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I saw a picture in the hostel, under 'Things to see around Merida', of an underground lake that you could swim in, so, naturally, we went there. The leaflet in the hostel said to walk 13 blocks to the vans, take the van to the bikes, the bikes to the horses and the horses to the pools, which I thought was a mis-translated overstatement... it wasn't although we missed out the bike-taxis by getting the driver to take us an extra couple of kilometres down the road. We didn't have a clue what to expect or how to get there, so we bravely set off along the road hoping that a signpost would point us in the right direction. All the way along the road was a tiny train track, overgrown and rickety, so we followed it, ignoring the offers of 'tourist rides' from the locals at the side of the road. And then one of them overtook us and explained that it was a long way to walk and that the only real means of getting there was on a truck pulled by a horse. The cart ran on the tiny railway, and the horse, thin and grumpy-looking, was obviously familiar with the procedure, as cart was dragged onto the rails and he was hitched to the front of it. And we were off! It turned out to be about a 10km round trip, so it was just as well that we'd taken the ride. The cart had metal wheels, on unforgiving metal tracks, so it was pretty jarring in the sort of way that makes your teeth rattle in their sockets, but we had a canopy over us and we were going through overgrown countryside, so it was rather nice really.
Everytime another cart came towards us on the single track we got off, the driver let go of the horse (who rushed over to the grass and started eating frantically, as if unsure when its next meal might present itself) and hoisted the cart off the rails. Then it was all back on again, trundling and bumping through the palm trees, until we finally stopped. 'Down there,' said the driver and pointed to a metal handrail poking up through the long grass on the left hand side of the track. We tried to pay him, but he told us he would wait and take us onto the next one. There were three in all.
A flight of very steep, slippery concrete stairs led down into a cave and, sure enough at the bottom of the stairs was a pool of crystal clear water with large black goldfish swimming around. It didn't smell dirty or unpleasant in anyway, which was something I was worried about after Agua Azul, and because the water was so clear you could see all the way down to the rocky bottom, about 15 feet deep. So I jumped in and it was clean and fresh and not too cold, and after a bit of persuasion I got Mikey into the water too.
When we'd had enough we emerged back into the daylight and found our driver waiting for us. He hitched the horse back on and we trotted on to the next cave. This one the driver actally had to take us to on foot, hidden as it was by rocks and trees. I really thought he was joking when he pointed to the top of a ladder pointing out of a small hole in the ground, no more than two and a half feet in diameter. It was held to a nearby tree with wire, and I could only see three rungs before it disappeared into nothingness.
Despite what I told Andy (only because I got the feeling that Andy likes them less than me) I don't like ladders, and ladders that disappear into nothingness are simply wrong. Mikey bravely went first, with little more than a second's hesitation, but I tried three steps and then gave up. I took off my backpack and after I'd stopped shaking I decided that I couldn't be such a wimp and that if I could climb across the Priory gable or the Mansion roof at school on my own then this little dark ladder would be no problem. Besides, what would I write here?
It wasn't too bad, and I made myself ignore how rusty and vertical the ladder was, and I tried not to see the bits where the rungs were mended with wire (and, further down, replaced with sticks). It was quite spectacular from the bottom though, with another completely clear, slightly blue pool, lit from above through a small hole in the cave roof. A couple of tree roots had grown through the ground and into the cavern and were dangling, and there were a few stalagtites too.
We swam out into the spotlit middle, Mikey once again mindful of the big black fish, and after a while we made the perrilous ascent out of the underworld and back to daylight. Mikey joked that at the third hole we'd have to abseil in - fortunately he was only half right!
On the way to the third hole the horse decided to break into a brief canter: fun for me, but by the way Mikey's grip tightened on the edge of the cart I'm not sure he shared my view! This cave was further off the track and burried deeper in rocks and undergrowth. And then there was a crack in the ground with a rope going in... The rope was just to help traverse the opening and reach the ladder, steeper than the first one and leaning to the left, but much shorter. Another precarious climb, a quick swim and we spent a few minutes watching some Mexican boys trying to impress their girlfriends by clambering up the cave walls and jumping in. Needing to go one better, one of the boys ran up the ladder and jumped from the mouth of the cave, a distance that looked to be about 25-30 feet. I didn't do that.
When we had emerged again, and we were walking back to the truck, we met an American/Australian family. The oldest boy, who looked to be about 10, said that he'd be crazy to go down the ladder, so I told him that some of the other boys had jumped in instead. He backed away from me, sensibly, and went to play with his little brother, keeping clear of the cave. Their mother was interested though, and asked how far down and how deep the water was. I made something up, and we headed back to our driver when I heard the boy shout, 'Mum? Are you still alive?!' Then we paused for a few seconds with that sinking feeling I get when I've lied to a stranger and they believed me... 'She's alive!' he called, and I felt a strange sense of relief. It's hardly my fault if people want to trust me!
After the driver had dropped us off at the beginning of the train track we began walking into the town hoping that we'd find a taxi back to Merida. Every house along the way was painted with the logo or slogan of one of the local political parties, which seemed to be a slightly more extreme (and permanent) means of displaying your political leanings than, say, a poster in your window... And I thought I saw a dead armadillo at the side of the road but it could have been a tyre or a more likely type of roadkill.
As is often the case, we were (Mikey was) getting a bit worried about how to get back, when a large taxi van pulled up and offered us a lift. An hour later we were back in Merida, and an hour after that we were having supper in a little Cuban cafe that we'd had lunch in yesterday. Then back to the hostel and bed.
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