The Best of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula
Mexico and I have a sordid history. I’ve always tried to keep an open mind, but if I’m being completely honest, I don’t have many memories south of the border that don’t involve stolen valuables and a lot of time spent on the wrong side of the bathroom door. So as I prepared to descend into the black abyss at my feet, I couldn’t help but wonder what unforeseen series of unfortunate event’s waited for me below. After all, Cenotes were sometimes used by the ancient Maya for sacrificial offerings – yes, that’s HUMAN sacrifices. The way my luck in Mexico had gone in the past, nothing seemed too far fetched.
It’s not as if this little adventure to find Aktun Ha had started off smoothly. None of the locals we asked had heard of it, and unlike the hundreds of cenotes that dotted Google Maps, this one was conspicuously missing. We weren’t sure if we were in the right place when we pulled up. There were no other cars, no tour buses, nothing – just a small piece of scrap wood with the word “CENOTE” handwritten in all caps. The sign hung askew on a tree in front of a small home with a handful of kids playing in the dirt out front. As we exited the car a tiny woman emerged from the home. A few words were exchanged in Spanish, and the woman motioned for us to follow her into the backyard. Now, standing at the edge of a small black hole in the ground, I still wasn’t sure what I was looking at. Caution to the wind, I watched as Quin disappeared into the darkness.
As my eyes adjusted, I stared up at the ladder I’d just come down. Upon closer inspection, it was clear the ladder wasn’t really a ladder at all. It was actually pieces of rusted out track that had been cobbled together by suspect welding and chintzy wires. As the rest of the cenote came into view, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Stalactites framed a pool of crystal clear water that glowed bright blue where the sun filtered in from above. It was stunningly beautiful, and I could only stand in awe as I wondered what it must have felt like to be the first person to discover this cenote.
It’s experiences like the one at Aktun Ha that stick with me long after I’ve returned home. Travel is all about finding special places that transcend a mere destination to become a story. And as we traveled through Mexico it was obvious that despite its popularity, there’s no shortage of stories to be had on the Yucatán Peninsula. You just have to be willing to take the road less traveled. Here are a few of my favorite cenotes, as well as a few other off-the beaten path locations to get you started!
What Is A Cenote
A cenote is basically just a sinkhole. They form when limestone bedrock collapses forming a natural pit that exposes the groundwater underneath.
Cenotes are famous for their strikingly clear water. The water is so clear because it comes from rain water that has slowly filtered through the ground, which removes particulates from the water along the way. Cenotes come in all shapes and sizes and can run for miles underground uninterrupted. While it’s common to see partially collapsed cenotes that look like subterranean swimming pools, you can also find them above ground.
On a slightly darker note, it’s believed that cenotes were used by the ancient Maya as sites for sacrificial offerings.
Cenotes Near MERIDA
For those looking to travel beyond Mexico’s beautiful beaches and escape the tourists for a more authentic experience, Merida is a great alternative to Cancun and Tulum. Centrally located within the Yucatán Peninsula near the Gulf of Mexico, Merida serves as a convenient base for day trips to the region’s UNESCO-listed archaeological sites as well as many of my favorite cenotes. The cenotes in this area are as beautiful as anything you will find near Tulum, but they cost a fraction of the price ($3-5 US), and there’s a good chance you’ll have them all to yourself.
Cenote Aktun Ha
If you read the intro to this blog, then you already know all about Aktun Ha. This cenote was a truly special location. More than a location, it was an experience. After the initial sketchiness of descending down the rusted out ladder, it was like being in our own underground paradise.
Cenote Noh-Mozon might have been my favorite cenote of the entire trip! There is a wooden staircase that winds its way down to a platform that makes entering the cool blue water easy. Or you can jump 9 meters from the top! We spent all afternoon at Noh-Mozon swimming, cliff jumping, and enjoying the solitude. We only saw one other couple while we were there. There’s also a number of other cenotes along this stretch of road that are also quite nice, and worth stopping at if you have the luxury of time.
Cenotes Near VALLADOLID
Another great alternative base for your Yucatan trip is the charming town of Valladolid. From colonial era churches and architecture, and close proximity to a number of stunning cenotes (including one in the middle of town), there’s no shortage of things to do and see in the area. The center of the city features a plaza surrounded by restaurants and shops. If you are looking for a yummy bite to eat don’t miss out on Yurbabuena.
Located in Yaxunah town, about 15 miles from the archeological site of Chichen Itza, Lol-Ha is another quiet cenote with clear blue water, perfect cliffs for jumping, and few, if any people.
Las Coloradas Pink Lake
Okay so it’s not a centoe, but we went to Las Coloradas Pink Lake because I received a number of tips while in Mexico from people recommending it. The photos I found online looked promising – huge expanses of white sand to relax on while you take in the bright pink water reflecting fluffy white clouds in the distance. The reality was quite different. The area is now highly regulated, you have to pay a guide an exorbitant price to take you on a 10 minute walk along one of the salt ponds. You aren’t allowed to veer off the path, you can’t go near the water, and everyone is taken to the exact same spot to shoot. On top of that, drones are no longer allowed. Unless you have your heart set on getting a photo of some pink water, in my opinion the experience is not worth the drive.
The unique thing about Cenote Palomita is that you can rappel down into it! But if that’s not your thing, you don’t need to. There is also a nice staircase that will take you down into this sizable cenote. The rappel is super fun though, and it’s a great way to get a new perspective.
Just down the road from the famous pyramids of Chichen Itza is one of Mexico’s most visually stunning cenotes, Ik-Kil. Needless to say, Ik-Kil is not off the beaten path. In fact, it can feel a bit like an amusement park when you first arrive – complete with restaurant, gift shop, and a parking lot full of tour buses. But as the saying goes, it’s popular for a reason! Adorned with lush vegetation that drapes down to the water from the almost perfectly circular opening and cascading waterfalls, Ik-Kil resembles a scene out of Avatar.
Cenotes Near Playa Del Carmen & TULUM
Tulum has blown up over the past decade, and if you haven’t been there in a few years it’s almost unrecognizable. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s certainly no longer qualifies as an intrepid destination. It’s home to many popular natural attractions like Cenote Calavera, and Grand Cenote, but you won’t be alone. Not only are the cenotes around Tulum flooded with people, they are also 2-3 times more expensive than the equally beautiful cenotes around Merida and Valladolid. That doesn’t mean that Tulum isn’t worth visiting—it is. But it does mean you will have to adjust your expectations, especially if you’re coming from some of the less touristy areas.
Cave Diving In Mexico & The Pit Cenote
Cave diving in Mexico, specifically in El Pit Cenote has been on my bucket list for years, and it did not disappoint! Because it’s only open to scuba divers it’s relatively uncrowded compared to many of the other cenotes near Tulum. In fact, we were the only people there when we went, which was ideal for photography. To capture the famous light rays that shine through the water at this gigantic underwater cavern, you’ll need to schedule your dive for mid-day so that the sun is high enough to shine through the El Pit’s narrow opening. We organized our dive through Dive Mike in Playa Del Carmen and I would highly recommend them for any of your scuba diving needs in the area.
Other Things To Do Near Tulum
Reserva de la Biosfera Sian Ka’an
There are numerous tours you can join to visit Sian Ka’an. However, if you’re up for an adventure this unique ecosystem is also easily accessed independently from Tulum. Head south on the dirt road past all the beachfront hotels and cabanas until you drive through a Mayan arch. A Sian Ka’an visitor center is just beyond, and past that you’ll abruptly find yourself in an environment that feels worlds away from the posh hustle and bustle of Tulum’s developed tourist beach. For more detailed information, Roaming Around The World’s article on “How to Visit Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve” is invaluable.
Stay In The Jungle
Tulum is a great place to see and be seen. The people watching is hard to beat, and so are the beach bars. But if you don’t want to spend a fortune, or your goal is to get away from it all, then staying in the jungle might be just what the doctor ordered. We enjoyed a couple nights of solitude in one of the beautiful private villas at Tulum Wayak Jungle Villas. It was the perfect place to relax, while remaining within easy driving distance of Tulum beach and all the other attractions in the area. Plus, the owners were the sweetest people ever!
What To Pack For The Yucatan Peninsula
You don’t need much to explore the Yucatan Peninsula. I’d recommend a few comfortable bathing suits, towel, camera, and a bag to carry everything. In addition there are a few essential items that I always bring with me when traveling. These include a portable power bank, reusable water bottle, and water purification. The latter two are particularly important for destinations that don’t have reliable potable water.
Photos in collaboration with Quin Schrock