Seven Cenotes in Yucatán

Last month I travelled to Yucatán with a friend. It’s hard to pick highlights when a trip is as cool as this one was, but I won’t even hesitate to say the cenotes were the definite highlight. Actually, I think it’s safe to say that they were one of the most memorable adventures of my life.

My friend and I stayed in Mérida, the capital of Yucatán, and had previously looked for cool spots not too far away. On our arrival to the hostel (a place I can’t recommend enough called Nómadas), we got to chat a bit with one of the guys at reception. He mentioned that the prior weekend he had been to Homún, a small town not too far from the city, not a particularly charming place, but surrounded by at least 10 beautiful cenotes. We asked him for directions and he kindly explained to us how to get there.

I had been to several cenotes in Yucatán, but nothing prepared me for what we’d see in Homún. To start, Homún is a very small and unremarkable town. Its main economical activity used to be the production of organic fibers used for hats. Sadly, most hats today are made out of plastic, which means most people in Homún are unemployed today and turning to tourism for profit. When we arrived to the main square we were met by dozens of moto-taxis (basically motorcycles which have a bench attached to their front) operated by locals. We were offered a whole day of driving around the cenotes for $200 MXN, which is less than $10 US. We were two but you can fit four people for the same price.

Our driver’s name was Roberto and he was very kind and knowledgeable. He told us a bit of the history of Homún and how cenotes have turned into a new currency, something I find quite alarming and sad. Whoever finds a cenote in their property can choose to make it into a public attraction if the environmental authorities approve. Although the cenotes we visited were owned by native Mayan people who understand and respect the delicate environments they are and their interconnection with underground currents, I’m afraid they might be overcrowded soon.

We visited seven cenotes that day. Every time time I got a first glance at a cenote I though that one must be the coolest, and every time I was wrong. They were all wonderful and different. Among the ones we visited were Canun Chen, Baal Mil, Hool Kosom, Cheel Paa and Tres Oches. These cenotes and two others form a natural ring around the town, so it’s quite easy to find your way around once you spot one. We basically had them to ourselves and it was a magical experience. If you arrive before 11.00 am they’ll probably be empty.

Some cenotes, like Canun Chen, have ropes tied to the roof so you can go all Tarzan when jumping in the water; others, like Tres Oches, are basically holes in the ground surrounded by the greenest vegetation; others are way darker, like Hool Kosom—which means swallow’s cave— are darker and offer you amazing sights of wildlife like bats and swallows. They’re all wonderful in their own way. Also, swimming in a cenote is a unique experience: the water is always cool and clear, fish swim around you and there is something definitely magical—spiritual, eerie— about the quiet around you. This was a day I will never forget and I can’t wait to travel to Yucatán again soon.

Hool Kosom

Have you ever swum in a cenote?

Five Day-Trips From Mérida

Yucatán is one of the most wonderful states in México. It has everything: beaches, lagoons, lakes, wildlife, hiking trails, museums, pyramids… No wonder it is a very popular destination. However, it is hard to choose where to go once you’re there because it’s huge! This is why I put together a few places that are less than two hours away —by bus or car— from the capital, Mérida, and which I believe will help you get an idea of Yucatán.

Uxmal

There are many archeological sites in Yucatán, most of the wonderful. However, Uxmal is my favourite so far. It is only one hour away from Mérida by bus and, unbelievably, usually not crowded. The biggest pyramid in the complex is The Pyramid of the Magician, which is pretty impressive. There are also many smaller structures in which you can get in or go up.

Celestún

Celestún is small beach town one hour and a half away from Mérida by bus. Apart from enjoying the beach, you can go on a expedition to watch flamingos and other animals that live in the Reserva de la Biosfera Ria Lagartos, a protected area. You can also swim in some of the natural pools around town, or enjoy wonderful seafood by the beach.

Progreso Beach

The closest beach to Mérida. Takes thirty minutes by bus to get there, and all you need to bring is some towels. It’s the perfect escapade after sightseeing in Mérida.

Homún

Homún is a small town one hour away from Mérida. To get here you’ll have to drive or take one of the vans that stand outside the bus station. The wonderful thing about Homún is its cenotes. There are around 10 cenotes open to the public and many more that are being worked on or belong to private properties. It’s quite far to walk from one to the other, so I recommend you hire a moto-taxi for the day (the charge $200 for the whole day, up to four people) and see as many as you can. Each cenote charges $30.00 for the entrance. It’s totally worth it and one of the most wonderful things you can do in México.

Cuzamá

Cuzamá is just 10 minutes away from Homún and it’s cool for the same reasons: cenotes. You can spend another day exploring the cenotes here.

More tips for Yucatán

  • Sunscreen is necessary in Yucatán. However, you should make sure you’re wearing eco friendly sunscreen or no sunscreen at all when going in the cenotes. Cenotes are super cool but also very delicate ecosystems for birds, fish and flora.
  • Try Yucatecan food. You’ll see “Mexican” food everywhere, but don’t go for tacos or quesadillas, instead try cochinita pibil, sopa de lima and other dishes that are typical of the region. Yucatán has one of the most unique cuisines of the country, do yourself a favour and try it.
  • Stay at an eco-hostel! Hostels are booming in the area, especially in Mérida. They offer wonderful prices and the chance to meet like-minded people, which can be helpful when organizing a trip. I last stayed at Nomadas and could not recommend it more! It was truly amazing in every way.

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Cenote Yokdzonot

When visiting Chichen Itzá, most people usually also visit a nearby cenote called Ik Kil. Undoubtedly it is one of the most beautiful cenotes in Yucatán (there are more than 6,000), and it is one of the busiest too. When talking to friends from Yucatán, they told me that it is indeed an amazing place. However, they admitted too that it is probably not the best idea to go there in mid July.

We were indecisive about visiting Ik Kil, but we were not about visiting Chichen Itzá, so once there, after queuing for like half an hour and seeing that most groups of tourists were on some kind of package tours that would take them to Ik Kil after the pyramids, we decided not to go there. Most of TripAdvisor’s reviews warn about its being crowded anyway, so my friend, after searching for a while, found a thread where people talk about cenotes that are not that crowded. That’s how she heard of Yokdzonot.

You could argue that crowded places are so because they’re also the coolest, but is it really worth it to visit an incredible location if you can’t really experience it because of crowds? It is not only a matter of how much you enjoy toilet queues, unwanted physical contact, iPad pictures and crying toddlers, it is a matter of sustainability too.

Most natural locations are not prepared for large numbers of people at a time and, even if marketing makes them look like the most wonderful sites of its kind, it is likely that there are many more less developed places that are just as beautiful, just not as advertised. Visiting not-very-hyped natural locations responsibly might also help grow the economies of the communities that live there instead of those of big-chain hotels. So why not skip the eternal queues?

This was the speech I gave to myself while driving to the small town of Yokdzonot, in search of the cenote of the same name. The first sign that you’re visiting a great place (or that you’re undoubtedly driving towards your death) is the absence of official road signs to direct you. Instead we got handmade signs at random places and a very big, very old fashioned sign on top of a house: a giant arrow pointing very vaguely at the west or the ground, under huge letters that read CENOTE. And a piece of advice here, don’t trust Google maps.

We made it to the cenote after a bit of blundering. The entrance to the area where the cenote is consisted of a palapa where you could get your tickets, which included a mandatory lifevest, and optionally rent some snorkeling equipment. The fee was only $70 mxn, the cheapest fee we had in the whole holiday. Once inside we saw that there was a restaurant, a resting area with hammocks and chairs and some ziplines. We decided to go to the cenote first though, and descended a series of slippery stairs that led a magnificent view. Everything you imagine a cenote is, Yokdzonot is. It’s like a huge round hole in the ground filled with the bluest water, lianas and thin, tall trees growing from the walls, hundreds of birds chirping and flying in circles near the water, huge stalactites coming down from the roofs of the small caves around the cenote. It really is a mystical experience to look at the way the light falls on the water, filtered by the many roots and leaves.

There must have been some other ten people there with us, half of them children. We did have the place almost to ourselves and the only downside was the mandatory use of lifevest (it is understandable though, the cenote is aproximately 40 meters deep altough they can’t really say). If you’re in Yucatán, I would definitely recommend Yokzonot for a chill day; it is not as exciting as other, bigger cenotes, but it’s definitely a place to admire nature. Also, the place is run by a cooperative of local people, so you’d be definitely helping the local economy.

My pictures of this one were really bad too, so here’s a video instead.

Have you visited any cenotes?

Cenote Dos Ojos

Apart from its beautiful beaches, pink lakes and mouthwatering food, the Mayan Riviera is also known for its many cenotes. A cenote is basically a hole that exposes an underground body of water. There are more than 6,000 cenotes in the southern peninsula of Mexico, and while the biggest ones are taken care of and charge you for entering, there are many small ones where you can just jump in (at your own risk). Cenotes in both Yucatán and Quitana Roo are part of an underground river that still flows, so the water is crystal clear, cool, and clean.

One of the cenotes we visited is only 20 minutes away from the archeological site of Tulum, in Quintana Roo, and it is called Dos Ojos (“two eyes”), because there are two main bodies of water in the area, connected by tunnels. Altogether, there are five cenotes there and the entrance fee depends on how many you want to visit and wether you want to hire equipment. We hired a somewhat basic tour of the main cenotes and an area called the “bat cave” because, well, it is basically a cave with a lot of bats. So, for 300 mexican pesos we got some snorkeling equipment and diving suits (yes, it was like 35ºC outside but the cenotes were cool and the water was COLD, so get the funny suit). The tour took around 45 and there were only like 8 or 10 people including us. Afterwards we could stay there for as long as we wanted. Best spent money of the trip, let me tell you.

The tour is really okay. It was not, thank God, one of those wannabefunny tours, but an informative account of how cenotes came to be, which animal species live there and other interesting facts. But the real reason the tour is worth it was the bat cave. Without a tour guide there is no access to this area, because it is quite difficult to get there: there are narrow passages, very shallow and very deep areas, and it is in complete darkness (they give you flashlights but still, it’s important to be with someone who knows the way).

The cave is small and its roof is comepletely SWARMED with bats. It is really a surreal experience to hear them chirping and feel them flying around you. Also, the cenotes in Dos Ojos are not really “open”— there’s an opening on the side from where you get it and where the light comes in, but they’re not open from above like other cenotes. This means you can’t really see the sky from the water. Instead, the roof is covered in stalagtites (and stalagmites will most definitely mess up with you) and the light that manages to come in has a blueish colour, which I think is way cooler.

Once the tour is over you can swim around, dive, snorkel or just sit somewhere. There are areas for scuba divers too, but you have to present your certification and bring your equipment. The park itself is really big and so are the main cenotes; however, it was surprisingly not crowded when we were there, which was weird after going to Tulum, which was really full. I understand that the park only allows a certain number of people every day because of safety and ecological reasons.

There was an area with lockers and changing rooms where we left our things (and our cameras). I did manage to take some underwater pictures, but I they all look like these:

 

 

 

Anyway, here’s a video that hopefully conveys the experience. Of all the cool things we got to do in Quintana Roo, this cenote was really one of the best. It is really one of those places that make you realise how strange and beautiful nature can be, and how there can be a balance between tourism and environmental care. So if you’re traveling to the south of Mexico, cenotes are really a must visit. There are many options, the most famous being Ik Kil in Yucatán, or a very similar but smaller option called Yokdzonot. There are also the ones in Xcaret, in Quintana Roo (this park offers some activities in underground rivers and caves), but Dos Ojos was really an amazing experience.

Have you visited any cenoted? Which ones do you love?