The Yucatan peninsula sits on a porous limestone bed and there are no visible rivers anywhere in Yucatan, as all the fresh water flows underground. Doña Gloria told me that one only needs to dig a few feet below the surface before hitting the limestone bed and it’s very common for people to use explosives (she used the word “bombas”) when constructing swimming pools. She went on to explain that when parts of these porous limestone shelves break, they reveal caverns, caves, and natural pools of water that are connected throughout the Yucatan peninsula.
They used to be the only source of agua dulce, sweet fresh water, for the Mayans who considered them to be sacred. The water found in these sinkholes are crystal clear and cool, and the stalactites and stalagmites that form inside the caverns are spectacular. There are over 3,000 sinkholes (cenotes in Spanish and dzonot in Mayan) found all over Yucatan and last Sunday I took a trip outside of Merida to visit three of them.
As it is “low season” for tourists here in Merida there wasn’t a tour group going to the Cuzama cenotes last weekend but having heard that it could easily be done alone, I did some research online and with the help of my fellow student at school who had made the trip with her family just a few weeks ago I felt confident I could do this on my own. I arrived at the “bus station”- I put the words in quotes because there is really no bus station and they are actually big vans (colectivos or conbis as they’re called here), not buses- a few minutes before 10AM and the conbi was almost full. My timing was perfect since within 10-15 minutes we had the additional passengers necessary to get going. These colectivos don’t operate on a set schedule; they start their journey when the van is full. I find it interesting, quirky, and frustrating that where they start and end the trip, as well as the route they take can be a mystery even to those who live in the city. You just have to figure it out by asking a bunch of people who already know where you can find them. In my case, I found these colectivos to Cuzama on Calle 67 x 50 y 52 (read as calle 67 por 50 y 52, meaning on 67th street between 50th and 52nd). At least in Merida they have a grid system and the streets are all numbered and sequential. Halleluja! There were at least 3 or 4 colectivos all lined up behind one another and the second colectivo was the only one with passengers already inside, and the name of the town “Cuzama” written on the windshield was so that’s the one I boarded. Oh, and you don’t pay the fare when you get on either (chances are, the driver isn’t there yet); you pay him as you get off (the regular buses I always pay first). It cost 19 pesos one way for the one hour journey to Cuzama (~$1.50), an easy, fully air-conditioned, and cheap ride.
I arrived in the little town of Cuzama around 11:20 and found myself the only non Mexican, surrounded by a group of rickshaw drivers ready to rip me off. I knew from having read various blogs and guidebooks that it should cost me no more than 60 pesos round trip from Cuzama to Chukanan where the cenotes are. But the guy who stepped up right away to take me demanded 60 pesos ONE WAY (~$10 round trip). I really had no bargaining power here, since it was the only way to get to that small town (walking 3 miles at noon would have likely caused a heatstroke) and I was the only one there needing a ride. It hurt a little but I told myself that I’m contributing to the local economy, and sat down to make the short trip over to Chukanan.
My driver was obviously a total thief but he gave me some background history of the area. When we arrived at the start of the cenotes tour in Chukanan I was led to my guide, his carrillo (a little carriage or truck), and a horse named “Colorado” who lead the carrillo for the next 3 hours. The carriage can easily hold 4 to 6 people but since I was alone, it was mine for the afternoon for 250 pesos (~$20, the price is per carrillo not per person). We set ourselves on the track and off we went to the first cenote.
The whole area where these three cenotes are located used to be a large henequen (sisal) plantation with a hacienda and the entire town of Chukanan used to be employed by the factory. In fact, henequen used to be a large part of the economy in these parts, where the fiber from the leaves were used for ropes and other products. But most of the factories have closed down and the haciendas have been converted to hotels and restaurants. About 10 years ago, some of the industrious but desperate people in Chukanan started a tour to the three cenotes using the tracks and carriages from the henequen days, and now it serves as the only means of income for these folks.
I loved being driven on the narrow tracks by Colorado, who seemed to be healthy and happy. With two large foam cushions and a plastic covering overhead providing a
shade, it was a great way to enjoy the rush green scenery. Because there is just one track for all the carrillos (there are about 70 of them, with 100+ horses), several times during our journey we had to get off the track to yield to those that were coming from the opposite direction. Each time, I would get off the carrillo, Colorado taken to the side to rest and munch on some grass, and my driver literally had to lift the carrillo off the track, and we’d wait for the other carrillo to pass. We’d reverse the process to get back on the track and when we saw another carrillo the whole thing happened again. It was explained to me that the etiquette is for those returning to the best to yield to the visitors who are just getting to the cenotes.
I arrived at the first cenote around noon and headed to the bathroom to change. The folks who run the tour have set up a co-op and they’ve done a nice job with the facilities; the bathroom was roomy and comfortable, and the various platforms and stairs inside the cenotes were in good condition. I was told I could spend about 30 minutes in each cenote. At first I wasn’t so sure whether 30 minutes was too long or not enough time, but I found that time went by very quickly in the cenotes. Each one was so different and unique that it took a while for me to take it all in. The first one was very wide, not too deep underground, and very sunny due to the roof/opening to the surface being quite large. I had seen photos and read up on these cenotes but it still surprised me to see them in person.
The water was so clear and cool, and there were schools of fish swimming around me. It was beautiful and eerie all at the same time. There were about 10 people at the first cenote but the second one was completely empty. It was set deeper underground and was more like a cave than the first one and with a few small bats flying around, I was actually a bit scared to swim by myself. But I loved that I got to experience being there alone in complete silence and in peace. I wondered whether the first person who discovered this cenote scared or just incredulous to find such a natural wonder. There wasn’t a lot of light so I couldn’t tell how deep the sinkhole was but I read that you could dive under and not hit the bottom. I kept my adventure underground to just swimming but in all the cenotes there were kids and adults who relished jumping in and out of the water, both from the wooden platforms and from the rocks.
The last cenote was almost entirely underground and could not be seen from above and the only way to get to this cenote was by a single ladder through a tiny hole. I chuckled at the thought of having something like this in the States, where it would immediately be considered hazardous and not worth the risk of potential lawsuits. But thankfully this is Mexico and while I was a bit hesitant to jump down at first (um, what happens if you slip and fall? The opening is barely big enough for one person to get through… I didn’t see any hospitals nearby…), I took a deep breath and went for it.
It felt as if the ladder just kept going and I had to blindly put down one foot below the other. It was so dark that I couldn’t see how far down I had to go or what I was going to stand on once I reached below. It took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust but soon I saw that there was a large wooden deck to one side and a platform on the other. There were already a few families enjoying themselves and I was relieved to see them. After taking a few photos I joined in on the fun and got in the water. All my memories of hot and muggy Merida floated away in the cenotes, and I felt renewed and rejuvenated to start another week.
My return trip was also simple and easy. The shameless thief rickshaw driver was waiting to take me back to Cuzama when I fished the tour (no tip for you!) There was a colectivo heading to Merida waiting for passengers when we got back a few minutes before 4PM. I only had to wait about 15 minutes before we had enough people to start the trip. Even with having paid a bit more for the trip (but not more than had I gone with a tour company), I thoroughly enjoyed the day and I would highly recommend it to everyone.