Before our three month stay in Merida, Mexico, I never thought much about caves. Sure, Justin and I had ventured into the underground before, first, during our road trip through the southern United States, and more recently, in the Philippines. But from the time we landed in the Yucatan, every local we met recommended we explore the region’s caves. Specifically, they talked about the cenotes: natural swimming holes created from cave ceiling collapses. The Yucatan alone is home to an approximate 30,000 cenotes. Many Yucatan cenotes date back to the Ice Age, and archeological evidence show they played a key role in Mayan life.
Most of the thousands of Yucatan cenotes aren’t safe for swimming, but the ones which are open to the public attract tourists and locals alike. (More than once during our stay, when we asked our Airbnb host, Martha, what she had been up to the past days, she mentioned a cenote visit. Small wonder given the Yucatan heat!) So, when Martha and her husband, Alfonso invited us to come with them for a day of Yucatan cenotes exploration, we were pretty excited — especially once we heard we’d be venturing to the Cuzama cenotes: a series of unique caves unreachable by car.
The adventure began one weekend morning. We packed ourselves into Martha and Alfonso’s car along with multiple coolers of food and drink, and all of our swimming gear. After driving for around an hour, we made a quick stop for a snack in Acanceh, a quiet town with a fantastic market and a small Mayan pyramid.
After inhaling a couple of panuchos (crispy corn tortillas stuffed with refried black beans and topped with meat, salsa, and veggies) and trying dulce de ciricote (the ciricote is a plant native to southern Mexico) we continued our journey.
Just a few miles further down the road, we reached the town of Cuzama. All along the route to the town, and in the town itself boys waved signs advertising the local Yucatan cenotes. Alfonso explained there were a number of different cenotes in the area, controlled by different towns, who employed the hawkers to direct visitors to their specific Yucatan cenotes tours.
We drove past the town’s church and turned right down Calle 14. After a mile or so we saw the sign for the Cuzama cenotes, pulled into the parking lot, and unloaded our baggage. The 400 peso cost for the three hour Yucatan cenotes tour is per horse-drawn cart (which can hold up to 4 adults). Since there were four of us, that meant 100 pesos per person (approx. $5.50 USD) — one heck of a deal!
We climbed into a cart, and our driver directed the horse down the antique rail line at a brisk trot. Within moments we were in the middle of the wilderness.
It seemed we’d be at our first cenote soon…but then, suddenly, the horse stopped. “We get out here,” Martha said. But where was “here”?
The answer: the spot where we’d be clambering out of cart #1, watching the horse moved from one end to the other, and drive back in the direction in which we came, leaving us…well, just leaving us!
We joined a small group of fellow Yucatan cenotes-seeking castaways and got the skinny on what was going on. Turned out, the rail line was damaged in this spot — rumor had it, a competing village had torn up the rails a few years ago. This meant that, tuk-tuk-like motor-powered vehicles had to bridge the gap between the lines.
After watching a couple of said “motos” come and go, our crew scored its ride. To say that it was a tight fit with four people, four bags, two coolers, and the driver’s giant stereo (what’s a ride without tunes, right??) would be an understatement. But we survived the trip to the next set of rail line…where we climbed back into a new horse-drawn cart and continued our journey to the cenotes!
I like to think that our first of the Yucatan cenotes would have made Winnie-the-Pooh (or one of his Hundred Acre Wood compatriots) feel right at home. From above-ground, the only hint of its existence was a rickety-looking ladder planted in the heart of a huge tree, and plunging down through a tangle of roots into a small, black hole in the earth. (Trying to do Instagram story with one hand while climbing down the root and ladder in flip-flops like Justin did? Do not recommend!)
As for me, my claustrophobic side was not pleased, but curiosity won out. I grabbed the ladder, and lowered myself underground. At the bottom of the ladder, we found ourselves in a small, but high-ceilinged cavern filled with stalactites and stalagmites, and lit by the drivers’ flashlights.
We moved cautiously down some steps and then, the water appeared: a narrow black channel in the cave wall. Getting in was a little weird, but once we were swimming, the water felt amazingly refreshing.
After our rebirth from the earth, we moved on to our next stop. This cenote entrance also required a long trip down a ladder, but unlike the first cave, the roof had a couple of large holes in it, letting some sunshine inside.
But more light wasn’t the only difference between this cenote and stop #1. At the bottom of the ladder, we found ourselves standing on a platform about eight feet above the cenote, looking out over a swimming area that was easily twice the size of an olympic swimming pool.
No narrow spaces here! The water was crystal clear, and otherworldly-looking. Naturally, Justin instigated platform jumping and diving and even convinced one of the local boys (who was visiting the cenote with his mother ) to join in on the escapades. After what seemed like hardly any time at all, it was on to the next of our Yucatan cenotes!
Our final cenote of the day had the least amount of cave roof covering of the three, but still was deep down in the earth.
We climbed down the metal staircase and got a view of a pool of clear turquoise water.
We splashed around, and floated, watching dust motes caught in the sun beams and marveling at the hidden beauty of the place — a lush oasis in the midst of the desert.
I thought about all the generations who had enjoyed these waters, and how, a hundred years from now people would probably still be venturing there to get their own taste of the Yucatan cenotes’ magic.
A good day for Uncontained Life? I’d say so. Thanks to our friends for making this adventure, and many others during our time in Merida possible!