Sunday, May 22, 2011

In Stephens' Footsteps: "The well" at Xcooch

The ancient mound at Xcooch
As I wrote in my last post, in the Yucatán there are places where little has changed over the centuries, and there are lost cities still to be rediscovered. On my own quest of rediscovery, I’ve been following in the footsteps of well-known Yucatán explorers John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, real-life Indiana Joneses, who visited the region in 1841.

Stephens wrote that they had heard stories of  " ancient poso, or well, of mysterious and marvellous reputation, the fame of which was in everybody's mouth. This well was said to be a vast subterreneous structure, adorned with sculptured figures, an immense table of polished stone and a plaza with columns supporting a vaulted roof, and it was said to have a subterranean road, which led to the village of Maní, twenty-seven miles distant."

"Not a white man in the place had ever entered it, though several had looked in at the mouth, who said that the wind had taken away their breath, and they had not ventured to go in."

After exploring the ruins of Xcooch, Yucatán, accompanied by Mayan guides, the duo turned their attention to the nearby cenote, or “well.” I intermingle my own observations and comments from 2011 with Stephens’ narrative of the trip from his book, Incidents of Travel in Yucatán.

1841: “…we entered a thick grove, in which we dismounted and tied our horses. It was the finest grove we had seen in the country, and within it was a great circular cavity or opening in the earth, twenty or thirty feet deep, with trees and bushes growing out of the bottom and sides, and rising above the level of the plain.”

2011: A beautiful grove of trees still exists here. As Stephens and Catherwood had done 170 years earlier, we employed a local Mayan guide. Abel Gutierrez, from the nearby pueblo of Santa Elena, known as Nohcacab in Stephens' day, led us down a footpath from a nearby dirt road.

1841: “We descended to the bottom. At one corner was a rude natural opening in a great mass of limestone rock, low and narrow, through which rushed constantly a powerful current of wind, agitating the branches and leaves in the area without. This was the mouth of the well, and on our first attempting to enter it the rush of wind was so strong that it made us fall back gasping for breath, confirming the accounts we had heard in Nohcacab.”

“…It was one of the marvels told us of this place, that it was impossible to enter after twelve o’clock.”

2011: We sat down on boulders near the entrance and Abel began to tell us about the wind, which exhales like mildewed, gusty breath from the lungs of the earth. Abel says it is calm in the mornings, but strengthens throughout the day. My assumption is that the effects of convection, temperature and pressure differences and other natural phenomena create the powerful cool air current that blows out of the cave every afternoon and calms at night. Abel could only say that the cave system is huge and has never been fully explored, and no one is sure why air blows so strongly out of the earth in this spot.

Stephens commented that although it was past noon and the wind from the cave mouth blew fiercely, equipped with ropes and torches, they decided to descend into the "well."

1841: "The entrance was about three feet high and four or five wide. It was so low that we were obliged to crawl on our hands and feet, and descended at an angle of about fifteen degrees in a northerly direction. The wind, collecting in the recesses of the cave, rushed through this passage with such force that we could scarcely breathe."

"In the floor of the passage was a single track, worn two or three inches deep by the long-continued treading of feet, and the roof was incrusted with a coat [of soot] from the flaring torches."

2011: At this point I admit that due to the reputation of this cave system for being dangerous, and the fact that the opening was barred with a metal grating, we did not descend into the well. Stephens' narrative is lengthy, so in the interest of brevity I summarize sections from this point.

They descended steeply for a long distance, discovering caves branching in various directions and, instead of a "plaza" with man-made columns and a hand-polished table, they found an equally-fascinating natural formation.

1841: "It was a great vaulted chamber of stone, with a high roof supported by enormous stalactite pillars, which were what the Indians had called the columns, and though entirely different from what we had expected, the effect under the torchlight, and heightened by the wild figures of the Indians, was grand, and almost repaid us for all our trouble."

2011: From here, Stephens' narrative sounds like a descent into hell. They again climbed, again descended, squeezed through dark, tight passages, and lowered themselves through narrow, perpendicular holes, all the while panting and dripping sweat in the stale atmosphere and choking for breath on the smoke of their own torches.

1841: "We decended with some difficulty, and...came out upon a ledge of rock, which ran up on the right to a great height, while on the left was a deep, yawning chasm. A few rude logs were laid along the edge of this chasm, which with a pole for a railing, served as a  bridge, and with the torchlight thrown into the abyss below, made a wild crossing place."

A typical hand-made ladder of the type
probably used by Stephens and Catherwood
2011: As the descent continued they were forced to crawl on hands and knees. The heat grew "insufferable." Stephens realized that if any member of the party had become ill or faint, it would have been impossible for the others to carry him to the surface. They passed through more caverns and dropped down more perpendicular holes. At long last, they came to a rude ladder, which led to a deep basin of cool, black water...but there was a catch.

1841: “…the sight of it was more welcome to us than gold or rubies. We were dripping with sweat, black with smoke, and perishing with thirst. It lay before us in its stony basin, clear and inviting, but it was completely out of reach; the basin was so deep that we could not reach the water with our hands, and we had no vessel of any kind to dip it out with."

2011: Tortured by thirst, the team only managed to dip a few droplets, barely enough water to moisten their lips, by using some ancient pottery shards they found in the cave. They were forced to return arduously to the surface before finding a stagnant puddle of water, with which they quenched their thirst.

Stephens also found that the purported underground tunnel to Maní was blocked by a rockfall in the cave. Interestingly, if you go today to Maní and talk to locals there about their cenote, which is located in the center of that pueblo and has a similar history of being both an important source of water and of fascinating legends, you'll hear a similar story of lengthy underground passages. Yucatán contains the longest documented cave systems in the world. These particular legends of underground highways have yet to be thoroughly investigated.

Despite his disappointment in finding neither an underground "plaza" nor a 27-mile, "subterreaean road" to Maní, Stephens concluded:

1841: “As a mere cave, this was extraordinary; but as a well or watering-place for an ancient city, it was past belief, except for the proofs under our own eyes. Around it were the ruins of a city without any other visible means of supply, and...with the Indians it was a matter of traditonary knowledge."

"And a strong circumstance to induce the belief that it was once used by the inhabitants of a populous city, is the deep track worn in the rock. … It could only have been made by the constant and long-continued tread of thousands. It must have been made by the population of a city."

2011: Our guide Abel confirmed that indeed, according to the oral history of this place, the entire population of Xcooch once obtained all of its water supply, at least during the long dry season, from this deep cenote. I doubt I will ever attempt to explore this place as thoroughly as Stephens did, but I will continue to dream about the marvels deep in the well at Xcooch.


  1. What a great post, Marc. I love the juxtaposition of the original explorers' words with your own impressions. Very nice.

  2. Marc, I'm beginning to think that to have a fascinating life, all I'd have to do is follow you around. ;-) Your report of this cave system and the interposing of Stephens' descriptions is wonderful.

    There has to be another exposure - somewhere - for the wind to come pouring out as it does. Perhaps somewhere near a coastline, as the sea breeze would get stronger at mid-day on a very regular basis. Perhaps a cenote or cave or other opening near one of the beaches... or even dozens of cenotes simply closer to the coast. Tracking down things like that would be fascinating.

    I'm not fond of crawling through tight passages, but would love to explore cave passages where a person could walk upright. I wonder if this cave is connected to the cave complex discovered near (SE, I think) Merida with all the artifacts.

  3. Very nice. Had begun to despair of more on Xcooch.
    Yes, how far is this place from the coast? What explanations are given for the mysterious winds?


  4. Lynette: I am glad you like this format. It may take me a few weeks, but I have material for a couple more posts in the steps of Stephens and Catherwood, and ideas for maybe a dozen. Probably will take me a year or two to get to all of the places, but it's extremely interesting and I enjoy a kid more than anything, I wanted to be an explorer.

  5. Rusty: I am glad you are enjoying these posts. There will be more.

    I understand that the cave systems of Yucatán are extensive, in fact among the most extensive in the world. I am sure you are right, that the system at Xcooch has many outlets to the surface, some perhaps quite far-flung indeed. I suspect that it will take many many years, perhaps generations, for explorers to fully appreciate the extent of the cenotes and caves of the peninsula.

    I am not fond, either, of tight, underground spaces. However at times I am inspired to overcome my fear and attempt enter some of these places (with knowledgeable assistance, for sure).

  6. G.W.:
    I have not found any scientific explanations for the winds, but I suppose it has to do with multiple openings, temperature and air pressure differences, etc. It would be interesting to talk to people who know about these things. But who to ask?

    The spot is around 100 kilometers/ 60 miles from the coast. I doubt if it is directly connected to other cenotes close to the coast, but I suppose anything is possible

    I am sorry that you had to wait for this post. As often happens, life got in the way of blogging.

  7. Thank you Marc for stopping by my blog which led me to yours! This is great reading and it sounds like you enjoy much of things I do, when it comes to disappearing into the jungle for extended explorations. Have you been to Muna?

  8. William: Actually I have passed through Muna many times but haven't yet explored there. What have you found?

  9. This is fabulous.

    Stephens' book is nothing short of a head trip to read, and every time I read from it I find myself calling friends and family to read them passages because it never fails to blow me away. His treks through Central America were mind-boggling in their scope, their fearlessness, and often their sheer absurdity (I'll never forget the tears of laughter when I read him describe how he put on his very best military jacket to convince the leadership of Copan to sell him the ruins.)

    You do a great job of depicting just how intrepid he was with this post. Please continue writing wonderful posts like these!

  10. Kinbote: Yes, Stephens was one of a type that hardly exists anymore. Just thinking about visiting all of the places he did wipes me out, and I'd have the advantages of highways, good water and food, modern medications and decent places to sleep. He did it all by horse, foot, and often hacking though the jungle and drinking bad water. An amazing feat.

    I just obtained a copy of his book on explorations of Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán, written before Incidents of Travel in Yucatán, which I've never completely read. More to come.

    I think you're the first commenter who has actually read Stephens. Thanks for the comment.

  11. "Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan" is fantastic. I don't know why more people haven't read his books, or why Stephens seems to be less famous than Catherwood these days. Every single page of that book is full of fascinating historical tidbits and first-hand accounts of things usually only found in history books.

    His brief sections about escaped American slaves who fled to Belize and about the shrill politics of the Guatemalan state, which was governed by a bunch of thirty-year-olds in those days, have sent me on treasure hunts through history to find more stories.

    I talk to people who live here who haven't the slightest interest in the history of this place and I think it's just criminal, especially when there are books like Incidents of Travel floating around.

  12. I think that Catherwood is better known because his art is easily accessible to those who might not have the time or inclination to delve into Stephens. You can have a Catherwood print on the wall and appreciate it even if you have no interest in the history. Catherwood prints still are sold and make money. I doubt the books are very lucrative these days.

    It is too bad more locals haven't read Stephens. The truth is I haven't seen a lot of copies his works in Spanish, although surely they exist. Too bad. I think his writing, although done so long ago, is still the most interesting guidebook to some of these areas.

  13. I think I have a copy of "Incidents of Travel in Yucatan" in Spanish floating around here somewhere. If I remember correctly, I found it at Dante, but Spanish-language copies are few and far between. Local Mexicans don't read Stephens much in the same way that Americans don't read "The Journals of Lewis and Clark," and that is even written in English!

    This discussion has inspired me to pick up my copy of "Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan," and this morning I stumbled upon this lovely section from his visit to Guatemala:

    "Since Carrera's entry, he had placed sentinels to preserve the peace of the city, which was very quiet before he came, and his peace-officers kept it in a constant state of alarm. These sentinels were Indians, ignorant, undisciplined, and insolent, and were fond of firing their muskets. They were ordered to challenge "Quien Vive?" "Who goes?" "Que Gente?" "What People?" "Quel Regimento?" "What regiment?" and then fire. One fellow had already obeyed his orders literally, and, hurrying through the three questions, without waiting for answers, fired, and shot a woman. The answers were, "Patria Libra," "Country Free;" "Paisano," "Countryman;" and "Paz," "Peace..."

    "My house was so near the plaza that I could hear the sentinels' challenge, and from time to time the report of a musket. These reports, in the stillness of the night, were always startling. For some time I did not know the cause, but at great length learned that cows and mules straggled about the city, which, heard moving at a distance and not answering the challenge, were fired upon without ceremony."

  14. What a great anecdote, and made all the funnier by the fact that Stephens does not offer his own comment or opinion on the matter.

    I wonder if Stephens' dry delivery of accounts such as this was due to the fact that he didn't find the incidents all that remarkable, or whether he preferred to simply report and let the reader draw his own conclusion.

    I would love to buy copies of Stephens in Spanish to share with Yucatecan friends. If you ever see any for sale, I'd love to know where.

  15. I think he had a very sophisticated sense of humor and a true appreciation of irony. He often sneaks his opinion in with phrases like "his peace-officers kept it in a constant state of alarm."

    I'll keep an eye out for translated copies.


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