How the cenotes of Mexico cured my deepest fear

We all have fears right? Some fear the dark, some fear flying, small spaces or spiders. For me though, ever since childhood, I feared deep water. I found it mysterious and foreboding, edged with danger. But in a recent holiday in the cenotes, the shimmering jungle lakes of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, my deepest fears disappeared.

I think my fear of deep water came from three childhood events.

I nearly drowned as a toddler in my grandparents’ kitchen. I was always an accident prone baby; I tricycled in to a rosebush aged 5 and got my ear pierced fashionably on a thorn; I got a sweet stuck in my windpipe aged 3 and needed to be slapped repeatedly upside down till it dislodged; I even fell down the stairs aged 2 years and got a bloody nose as I had mistaken a glass of red wine as a glass of Ribena*.

You know the usual childhood stuff although I would go to continue this good form in to adulthood where I’d get 30 stitches from multiple accidents.

That day I succeeded in climbing up some steps and crawling in to the water tank in the kitchen. It was in that tank that I discovered for the first time, deep water, and a new past-time called drowning.

Luckily my grandfather was in the next room and heard me splashing around and coughing and rushed in to pull me out legs-first and he expelled water from my lungs till I breathed again; I turned from blue to my natural brown. Although I can’t remember this incident, I’m sure in the deep recesses of my mind, that place in my subconscious, filled with inaccessible memories, still feeds my my fears.

(* PS: the Ribena story is true, you can ask my mum the pilot. PPS: Ribena is a children’s fruit drink, resembling a fine claret but with an alcohol content of approximately 0%.)

Swimming lessons did little to heal my fears of deep water. Infact they made them worse. In those days in 1970s London, swimming pools were called baths; they were old Victorian tiled buildings, dimly lit with little natural light, poorly ventilated and smelled strongly of nostril-stinging chlorine.

Swimming lessons in those dark days took a carrot and stick approach. The carrots were certificates and badges. The sticks were … well … sticks.

I hated swimming because I hated the the person who taught it. The swimming teacher was a cruel woman in a tight blue tracksuit with a whistle which she would blow for any reason. She also had a stick that resembled a broom handle. Infact, she may have been a witch.

Her teaching method was quite simple. She would get the children to hold the bar on the edge of the pool and make their way to the deep water, and then she would spring a surprise.

“Let go of the bar,” she would shout.

If you didn’t let go of the bar, she would hit your fingers with the stick. I told her that I didn’t want to let go because I couldn’t swim. She blew her whistle at me. She raised her broom handle. I let go and immediately went under.

Above me I could see the blurry amber lights through the ripples of water, bubbles all around me rose up to the blue witch. I flailed my arms and legs in an attempt to swim and suddenly felt the stick which I grabbed and it lifted me higher out of the water.

She pulled me out of the pool with a life-saving wedgie. “You’re not doing it right,” she shouted at me. I got my breath back and didn’t say a word. No shit Sherlock.

I envied the children who had no fear of the water. They swam lengths effortlessly, or dived from high-up boards. They went to swimming competitions called galas, which all sounded so sophisticated. Imagine wearing tuxedos in a swimming pool. perhaps they came on horses to play water polo. Some even learned to life-save by rescuing rubber bricks from the bottom of the pool and others created buoyancy aids by tying knots in their pyjamas and inflating them. This was all good stuff, but I preferred to sit in the shallow chlorine-water of the footwash hoping no one would notice me till home time. I didn’t know about verucas.

There was one final reason my childhood fear of deep water.

Jaws. No explanation needed.

Years passed. Swimming became an optional hobby at school. I chose knitting. Seriously. I may drown but I can knit one pearl one with the best of them.

I still had no desire to rescue a rubber brick, but my fear lingered every time I was near deep water. I was always the one at the edge of the pool on holiday when the others were having fun. It was okay if my feet could touch the bottom, but as soon as I couldn’t I’d I’d overthink; my mind would become full of negative thoughts and I’d wonder what was under me. I’d become a barrel of nerves; and barrels that are full usually sink.

A few months ago we landed in Yucatan, Mexico, and rode to see ancient Mayan temples in the jungle. Yucatan is a jungle region built on pervious limestone and when the dinosaur-killing asteroid landed close-by 65 million years ago, its shock wave disrupted the rocks, creating thousands of sinkholes that got flooded. These spectacular ponds became known as cenotes.

So after visiting a Mayan temple in Uxmal one morning, we decided to cool off. We found a nearby cenotes called Chochola. The man at the entrance handed me a snorkel.

“How deep is it?” I asked.
“100 metres, maybe more. There are underwater caves … they found prehistoric fossils down there.”
“Any shallow bits?”
“No. Maybe sit on the wooden steps.”

Done. I could sit there. My footwash days were back.

We descended dark steps in to a cavern. It looked like a space-scape with mysterious formations and beautiful water. Further along was a tunnel that led to daylight. There is only one thing worse than deep water. That’s a small underwater tunnel in deep water.

Then we walked through the forest till we got to another sink hole whose roof had collapsed and there was sunshine and butterflies in clear blue water. It was very Disney.

I went down the steps to cool off and sat there amongst the sunbeams with just the sound of trickling water and birdsong.

It’s kind of awkward and embarrassing when you have a fear of water and your wife is a trained lifeguard. She was off, swimming round the corner, exploring. I sat on the wooden steps beside some rocks on the edge of the water.

She was all Pamela Anderson and I was Gollum. That sucks man.

It was nice to cool off with the water up to my knees but I’d have been cooler if I could have just stepped in to the edge of the water to stand on a stone and hold on to something. A tree root, a rock. The water inviting.

I let go of the tree root and my soles lifted. My soul lifted.

Suddenly I was floating.

There was bird song and a gentle breeze from distant fluttering leaves that seemed to signal a semaphore of approval. It was peaceful. No one else was around me and for a second I forgot that my feet weren’t touching the ground.

It was then it happened. A moment I had never thought would come. The old blue witch with the broom handle dissolved like the wicked witch of the west. An old childhood fear from half a century ago disappeared.

I forgot to be scared.

I was enjoying being in the water, amongst dragonflies and sunbeams making the water surface glitter. I put my snorkle on and went under and then I was swimming with brightly coloured fishes and curious turtles. My mind became captivated on what I could see. A spectacular under-word.

As I swam I saw a dark edge to this beautifully lit blue world. A dark edge. A small opening to the caves that would drop to a hundred metres to caves below. It was a worm-hole to hell and I swam back to the tree root.

Over the next few weeks we visited more cenotes. Caverns dripping with stalactites and stalagmites, some whose roofs had collapsed and created an amphitheatre of light; some covered in lily pads, and others with tree roots and lianas dripping down.

It’s fair to say those days in the cenotes went a long way to help me over my phobia. I know I can now exist in deep water. I don’t need to understand what is under my feet, only that there is a way for air to get in my lungs, and a way for my limbs to move me. Because … phobias are not borne from science.

And that was how the cenotes helped me on my journey, but that doesn’t end my tale; I’m not through. You may have noticed in the pictures I’m still wearing a life jacket.

My fears are still there, my fears are still real despite science. But I know I have come a long long way.


  1. Yes… science and phobia are not borne out of science!😃 It sure was your self awareness and the mystical environment of the cenotes with all the blue water, butterflies, birds and turtles that had a psychotherapeutic impact to enable you to unlearn and overcome a fear that haunted all these years. (…triggered by the woman with the broom handle! ) . An almost fairy tale but intense writeup !


    1. Ah thanks Meetaba glad you enjoyed the read. I love your observation of the mystical environment t of the cenotes, they really are magical places. Thanks for the correction, now made … phobias not borne from science.


  2. I’d have been surprised if they hadn’t offered life jackets. Snorkels are nice, but the jacket is a ticket to freedom. I’m glad you were able to enjoy the cenotes.

    As for me, you’d think a guy who’s dived on walls 1000 feet deep (a spooky feeling to be sure) would be a strong swimmer. Not so. I know how to swim, and I can relax in water without a jacket, but I don’t spend much time in the deep end. Scuba is a whole different skill.


      1. When you dive, you’re generally aiming for neutral buoyancy via a dive vest (BCD or buoyancy compensating device) or dry suit. So, you end up in a hover, hanging over nothing but a dark void. The actual depth underneath is more psychological than anything, I’ve had the same look on a 100 foot wall.


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