Seeing Cenotes!

Fri. Nov. 26, 2021

When visiting Yucatan, chances are you might want to visit one of its fine beaches. But you can also have a great time in the water, and see some geological wonders to boot, farther inland at the cenotes.

What are cenotes? They are sinkholes connected to underground water — deep pits of cool water in which you can go swimming, snorkeling and/ or scuba diving. There are thousands of them on the Yucatan peninsula. And today, finally, we got to visit two of them — well, maybe two and a half.

First thing this morning, we started out from the Barrio Vivo Hostel with 3 of the guests: Ryder (Canada), James (Bahrain) and Roxanne (France). After walking about half an hour to the spot where we were supposed to obtain transportation, we were unable to find the station, so we had to ask someone. Then we followed his directions, and… we had to ask someone again. And so on, until finally we just stumbled upon it.

The transportation we were seeking was a collectivo, which is a shared ride. These are vans with a seating capacity of about 20. Rather than leave at an exact time, they wait until they are full, then collect about 30 pesos (roughly $1.50 USD) from each passenger, and then depart. And as you wait, you might be serenaded by an hombre with a guitar, playing and singing in hopes of getting una propina from appreciative passengers.

Merida to Hacienda Kampepén via Collectivo

It’s about an hour ride (in either Mexican or U.S. hours), and along the way, the driver stops to pick up other passengers at seemingly random spots beside the road. Some of them have to stand. These are not tourists, but locals simply going back home to the little pueblos we pass through.

The pueblos are rustic and colorful, with thatched roof houses, outdoor kitchens, and few automobiles — mostly the locals get around with the aid of mototaxis , which are somewhat like tuk tuks, but even more crude: they’re basically just motorcycles with passenger seats attached to the rear. We spotted dozens of them in the streets or waiting to pick up passengers. One of the pueblos we passed through had what appeared to be the remnants of a Mayan temple plopped right in the middle of town.

Short clip of the view from the collectivo passing through Acanceh Pueblo

When we reached the village/ pueblo of Homun, the driver informed us that he’d reached the official end of the line, and if he was going to take us the rest of the way to the cenotes, he’d need an additional 20 pesos per head. So we handed him back the 40 pesos in change he gave us when we paid the 60 pesos fare with a 100 peso bill. He then took us the short distance to the cenotes — probably about 5 miles for 20 pesos, compared to the 30 miles or so he brought us for 30 pesos.

The particular set of cenotes we’d chosen to splash into (there are many to pick from in this area) is located next to Hacienda Kampepen, the intriguing remains of a 200-year-old ranch house and related structures. Upon being dropped off, we paid the admission of 150 pesos each (the attendant sprayed the bills with disinfectant, the first time we’ve seen that even in this COVID-conscious country), and were issued a mandatory life jacket. We were then told to take a mandatory shower before entering the water (largely to remove sunscreen, which damages the ecosystem). That’s fine, but we say that if showers are mandatory, then hot water should be too.

Cenote and Cave Kixné

The first attraction, the cave, was located about 100 yards away, and was not that easy to find — the signs were not very clear. The placards outside informed us that the cave walls featured handprints in blood that had been there for many centuries; and that we were urged not to touch them, lest we damage them. We did spot them, and it actually would have been quite difficult to touch them, considering how high up they were. The natives must have been outstanding climbers, or else they used ladders or some such.

Anyway, this cave had a smallish (yet deepish) pool that we suppose counts as a cenote, or at least as half of one. And we did plunge ourselves into it, but as it offered little room for exploration, we soon moved on to the next attraction, the first official cenote.

Cenote Chenké

This one had much more water, though it still wasn’t really that big. Initially, we were concerned about where to leave our bags and gear, as the wooden landings of the stairway were the only spots available. Some people left their things up top, but we were worried about thieves, and even considered the option of taking turns down in the cenote, so one of us could stay topside and stand guard. But we managed to find room for our belongings on one of the landings. One of these landings had no railing and was about 8 feet above the water, so we each jumped off of it.

We were glad that we made the decision to pack our snorkels and masks on this trip, as they came in rather handy today. In this particular cenote, we even spotted a few small fish.

Cenote La Noria

Then it was on to the other cenote, which was located back near the entrance, right next to the hacienda. It was the biggest of the three by far, and had a much longer set of stairs to go down. It also had a platform by the water with plenty of room to stash our property. The water was a bit chillier.

There was an old wooden ladder, leading from somewhere way up in the ceiling — likely to the surface — all the way down into the water, to the cenote floor. It appears to be something left over from the days when the hacienda was occupied, and the cenotes were used as a source of water.

There was also a little recess in the rock, a sort of mini-cave, that extended for some distance. The intrepid Roxanne had to explore it to its end; while James, who is claustrophobic, cracked us up with his playful admonitions for her to return to safety.

After spending a delightful while here, we decided that we were cold and hungry enough, and left to get dressed.

The Cenote Crew from Barrio Vivo: Roxanne, Dennis, Ryder, James, Kimberly

Getting back home was a bit more problematic than getting out there, because the collectivo doesn’t come just to pick people up. So we had to grab one of the three mototaxis on hand for a lift back into Homun. Astoundingly, all 5 of us managed to fit onto one mototaxi (with James seated behind the driver), and we made it back into the village without flattening the tires on the bike. The fare was 15 pesos each, and the driver, very conveniently, did not carry any change. By pooling our resources and entering into a debt or two, we came up with exactly the right fare.

Before catching the collectivo back to Merida, we all decided that we wanted to have lunch. The two of us brought along our own grub, but James, Ryder and Roxanne packed nothing; so they sought out a local restaurant, and had some food that they said was quite good (and apparently, none of them got Montezuma’s Revenge).

While waiting 45 minutes or so for our ride, we gradually were joined by more and more prospective passengers. By the time it arrived, there was a line of people waiting. So we went to the end of the line, dreading the prospect of standing all the way back. But a woman in line said something to us in Spanish, which we finally understood (with the aid of some translation by the Spanish speakers in our group) to mean that since we were there before some and after others, we should move to the appropriate spot, placing us about the middle of the line. It was quite a pleasant surprise to see this kind of courtesy among passengers on public transit.

And so, in late afternoon, we arrived back at the hostel tired but exhilarated, and with another priceless memory under our belt. We’ve been wanting to cenote-ify for years, and now we can cross it off the bucket list. But by no means do we intend for this to be the only time.

Original Art by Roxanne IG: @roxygribouilli

By the way, the final tab for both of us to take today’s outing, transportation included, came to 430 pesos — a grand total of $19.62. That’s almost as astounding as the experience itself.

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