Cenotes Photo- Hunting in Yucatan for Xiimbalil Ja Festival

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Xiimbalil Ja Festival – Kaxan Ts’ono’oto’ob (from Maya – Walk in the Water, Discover the Cenotes) is a private artistic initiative, with the support of the Yucatan State Government – Secretaria de Fomento Turístico.

Text | MalixArt

The Festival means to share, through art and photography, the beauty of underground wonders of the Yucatan, both to local communities and nationwide. An effort to raise awareness of these natural freshwater resources – a cry from the heart to protect them. In the world of instant and social networks, it is unfortunately easy to take everything for granted, and not without fault: the technical and logistical difficulties of making quality photoshoots in the middle of the jungle and remote/independent villages.

Underwater photography in general, but even more so in Cenotes/Caves/wrecks, requires a special kind of work along with the most demanding safety standards – the light is, except very rarely, artificial and must be set up by a pro all the while coordinating (non-verbal in the silent world) with the photographer. The model thereafter, must place him/herself in the indicated area, have an impeccable buoyancy, make sure not to exhale under the decorations (stalactites) nor have any physical contact whatsoever with the cave. A rebreather is often far from being a luxury in this environment if we want to preserve it.

In our case, we are fortunate to have Mauro – a one-man light crew with 120k lumens in various big blue lights, a rebreather, and all the experience required to model underwater.

And so our adventures begin. Departure from the east coast of the peninsula towards the center, first stop in a cenote recommended not far from Valladolid – one of the first cities of Mexico, with five centuries of history.

An absolutely beautiful cenote, large cave entrance– decorations both outside the dome and at the entrance to the submerged cave. We go down to 36 metres, find tunnels and labyrinthic passages, various colours, and smooth stones. The photos of the day will have been a success after 4 hours of shooting.

Direction Merida: 400kms, night arrival.

Early in the morning, we leave for the South, three cenotes to explore, only two of them will smile at us. One-hour drive, half of it in the middle of the jungle, on a path built in Sascab (Karst powder path, used by the ancients, nowadays very common in ranchos and off-road, due to its low cost and its ease to filter rainwater).

A problem with a rebreather piece at the first cenote, we switch to open circuit – the cenotes of central Yucatan are deeper than on the coasts, we are forced to recalculate the planned deco while looking for the room or rooms to take the photo that would serve us. The Cenote in question includes a line going down to 80 metres, we prefer to stay within the 25 metres margin, allowing us to reserve the gas for the next immersion.

A very good decision, considering the tip from a local lumberjack on the way out, who recommended that we go to a village half an hour away, go to the lady’s house (reference: the house with an almond tree and an orange tree in front –“you can’t go wrong”) and ask for access to her family’s property, or a member of said family/neighbor’s/etc. (the information remains unclear to this day – but permission was given) Indeed, everything was worth the detour, and the experience – the cenote is indicated to us with approximate directions, but very accurately, except for the depths. We discovered during the immersion that the 24 metres of the entrance of the cave is actually 36 metres – slightly problematic for our calculations of consumption and decompression.

Not everything is sad, the cave is absolutely divine, and the pictures, after a few minutes of the setup of our lamps come out clear – another stroke of luck after 3 hours of search and drive in 38 Celsius heat… All in all, a second lucky day, a few photos in the pocket, and a great walk in nature – tacos in Merida and sleep, before the return, which will be much less fruitful: Three explored cenotes, none of them among those which had been recommended to us, however with precision.

The rain being moreover with the appointment, the access was, at most polite, ungrateful.

An opportunity to return there, we finished the third day with some selfies between two showers of rain, a long road, empty thanks, and nothing to show for save a great breakfast and great memories. And the adventure continues……

The Photoshoot is for the festival Xiimbalil Ja with MalixArt – the presentation of the photos of Joram Mennes in Mexico City, Paseo de la Reforma at the feet of the Angel of Independence, in order to share, visually, underwater landscapes not easily accessible to the majority of the population. This operation is repeated several times, in order to compile the necessary photographic material for the prints.

It is easy for us, as divers, to forget the privilege we have to take part in these activities. It is our responsibility to promote conservation and essential safety rules.