variety, it’s hard to know where to look, how to take it all in. It is a visual feast that astonishes again and again with every turn of the head.
Here’s a small selection of what we saw:
In pronounced contrast to the beauty of the folk art created by people, there is a mysterious underground world in the Yucatan created by nature. This underground realm is vast and deep, with caves and cathedrals, narrow dark passageways, long rivers, and bottomless pools. To this day it has not been fully explored.
The shaft of sunlight cuts through the darkness illuminating a magical blue world singing with secret depths. Having descended a short flight of stairs we are on a natural balcony looking down into what was once a hidden cave, a huge hollow cathedral within the earth. A few thousand years ago the limestone ceiling of the cave, weathered by wind and water, gave way, creating a small hole in the ceiling. At the bottom of the cave is a pool of sparkling sapphire water several metres deep. The walls of the cave drip with limestone formations.
Just seven kilometres from Valladolid near the small town of Dzitnup, today Cenote Samula is no longer a secret. It is a popular swimming hole, and the perfect place to cool off in Yucatan’s muggy heat. We climb down to the waters edge. Small catfish swim by,
and bats fly high above.
The Yucatan Peninsula is home to the longest underground river and cave system in the world. One of the rivers is 153 kilometres (95 mi) long. There are an estimated 6000 cenotes (say-no-tays), or sinkholes, though less than half of them have been explored. They are formed when the flat porous limestone shelf of the peninsula gives way and falls into the cave system below creating an opening into the underground world. The underground rivers and the pools at the bottom of the sinkholes are the peninsula’s only sources of fresh water.
The stone pathway that connects Cenote Samula to nearby Cenote Xkeken is sprinkled with replicas of ancient Mayan designs.
After passing quickly through a large circular concrete hutch of artisan stalls we enter the cool world of Cenote Xkeken down a narrow passageway deep into the earth.
The hole in the ceiling of Cenote Xkeken is smaller even than that of Cenote Samula, and artificial lighting is needed. We have entered deep into the underground, into what once was a mysterious dark place humming with the song of the earth. Fat stalactites almost reach the water, bats fly above, and the roots of trees reach all the way down to the water, long strings caught in the limited sunlight.
We join the crowd and swim here. The water is cool and delicious. I want to go exploring deeper into the cave but it is roped off and there is a stoic guard sitting nearby.
Mayan hieroglyphics define cenotes as “abysmal and deep”, and the Mayans believed them to be entrances to the underworld. They would visit cenotes to communicate with their ancestors and gods, including Chaak, their rain god. Cenotes were sacred places where spiritual ceremonies were held and sacrifices made, including human sacrifice. The only light available to them would have been flaming torches. In the sporadic flickering firelight the caverns must have seemed impenetrable, and eerie; potent enigmatic places where spirits dwelt, and where anything could happen.
About three blocks from the central square in Valladolid is Cenote Zaci. There is no ceiling to this cenote. The top is completely open forming cathedral walls covered with moist green ferns and giant tropical vines. Three small waterfalls cascade from above in a steady soft rhythm. The cool blue water is eighty-five metres deep.
After an early morning visit to the spectacular Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza we take a taxi to Cenote Ik Kil, just five kilometres away. Like Zaci, the top of Ik Kil is wide open. The walls are a cascade of tropical plants, and long streamers of thirsty tree roots reach for the water through the lush green ferns and vines. Despite the signs, in English and Spanish, admonishing people not to touch the tree roots, and warning that you swim at your own risk; despite the concrete stairs, and the crowds of people, it is a magical place.
After a swim and a rest we walk back out to the highway and wait by the side of the road. Within about ten minutes a colectivo, one of many vans that travel the road between Valladolid and Chichen Itza, stops and takes us back to town.
We also visited Cenote Eden, near Playa del Carmen.
During our time in the Yucatan we visit four of the thousands of ruins left from the thousands of years of Mayan civilization: Ek Balam, Chichen Itza, Edzna, and Palenque in the next post.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2017.