Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Not your average hole in the ground...

I will admit here to an irrational fear of cenotes.  No matter how much people went on and on about how spectacular they were, and how refreshing, I just couldn't get too enthusiastic about descending wet stairs or a rickety ladder into an underground sinkhole filled with water and who knows what else.  Darren has wanted to visit one for some time now, and had even booked an excursion a few years back before getting sidetracked by a trip to the hospital.  So today's trip to Cuzama was a growth experience for me and the culmination of a long-held interest for Darren.

It turned out that the trip involved so much more than a swim in the cenotes though.  We left Merida on Route 18 headed for Kanasin, and then on to Acanceh and Cuzama.  Kanasin was bustling with street vendors, and Acanceh boasted an old church and a Mayan pyramid on the town square.  (Actually, Acanceh was a very pleasant town...large enough to have options but neat and tidy...and might be a good option for an expat looking for a more immersed Mexican experience.)

We noticed a couple of haciendas and hacienda ruins passing through Cuzama, and finally arrived at Chunkanan, the departure point for a three-cenote tour by horse drawn cart along a narrow-guage railway left over from the henquen days.

There are a number of good blogs with descriptions of the tour and particularly how to avoid the newer tour operator that is closer to Cuzama in favor of the original operators in the pueblo at Chunkanan.  You can find some of them here, here, and here.  Suffice it to say that I loved every minute of this completely unique experience.  You begin by approaching the rail carts that are lined up along the side of the road on the tiny little rails, where you will be paired with a cart and driver.  The carts seat at least four people, although I've seen references to more, and the fee (paid to the driver at the end) is 250 pesos.  Add a tip, and perhaps bring apples or snacks for the horse.

One quick note...I found a number of blog posts and comments that expressed concern about the treatment and the condition of the horses (to be fair, there were many more noting the opposite).  We saw nothing that caused us concern, at least at the Chunkanan operation.  The horses were healthy and well-nourished and seemed to be well cared for by the drivers.  All of the horses that we've seen in the Yucatan have been small in stature compared to those NOB, but that doesn't mean that they are not healthy or that they aren't physically equipped to pull the carts.

Carts going in both directions all share the same track, so periodically you will have to hop out of the cart while the driver removes the cart from the track to let an opposing cart pass by.  This is done with a minimum of fuss and bother.  Although the tiny tracks are not evenly connected or straight by any stretch of the imagination, the horses get a pretty decent speed at times which can create a nice breeze.

If you've never heard of a cenote before, they are essentially an underground pool of water in the porous limestone that makes up this part of the Yucatan.  Some have a larger opening at the top, and some (like the one above) are accessed through what appears to be a narrow crack in the ground.  As soon as you duck your head under the rock ledge at the top, you can see the water and other people down below.

The stairs in both of the cenotes that we visited were a little on the rickety side.  (The third cenote was closed "for renovation.")  Especially from the bottom looking up, the stairs reminded me of something out of the movies "National Treasure" or "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider."  They served their purpose though and are certainly better than the steep ladder that we were told was the only access to the cenote that wasn't open for visits that day.

The water is cool (but not cold) and clear enough to see small fish...five or six inches long...swimming around in the water.  It was in fact refreshing, which is probably why everyone writing about cenotes mentions that fact.  One cenote had birds swooping in and out at the entrance, and another had long dangling roots coming from trees above ground almost all the way down to the water.  If you are not impressed by the experience of floating in the water  and looking back up at the rickety stairs and the sunlight streaming in, then you're just not doing this right.

One of the blog posts about these cenotes linked above mentions small wasps around the entrances, and we did see some of their interesting hives hanging from the top of the caverns but weren't bothered by them.

I read that there are hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of unmapped cenotes in Yucatan.  This stressed me a out a little bit, because in some instances the limestone that forms both the roof of the cenote and the ground over which you are walking is pretty thin.  I don't suppose that there is likely to be a rash of cenote collapses any time soon, but I wouldn't want to be walking on top of one if it were ever to happen.

That's only about 18 inches of limestone!

Your driver operates on your schedule, so you can spend as much time or as little as you want in the caverns.  When you are ready to head back to Chunkanan, your horse and driver will whisk you back to the starting point of your trip.  There, there is a large restaurant with surprisingly good food and large portions, a picturesque small pueblo, and the ruins of Hacienda Chunkanan.  Take a moment to appreciate all three before you head back to Merida!

The restaurant...if you're not parked here, you are not at the original operator's location.

If you, too, have an irrational fear of cenotes, my advice is to put the fear aside and head out to Cuzama/Chunkanan and the cenote tour.  You will be so charmed by the horse drawn carts on the tiny train track that by the time you actually get to the first cenote you might find that your fear has vanished.

And even if it hasn't, go on and give the cenotes a try.  Don't pay any attention at all to that stuff above about the rickety steps, birds, fish, and wasps....


  1. Another great post and thanks for the photos too. You really make me want to try this. Perhaps on our next trip we will.


  2. I'm ok in swimming long as I don't have to put my feet on the bottom. Trauma from swimming in too many lakes and ponds.

  3. hello, my name is kristen. i have been online looking for 2 friends of mine, emily and ryan (newie). they should be in the merida/yucatan area looking for me too. if you've heard of anything at all or know of someone who meets a lot of people passing through, please drop me a line and let me know...
    anything at all would help.
    thanks so much for your time,

  4. Nice photos, regarding the horse and your comments however quite disturbing, horses are not borne to be abused by us. Look healthy and treated well? Even gave them an apple? that's nice but imagine YOU yourself spending your life being forced to carry a cart full of people along the track! it is sick and should not be advertised, poor horses, regardless how well they threat them this is completely wrong.