Yucatan’s Route of the Cenotes

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Cenote Ha'

After a visit to the well-preserved Mayan ruins at Dzibilchaltún, just 30 minutes north of Mérida, we were hot and sweaty. So, when we plunged into the lily pad-filled ‘swimming hole’ on the premises, the cool, crystalline water was a delight. This cenote was not only exquisite, it was an oasis. Floating through the lily pads, surrounded by happy people, we experienced just why the ancient Mayans worshipped these sublime and unique places.

The underground fresh water river systems of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula flow throughout the Mayan heritage states of Yucatan, Campeche, Quintana Roo and parts of others as well. Massive cave systems were formed during the Ice Age by slow dissolving of highly porous coral limestone, and today, the peninsula is dotted with an estimated 30,000 ‘cenotes’ (limestone sinkholes or grottoes, caverns and cave systems.)

Spectacularly beautiful, some are filled with clear, cool, turquoise water, others are dry; some are alongside important archeological sites, a number are considered sacred for honoring the god of the rain, Chaac, by Mayans, some have stalactites and stalagmites and others are more like swimming pools, open to the air. Some cenotes consist of holes in the rock from the size of small crevices, but others are giant openings over 100 meters across. In most areas of the peninsula, the cenotes provide the only fresh water. Many animals make their homes in and around them, including many endemic species such as blind cave fish and blind crayfish which live in underground areas where sunlight never penetrates.

The ‘Route of the Cenotes’ begins at the western point near Merida, and ends at the eastern point near Puerto Morelos, just south of Cancun.

Cenote Iik'

Mérida is a non-beach destination, for those looking more for an authentic Mexican colonial experience. The delightfully pretty and classic capitol of the state of Yucatan, Merida has a bit over 1 million residents, a historical city center, with a charming plaza, excellent museums and cobblestone streets – along with various free cultural events, celebrations and dances occurring weekly (don’t miss the Sunday night dancing in the plaza!)

Located 30 miles from the coast, Mérida offers a blend of modern conveniences and a colonial past as well as all the comforts and services of a major city. With an international airport and more than 5,500 hotel rooms, this Mérida is a relatively undiscovered gem, lending itself to a more intimate, relaxed and authentic experience.

Beyond its intriguing heritage, Mérida is a friendly and secure destination that is consistently rated as the safest state of the 31 in Mexico. The United Nations, has hosted ministerial and state chiefs events in town.

Cenote K'aak

Promoted as an ecotourism attraction, there are many tour operators in the region that take visitors to these delightful spots, where they can snorkel, dive, swim or wade through them. Divers find fossils of prehistoric animals on the walls of some, while snorkelers and swimmers delight in the tiny fish that nibble gently on their toes in others. Most cenotes are found inside Mayan jungle areas, with enormous trees, vines and other lush vegetation surrounding them, as well as tropical birds flying overhead. Some are privately owned, while others are run by local Mayan communities that may charge a small fee – or the tour operator may include that in the package. It is advised to use a tour operator, since many are difficult to locate, and/or on private land and are sometimes only accessible by all-terrain vehicles.

Here are a few of the don’t miss cenotes we recommend:

Yokdzonot Cenote and Ecological Garden, run by local Mayan women, is very lovely, with azure water, clean facilities and a charming restaurant with shady palapas on site, as well as an eco-friendly water waste system. Cuzamá, a special experience, consists of three spectacular cenotes are located near the village of Cuzamá, reachable by hiring a guide from the village. The guide carries equipment to the site via a horse-drawn cart running over an abandoned narrow gauge railroad over 7 kilometers of forested paths.

Bolonchoojol is a hole in the ground, with a ladder made of welded old railroad ties, leading to a well-lit cavern with crystalline water, lined with huge stalactites and stalagmites. Ik-kil ecological park is home to the 26-meter deep Sagrado Cenote Azul, (Sacred Blue Cenote) and is just about 20 minutes drive from the famed archaeological site of Chichen Itza, and only 30 minutes from Merida. Surrounded by exotic plants and trees, it is also the habitat for hundreds of wild birds, and is ideal for swimmers. Zaci, situated just a few hundred yards away the gorgeous colonial city of Valladolid, is traversed by a walking path that passes under a ‘curtain’ of dramatic stalactites. Southeast of Valladolid lies Dzitnup, with its brilliant turquoise waters intersected with shafts of sunlight from above.

Cenote Lu'um

Various tour operators offer tours to cenotes, but AllTournatives is one of the most reliable and experienced, with sustainability and ecology built into its mission.

There are regular flights to Cancun with all of the major tour operators and linking Cancun to many regional airports in summer. Most will offer excursions to some cenotes as part of wider tours. Both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic also fly into Cancun and not just from Gatwick. Although there is an airport at Mérida it has no flights from the UK.

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