Here and There in Yucatan/Remarkable Wells and Caverns
Yucatan is one of the most interesting States of Mexico, owing to the splendid ancient palaces and temples of once grand cities, now hidden in the forests. That country also presents great attractions for geologists and botanists, as well as naturalists, who there find rare and beautiful birds, insects, and reptiles.
There are no rivers on the surface of the land, but in many parts it is entirely undermined by extensive caverns in which there are basins of water fed by subterranean currents. The caverns are delightfully cool even at midday; the fantastic forms of some of the stalactites and stalagmites, a never-ending source of interest. There are long winding passages and roomy chambers following one after another for great distances. Here and there, through some chink in the stony vault above, a sunbeam penetrates, enabling us to see, to the right and left, openings leading to untrodden places in the bowels of the earth.
As few of these caves have been explored, the wildest accounts are given by the natives concerning the dark recesses where only wild beasts seek shelter. Before venturing far in, it is advisable to secure one end of a ball of twine at the entrance, keeping the ball in hand; nor is it safe to go without lanterns or torches, lest we step into some yawning chasm or deep water. The leader of one exploring party suddenly saw a very dark spot just before him; he jumped over, instead of stepping on it, and told the others to halt. Examination proved the dark patch to be a pit that seemed bottomless.
Awe-inspiring as are the interiors of some of these caves, they are frequently most beautiful. The natural pillars are often grand in dimensions and sparkling with various hues, while stalactites and stalagmites sometimes resemble familiar objects with astonishing perfection. It is, however, not advisable to place implicit confidence in accounts of the natives; for the reality, no matter how beautiful, can hardly be equal to what the vivid imagination of the Indian has pictured. Anything bearing the least resemblance to a woman is called "a most beautiful Virgin Mary." Fantastic flutings become an "organ;" a level rock "an altar." Only once we were not disappointed, when, having been told to look for a pulpit, we found one that appeared as if man must have fashioned it; supported on a slender pyramidal base, the upper part very symmetrical, and ornamented with a perfect imitation of bunches of grapes and other fruit.
As already said, in these caves there are sheets of water, some very large, others only a few feet in circumference, fed by subterranean currents. When the water is clear and sweet, it is peopled by a kind of bagre, called by the natives tzau, also a blind fish of the silurus species. There are likewise medicinal and thermal waters, by bathing in which many people claim to have been cured of most painful and obstinate diseases.
Strange stories are told of some of these waters. Of one it is said that those who approach it, without holding their breath, fall dead. People who live near the place swear it is so, and say the water appears to boil on such occasions. From the thermal waters, in some cases 100 feet below the soil, and not to be reached except by buckets let down through an opening in the rock, warm vapors issue at early morn; but when the sun is high the water is cool and pleasant to drink.
The name senote, from the Maya word ɔonot, is given to all these deposits of water, also to some immense natural circular wells from 50 to 300 feet in diameter. The walls are more or less perpendicular, generally covered with tropical vegetation. In some there is a swift current, but no inlets or outlets are visible. The water is deliciously pure and sweet, much better than that of wells opened by man in the same country. These enormous deposits generally have a rugged path, sometimes very steep, leading to the water's edge. Daring natives throw themselves from the brink; afterward ascending by stout roots that hang like ropes down the sides; the trees above sucking through these roots the life-sustaining fluid more than a hundred feet below.
In the west part of Yucatan there is a village called Bolonchen (nine wells), because in the public square there are nine circular openings cut through a stratum of rock. They are mouths of one immense cistern, whether natural or made by hand the natives do not know; in times of drought it is empty; which shows that it is not supplied by any subterranean spring. The inhabitants then depend entirely on water found in a cave a mile and a half from the village. It is perhaps the most remarkable cavern in the whole country.
The entrance is magnificently wild and picturesque. It is necessary to carry torches, for the way is dark and dangerous. After advancing sixty or seventy feet we descend a strong, rough ladder twenty feet long, placed against a very precipitous rock. Not the faintest glimmer of daylight reaches that spot. After a while we stand on the brink of a perpendicular precipice, the bottom of which is strongly illuminated through a hole in the surface rock more than 200 feet above. Standing on the verge of this awful pit in the dim light, the rocks and crags seem to take on most grotesque shapes. We go down into the great hole by a ladder eighty feet high, twelve wide; and, reaching the bottom, are as yet but at the mouth of the cave, which, by the bye, is called Xtacunbil Xunan (the hidden lady); because, say the Indians, a lady was stolen from her mother and hidden there by her lover. Now, to our right, we find a narrow passage, and soon another ladder; the darkness is intense; the descent continuous, though irregular, like a series of hills and dales; ladders being placed against the steepest places.
After an exhausting journey we reach a vast chamber, from which crooked passages lead in various directions to wells, seven in all, each named according to its peculiar kind of water. One, always warm, is called chocohá (hot water); another, Oɔelhá (milky water); and Akabhá (dark water). About 400 paces away from the chamber, passing through a very low narrow passage, there is a basin of (red Water) chachá, that ebbs and flows like the sea; receding with the south wind, increasing with the northwest.
To reach the most distant well, we go down yet one more ladder, the seventh. On one side there is a perpendicular wall, on the other a yawning gulf; so that when one of the steps, merely round sticks tied with withes, gives way beneath our feet, we tightly grasp the one above. Having reached the bottom of the ladder, we crawl slowly and painfully through a broken, winding passage about 300 feet long; then see before us a basin of crystalline water; and how thirsty we are! This basin is 1,400 feet from the mouth of the cave, and about 450 feet below the earth's surface. Several hundred people during five months in every year depend entirely on that source for all the water they use. With their frail pitchers and flaring torches they wend their way, gasping for breath, through the intricate passages. The journey back is even harder, for they are tired and loaded; yet these people are such lovers of cleanliness that, arriving at their poor huts, before tasting food, they will use some of the water that has cost them so much, to bathe their smoke-begrimed skin. As several women once fainted in the cave, men now always fetch the water.
Yucatan is, and has been for ages past, quite free from earthquakes, while all surrounding countries are from time to time convulsed. This immunity may be due to the vast caverns and numerous great wells existing throughout the land. Pliny the Elder was of opinion that if numerous deep wells were made in the earth to serve as outlets for the gases that disturb its upper strata, the strength of the earthquakes would be diminished; if we may judge by Yucatan, Pliny was right in his conjectures. After him other scientists, who have carefully studied the subject, have expressed the same opinion with regard to the efficacy of large wells.
- Published in "Scientific American."