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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Rediscovering My Hometown

When I was in kindergarten, the local government of León, my hometown in Mexico, bought the land my school was on and we had to leave. Staff and students helped move everything from blackboards to chairs to the new premises which were, as it seemed to me at the time, in the middle of nowhere. I spent less than a year in the “old school”, and many years waiting for the workers to finish building whatever it would become.

In 2010 they finally finished and inaugurated a gigantic area dedicated to culture and arts. It is called the Cultural Forum and it’s composed of a huge library, a museum, and a theatre. The whole place is gorgeous and one of the only things I feel has changed for the better here. The gardens are usually quiet and well-kept, the museum has a wide variety of expositions and the theatre, oh boy, the theatre.

The Bicentennial Theatre, for that is its name, is a very unique place. Very modern in its looks, it can hold up to 1,500 spectators. Its acoustic is one of the best in the world and the best in Latin America. I often think it’s funny that such a wonderful architectural wonder is here, in León, for it surpasses the country’s most famous cultural enclosure, the National Auditorium in Mexico City. It is a well-kept secret, perhaps. Many kinds of performances take place here, mainly operas. In the four years that I lived in Mexico City, I still came back to several operas and concerts, the most memorable being a performance by Diana Damrau (she sang two songs from My Fair Lady and it doesn’t really get much better than that).

Today, after several months, I took a walk to work instead of taking the car, and I passed the Forum. Few things have changed, if only it seems prettier now. A few people were basking in the sun, a few others sitting under a tree. There’s a new section to the gardens where many statues by national artist stand, watched by a stern-looking guard. I still think it funny that such a place stands like an oasis between the busy city centre and a soccer stadium.

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Wintertime in Quebec City

The first day of 2019 found me taking a 6.00 am train from Montreal to Quebec City. I had not slept much that night, and hence I can’t recall much of the train journey. All I know is I woke up at the Gare du Palais station with a terrible neck pain, just to be received by an enormous amount of snow. From the windows of the train station everything was white, snow piled up on every surface, completely covering bushes, benches, roofs and trees. It was a much needed sight and promising start.

I had been in Quebec before. I had spent a summer climbing —for climbing is, for this city, a more appropriate term than walking— along Saint Roch and Vieux Quebec. That summer was hot and humid, and this time the city couldn’t look more different. My friend and I dragged our luggage through the snow towards our Airbnb to drop it there before exploring the city. First, we made our way to Chateau Frontenac. The Chateau is the most famous landmark of Quebec City. It is not a very old construction and it was never an actual castle, it was always a hotel.

In fact, most of the buildings that are part of the “old” Quebec are really not very old, most have been built or restored in the 1930s, emulating older buildings. This doesn’t mean Quebec is not an old town, it was one of the oldest European establishments in North America, but it still feels a bit like Disneyland. To get acquainted with the city’s history we took a walking tour (one of the best I’ve ever taken) through Airbnb.

The quaintest and prettiest part of Old Quebec has to be Petit Champlain. Again, it is not really old, but it’s a living Christmas card. It is an alley full of shops and restaurants, and during Christmastime there’s trees, lights and decorations everywhere. It’s so pretty it almost makes you forget you’re freezing (Quebec’s weather was around -20ºC the first week of January).

Another street to go to for food and consumerism is, of course, Saint-Jean. This is the busiest street in Old Quebec, with all kinds of stores on it. If you happen to be looking for a book, try Pantoute (I found there Mysteries of Winterthurn by Joyce Carol Oates, a book I had been looking for ages and which is super creepy). Also on Saint-Jean there’s an Irish pub called, surprisingly, St. Patrick, which offers live music at night.

Coming down from Petit Champlain there is a small park with views to the Saint Lawrence river. In winter it is completely covered in snow, and the river is partially frozen. One of the most memorable moments of my time in Quebec was the view of the Saint Lawrence river at sunset; big pieces of ice were moving with the current while the parts not yet frozen reflected the sky, which went from a deep orange to a lovely pink. There is something about Canadian cities that just coexists so beautifully with nature. Where it’s the sky over them or a river flowing through them, there’s a silent feeling of companionship between them.

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There are, of course, other tourist attractions that abuse the famous Canadian saying, “there’s no bad weather, just bad clothes”, like the Ice Hotel (Hôtel de Glace). Anyway, I had to see it. It is the only structure made entirely of ice in North America, and it is really pretty (although I would not pay to spend a night there). The Hotel is part of an amusement park called Villages Vacances Valcartier, 30 minutes away from the city centre of Quebec… if you have a car. My friend and I took instead a 1.5 hours bus to Loretteville, and then an Uber (10 minutes) from there.

Once we were there we had to pay almost $30.00 for the ticket. The Hotel is a really pretty structure, there’s the main building and a chapel, a bar and, most importantly, fireplaces for when you no longer feel your hands. Although it is really pretty to look at and a wonderful spot for pictures, it was not very special. However, the worst part of that day was waiting an hour for the bus to go back.

 

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The bus dropped us on Saint-Joseph street, in Saint-Roch, where my favourite coffee shop is, Saint-Henri. A latte there and some maple leaf cookies I bought at the supermarket were a cosy ending to the day.

 

Another beautiful place close to Quebec are the Montmorency Falls. They’re only half an hour away by bus. I had visited the falls in the summer, when I was able to go down their infinite stairs. In Winter however the stairs are closed, so you can only see the falls from above. Nevertheless it is a wonderful sight, since much of them is frozen and the landscape around is all white, with only the tops of the trees adding a little green to the landscape.

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Perhaps it is because I live in a city with a population of almost 9 million people, but the amount of untouched land in Canada, the extensions of land, water and skies that show no trace of people, planes, ships or cars, is marvelous to me. The region of Quebec has some of the most wonderful landscapes I have ever seen, and the way in which Canadians incorporate wilderness into their lives is something that impresses me very much. I am definitely looking forward to going back to Quebec, but only when my iceskating skills improve a bit.

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Last but not least, food in Quebec is insanely good (and unhealthy). Here are some of my favourites.

  • Poutine! This is the traditional dish (basically chips with gravy and some weird cheese, strangely yummy). My favorite is from Chez Ashton or Poutineville. There’s also a pub called Taverne Grande Allee which has a nice, cosy atmosphere and good poutine.
  • Chocolats Favoris. In Summer, ice cream dipped in chocolate, in winter, sweet poutine.
  • Queues de Castor or Beaver Tails, basically fried dough with sweet toppings.
  • Mary’s Popcorn. Try the Quebecois mix, cheese and maple syrup.
  • Maple syrup everything.
  • Donuts from Saint-Henri, a coffee shop on Saint-Joseph street.
  • Cheap and huge breakfast at Sul Posto, a restaurant inside the train station. Huge coffee cups, too.

Cancún & Playa del Carmen

This Summer some friends and I visited the area known as the Mayan Riviera, which comprehends some 140 kilometers along the coast in the state of Quintana Roo, México. We made base in Playa del Carmen and drove to different towns and beaches along the Riviera from there. Although Cancún is a very popular and touristy place, it is also one of the most beautiful spots of the south of Mexico in terms of nature: sand as white as snow, the clearest, bluest water and lots of vegetation. Also, not everything is big chain hotels and luxury resorts, recently there has been a boom in ecotourism in the area, so apart from finding ecological, little hotels along the coast in Tulum, Playa del Carmen and Cancún, you can also enjoy nature in many of the natural reserves (like Sian Ka’an) and see some of the native animal species (like sea turtles, jaguars and monkeys) without harming their environment.

Playa del Carmen

Playa del Carmen is 50 minutes away by car from Cancún International Airport. We stayed there because it is a bit cheaper than Cancún and is right in between Cancún and Tulum. There’s a lot going on in Playa, as well as many beaches that are worth visiting, although in my opinion they’re not as beautiful as Cancún’s. This season I got to see the problem that has been haunting the Mayan Riviera for the last couple of years: sargasso. While we parked out battered rented car some 600 meters away from the beach, we could already smell the decomposing seaweed. Even when it is a real environmental threat possibly caused by global warming and the authorities are doing everything they can to take it away from the beaches, it is not really harmful in any way. Every beach we visited in the Riviera had the same problem, except for the islands.

In Playa del Carmen we went to Playa Paraíso (although many people recommended us to go to Mamitas), and we had a nice, quiet time once we walked away from the hubbub around the parking area. Most public beaches are busy during the Summer, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a quiet spot if you walk far enough. As it happens in many places in México, vendors of all kinds of food and drinks (specially coconut water and fresh mangoes), so a towel, sunscreen, a book and some cash will be all you need to spend a morning in the beach. There are some hammocks and umbrellas for rent, too.

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Playa Paraíso and sargasso.

Playa del Carmen’s most famous street is called the Quinta Avenida, a long street that goes parallel to the beach and where you can find all kinds of shops, restaurants, cafés, malls, bars and nightclubs. During the day it is nice to take a stroll there as you can find many places where they sell handcrafts and traditional food. During the night, this is definitely the place to go for dinner and drinks. We had really nice cocktails at a place called Patio 8, and would have gone partying to Mandala, but went home instead (*sigh*).

The Quinta Avenida is a really interesting place to be at night, full of street performers, mexican pop culture everywhere and in many bizarre shapes and more foreigners than locals (as I think happens in all of the Mayan Riviera’s touristic places). The atmosphere from the bars and nightclubs seemed to reach the streets, people would walk along singing, sit on some bench to talk or eat ice-cream, boisterous laughter came from everywhere. All in all, I think Playa del Carmen is a perfect place to have one of those relax-during-the-day-party-at-night holidays. Not being our type of holiday, it was good to only spend the nights there and two or three full days.

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Cancún

Cancún is perhaps the place in Quintana Roo I am most familiar with and my favourite time to go there is definitely October. The weather is good all year round, altough Summers can be rainy and too hot, so the “colder” months are the best option, but bear in mind that December and January are the busiest, so everything from flights to accommodation will be more expensive. This year we went in July and it was perhaps too hot, but not too crowded. Cancún’s hotel zone is in the furtherst end of the Riviera, a street with hotels and seaviews on both sides, and also some of the prettiest public beaches.

 

On this trip we did not spend much time in Cancún itself, but we had a lot of fun in Playa Delfines. Parking there is free and renting some chairs was cheaper than in other beaches (300 mxn for the whole day). It is a nice beach to practice surfing and other aquatic sports, but if you want to do it you should arrive really early; when were there, arounf 12.00 pm, the waves were already too strong. The beach is a typical Caribbean beach, with white sand, clear blue water and many palm trees and vegetation. It is a good sport for a run too (the beach is 30 km long), or just to relax. We found that around 4pm many people started coming with beer and loud music, so perhaps the mornings are better if you’re not carrying beer and a speaker yourself.  

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Playa Delfines

Cancún, just like Playa del Carmen, is a great place for partying, but not being big on parties myself, I recommend you leave Cancún to find more exciting day activities and less crowded natural spots. You can visit any of the beaches along the hotel zone, or you can just visit one the nature parks along the Playa del Carmen-Cancún road, like Xel-Há, Xplor or Xcaret. Xcaret is definitely my favourite, because even if the admission is a bit more expensive (around $1,800 mxn), it has a bit of everything: you can be there from 8am until 10pm, swim in cenotes and underground rivers with all equipment included, have food in many different restaurants, see the wildlife (monkeys, jaguars, flamingoes), while being sure you’re not damaging them in any way, snorkeling in the sea, doing some more extreme things like ziplining and scuba diving, and finally enjoy some dinner or drinks while watching traditional mexican dances. If you’re only into adventure and extreme sports, however, the best option would be Xplor. Of course you can also find other cenotes on your own, as well as water activities in public beaches, but I really recommend any of the parks as a one-day activity.

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Xcaret

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Xcaret

Finally, when it comes to food, both Playa and Cancún offer great food from every place in the world, as well as wonderful mexican food and mouth-watering seafood. I believe, however, that both cities offer a kind of travel experience that is becoming less and less interesting for me: luxury resorts, fancy restaurants and giang nightclubs. But I am also happy to notice that ecotourism is making a big arrival in the area, as well as in some other areas of my country (Yucatán and other parts in Quintana Roo like Tulum and Holbox being ahead in that respect). Few things beat the beauty of the Mexican Caribbean, but it saddens me to see that what has made these cities famous around the world is also very damaging for both the environment and the local people. If you’re interested in reading about harming tourism in Quintana Roo, this article might be helpful (athough the author mistook Quintana Roo for Yucatán).

Teotihuacán

In Ecatepec, Estado de México, one hour and a half away from the busy Mexico City, are the ruins for the ancient city of Teotihuacán, a political and religious centre for the teotihuacanos. The city is said to have been found abandoned by the aztecs, who claimed it as theirs and probably used it as a political centre too, though much about this ruins remains a mistery.

Last weekend I went to see (and climb) the pyramids for the third time. Despite being rain season, the morning was sunny and warm; if you visit Teotihuacan, I definitely recommend starting early, since there are barely any shadowy spots and the afternoon sun can be intense.

The pyramids are located in Ecatepec, and you can get there easily by bus or car, as there is a road that connects the city with the archeological site. Once there, the best thing is to start at gate 5, right behind the Pyramid of the Sun, and make your way through the Avenue of the Dead towards the Pyramid of the Moon. You can climb both pyramids, but as the best view is from the top of the Pyramid of the Sun, I recommend leaving that for the end.

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On our way to the Pyramid of the Moon.

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View from the Pyramid of the Moon.

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We were in Teotihuacan on a Saturday in July, although it might sound like a bad idea to go there on a weekend during the summer holiday, there was not many people around until like 1.00 pm. I have been here on October too and honestly I didn’t notice much difference in the weather.

Overall, Teotihuacan is a must visit if you’re in Mexico City. Walking around and climbing both pyramids won’t take more than 3 hours, counting many picture stops, and visiting the site museum at the end will provide you with more information about the ancient city. There are guides you can hire at the entrance; it might be a bit expensive if you’re not in a big group, but a good idea if you’re interested in prehispanic culture and would like to know more about the pyramids that meet the eye.

For more information you could also check out Teotihuacan: An Experiment in Living by Esther Pasztory, which incorporates some of the latest theories on where the teotihuacanos came from and what happened to them, as well as speculations on what their mural paintings and architecture might have mean back then.

Have you been to Teotihuacan? What did you think of it?