Last Updated on January 31, 2024
“I am an experience maker,” tour guide Uri Gabriel Aguilar Sanchez said with conviction.
I had one day to “see Mexico” and it appeared as if I was off to a good start.
When booking plane tickets to Cancún for a weekend destination wedding, my friend and I wondered if it was worth traveling across the country for such a short stay. At the time, I didn’t know this holiday would shift me into a deeper, more authentic way of living my everyday life. I only knew I wanted to be at this special celebration.
We began packing our bags and strategizing how to make the most of our trip, eventually settling on a private tour with Kay Tours to maximize our limited time.
Jetlagged and bleary-eyed, but excited, we met Sanchez at 6 AM to beat the crowds and heat at Chichén Itzá, our first stop. Our itinerary also included a cenote and the colorful city of Valladolid.
On the two-and-half hour drive across the Yucatán Peninsula, we got to know our guide better. In addition to being an ‘experience maker,’ he is an avid free diver, a single dad of two, and an entrepreneur. Listening to his plans of launching his own touring company was compelling.
When we got to Chichén Itzá, we couldn’t help ourselves. We immediately started taking pictures right out of the car. The UNESCO World Heritage site holds the title as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
Founded by the Itzá in the 5th century, the revered city became a center for Maya pilgrimage.
Walking into the site, El Castillo, also known as the Temple of Kukulcán, stood before us, imposing, glorious. El Castillo would have to wait as Sanchez saved the giant Mesoamerican step-pyramid for later.
First, we headed to the Great Ball Court.
Great Ball Court
Entering the Great Ball Court, we were dwarfed by 27-foot walls flanking the field on either side. The ball court of Chichén Itzá, which is about the size of an American football field, is the largest in Mesoamerica. Because of its size, historians believe this court was used more for ritual than for sport.
Regardless, the phenomenal acoustics of the space allowed a player at one side of the field to hear another whisper 150-feet away. Amazing, even more so after we tested it out ourselves.
The ancient game of Pok-a-Tok consisted of two teams attempting to hit a 12-pound hard-rubber ball with their hips, thighs or upper arms into the end zones to score points. Sometimes, the game served as a gladiator-like contest for prisoners of war. Other times, the event was a religious-ritual competition, where upon completion, competitors were beheaded as a sacrifice to the gods.
El Castillo / Temple of Kukulcán
El Castillo is a magnificent example of the Maya mastery of astronomy and architecture. The temple sits atop a massive flat-topped pyramid, an engineering marvel that’s a giant calendar and sundial all in one.
Sanchez pointed out that the structure is completely symmetrical, even from above. Every step of the building represents a day of the year, with 91 steps on each of its four sides plus one step on top for a total of 365. I was awestruck by the precision and ingenuity.
To this day, the structure accurately marks the spring and autumn equinoxes. On these occasions, where day and night are of equal length, the shadow of the Maya serpent god Kukulcán ‘slithers’ down to touch the earth providing blessings for a bountiful harvest and good health.
Heading to our next destination, I noticed I hadn’t seen any rivers, which seemed strange since we were so close to the sea. It turns out that the Yucatán has no natural above-ground surface water. Instead, it has a secret: an incredible network of underground streams, rivers and cavernous sinkholes called cenotes.
Since the majority of the peninsula is limestone, which water easily erodes, thousands of these wonders sculpted by nature can be found throughout the Yucatán.
Cenotes have been a source of fresh water for centuries and were often considered sacred by the Maya. After all the videos I’d seen of people in lush green landscapes leaping into glorious lakes, I couldn’t wait to see what this one would be like.
From the giant hole in the ground, I got my first peek at Cenote Saamal. My insides bounced like a little kid. The caved-in roof exposed a hidden world of wonder– a sliver of the blue-green paradise below. The sound of cascading water lay the soundtrack as we made our way to the entrance stairs.
At first, the massive rocks shielded the view, but as we proceeded down, a little window grew into a passageway, and Cenote Saamal opened its welcoming arms. I felt embraced by the magic, tenderness, and beauty of Mother Earth.
I could see why the ancient Maya considered cenotes to be a mystical realm between our world and the underworld. The scenery alone inspired a hushed awe.
“Take your time, it’s all yours,” Sanchez said.
I couldn’t believe my ears.
It had been a long time since I’d been able to “take my time.” For what has seemed like a century, my life has felt like a race against the clock with a nagging alarm about to go off any second.
So, I did it.
I took my time.
I took one deep breath after another, wanting to inhale the beauty, to capture it all and keep it with me forever and accepted the enticing invitation to jump off the landing into the sparkling, peacock blue pool below – a perfect height for fun and exhilaration.
I swam over to the waterfall to be baptized by the droplets raining from above. Dragonflies were my welcoming hosts as I circled the cenote, admiring its many splendors. I felt like the guest of honor in a fairyland where nymphs frolic.
Nature’s beauty permeated my skin and sank into my soul. At some point, I did get cold, so I sat on the stairs by the edge melting with the profoundly spiritual moment.
The sun’s rays danced on the rock wall which was covered in luxurious vegetation. I synced with the falling water colliding with the surface – absolute magic.
Just as we reached our saturation point, a busload of people arrived. Their exuberant chatter, laughing and diving changed the atmosphere. All good, just different. We tuned into their pleasure as we walked up the stairs and said goodbye to a local lizard who came to bid us adios.
Lunch at the cenote was a huge buffet of local cuisine. Sanchez suggested several different dishes, one of which was the Lima soup, my favorite. While we were eating, Sanchez began to hum. He was enjoying his meal so much that he couldn’t help, but vocalize his delight.
“Elena, you must try this! It is soooo sweet,” he said.
Then, he put a piece of cantaloupe on my plate. I tasted it with high expectations, but to my surprise, I found it to be quite ordinary. And, yet, here was our guide singing with pleasure and possessing the rare ability to relish each moment and the generosity to share his zest for life with us.
Our last stop on the adventure was the town of Valladolid. It was great to finally be in an authentic, true-blue Mexican town as the all-inclusive resort we were staying at for the wedding could have been anywhere in the world.
Valladolid certainly had its share of tourist shops and foreigners, but it was also filled with local color. We got a taste of it when my friend said she wanted to buy some Mexican leather sandals. She specifically wanted Huarache, a type of shoe that dates back hundreds of years and was once made from raw agave plant fiber. Sanchez, of course, knew exactly where to go. But the hourglass of time was beginning to run low.
Our leisurely stay at the cenote meant we now needed to hustle. We trotted down the street and up some stairs to a shop filled with leather shoes. Shoes lined the walls of the store from ceiling to floor. The smell of leather hung in the air, evoking artisanal authenticity and history.
We quickly accomplished our mission.
Purchases in hand, we jogged across Parque Principal Francisco Cantón Rosado, the main town square. We flew into the Church of San Servacio, also known as the Cathedral of San Gervasio, for a quick look around before heading back.
Months later, my day on the Yucatán Peninsula still sings to me. Taking my time and absorbing the moment at the cenote gave me a deep wellspring of peace I come back to.
When I’m feeling out of sorts, I imagine myself with my feet in the cool iridescent water enveloped in the dancing fairy light. This way, I travel to the place in my being linked to Saamal’s mystical soulfulness.
I channel Uri’s enthusiasm and energy into daily tasks, and I remind myself that I, too, have the capacity to be my own “experience maker” each and every day.