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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Pink Flamingos: Discovering Celestún

There are two things that come to mind when I think of Yucatán now, and they’re both pink: flamingos and salt lakes. They were one of the reasons I chose Yucatán for my last trip. I travelled with a friend and we stayed in Mérida. Incredibly, after almost 24 years of living in México I still, somehow, manage to misjudge distances: when we were at the hostel planning our days out, I realized that while Celestún, the place where you can see pink flamingos, was fairly close to Mérida, but the pink lakes, Las Coloradas, were actually pretty far.

Our transportation options were very limited. A bus would take almost 5 hours, which seemed excessive for a day trip, and renting a car was too expensive for my budget —and it would take three hours. The most reasonable thing would have been to spend a night in Las Coloradas or nearby, but that was again an extra expense. As much as we wanted to see the pink lakes, we decided to set more realistic goals for our days there and leave the pink lakes as an optional adventure for our last day in Yucatán.

Pink flamingos were still on the list though, so the next morning we took a bus to Celestún, a small town in the Yucatán peninsula just one hour and a half away from Mérida. I was also queasy about this trip. Although the flamingos are not the only reason why you’d visit Celestún—they have a natural reserve called Ria Lagartos, habitat to thousands of species—, the flamingos were certainly the most compelling one for us, and we were offseason. The best time to visit Celestún is during March and April when they are mating. In June and July, they’re not that active and handed to spot, but we had to give it a chance.

Celestún

Once in Celestún, a picturesque but definitely not prosper town, we went straight to the beach, where we saw a couple of boats on the shore. Most boat drivers offer a two-hour flamingo-watching ride, the problem is boats can fit up to 8 people and if you’re in a small group you’ll still have to pay full price. A boat ride is expensive, at around $1,600 MXN. Thankfully we met an awesome boat owner who arranged for us to share with two other girls, so we paid only $400 each.

These boat rides are operated by a Mayan cooperative whose members, as I gathered from our driver, are also concerned with conservation. The boats never get too close to the flamingos and the drivers make sure no one disturbs them or tries to feed them. Our driver William explained all of these as we made our way from the beach towards the Ría Lagartos reserve.

It’s a long ride in which all you can see is water, some pelicans and birds, even small alligators. And then, as if out nowhere, flamingos appear. Now, I don’t think I have ever been so fascinated by birds before. William stopped the engine when we were some 20 meters away from a group of 20 or so flamingos, and we stayed there, watching. The birds came and went, flew close to our heads, landed in the water, fought each other, played around. At some point, there must have been 50 or 60 birds around us, some of them still young and white. The flamingos, we were told, get their pink colour from the waters where they feed. Unlike most birds, flamingos feed on plankton and have no teeth but some kind of filters in their beaks, like whales.

They are a really weird species, gracious and somehow clumsy at the same time. I felt very humbled to be among them but I couldn’t help but doubt if it was okay to intrude in their habitat, even if we were assured that there was no harm being done. It was, as our guide said, not the right time to go and I wonder if many more people disturb them during the mating season.

On this trip, I learned that tourism is basically the only thing supporting people in small towns like Celestún nowadays. There are so many people that will take you on a boat to watch flamingos even though they’re not prepared or informed, only because there are no other jobs. Once again it’s clear that there is a very strong link between poverty and environmentally harmful practices.

Speaking of environmentally harmful practices, I have to say that I am very saddened about the amount of plastic lying close to the beach and on the roads of Celestún. In just a short walk I picked up a full bag of trash, mostly plastic bottles. This is extremely alarming considering how close the public beach is to the “protected” reserve of Ría Lagartos.

Speaking to our guide William on our way back to the beach he mentioned that flamingos were probably the most famous “attraction” of the area apart from the pink lakes. He mentioned most people travelled to Las Coloradas for that, which wasn’t really necessary since salt lakes could be found in many places in Yucatán. In fact, he knew a pink lake not five minutes away from where we were. After that, we spent five minutes convincing him to take us for a small extra fee ($50 each). He turned to boat around to shore just before where the river comes into the sea, we got off and walked for ten minutes among mosquitos and under a scorching sun and we finally came to it, a pink lake.

The colour pink comes from all the minerals and salts dissolved in the water, and it changes a bit depending on the light. This lake was actually very shallow, perhaps up to my waist in the middle, and the water was very hot and slimy. The sand underneath was also slimy and weirdly sticky. I had not experienced something similar before but I can tell you I didn’t want to go all the way in, not even to see if I would float like in the Dead Sea (which I have heard happens).

The area was completely empty, although you could see salt deposits in the distance and tools like shovels and buckets, there even was a truck parked not very far away. Most pink lakes like these are still worked for salt. That day, however, it was peaceful and eerie-looking.

Chunk of pink salt

After exploring a bit we went back to the boat and straight to the beach. It was a pretty interesting day and we crossed two things off our checklists, which gave us an extra day to stay in Mérida and chill. We had a pretty good lunch that day, too, shrimp and octopus, and hung out at the beach waiting for the last bus to Mérida. It was a pretty good day, “best day here so far”, we thought at the time, but we were quite mistaken.

Also, made a friend at the beach.

Uxmal: Pyramids Minus the Crowds

Yucatán and Quintana Roo are famous for their various mayan ruins, of which the most famous are Chichén Itzá and Tulum. Both of these archeological sites attract an evergrowing —and alarming— number of visitors each year; Chichén Itzá had around 2.6 million visitors in 2017 and Tulum reached its own record last year with more than 300,000 in the summer. These are the reasons why I am always dubious about visiting pyramids, I’m not the kind of person to actually queue in a 40ºC weather for a picture in front of an ancient temple, no matter how cool or old it is.

When I was in Yucatán last week, however, I really wanted to show a foreign friend some Mayan architecture, it was really unthinkable to spend a few days in Mérida and not visit any pyramids. So after some thought we decided to visit Uxmal. We chose it because it was nowhere near as popular as Chichén, but I must say I was prepared to pay an expensive entrance ticket and battle with crowds.

My first pleasant surprise was to learn how easy it is to travel anywhere in Yucatán from Mérida. You basically just walk to any of the two bus stations and they’ll get you on the right bus in no time and for a very reasonable price. This time we paid $120.00 MXN for a round ticket to Uxmal. The bus actually dropped us right outside the entrance and the driver told us to wait for the return bus right there. When we got out of the bus I could not believe my eyes: the place was empty, except for the 15-20 people who got off the same bus as us.

My second pleasant surprise was to learn Sundays are free for Mexicans, a very welcome piece of information since it meant I could now afford dinner. Foreigners do pay for the entrance, but if you have a valid student ID you’ll get a discount. I remember the same disounts apply in both Tulum and Chichén Itzá, but both are more expensive and have enormous queues this time of year. When I went to Tulum last year the queue must have been some 200 meters long, zigzagging around souvenir stands. These same stands could be found everywhere, and I do mean everywhere, in Chichén Itzá, making it look more like a market than an archaeological site.

Uxmal was nearly empty. I guess there were other 25 or 30 people in the site with us, and for such a large area it felt like we were alone. The first thing you see when you enter Uxmal is a magnificent pyramid, the Pyramid of the Magician, and it is a sublime sight because it’s only surrounded by other structures, but there are no people around, drones or selfie sticks. Also, there’s not much shadow around, so bring plenty of sunscreen.

Another aspect that sets Uxmal apart from other sites is the fact that you can climb many pyramids and even go inside of many ritual chambers. On our time there we climbed up and down stairs, went through tunnels, entered houses and chased iguanas through narrow corridors. I kinda felt like I was in an Indiana Jones movie, to be honest.

It took us three hours to go around—including several water breaks and picture posing— and by the end we were exhausted and very happy (in my case, also severely sunburnt). As it happens with many archeological sites, there’s some kind of open air lounge at the entrance where there are restaurants and snack bars, but we decided to have a nice dinner back in Mérida. Next to our bus stop there was a coffee stand though, so that proved a perfect endind to the adventure.

All in all, I think Uxmal provides the same archaeological value as other archaeological sites —perhaps the pyramids don’t face the ocean or are not as big, but they sure are impressive— minus the hassle, the expense and the crowds of more popular places. Uxmal, or Oxmal, means “thrice rebuilt”, and seems to allude to the city’s history and the times it had to be rebuilt over time. It is, alongside Chichén Itzá and Tikal, one of the most important remnants of Mayan culture in the area, so I’m happy its being taken good care of.

Have you visited any pyramids in México?

Falling in Love with Mérida

Mérida, Yucatán is currently the safest city in Mexico, which is in itself a luring aspect for female travellers. It was really one of the reasons why I chose it for my last holiday: I wanted to show a foreign friend around while keeping a very tight budget, which meant public transport, hostels and as little shopping as possible. I was looking for cheap and safe, and Mérida was the right answer.

My friend and I stayed in an eco-hostel called Nómadas, which I can’t recommend enough. It was a small, homey place with a beautiful pool surrounded by tropical plants and hammocks. It was also packed with young travellers, so we felt at ease always, plus the staff was wonderfully kind (everybody in Yucatán was awfully kind, come to that). I have stayed in many hostels over the last few years and I can honestly say this is one of the best. Also, it is very, very cheap.

Immediately after we arrived we wanted to go to the beach, so we dropped our bags and asked for the nearest beach. The only possible downside about Mérida is that it doesn’t have its own beaches. This is not a problem, however, as you can easily drive or take a bus to one of the many beaches nearby. This time we took a half-hour bus ride to Playa Progreso.

Apart from its closeness to beautiful beaches, Mérida is a wonder in itself. Also known as “the white city”, it has a rich history and played an important part in during the Spanish Conquest, when the Yucatán Peninsula was an important spot for trading with Europe. So it’s not strange that it is full of old, baroque buildings that almost seem out of place in a 40ºC weather. Its most remarkable building has to be the cathedral, an austere two-towered structure surrounded by trees. Another great spot for architecture lovers is Paseo de Montejo, where the poshest and nicest houses in town used to be. Now it is full of restaurants and cafés, and it is the perfect spot for a walk. My favourite café was Latte Quatro Sette.

Speaking of restaurants, I don’t think I have ever enjoyed food as much as when I was in Mérida. Whether you go to a food stand in the centre or a fancy restaurant, food is amazing. My favourite spot was a restaurant called Micaela Mar & Leña, close to our hostel. It is one of those places that offer a “food experience” rather than just food. It is also reasonably priced and the service is excellent. Seafood is amazing in Yucatán, but so are the traditional “cochinita pibil” (pork) and “sopa de lima” (soup with sweet lime).

Nightlife in Mérida is also pretty awesome. If you’re into Latin music I definitely recommend going to Mercado 60, where you’ll find live Cuban music (there’s a lot of Cuban influence in Yucatán’s culture due to the closeness between the two countries). There you can even learn to dance and have some cocktails or artisanal beer. The food is also pretty good.

We just stayed five days in the white city, and spent some travelling to some cities nearby, but I just fell in love with the city! Its culture, vibrance and most of all the kindness and good humour of its citizens—not to mention it is a pretty international spot, specially for young backpackers— make it, in my opinion, one of the greatest cities in Mexico. There’s just so many things to see and do! I can’t wait to go back.

Have you visited Mérida?

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?

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?