Merida is one of the main cities in the northern part of the Yucatan peninsula and one we used to break up the travel before we made it to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The first night we were able to find a craft brewery with vegan burgers and NFL on TV; it was clear we had entered a different part of Mexico. For the past couple of months, we were often the only Americans that were traveling through the area, which gave a more authentic slice of Mexican culture. Listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers we guiltily basked in some familiarity and enjoyed our evening. Walking in the rain through the city after beers capped off a night that felt more like Seattle than Mexico.
Outside of Merida there are cenotes, a couple coastal towns in an hour range which offer stunning nature, and more Mayan ruins, including the lesser known Uxmal. With just a couple of days in Merida and weather that didn’t seem to want to cooperate, we decided to see the cenotes Cuzama and the local Mayan museum.
Cenotes Cuzama otherwise known as Paradero Cenotes Chunkana, were our first taste of cave cenotes that are all over the Yucatan. To get here, the first step is to take a colectivo to Cuzama for roughly 20 pesos from the Noreste terminal between Calle 67 & 50. Hopping out of the colectivo in Cuzuma, you are dropped at a moto taxi station where a driver will take you out to the cenotes for another 25 pesos a person. Then the fun starts as you hop on a rickety rail car driven by a horse.
As the horse pulls you along, immediately horse flies come out, so if you do decide to do this in the future make sure to pack bug spray with some gusto because when these big boys bite it hurts! It really made us feel terrible for our horse that was pulling us along. If I thought the bugs were annoying, imagine what he thought about pulling us along this rail while getting bit by these buggers!
At the first stop, cenote Tzapakal, the driver takes you out into the jungle to a small entrance underground along a set of wooden stairs that are more of a ladder than a stair. As we snaked our way down to the small platform above the pool of water, it was shocking to see how clear the water was even in the dimly lit cave. Once in the water sitting above the gaping abyss below me, a unsettling feeling of nerves flooded over me. Was something going to come up from the deep and take me down?? We hung out over the chasm of water that plummeted 80 feet below us as long as we could take it before heading back up the ladder and out to our second cenote.
The second cenote, Santa Cruz, had more inhabitants sharing our space from bats to black catfish looking fish in the pools. The bats produced a less than attractive smell from the guano and the fish were very curious about me in the water. Taking little nibbles of my feet and back, a service some paid for on the streets of Cambodia left me eager to get out of the water as soon as possible. The space was very cool and all to ourselves however, which added to the creepy factor when peering down through the clear water to the abyss
The last cenote, Cheletun, was by far the most fun and even after visiting another 7-8 cenotes at the time of this writing, it is definitely in the top 2.
Walking down the concrete stairs there is a ledge with roughly a 10 foot drop that you can dive off of. The pool itself significantly larger than the first two cenotes and allowed you to swim as far back as you wanted considering the swarms of bats and birds who called this cenote home.
We stuck to jumping off the ledge and balancing on the underwater rope until it was time to head back by way of horse rail cart, moto taxi, and colectivo to Merida.
We also visited the Gran Museo de Mundo Maya which offered some very cool history about the Mayan people and truly put some of our misconceptions about the people to rest. For one, it is often said that the Mayan people mysteriously disappeared after their rise to power. That is untrue as there is a documented decline in the overall Mayan population, but it can be attributed to a whole host of societal, militaristic, and economic factors. Another misconception is the Mayan people were star gazers who avoided war. That also is incorrect as evidenced by the many statues and carvings which detailed the capture of slaves and great war heroes of the Mayan past. I think the most surprising fact that I learned was the ancient Mayan language has been translated into a whole host of languages and 30% of the population speaks Yucatec Maya to this day. The Mayans didn’t disappear, they are still living on the same land as their ancestors.
Merida was a surprise in its offerings and gave us our first taste of cenotes, plus some Mayan history. The city offers many of the creature comforts of the Western world and was a blast in our short time. Yet another hidden gem in Mexico.