This post is part of a series about the Maya Ka'an tourism project in Yucatan, Mexico. This project, which aims to create sustainable, community-based tourism for the benefit of indigenous Mayans, is backed by the Meso-American Reef Tourism Initiative (MARTI), an important coalition of NGOs that has been working to combine conservation and tourism throughout coastal Central America since 2006. The Rainforest Alliance, which sent me to the Yucatan, and a local NGO, Amigos de Sian Ka'an, are members of MARTI, which has been responsible for the development and funding of the Maya Ka'an project. See links to related posts at bottom.
A narrow path leads straight through the thick jungle. It’s getting dark, but a full moon is coming up. Hanging plants whack me in the face as the group of nine travellers walks in single file. The guide is in front, followed by my friend Marisol, and then me. We are wearing helmets, headlamps, latex gloves, and surgical masks, which makes for a funny-looking group. “It’s the nurses’ adventure tour!” someone cackles.
The guide tells us in rapid Spanish, “We’re going into a cave with bats and snakes. Please don’t put anything in your mouth. (No problem.) Don’t yawn or open your mouth really wide. (Okay?) And watch the precipices.”
Just as the guide points out the gaping black mouth of the cave in front of us, Marisol suddenly collapses, shrieking and covering her face.
It takes me a moment to realize what’s happening, but then I see the air is full of bats, flying so fast and thick that they can’t avoid hitting us. I cover my face and start laughing hysterically.
“They’re flying out at a rate of 300 per second,” the guide shouts back, swatting the bats away as if they were flies. I try to get my sobbing laughter under control because another one of the guide’s rules was to “remain calm at all times inside the cave so we don’t startle the snakes.” It’s a good reason to pull myself together.
Once inside, we crawl through narrow passages on hands and knees. I am directly behind the guide, who cautiously shines his headlamp over every surface before proceeding. When we startle a spider that looks like a tarantula eating a dead bat on the floor, I realize why he’s being so cautious. All the while, bats continue to swirl around, flying up from crevices in the floor and passages ahead. Inwardly I waver between the desire to laugh and scream.
Finally we end up in a narrow crack, just high enough to crouch. The rock is porous limestone, full of large holes. That is where the snakes live. We wait in hot darkness until the guide spots a snake. It hangs from a hole in the ceiling, just a few feet away. Slowly, it lowers itself down, its glistening body getting thicker as more of it becomes visible. Its head moves slightly, detecting the steady stream of passing bats. A second snake appears, also hunting for its dinner. In the end, neither snake catches a bat while we’re there, but I’m happy to leave. All I can think about is the tarantula.
The rest of the cave is fascinating. There are snowy white, blind aquatic fish swimming around a crystal-clear pool, and a ceiling covered with fossilized seashells, some of them quite large.
I feel exhilarated as I walk back through the moonlit jungle to my little sleeping hut. Part of me can’t believe what I’ve just done, but another part is very excited to have had the opportunity to do it. This visit to la cueva de las serpientes colgantes, “the cave of the hanging snakes,” in Kantemó, Mexico, is part of the Maya Ka’an project that aims to create sustainable tourism initiatives in small communities in the Yucatan. While entering a cave of bat-hunting snakes definitely appeals to a particular crowd and is unlikely to become overrun by visitors, it’s an unforgettable experience and one that showcases a rarely seen side of nature.