“SO THAT’S WHAT A SONATA LOOKS LIKE,” SUE ELLEN SAID. we were standing at the edge of a shimmery chasm in the floor of the Mexican jungle. Shaped like a teardrop, the chasm measured perhaps three hundred feet from one end to the other, and it was filled to its limestone rim with the water of an underground river. The Spanish word for such a sinkhole is “cenote,” not “sonata,” but I kept myself from correcting Sue Ellen, remembering that in twenty years of marriage she had never been grateful for this particular service. And as malapropisms go, it was inspired. The water in the cenote seemed as pure as music.
We stood there listening for a moment more, Sue Ellen, our three girls, and I, and then we dug our masks and fins out of the gear bag and leapt in. The water, even with the tropical sun to warm it, carried a charge, and the kids surfaced from that first plunge yelling with mock distress that they were freezing to death. I swam down to the center of the pool and looked upward, through twelve feet of water transparent almost beyond comprehension. It gave me a peculiar feeling of satisfaction to see my family snorkeling above me in a V formation, as if they were not in the water at all but sharing the sky with the birds that soared and swooped above them.
This had been my idea: a family snorkeling vacation in Yucatán, the five of us traveling light with our trusty masks and fins, roving from one supernal body of water to the next. It was a backwater tour that I had in mind: no cattle-boat diving on Cozumel, where the Mexican government had just given the go-ahead to dynamite a section of the island’s exquisite reefs to accommodate more cruise ships; no parasailing or jet-skiing or rides on giant inflatable bananas pulled by speedboats off the beaches of Cancún. Instead, we would follow the one highway leading out of that unholy resort city, pulling over at some sagging jacal with a hand-lettered cardboard sign out front that read “ Visite el cenote” or veering onto an unmarked dirt track in the hope that it would lead us to the edge of a sparkling lagoon.
Now on this bright spring morning in 1995 we stood at the banks of Car Wash, which was the prosaic gringo name that had been bestowed upon the teardrop-shaped cenote. No doubt it bore an ancient Mayan name as well, because in this part of the country, which is without surface streams or rivers, cenotes have always been vital features of the landscape. For the ancient Maya, they were the only access to fresh water, but they served as spiritual portals too, leading from the Middleworld of surface life to the highly complex Otherworld, an unseen realm of dark waters and shifting heavens.
We spent several hours exploring the cenote, basking on the sunny surface or diving to the bottom, which was not a bottom at all but a broad pinnacle, the summit of all that rock that had long ago collapsed into a hollow cavern beneath the earth. The sinkhole sloped downward on all sides from this cone of fallen limestone, leading into dark underwater rooms that extended into the vast porous tableland of the Yucatán Peninsula. When I took a deep breath and swam cautiously to the brink of one of these caverns, I encountered a sign, ghostly white against the blackness, that warned “Stop—Go No Further—Prevent Your Death.” Not far beyond this sign, I had been told, was some sort of ancient temple or fire pit, a reminder of the time when a lower water table had made this a system of dry caves. And 3,500 feet upstream from this altar was a large submerged cavern called the Room of Tears, so named because one of the divers who had found it supposedly wept at its beauty.
That afternoon, standing on the summit of Nohoch Mul, the towering pyramid at Cobá, I could not get that watery Otherworld out of my mind. Cobá, an extensive Mayan ruin a few miles up the road from Car Wash, had once been an imperial rival to the great city of Chichén Itzá. But Chichén Itzá conquered Cobá and its allied cities in the Puuc hills and endures to this day as one of the most visited Mayan sites. Cobá, not nearly so well known, is still mostly hidden—seventy square miles of shattered, jungle-covered temples, with two mighty pyramids rearing up out of the canopy.
All five of us had started up the broken stairway of Nohoch Mul, but Sue Ellen and the two older girls—eighteen-year-old Marjorie and thirteen-year-old Dorothy—decided to turn around midway up the pyramid, when the climb began to grow frighteningly steep and precarious. Only Charlotte, our surefooted eleven-year-old, made it to the summit with me. We sat up there on a terrace in front of a temple decorated with friezes of the Diving God and looked out over an endless ragged forest punctuated by several shallow lakes. (In Maya the word “Cobá” means “Water Stirred By Wind.”) The only other thing that broke the flat sweep of the forest was the pyramid known as La Iglesia, which emerged from the canopy a mile away, a pile of rubble half-sheathed in vegetation. An iguana sunned itself on the stones below us. It had molted away the scabrous skin of its tail, which now looked as tender as the shoot of a plant. A constant chatter rose up from the dense forest beneath us, made up of who knows what—jays, tanagers, toucans, motmots, spider monkeys.
The world we saw from the top of this pyramid was a nearly seamless forest stretching out to touch the horizon in all directions, a landscape that appeared as timeless and unconquerable as the open ocean. But buried beneath these trees, I had read, were some five thousand unexcavated structures and an extensive network of roads