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A Glimpse of the Jungle
I walked quickly, my sandals slapping against the pavement. It was still early morning, but the bright tropical sun already made the air feel hot and sticky. The final remnants of last night's rain glimmered in the light. The feathery tips of palm trees brushed the bright azure sky. I smiled. Another morning in paradise.
It was July 4th, 2010, and I was standing outside the lobby of the Gran Bahia Principe Coba resort, a two-hour bus ride south of Cancun, Mexico. It was the first time I had ever been out of the country. Technically this trip was for my parent's 20th wedding anniversary, but they had been nice enough to bring my younger brother Alec and me along. The vacation had been better than I ever could have pictured it. At the moment, however, we were late.
My parents blamed Alec and me, but it wasn’t our fault that a frog appeared in the lobby just as we were about to leave. We had to rescue it! The frog had been returned to an ornamental shrub, and we were now rushing to catch the bus. We were supposed to be going out to the jungle on an excursion today. It had sounded fun, but I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect.
Luckily, the bus had only just arrived. We were in a group of twelve, so they had sent a van with the company name “Alltournative” on it instead of a bus. We met our guide Alejandro and were on our way.
The first half hour was uneventful. We picked guests up from other hotels and set off down the highway. The scenery got more interesting as we turned off the highway and on to progressively narrower and bumpier roads. We got a chance to talk to Alejandro, too. He had grown up in a large city in northern Mexico, but his passion was the outdoors. He’d lived in the jungle with the descendants of the Mayans for three months before starting to work as a tour guide. He was also a photographer, and it was his ambition to take a picture of a wild jaguar someday. Apparently, jaguars lived in the area we would be hiking in. It was both exciting and unnerving.
Finally, the paved road ended. But instead of parking, Alejandro hopped out of the van, opened a gate, and drove onto a dirt road. It was the bumpiest and narrowest road I had ever been on. I have no idea what we would have done if another car had come from the opposite direction. Beyond the field we were driving through, I could see the jungle. It was dark, twisting, beautiful.
The van stopped briefly, and a Mayan photographer joined us. I had assumed, like most people, that all the Mayans had disappeared when the Mayan Empire collapsed over a thousand years ago. But for those thousand years, small villages of Mayans have still survived deep in the jungles of Central America. Their culture has persevered for so long, but now many villages are fading away as young adults leave them to look for jobs in cities. Ecotourism is basically the only source of income for the villages in the area we were in, and this economic activity was the only thing stopping their youth from leaving the villages.
The first place we went was an incredible dried-up cenote. A cenote is a limestone cave where the roof has collapsed, leaving it open to the air. As sea levels shifted over the years, some of them, like this one, had dried out and were now a part of the jungle.
My enthusiasm dampened when I saw what our first activity was: rappelling. In the brochure, rappelling had looked like a lot of fun. I had been excited about it. However, when actually presented with a rope and a rather large cliff, I was scared. But my younger brother had done it without hesitation, and I refused to show I was afraid to do something that he wasn’t, so I put on the old, worn gloves and a fluorescent orange helmet and swung over the edge.
The initial sensation of falling was terrifying. I clutched the rope as tightly as I could and stopped completely. I eased my grip slightly, and dropped a few more feet. Now that I felt like I had some control over my movement, I looked around. The side of the cenote was made of rough rock, stained grey from the rain last night. Dark green vines dangled next to the rappelling ropes. Behind me, trees stretched from the base of the cenote up towards the sky. A dark colored bird with a brilliant blue tail was sitting on one of the trees closest to me. I learned later that day that it was called a Motmot bird. It nested near the mouths of caves, so people in the jungle would follow them to find water.
Now that I was confident that I wasn’t going to fall, I enjoyed the exhilaration of rappelling. I was disappointed when my sandals hit the ground and I unclipped my harness. I walked off to look around as I waited for the rest of the group to finish rappelling.
I could have spent hours exploring. Water dripped down the stone cliffs into tiny pools filled with turtles. The area was thick with lush green foliage. Too soon, it was time to head back to the top of the cenote for zip lining. I assumed that we would be following the trail back to the top. Instead, Alejandro said that he liked to find a different route back to the top of the cenote every time. We ended up climbing through a sharply tilted cave shaft. Water from last night’s storm gleamed on the rock in the rays of sunlight filtering down. That was the first lesson I learned that day: sometimes it’s good to leave the beaten path. If we’d stayed on the trail, we never would have seen the hidden beauty of the path we’d taken.
Zip lining was wonderful, but fast. We leapt from the platform and flew back across the cenote. The only worrying part was that there was just a tiny dirt strip to land on. We were given a curved stick and told to press it down against the wire as soon as we reached a certain tree halfway across the cenote. If you slowed down too late, had too much speed, and overshot the tiny landing strip, you would crash into the cliff that the zip line was anchored to. If you slowed down too early, you wouldn’t have enough momentum to make it to the end of the zip line and end up dangling over the cenote.
I made sure to slow down exactly at the tree.
Fortunately, the whole group managed to make it across the surprisingly dangerous zip line unscathed. We got back into the van and drove for another ten minutes before stopping in a clearing next to a lake. Apparently, we would be taking kayaks to our next destination. I was thrilled to hear that because I love kayaking. What could possibly go wrong?
Many things could go wrong, in fact. First, it was noon by that point, and the temperature was approaching one hundred degrees. We would be swimming in an ecologically-sensitive area later, so sunscreen was strictly forbidden. There was no shade from the tropical sun over the water.
It didn’t help matters that a majority of our group had never been in a kayak before. The lake soon narrowed to the point where the entire channel could be blocked off by a madly spinning, two-person kayak. I’m not sure if I could have copied some of the careening, spinning movements if I’d tried.
It was a relief when we left the blazing heat of the lake behind us and entered the shade of the jungle. We followed a steep, rocky, dirt path deeper and deeper into the trees. Alejandro pointed out which plants were poisonous, which ones could be used to make medicine, and which palm trees had fronds that could be used to make roofs. The jungle had a beautiful sense of serenity to it. It hadn’t changed in thousands of years. I couldn’t believe I was there. For years, I had looked longingly at pictures of the rainforest in books or magazines. Now I was seeing it for real instead of through the lens of someone else’s camera. The chance of encountering wildlife added adventure to the experience. As dangerous as it would have been, I would have loved to see a wild jaguar in its natural habitat.
The trail came to an end in a clearing next to the mouth of a cave. A Mayan priest was waiting for us there to perform the traditional blessing ceremony. In ancient times, the caves were believed to be the homes of the Mayan gods, so people had to be blessed by a priest before entering them. The caves and cenotes are still the only source of fresh water in the area, so today the blessing is done as permission from the Mayans to enter the cave and swim in the water system that provides their drinking water. The priest spoke in Mayan while burning incense over a wooden alter.
To get into the cave, we had to climb backwards through a two-foot high opening. Once in the cave, we descended a slippery wooden staircase in the dark. The climb to the cave floor was seemingly endless. It wasn’t until we were all standing on the rocky cave floor that Alejandro revealed that the cave had electric lighting. He said that he had wanted us to get the full experience of entering a cave. As it turned out, cave photography was another one of Alejandro’s hobbies.
Most of the cave floor was underwater. We got a chance to swim, and the icy water felt wonderful after the sweltering heat of the the jungle. The rough cave walls were made of a beautiful pale orange stone. It was with regret that we finally left the cave to hike back to the van.
We had been hiking back along the trail for several minutes when we saw movement in the trees. Everyone in the group looked up to find two spider monkeys staring at us. Alejandro imitated a spider monkey call perfectly, and they approached us. Alejandro, apparently, was capable of doing anything.
The spider monkeys put on a show, scampering about in the trees and staring at us. After a few minutes, most of the group was ready to move on. “I know they’re cute, but come on!” Alejandro called back to the remaining people watching the monkeys.
We finished the walk and returned to the van, and then drove back down the twisting, bumpy dirt path. My feelings that the road was too bumpy were confirmed when the van’s radio antenna went flying off, prompting a search by the side of the road.
We ate lunch in a tiny pavilion near the site where we had rappelled earlier that morning. Lunch had been prepared by the local Mayan women. It was delicious, featuring chicken grilled over a charcoal pit, hibiscus tea (which tastes surprisingly similar to cranberry juice), rice, and homemade tortillas wrapped around potato and cheese.
After lunch, we piled back into the van to travel to our final destination of the day-- the Mayan ruins at Coba. A thousand years ago, Coba had been a major city, complete with roads, guard stations, ball courts, temples, and a huge pyramid. The buildings were set back in the jungle, the white limestone shining from amidst the trees and vines. It was amazing to glimpse window into an ancient civilization. There were the ball courts, where two teams of two would compete, and the winning team would be sacrificed to the Mayan gods. The goal of the game was to use your knee, hip, or elbow to hit a ten-pound stone ball up a steep slope and through a stone hoop. Some men would train for their entire lives to compete in it, and to them, it was a great honor to win and be sacrificed. White limestone roads ran through the entire ruins. Since there was no electric lighting, roads were built using the bright white stone because it would reflect moonlight, allowing visibility at night.
After a brief tour, we were given an hour of free time to explore. My family rented bicycles to ride on the mile-long dirt path to see the main attraction of the ruins, the Nohoch Mul pyramid. It is the second highest Mayan pyramid in Central America, and the largest one that people are allowed to climb.
It was a wonderful feeling to fly through the jungle on our bicycles. The old bikes were lacking some common features such as paint and brakes, but that didn’t detract from the experience. In no time at all, we were at the pyramid.
The pyramid was made up of layers and layers of tiny steps. The front face was exposed, but the other three sides were covered in a tangle of trees and vines. The temperature was burning, between the humidity, the hundred degree heat, and the sun reflecting off the stones.
It was all worth it, though, for the views from atop the pyramid. As far as the eye could see was deep green jungle. The tops of a few limestone ruins peered up over the trees. Off in the distance was a blue-green lake overrun by alligators.
I have always loved nature, but that was the day that I truly saw the wild beauty of the tropical forests. I realized that I wanted to go back there. I wanted to be someone like Alejandro, who knew everything about the jungle. I wanted more time to explore and discover hidden beauty of the tropical forests. Already, I’m looking into programs for college students where you can spend two weeks as a research assistant in the jungles of Mexico, Costa Rica, or the Amazon. I’m eager to study environmental science or conservation biology in college. I feel that the day in the jungle opened my eyes to how truly incredible nature can be, and why it is so important to try to preserve our wild, untouched places.