Caving In

Guided tours of underground waterways lure travelers to the Yucatan

By: By Anne Burke


Hidden Worlds Cenotes Park 
Mayan Ecotours (Stay tuned for an English-language version.)

Turitransmerida Tour Operator & DMC 

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Scroll down for more information on where to stay in the Yucatan.

Where to Stay

Many cenotes are within a short drive of Merida, the capital of the state of Yucatan, which is known for its rich colonial history and vibrant cultural scene. Merida is often called the White City thanks to its tidy streets and white limestone buildings.

Clients who like their travel adventures big but their hotels small won’t be disappointed here. There a number of boutique hotels within walking distance of the city’s historic core, which comes alive in the evenings with music and folk dancing. On Sundays, streets around the main square, or Plaza Grande, are blocked to traffic for the weekly food and handicrafts fair.

A little gem is the 15-room Hotel Casa San Angel, decorated in a lively style with colorful murals. More elegant is the Gran Hotel de Merida, remarkable for its neo-classical interior. Located just one block from the Plaza Grande is the Hotel Colon, which has a spa and outdoor pool, which will certainly prove refreshing during the summer since Merida is located about 40 minutes from the beach.

Farther out from the historic core are the Hyatt Regency Merida, which will appeal to clients who like contemporary lodgings, and the colonial-style Fiesta Americana Merida, located above a street-level shopping mall.

Fiesta Americana Merida 
Gran Hotel de Merida 
Hotel Casa San Angel 
Hotel Colon 
Hyatt Regency Merida 

Here’s a little geography quiz: In what part of Mexico will you never see a major river?

If your answer was the Yucatan Peninsula, you may already know a little something about the region’s extraordinary and vast network of caves and underground rivers that the Grupo de Exploracion Ox Bel Ha, a team of international cave divers, refers to as "truly one of the last unexplored regions of this planet."

The first cenote that clients visit with Mayan Ecotours // (c) Mayan Ecotours
The first cenote that clients
visit with Mayan Ecotours

The Yucatan is mostly devoid of rivers and streams. Rainwater seeps through the limestone bedrock, which dissolved over the millennia, leaving a honeycomb of caves and subterranean river systems that flow to the Caribbean. These underground waterways are sometimes loosely referred to as cenotes (pronounced "say-no-tays"), although the term applies more strictly to open sinkholes where the limestone ceiling has collapsed. (A famous one is found at Chichen Itza.)

Cenote diving is popular with a certain class of thrill-seeking cave explorers and scuba divers, but many of these underground rivers are safely and easily enjoyed by casual swimmers and snorkelers, too.

While it is possible to visit cenotes on your own — you simply watch for the signs along the highway — clients will be much better off with a guided tour. Many tour operators on the peninsula have turned cenotes into a popular diversion for sun-baked tourists looking for a one-of-a-kind experience.

Many cenotes resemble the dramatic terrestrial caves found in destinations such as New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Stalactites hang from cathedral-like vaults while stalagmites rise up from limestone floors. The water is fresh and — when illuminated by lights — crystal-clear. Many cenotes contain openings leading from one cave to another, some big enough to drive a truck through, but others are a tight squeeze.

A prized sighting for cenote explorers is a halocline, where the fresh water floats atop heavier salt water, creating a blurry, swirling effect that is positively eerie to see.

While today’s submerged caves are largely playgrounds and exploration sites for tourists, divers and speleologists, the ancient Maya used them for wells to draw life-sustaining water.

"Cenotes are the natural wonders of the Yucatan," said Manuel Valle, owner of the Merida-based Turitransmerida Tour Operator & DMC. "They were also sacred places for the Maya. They represented the entrance to the underworld, which they called the inframundo."

The ancient ritual of throwing human sacrifices into cenotes is, of course, no longer practiced.

One of the Yucatan’s most popular destinations for exploring cenotes is a park called Hidden Worlds, located on the Riviera Maya side of the peninsula about 90 minutes south of Cancun. Featured in the IMAX-format documentary, "Journey into Amazing Caves," Hidden Worlds is home to Cenote Dos Ojos. With more than 35 miles of passages mapped so far, this cenote is one of the world’s largest-known underwater caves, according to the documentary makers. Even longer is the 95-mile system of caves known as Ox Bel Ha, after which the Grupo de Exploracion takes its name.

Hidden Worlds Cenotes Park doubles the fun for cenote-swimming tourists by offering some unusual above-ground activities. Visitors can pedal a bicycle — which is attached to a cable and suspended at treetop level over the rainforest — or ride a zipline that ends with a cool plunge in a cenote.

Guided tours offered by many Yucatan tour operators and travel agencies also include terra firma activities, such as lunch stops and mule-drawn wagon rides at historic haciendas. For swimming activities, tour operators supply snorkeling equipment and life jackets; clients need only bring a bathing suit and towel.

Turitransmerida offers tours that start with a 9 a.m. hotel pick up, followed by visits to two cenotes and three haciendas. One of the cenotes is called Yaal Utzil, located near the historic Hacienda Mucuyche. It is reputed to be among the most beautiful in the Yucatan, so much so that a European couple has chosen it as the site for their destination wedding with 65 guests, Valle said.

More adventuresome clients may want to try Mayan Ecotours’ cenote-rappelling tour, during which participants reach the water by rappelling about 55 feet into the bowels of a cave. The tour operator provides guides and gear, such as a belt, harness, ropes, helmets and more.

The company notes that guides are trained in emergency medicine and rescue, which is good to know — especially if you’re a first-time spelunker.