It’s eight in the morning and we’re standing on the side of the road in Playa del Carmen, waiting for a stranger in an unmarked van to come pick us up.
My friend Ashley had arranged this day’s Mexican caving excursion online, and we were given specific instructions for where to catch our ride — in this case, outside of a nondescript, boarded-up restaurant. It was a busy, but not too busy kind of street. It wasn’t the kind of street plenty of tourists would be seen getting into vehicles.
Not to freak you out in an “I’m about to get kidnapped” kind of way. You totally would have heard about that by now.
You see, in Playa del Carmen, cab drivers can be competitive and fierce. If we were seen getting into the back of a van with a cab driver around, there was a chance of an altercation. We had to get in the van unnoticed. Stealth was the name of the game this fine morning.
So, anyway. Our driver soon arrives, and after some initial pleasantries, we hop in the van and silently drive… somewhere.
The truth is, neither Ashley nor I know exactly where we’re going. We know that we’re going caving in the jungle, and we know we’re headed somewhere relatively off the grid in comparison to the caving adventures people usually go on while in the Riviera Maya. Besides that, we’re kept completely in the dark.
Caving pun more or less intended.
After about twenty minutes of smooth highway, our driver pulls over to a white gate on the side of the road. Another man opens the gate, lets us through, and a jeep pulls up.
Still not really knowing what’s going on, our driver motions for us to get out of the van and into the jeep, and then leaves, without much in the way of goodbye.
A new driver hops into the jeep, shoots us a smile, and introduces himself as Pako Loa. Pako is a local caving expert and will be our guide for the day. Not only has he been giving tours around the Playa del Carmen area for years, but he has also been exploring the caves of the Yucatan for decades.
We are in good company.
Pako turns the ignition, revs the engine, and the jeep begins to bounce along the very poorly maintained dusty backroad. We go very, very slowly. Luscious jungle springs up from both sides of the vehicle, the sun beats down on us from above, and Pako tells us this part of the jungle is prime jaguar and puma territory.
As we amble on, we chat and begin to learn more about each other. As we do, bugs jump and scurry around the vehicle — a grasshopper the size of a very large hand even jumps on the passenger’s side window at one point, keen on coming along for the ride.
After a bumpy 20 minutes, Pako pulls in front of a cute little bamboo-roofed hut. There’s tons of colorful caving equipment just outside, a couple of hammocks to lounge on, and informative caving maps for us to look at.
We put on our caving gear — bathing suits, shoes, and helmets — and then we’re off. Into the cave we go!
At the mouth, the cave is lush. The cave opening is a giant round hole in the ground, and beautiful grass and vines line the steps as we descend. As we do, Pako points out the remnants of ancient societies in the cave — their markings and offerings that have sat untouched for hundreds of years.
Pako tells us that our caving excursion will take us about two hours in total and that we’ll encounter different environments along the way. Expect giant open caverns and narrow passageways alike.
Still showered with some sunlight from above, we walk on dry land, but as we turn a corner and the light fades from view, we turn on our headlamps and wade through pure, shallow water.
The walls of the cave are pristine, untouched. Stalactites fall from the ceiling, and stalagmites reach up to greet them from below. We marvel at the sights, and upon learning that Ashley and I both went to school for sound, Pako decides to give us both a bit of an acoustics lesson.
With no other noise in the cave, Pako gently tings some stalagmites and stalactites with his fingernail (something you shouldn’t do yourself, by the way, as calcium deposits are susceptible to oil). The sound that emanates is unlike anything I’ve ever heard. It was like he was playing the organ in a giant cathedral — but in this case, the organ is calcium deposits and the cathedral is a giant prehistoric cave.
Impressed by the sounds, our conversation goes a little deeper. Pako tells us about how his spirituality has influenced and been defined by, his caving lifestyle.
He tells us of his Mixtec heritage, his connection to nature, and how beautiful multi-generational spirituality can be.
Then, he guides us to part of the cave with a wide-open space — an amphitheater if you will. Ashley and I sit on rocks, our feet in the cool, pristine water, while Pako makes his way to the other side of the cave.
Ashley and I turn off our headlamps, and then Pako does the same.
With absolute silence, absolute stillness, and absolute darkness, Pako starts to sing an ancient Mixtec prayer.
I close my eyes, but with the complete absence of light, it doesn’t matter.
I let the sound of Pako’s voice wash over me. I feel Ashley’s presence beside me. I feel small fish brush up against my legs in the cool water.
I’m underground, in pure darkness, listening to the beautiful sounds of an ancient Prayer.
I try to meditate, but I can’t help but feel fully present and aware. Pako’s voice floats around the room like a dream. A giant smile washes over my face.
Pako finishes singing, and, for a moment, we sit in silence — listening to nothing but the blood pumping through our bodies.
Then, he turns on his headlamp, and Ashley and I do the same.
Seeing Pako once again in the light, I don’t really know what to say. Even telling him that the experience was beautiful, as we do, feels understated. It’s sometimes hard to show appreciation when your heart is absolutely full.
We swim out of the room, stalactites hanging above, our toes touching nothing but water below. I soak of every moment of being in that pure water, in that unbridled darkness, in nature more pristine than I have ever seen in my life.
We make our way out of the cave and I see tour groups arriving on ATV’s. They’re laughing and having fun, and while I know it would have been great to share this experience with a group, this experience happened just the way it was supposed to. For us.
I left that cave with a heart full of gratitude, a deeper understanding of a culture, and more in tune with nature than I had been in a long time.
Cheers to Pako Loa.
*Cover photo courtesy of Pako Loa*