One of the great things about living in the Yucatan is the amount of things to do, not only in the city of Merida, but in the outlying areas and beyond. Many of these are not readily apparent or obvious, as they would be in more touristy places. There are no crashing waterfalls, no spectacular beaches and no (thankfully) theme parks.
There are, however, many magical places that hold a special charm of their own. Many of these have to be discovered with a little exploration and an adventuresome spirit. One of the more popular attractions in the Yucatan are the cenotes, some of them so magical and beautiful that they are sure to enchant even the most jaded tourist or bored teenager.
Cenotes We Have Known and Loved
You can read all about the creation, formation and theories behind the cenotes elsewhere (just follow the links at the end of this article!). In a nutshell, cenotes are underground water formations; some are open to the sky and resemble small sinkholes, some are completely hidden in darkness underground and still others are partially accessible through holes where the roof has caved in, exposing the crystalline blue water within. There are hundreds of cenotes on the Yucatan Peninsula, but some are easier to visit than others. There is the famous open-air Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza, the swimmable cenote of Ik-kil near Valladolid (where the recent Red Bull Diving competitions were held… see link at end of this article), the not-so-secret cenote of Yokdzonot and the Xlacah cenote (also open-air) at the ruins of Dzibilchaltun. But arguably the most famous cenotes are now the three cenotes of Cuzama.
Cuzama Cenotes – A Brief History
The Cuzama cenotes, as they are known, are a small cluster of cenotes of which three have been fixed up to allow relatively easy access for visitors. Locals from the area and even from Merida have known about and enjoyed swimming in these cenotes for many years, but one day, an enterprising man from the village of Chunkanan formed a cooperative and created a tour of the three cenotes.
This tour included traveling to the cenotes on a horse-drawn “truck” , a small platform on rails once used to transport workers to and henequen leaves from the hacienda. At haciendas all around Yucatan, the leaves were processed into bales of fiber which in turn were then shipped to Merida for conversion into rope and the rest is well-known history. In the last few decades, many of these haciendas had stopped producing henequen, and much of this machinery had gone idle. So the idea to use this unique mode of transportation was an original idea that fit perfectly with many visitors’ desire to experience something ‘local’. It also fit the trend towards eco-tourism and over the last five years or so, this has become a very popular tour. Even visitors from the cruise ships that dock in Progreso each week inquire about this option as an alternative to the many Mayan ruins packages offered.
Details of the Cenote Tour
There are three cenotes on the present version of the tour: Chelentun (chay-len-TOON), Chacsinicche (chok-seen-EETCH-chay) and Bolonchojol (bow-lone-choh-HOLE). The first two are now easily accessible by concrete stairs that have replaced wooden ladders. These in turn replaced the original method of getting to the cenotes, which was shimmying down the roots of the trees that hang from the cenote roof, struggling to find water.
The last cenote, considered by many to be one of the most beautiful in the Yucatan, is accessible only by a vertical wooden ladder affixed to a round hole in the rock. While a little frightening at first, it is well worth overcoming ones fears and descending into this magical place!
Many folks worry about whether or not they will be able to climb down into the cenotes and once in the water, climb back out! This is really a matter of knowing your own personal limits, as we have seen visitors over seventy years old enjoy all three cenotes without too much difficulty.
There are life jackets available from your “truck” driver… just ask and be sure to leave a little tip at the end of your tour. Changing rooms and bathrooms are available at the first and last cenote to make it easier to be modest. Keep in mind that you can have your “truck” driver lash your cooler onto the little vehicle so that your water or other refreshments are handy for your entire trip. There are no stores or stands along the nine kilometer (about seven miles) tour to buy anything, so if you want something along, you’ll have to bring it. (We assume it goes without saying that you should take everything, including your trash, away with you as well.)
This situation changes slightly on weekends and holidays, when local ladies from Chunkanan set up shop at the first cenote and you can purchase things like handmade jewelry, small embroidered handkerchiefs and even peeled oranges, known locally as chinas and typically eaten with salt and chile powder. Yum!
The “trucks” are pulled by horses, some of which look quite healthy and cared for, while others look a little worse for wear. Don’t be cheap and try to fit all six of your party onto one little “truck”. Think of the horse! The horse will eat better if the driver has had a better day financially, and will appreciate a lighter load. If you have the time, pick up a few carrots or apples before leaving Merida so you have a treat you can feed ‘your’ horse… with the drivers permission, of course.
Chunkanan is an abandoned hacienda located just five minutes after the town of Cuzama. Since the machinery at the Chunkanan hacienda was wiped out by Hurricane Isidore in 2002, the processing of henequen or sisal came to an end there and the cenote tour became the villages main economic activity.
Things were going swimmingly (pun intended) until, as luck would have it, the mayor of the town of Cuzama noticed with increasing concern that many tourists were passing through his neck of the woods without stopping. Instead, they were going straight to visit Chunkanan and its cenotes.
Noting that the cenotes were on ejido or public land, which belonged to the comisaria (municipality) of Cuzama as well as to Chunkanan, he realized that the good people of Chunkanan did not have any potential proprietary claims on the cenotes. So, he initiated his own project, creating an access point to the cenotes from the Cuzama end of the route. Once he had put in place a new cooperative with more “trucks” and drivers from Cuzama, he put his plan into operation.
At one point he even employed local police to stop tourists on the small road to Chunkanan to inform them that the Chunkanan option was ‘closed’ and the only access to the cenotes was through the new Cuzama entry point. While the police are now gone, there are still men with red flags waving down unsuspecting tourists on the previously-mentioned road to Chunkanan. Many visitors, unaware that there are two places from which to take this ever-more-popular tour, are led to believe that this is the “official” entrance and turn in here, leaving the folks in Chunkanan with nothing to do and no income from the cenotes.
Two Tours, Three Cenotes
Little by little, the two groups have overcome initial hostilities which in one case led to an all out fistfight between members of the competing groups. They have now come to an uneasy truce, grudgingly accepting the existence of each other. There is still some dispute regarding the subject of maintenance of the cenotes, particularly the removal of trash and the repairs to the wooden ladders and stairs. These are now showing signs of wear and tear, especially after periods of heavy use such as Easter and summer vacations when many Mexican families visit the Yucatan from other parts of the country.
At the time of this writing these disputes are ongoing and the maintenance issue is becoming particularly critical. In two of the cenotes, climbing out of the water after a refreshing swim requires some dexterity and strength as some of the wooden ladders and platforms have crumbled away.
How Do You Choose?
While we make no suggestions on which option is better (in terms of price and the tour itself, they are identical), we would suggest that if you visit the cenotes more than once, spread the wealth a little! The cost of the tour is $250 pesos per truck, with four people maximum. If you take advantage of the life jackets from the driver and he’s a personable sort of fellow, a $50 peso tip is certainly in order. We recommend taking the tour from both the Cuzama and Chunkanan end and meeting the good people from both towns. The cenotes are a unique and natural Yucatan attraction and a perfect outing on a hot summer day!
Definition of ejido land in Mexico
All about Haciendas in Yucatan
Special thanks to Tucker Shannon and Cathal Austin for the photos from their recent trip to the cenotes of Cuzama and Chunkanan.