"Have you been to Mexico before?" I asked my friend Wendell, an eccentric person that has traveled to more countries than anyone else I know.
"Yes, several times. Where are you located at the moment?" I told him eagerly, knowing as usual he would have insightful experience-based information to convey to me.
When I told him I was headed to Tulum the next day, he urged me to contact a Jorge, a tour guide that had shown him around the jungles in the Cancun-Tulum area in 2012. Two days later, Lars and I were sitting in the middle of a 7-Eleven parking lot waiting for our tour guide Jorge to arrive.
Jorge, a Mayan, has deep love for his homeland. He had fought to get funding for a film that he and others wanted to create that would showcase their beloved region of Banco Chinchorro in order to both safeguard it in memory and to encourage those who watched the film to help preserve the wildlife in the area. The movie is called Alamar, which translates to To The Sea.
A man with braided pigtails and a warm smile approached us. The introductions were brief, but full of heart from both sides. Today would be a day of exploring jungles, bird-watching, canoeing, and swimming in a cenote (a sinkhole created from the natural collapse of bedrock in which the ground water pours in and eventually forms clean pools of water), and eating delicious homemade food.
Our first stop was improvised. We were passing through rural villages, and Jorge pulled over to the side of a road along side a lagoon. Jorge brought out binoculars and pointed out several species of birds. It was a lucky stop as we saw at least eight different species of birds including: snowy egret, ruddy ground dove, belted kingfisher, ruddy woodcreeper, yellow oriole, indigo bunting, blue grosbeak and a summer tanager. After that, we made our way to his favorite cenote. Tens of thousands of these sinkholes and caves have formed over time, exposing the underground river system of the Yucatan above ground.
We changed into our bathing suits, rinsed ourselves down, climbed the narrow and slippery stairs into the darkness. The air smelled woodsy and damp. The cave was dimly lit by a halogen placed there by park rangers for visitors. Jorge took out snorkeling gear and urged us to get into the water. The water was so crystalline clear it appeared to be glowing blue in the light. This is because the ground water in cenotes are pure and unadulterated due to the natural filtration process that occurs as the water runs through layers of rock. There were a few fish in the water of this cenote, but nothing else. The clarity of the water magnified the boulders, and the light from the halogen bounced off the jagged edges of the cave walls and the tree roots that had begun to form parts of the ceiling causing an immensly disorienting depth perception while under water. The cave we had entered was estimated to be millions of years old. Cenotes are dated by measuring the length of the stalactites and stalagmites which grow a consistent length every year. This cave had massive stalactites and stalagmites growing into one another forming floor to ceiling towers.
Afterwards, we drove to one the jungles of Koba. Jorge urged Lars and me to take a canoe across the lake and hike while he prepared our lunch in a clearing overlooking the placid water. We saw butterflies, trails of flesh-eating ants and listened to the wind blow through the trees.
Jorge's picnic consisted of fresh hand made tortillas that we had picked up from a Mayan family whom he had introduced us to that lived close to the jungle. There was also guacamole, black beans, jamaica tea, nopales (cactus) and chaya (tree spinach). It was superb, flavorful and nutritious.
Later, we traversed back across the lake and hiked more of the jungle at dusk attempting to chase after the sounds of the howling monkeys, trying to catch a glimpse of their size and for the sheer thrill of running off trail with nightfall impending.
We ended the night with sitting on the dock watching the last sliver of sun disappear and star gazing.
It was lively and exciting to explore this part of the Caribbean. Jorge's impressive depth of history and his knowledge of the wildlife made the tour feel substantial and valuable. The tour at times felt slightly unplanned, but the chaos, the improvised stops, not having a rigid schedule actually ended up adding more amusement and authenticity to our adventure.
By Zahra Ali