YUCATAN PENINSULA, Mexico — A hand-painted arrow on the wooden sign pointed down a desolate road.
A few wrong turns later, while bumping along in our rental car, a middle-aged man in a baseball hat rolled up on a bicycle. I lowered the window.
“Where’s the cenote?” I asked in Spanish.
He gestured for me to make a U-turn. “Follow me,” he said.
The rutted road gave way to dirt that became a grassy field strewn with large rocks, until they became too big to pass.
We got out of the car, and the man signaled for us to follow him again. We passed a grove of tropical trees, a copse of flowering plants, and followed a narrow path that led to a large hole in the ground. There was no one else in the visible distance.
My wife, Jess, decided to stay behind with our 2-year-old son, Wolfy. I followed the man down a set of stone steps into the darkness of a sprawling cave. There were a few feeble lights strung up overhead, allowing me to see the shadows of bats swooping through the chasm.
I followed him deeper along a winding, increasingly wet path, over boulders and beside stalagmites and stalactites, until I could see a sapphire glow in the distance. It was why I had come.
We walked gingerly down a flight of slippery, manmade steps. When we reached the bottom, I breathed in the cool air and kicked off my shoes. Before me was something like a secret oasis, a turquoise pool that shimmered like jewels in the ambient light.
It was one of some 6,000 so-called cenotes — a Mayan word for wells — that are scattered throughout the Yucatan Peninsula. Most of the network of subterranean rivers and freshwater sinkholes formed thousands of years ago where the region’s limestone bedrock collapsed.
The Sac-h’a Cenote on the outskirts of Valladolid was the first of more than a dozen cenotes we explored on a recent road trip through the Yucatan, from Cancun in the east to Merida in the west to Tulum in the south.
Some are hidden underground in deep caverns best explored with scuba gear, while others are concealed by the jungle and require machetes to find. There are those that have been overrun by tourists and those that have become polluted as dumping grounds for neighbors.
Nearly all feel like sacred places, amphitheaters of rock filled with cool, crystal-clear water, idyllic swimming holes like something conjured from the 1980s movie “The Goonies.”
As we made our way west along the free highway that connects Cancun with Merida, we came across another handmade sign for a cenote called Fantasma.
Several miles later, we followed another sign that pointed to another dirt road. This one was even less inviting, with small craters, thick roots, and sharp rocks. When we reached a small clearing in the woods that seemed like a place to park, Jess suggested I go alone again. This time I brought my bathing suit.
Several hundred feet down an unmarked path, I came across an elderly man sitting in the shade. He suggested I follow him into another hole in the limestone. He shuffled down the scree into the darkness.
There were more light bulbs strung above, but the entrance served as a natural skylight. There was also a sturdy wooden staircase that led deep into the sprawling cave, which was empty aside from the two of us. A vast silence made my breathing feel heavy.
Near the bottom, we reached a platform. In the dim light, I could see a plank of wood stretching over the water, which was about 15 feet below.
“Is it safe?” I asked the man in Spanish.
He smiled and nodded.
I changed into my bathing suit and handed him my camera. Then I walked to the edge and leaped into the inky abyss.
The cool water provided an instant balm, a release to all the stresses above ground. I floated for a while, splashing in the silence, and then swam around my private pool, careful to avoid the sharp stalagmites from below.
I took a few more dives into the clear, rain-fed water, and then followed the man back up and out.
Farther down the road, we came upon a sign advertising “Turismo Rural.”
There were pictures of the Cenote Suytun, another yawning void of rock and bright blue water. I decided this time to take my son, who was now wide awake and itching to be freed from his car seat.
We had to pay about $5 to enter, and there were cabanas and vendors selling sombreros and other kitsch. I carried him down a steep staircase, promising adventure. He started asking for Mommy about halfway down and held me tightly as we descended into the eerie glow of natural skylights illuminating turquoise water.
He wasn’t as enchanted as I had hoped. A knee-deep stone platform stretched into the center of the cenote, where dozens of catfish gathered and kissed my toes. He started to scream as I waded in and carried him across the platform. Then he pooped in his diaper.
Not quite the sublime moment of father-son bonding I had envisioned.
Jess was consumed by a book and not particularly interested in cenotes. But it was my birthday, so she was willing to humor me as we pressed on.
We went to one cenote that was so hard to find we had to follow a taxi deep into the jungle. All the surrounding vegetation made it hard to spot, even when we were a few steps away. Unlike the others, however, it wasn’t inviting. The stagnant water was coated in algae and covered by clumps of vines, as if it hadn’t been disturbed in millennia.
The closer we came to Chichen Itza, the famous Mayan ruins, the more we ran into tourists. One popular cenote featured a welcome center, parking lot, playground, showers, and food stalls. Another had zip lines, kayak rentals, and a campground.
Some cenotes had storied histories. There were those with lore that they were once used for human sacrifice to Mayan gods; others were said to have been repositories for the remains of dinosaurs, which roamed the region until a massive asteroid hit the peninsula 66 million years ago.
My obsession with cenotes started several years before on a trip to Tulum, a laid-back beach town that has become a mecca for hippies and yuppies. After visiting the nearby Mayan ruins, Jess and I followed a sign to what seemed like an empty field and found the well of a spiral staircase.
We had no idea where we were going or what we were about to see. The hair stood up on the back of my neck as we descended into the darkness deep underground. We followed dim lights toward the damp air and discovered what felt like a holy place: a cavernous limestone chamber with sunlight streaking through holes in the ground above and illuminating the cobalt water below us. It beckoned me, and I didn’t want to leave.
After more than a week in the Yucatan, we had visited cenotes with alluring names, such as the “Temple of Doom” and the “Garden of Eden.” Jess and Wolfy mainly watched or did their thing as I jumped off cliffs and plummeted through small openings in the limestone. Toothless Garra rufa fish provided a free, unwanted pedicure at one cenote; at others, I watched scuba divers disappear below the surface.
By the end of our trip, with Jess and Wolfy’s patience exhausted, I visited the last on my own.
Cenote Azul, about an hour south of Cancun, lived up to its name. In the bright sunlight, the pools beneath the cliffs glimmered with hues that ranged from aquamarine to indigo.
I dived in and snorkeled over the limestone bottom, luxuriating in the fresh water until dusk. Then the mosquitoes came, and it was time to go home.David Abel can be reached at dabel@
globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.