Xenses Part 1: The Xensatorium

2 Corinthians 5:7 “I will walk by faith even when I cannot see.”

The verse is printed on the wall of the cave just before you enter a tunnel called “The Xensatorium,” barefoot, and in total darkness. I had no idea what I was about to experience, but if it was anything like the rest of the park, it was bound to be an adventure to remember.

It was my third day in Mexico, and this morning, after a delicious buffet breakfast by the river at Las Cuevas (The Caves), we had decided to spend our day at Xenses, another one of the parks included in our stay at Hotel Xcaret. I honestly hadn’t given much thought to Xenses. It seemed to be less adventurous than Xplor, the Zip Line park, and Parque Xcaret had animal exhibits, art, and cultural experiences I was anxious to see. Xenses, a park which centered around sensory experiences and optical illusions, just seemed to be less “my sort of thing.” Boy, was I mistaken.

A five-minute shuttle ride away, the entrance to Xenses already has guests second-guessing their own perception. “Am I really seeing what I think I’m seeing?” Optical illusions of all sorts adorn the entrance and main building of the park. Even getting to the bathroom is an adventure.

Each stall at Xenses has its own personality.

Each stall at Xenses has its own personality.

The main building is a circle around which there are entrances and exits for various experiences. Some experiences are quick photo opportunities; others lead to lengthier paths and circuits, which might take guests an hour or two to walk in their entirety. At the center of the circle is the locker room and restroom. The entrance to the locker room leads down a hallway which utilizes an optical illusion that causes guests to feel as though they are traversing a spinning bridge. It is utterly disorienting, and the whimsy is only beginning. At the end of the bridge, men and women turn in opposite directions for their locker facilities. To enter the locker rooms on either side, one must pass under a ladder with a black cat perched ominously at the top. Inside the locker room, silliness abounds. Mirrors never show an unaltered reflection, a stage of “Thrones” (toilets of various sizes, converted into drinking fountains) dares guests to challenge their preconceived notions, and each restroom stall features some sort of unique (albeit, bizarre) surprise. We had been told that of the two most significant Xenses experiences, one would require a bathing suit, so we changed and stored our belongings in a locker before heading out to our first experience: The Xensatorium.

The Xensatorium would allow us to remain relatively dry, so we did this first. This was all I knew about The Xensatorium as we headed out into the sunlight. Along the path to The Xensatorium, guests discover clever exhibits and displays with which to interact, scattered along the path. Many of these exhibits incorporate puns or optical illusions, either in real time or by manipulating the perspective from which a photo can be taken.

At the end of the quirky walking path, we were instructed to remove our shoes and leave them in the cubbies provided. We followed instructions and found ourselves seated in a small pavilion, lined with benches. There is a brief period of instruction provided in the pavilion before being sent into the Xensatorium. Xenses staff explained that this experience is a journey, literally. Walking the Xensatorium takes between eight and fifteen minutes for the average individual to complete. For this experience, guests walk barefoot and in total darkness through a naturally-occurring cave. Inside the cave, however, there are eight ecosystems through which each person must pass. There is no visibility, and one must use their other senses to find their way and perceive in which part of the world they may be walking. The staff explained that there was nothing dangerous inside the cave, and that there were individuals available to help should anyone become overwhelmed. They taught us that the signal for distress was to raise our hands above our heads and wave. There were chuckles from the crowd as the staff and instructional video demonstrated this distress signal. I wasn’t laughing, though. I was counting on being the one who had to be rescued.

I’m afraid of the dark. I’m not so afraid that I don’t sleep in darkness, but willingly walking into a completely dark cave that I’d be trapped in for fifteen minutes is not exactly in my comfort zone. I watched nervously as several children, ranging between six to twelve years old, didn’t make it much past the entrance of the cave before turning back.  When it was my turn to step into the tunnel, I asked the staff member how often people my age don’t make it through. “It happens all the time,” she said and smiled. “Have fun.”

The entrance to The Xensatorium

The entrance to The Xensatorium

I stepped into the mouth of the cave, slowly and deliberately, with my hands out in front of me. It was only seconds before I could see nothing. I could feel, though. There was plant life everywhere, and it was spiky. I could hear bugs and birds, and I could feel the sand, warm beneath my feet. Desert. This was desert. At this point, I knew I was scared, but the challenge of having to guess through which ecosystem I was passing seemed to give me a focus and kept my mind from allowing me to panic. I had a strategy, too. I kept myself close to the left side of the cave, my left hand feeling its way along the plant life, and my right hand up in front of my forehead. I had the instinct to duck, almost constantly. I felt the consistent threat of bumping my head. I was also perpetually afraid of stepping on something painful or stubbing my toe, so I dragged my feet through the sand; until it wasn’t sand.

I moved through the desert and into the next ecosystem. The sand turned into wet, heavy dirt. Spiky plants became leafy, and mosquitoes buzzed dangerously close to my face. Rain forest? Rain forest, I think. I heard the sound of other animals, but wasn’t entirely sure what I was hearing. My strategy was failing me. The plants were too thick for me to stay glued to the wall. Leaves and soaked branches were slapping me, left and right. There was a steady mist in the air, and the saturated ground was starting to feel flooded. This was around the time when I started to panic. I felt my breath quicken and my heartbeat speed up. I clawed forward with my hands and found what felt like railings, with rope. With both hands grasping either side of the ropes, I carefully slid my feet in front of me, trying feel what this structure might be. “A suspension bridge,” I thought to myself.. Looking back, I’m extremely puzzled by my reaction to the bridge. I am not comforted by swinging bridges. But at this moment in time, this bridge was exactly what I needed. I felt myself grow immediately more confident as I stepped onto the bridge. Something about the certainty of knowing exactly what I was stepping on gave me the push I needed to be able to continue. And thank goodness. I was seconds away from waving my hands above my head for assistance.

Across the bridge, the terrain changed to rock, the temperature cooled, the plant life dried, and the sounds grew much more familiar to this native Virginian. I crossed through a stream, the floor of which was covered with smooth, cold rocks. It felt like home, and it didn’t matter that I couldn’t see.

With a renewed sense of confidence, I pushed through the rest of the ecosystems, including what I suspect was a snow-capped cliff face, and headed, with determination, toward the literal light at the end of the tunnel. The light was barely visible, a single candle, burning at the end of a long, winding, path out of the cave. The candlelight cast questionable shadows on the rock wall and the music, which is meant to be soothing, came off as spooky. Without warning, I was grabbed from behind. A teenage girl, walking her own Xensatorium journey, had caught up with me. Because of the dim light, she couldn’t quite see what was in front of her. When she grabbed my shoulders, I screamed. Not a little scream. I screamed the sort of scream that comes from the darkest place inside us. The kind of scream you can’t fake. The kind of scream you don’t know you’re capable of making until you are literally scared out of your mind. This poor girl who had unexpectedly scared me was just as scared as I was. When I screamed, she nearly fainted. There was no moment of realization of what was happening for either of us. I just ran towards the end of the tunnel with every ounce of energy I had left.

It took me several minutes to calm down from my Xensatorium experience. Fortunately, the exit of the tunnel leads to a beautiful waterfall and wildlife habitat. I sat, quietly watched playful flamingos, and waited for my friends to emerge from their individual journeys. We each had our own favorite parts of the Xensatorium, and though I’d been scared out of my wits, I knew fairly immediately that this was one of the most incredible things I’d experienced in my life. Xenses promises to challenge each and every one of the senses, and I was certainly finding that to be true.