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?

Chichen Itzá

The ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itzá (which means something like well of the water wizards) is located in the state of Yucatán, around 3 hours away from the Mayan Riviera (Quintana Roo). Getting there from Playa del Carmen by car is pretty easy, although the tolls are quite expensive. Yucatán’s roads are in much better conditions than Quintana Roo’s (Yucatán is also one of the safest and pretties states in Mexico, to be honest) and there was no traffic, only rainforest to both sides and signs warning of monkeys and other animals crossing (we didn’t see anything though, just green everywhere, so much I actually wondered if we were going in the right direction a couple of times).

The most famous Mayan ruins are close to the capital of Yucatán, Mérida, but coming from the west we didn’t pass neither the city nor the famous town of Pisté. Getting closer to the archeological site, we still found desert roads and we, for some glorious minutes, thought the place wouldn’t be very crowded. Wrong. When we arrived they made us turn back to an alternative parking lot because the one in the site was full. So we parked like 2 kilometers away from the site (it was almost full too and we knew we’d be coming back to a hell hot car because there was no shadowy spots) and started walking towards the pyramids, a bit discouraged but still hopeful.

We got there at around 12pm, having failed again at getting up early. The day was hot and there were barely any clouds in the sky when we took our place on the longest queu ever, so long that it went around the ticket booths and went zigzagging around some souvenir stalls. We should have learned right there that Chichen Itzá (at least in July) was mainly about those two things: crowds and vendors. And so we queued for like 15 minutes, sweating as if we were doing vikram yoga, when I decided to take a look at how long the queue was. I discovered that, being a Mexican student, I didn’t have to pay and I didn’t even have to queue, which was awesome. So I got my ticket and rejoined my friends, non Mexican and so unfortunate students, and we queued for another half hour, which was not awesome. I believe this was the day I got the killer tan that still hasn’t faded.

Once inside we confirmed our suspicions: there was a hell of a lot of people, a hell of a lot of vendors selling a hell of a lot of Mayan and non-Mayan stuff, and a hell of a lot of ruins. The first thing you come across as you enter, is the huge pyramid known as “El Castillo” or the castle, a huge temple dedicated to Kukulkan, the Mayan god of the wind. The explanade around the pyramid is so huge that it didn’t even look crowded. This was the first moment of the day that I was glad for the clear sky: the view of El Castillo against a blue sky is really breathtaking. This pyramid is really really huge and much more beautiful than other Mayan constructions, even the ones in Tulum. It is also surrounded by tropical vegetation, which sets it apart from other big archeological zones in Mexico like, say, Teotihuacan (I like Teotihuacan but it’s a freaking desert).

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Apart from Kukulcan’s temple, there are many other important ruins in Chichen. There’s the colonnade, the ball game court, more temples and houses, most of which are surprisingly not crowded. If you take your time wandering around you’ll eventually find spots that are almost deserted, the site is so big that even huge amounts of people can disperse and, anyway, most people just go there to take pics in front of The Castle “for the gram” (of course I did too). What really is amazing, in a sad way, is the amount of vendors and stalls. They’re everywhere and it gets annoying after a while.

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In Chichen Itzá there is also an open cenote, which actually explains the weird meaning of the name. Cenotes are very common in Yucatán and Quintana Roo, they’re not just underground pools, they’re parts of an underground river that goes on for like 500 kilometers. Because they’re open parts of this river, the water is sweet and clear. However, the one in Chichen is no longer connected to any underground current of water and is now just a greenish round pool known for its last ritual use. It is very deep and believed to have been use for sacrificial purposes, which may have caused its foul smell.

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All in all, you could spend between 2 and 5 hours walking around, or just as long as you can handle the heat. I remember that day I drank like 5 liters of water and had 3 coconut ice pops. I still sweated like I was in a sauna. Worth the visit? Definitely. Despite the crowds and the merciless sun, Chichen Itzá is one the biggest, most important archeological sites in the world, named one of the seven wonders of the world too, and one of the few places where you can buy made-in-China miniatures of the Mayan pyramids.

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Have you been to Chichen Itzá or any other pyramids?

Holbox

On our third day in the Mayan Riviera, we drove north for two hours, from Playa del Carmen to a town called Chiquilá, to take a ferry to Holbox island (pronounced holbósh). Despite the island’s very recent popularity, we were a bit disapointed to see that a lot of people were going there, huge ferries going and coming every half hour or so. Nevertheless, we parked near the docks for only $50 mxn and got on the Holbox Express for $150 (each way). The trip takes about 30 minutes. We got decent seats on the top part and, were it not for the loud reggaetón music, it would have been an enjoyable ride.

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Holbox

I heard of Holbox some four years ago and that image stayed with me: a small haven in Quintana Roo the big hotels hadn’t spoiled yet. Perhaps it was so then. Now, even when there are no big hotels, there however many small fancy restaurants, beach clubs and small hotels. The unpaved streets and the fact that finding an ATM is pretty hard give the place some kind of deserted island vibe, but a look around the beach would shatter that perception. Holbox, however, is the perfect weekend getaway: bad phone service, quiet beaches by day, plenty of coffee and gelato places and a growing number of environmentally-conscious tours by boat to see the whales, dolphins and sharks.

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Holbox has one of the most beautiful beaches too, the only one were sargasso was not a problem. You could walk towards the sea for about 300 meters and the crystal clear water would barely reach your knees. For the same reason, the waters is a bit warmer than at the mainland, but by morning is good for paddling and kayaking. The island is the perfect Caribbean location: palm trees, snow-white sand, clear blue sky and an even clearer sea. The streets and plazas of the town are covered in urban art with Mexican motifs and so there’s plenty to see both at the beach and in the town.

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We hired some (overpriced) hammocks at the beach and left our stuff there while we swam, we read a bit and found a place to eat as the afternoon approached. As we did not spend the night there, we had to take one of the last ferries at 6:00 pm, but anyway that was enough time to take a look around, chill and swim.

For lunch we went to a place called Mandarina, which belongs to the hotel Casa las Tortugas. The food was amazing and not so expensive, the location is perfect as it is right in front of the beach. The beachside restaurants and bars reminded me a bit of Tulum in style and vibes: Holbox is one of the most relaxing places I’ve been to, and people there are somehow so chill and fashionable at the same time, everybody walks or rides a bike along the sand-covered streets and the biggest vehicles around are golf cars and quads.

All in all, Holbox was one of my favorite places in Quintana Roo, I just wish he had stayed longer there.

Have you been to Holbox? What are your thoughts on it?