“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.”
—Albert Einstein, 1931
Albert Einstein’s words come to my mind as I stood at the edge of Cenote Siete Bocas in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. So I closed my eyes, embraced the mysterious, and jumped.
I had read the quote a few weeks prior, on the walls of the Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC. Then, as I walked through the museum of modern art, I had been thinking of the beauty created by the human hand. But now, swimming in this incredible secret cavern, I was immersed in a different kind of beauty, mystery, and wonder. Bats swooped overhead as I paddled through the crystal blue water, dodging stalactites and dangling roots from trees growing far above, and speaking in a hushed voice, as if I were in a cathedral.
Cenotes are underground caverns, remnants of the last ice age, when ocean levels dropped and the porous limestone of the Yucatan collapsed. But these special places have played a unique role in the human history of the Yucatan Peninsula. The word “cenote” is derived from the name the ancient Mayans gave these formations, meaning “sacred well.” Throughout time, cenotes have often served as the region’s only access to fresh drinking water, but the Mayans also believed these sacred wells connected them with the divine, uniquely fulfilling both spiritual and physical needs.
But as so often happens, modern innovations and technologies change our relationship with our natural world and traditional practices. Pollution, through water and land, threaten these delicate ecosystems and the plants and animals that call them home.
If my career in conversation has taught me anything, however, it’s that humans are capable of creating solutions. As I crawled out of the ice cold water and left that magical underground world behind, I was equally as impressed by the local efforts to preserve its beauty. Signs boldly forbid the use of sunscreen and bug spray to keep chemicals out of the cenote’s water, and flash photography is restricted to minimize bat disturbance. But most of all, I was heartened to see local guides proudly leading eco-tourists through these sacred grounds, sharing their unique culture and reconnecting us all with the mysterious.
By Angie Peechatka, Associate Gift Officer, WWF-US