Swimming in Mexico's Mayan Underworld
Updated: Jul 8, 2020
Escape the all-inclusive resorts of the Yucatán Peninsula and dive into the region’s amazing natural swimming holes.
It’s not every day I’d be about to jump feet first into a portal to the underworld, just wearing a pair of shorts. But I throw caution to the wind and drop through a tiny hole into the dark depths of one of the most remarkable phenomena on the planet – a cenote. I’m at a spot called Cenote Calavera (or Temple of Doom Cenote), which from above resembles a huge skull, looking like a something from the set of an Indiana Jones film. The idea is to jump through the right eye socket into the watery depths below.
It’s a bat shit crazy thing to do. Literally. I can see bats flying past the entrance, but I hold my breath and jump. I feel like I’m flying through the air for far too long, before I hit the refreshingly cool water below. I swim back to the surface and across to the floating platform exhilarated. There’s a step ladder that takes you back up through the mouth of the skull. I want to do it all over again. And I do. Several times...
They look like the sort of place Tarzan would take a dip!
Found mainly in the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, cenotes are natural swimming holes caused by the collapse of their limestone roofs. While swimming in subterranean water might not sound that appealing, cenotes are usually spectacular. Found in the jungle areas of this lush paradise part of Mexico, there are often high cliffs surrounding the fresh water pool, with thirsty vines reaching into the depths from the canopy above. They look like the sort of place Tarzan would take a dip, filled with catfish and turtles and in-the-know locals cooling down from the tropical heat. They are genuinely paradise on earth.
As a swim tourist who is always looking for the most unusual and beautiful places to take a dip on the planet, cenotes have been on my very wet bucket list for years. There are believed to be more than 5000 cenotes on the Yucatán Peninsula and the ancient Maya considered them to be the portal to the Netherworld. There are several types of cenotes – those that are completely underground (like Temple of Doom), those that are semi-underground and those that are at land level, looking like stunning blue lakes. There are also the ‘screen saver’ cenotes; the deep wells, overhung with tropical trees whose roots reach into the waters below. On our two-week holiday, we vowed to swim in as many as possible.
Hunting down these natural waterparks is a great way of exploring the Yucatán Peninsula. We started by working our way down the Riviera Maya which stretches from Cancun in the north down to Tulum in the south. Our adventure began in Playa del Carmen, with a beachfront overlooking the Caribbean Sea and a buzzing strip of bars, shops and restaurants called 5th Avenue. It’s also the perfect place to take a boat trip out to the island of Cozumel, a long thin island with spectacular beaches and amazing scuba diving. There are also a large number of cenotes that can be explored in the area and we aimed straight for a place called Azul.
Just 20 minutes' drive from Playa del Carmen, Cenote Azul is a genuinely phenomenal azure-coloured cenote, with some of the clearest water I have ever swam in. More like a lake, we visit on a Sunday lunchtime, when dozens of local families are swimming in the mineral-rich waters, exploring caves or diving from a natural platform, before sunbathing on rocks. It’s a million miles away from vegging on the sofa, watching rubbish repeats on the TV and wishing you hadn’t eaten that last roast potato.
Next, we drove down to Tulum, famed for its spectacular clifftop Mayan ruins dating back to the 13th century. Once a seaport trading in turquoise and jade, it is the only Mayan city built on the coast and even boasts a beach to swim from, overlooked by the ruins and straight from the front cover of a Lonely Planet guidebook. A swim in the crashing Caribbean ocean is a must.
About two kilometres from the town centre you will find a hotel zone of cabañas hotels built in a traditional Mayan style, with rustic thatched palm roofs. Popular for yoga retreats and spa breaks, the eco resort welcomes alternative types and is particularly interesting at night. What little electricity there is must be provided by generators, meaning the bars and restaurants are lit by fire torches and candles and food is cooked using traditional methods.
There are some amazing cenotes in the area as well, many of which can be reached by bike. Gran Cenote and Dos Ojos (two eyes cenote) are both popular with scuba divers, with vast underwater caverns waiting to be explored. If that’s not your thing (cave diving is definitely a bit extreme for us too…) it’s worth buying a snorkel and mask to explore the many caves and passages. Turtles are common, as are blind dog fish and tiny doctor fish ready to exfoliate your feet with a natural pedicure. You’ll also find whole caverns of harmless fruit bats flying between the stalactites.
We also hunted down a place called Casa Cenote, which is a spring that flows out into the sea. It was an amazing place to swim, with mangroves on either side of the natural channel and the freshwater suddenly becoming salt water. The plan was to swim all the way to the sea, until we spotted an actual crocodile staring at us, unblinking from the bank. Unable to exit the water, it was a long swim back, wondering if any of his family members may be below us.
Having recovered from possibly the scariest wildlife encounter ever, we decided to head inland into the heart of the Mayan jungle. We stopped in the city of Valladolid (about an hour’s drive from Tulum), a charming place with a real colonial Spanish feel thanks to the colonnaded arcades, paving-stone streets and sun-splashed pastel coloured walls. It’s also the perfect place to base yourself for some more cenote exploring, especially as there is one pretty much in the middle of the city.
The locals treat this as their local swimming baths, although sadly we couldn’t go in that day, as Rick Stein had taken it over, filming his series on Mexico. Instead we hunted down a little-known cenote called Oxman, based at a hacienda on the outskirts of town. After winding our way down a long set of spiral steps, we arrived at an enchanting swimming hole, with a hole in the roof above and vines reaching down into the waters. There’s a rope swing too, which I managed to slip off and belly flop into the refreshing water hole below.
To reach the most impressive Mayan ruins, you need to drive deep into the jungle areas of the Yucatan Peninsula. The roads are long and straight, while the whole area is very flat. This is one of the reasons the Maya built pyramids, to reach above the treetops and the views are spectacular. Ek Balam (The Black Jaguar) is one of the few ruins that you are allowed to climb in the territory and climbing to the top of the 31 metre acropolis is a breath-taking experience, in every way.
With no rivers in the entire region and just the underground water system, the Maya built their villages and pyramids near cenotes. At Ek Balam you can hire a bike to take you through the jungle to Cenote X’Canache, where your entrance fee also includes a zip wire above the cenote and then an abseil down into the water below. In the heat of the jungle, the swim is a very welcome treat.
Most people aim for Chichén Itza in the east of the state; the most famous of the Mayan ruins. With 2.6 million people visiting a year, including people from the various cruises arriving at both coasts of the region, it’s worth getting there very early. We checked into the Hacienda Chichén Resort and Yaxkin Spa, which has a private entrance into the ruins that allows you to visit an hour before they are open to the public. The main pyramid is genuinely impressive and if you happen to visit during the spring and autumn equinoxes, the northwest corner of the pyramid casts a shadow that evokes the appearance of a serpent wiggling down the steps.
By arriving early, it also means you can get to the popular local cenotes before the cruise ship passengers. Il Kil Cenote is the most visited in the entire region and with good reason. It’s magical, with the jungle canopy overhanging the 60m wide opening at the roof of the sink hole, thirsty vines drinking from the waters below and some great jumping platforms. Indeed, Red Bull regularly hold cliff diving competitions here, with a height of 27 metres for divers to perform their stunts before plunging into a depth of 40 metres. I was just happy jumping about three metres.
While Il Kil is the most popular, our favourite cenote of the whole trip was called Cenote Yokdzonot, about 18 kilometres west of Chichén Itzá. A group of Mayan Women got together back in 2005 to find a way of earning a living, as working in the fields wasn’t making ends meet. They formed a cooperative to renovate the cenote in their village and got a 50-year concession on the water hole and the land around it.
Every day for two years, at 2pm, after they had finished their housework, they went to the land to move rocks to form pathways and wooden stairs down to the water. They also built bathrooms and a restaurant and a fence around their business. Over the two years, many women got discouraged and quit and by the time the cenote was inaugurated in January 2007, 17 women (from the original 60) remained in the co-op. Membership is inheritable, meaning that each woman’s space will be handed on to her children. Today the group consists of 5 men and 12 women.
The swimming hole is paradise on earth, with small fish darting all around you, birds singing in the jungle above and dragonflies fluttering above the water's surface. It’s great to see that cenotes that have provided life for Mayan people for thousands of years, can still provide a living for local people today. Hunting down cenotes also means you discover some of the best in Mexican street food. This particular cenote offered the most wonderful and inexpensive Yucatecan cuisine we tasted. The lime soup and chicken empanadas were to die for.
For the less adventurous...
If you don’t fancy travelling across country to sample cenotes, Puerto Morelos is the starting point for the Ruta de Los Cenotes (or the Cenotes Trail) that is only a short drive from Cancun. Here you will find around 10 cenotes along one long road. And if the whole thing still sounds far too wild, there are also two water parks called Xplor and Xcaret Park near Playa del Carmen that have been built to incorporate natural cenotes, but with all the infrastructure of a theme park.