Other than hundreds of Mayan archaeological sites, the Yucatán peninsular is famous for cenotes — effectively sinkholes, caused by the meteorite that was responsible for the demise of the dinosaurs.
When you’re told you’re going swimming in a sinkhole, the mental image is less than appealing. I picture a dirty hole in the road, or a big muddy puddle.
The reality is quite different.
The first cenote you visit in Yucatán is probably going to be Ik-Kil. Close to Chichen Itza, the cenote was sacred to the Mayans, where people were sacrificed to Chaac, the god of rain.
Today, it’s more of a tourist attraction with a restaurant, shops, and cottages to rent.
Ik-Kil eco archaeological site
The cenote was far from a dirty hole in the ground. Instead, it is clear, cold waters in a magical-looking cave.
It’s 90 steps down to the cenote, which is itself over 35 metres deep.
At the top, and most of the way down, there are various signs forbidding jumping and diving into the cenote.
Why that would occur to anyone as a good idea seems like a mystery, but on the way out the park, there is a sign mentioning it as a site of Red Bull Cliff Diving.
A few days later, my group tour itinerary had cenotes underground snorkel planned.
To be completely honest, I hadn’t been interested in visiting cenotes before I arrived in Mexico.
After visiting the Ik-Kil eco-archaeological site I thought I’d seen what they had to offer. I figured they were fine for a one-off visit when you’re going somewhere else.
Much like my preconceived notions about what a cenote would be like, I was completely wrong about what this day tour would involve.
And I was very wrong when I thought that the cenotes would all be like Ik-Kil: commercial, touristy.
I was met first thing by my guide Gustavo, who was warm, funny instantly likeable, and who told me that we had “the biggest tour group ever” that day.
We’d had quite a large group the day before, so I wasn’t altogether surprised — but what he meant was the tour group was only me.
A private tour with a smart, knowledgable and funny guide sounded like the ideal day.
Together we took a public bus out to a local village. The bus was more like a private minibus than the public transport I was used to in Perth.
How anyone knew where the bus was going, or when to signal the driver they wanted to get off, was a total mystery to me.
Luckily, Gustavo and the driver understood each other, and there we were on the next stage of our adventure.
The tour said we’d “move as the locals do” and take local transport to the cenotes.
Local transport wasn’t limited to the bus — next, it was the moto-taxi, much like the one pictured.
Off we went, bumping down dirt roads with rain-filled potholes, and Gustavo joked to me that this was a “Mayan massage” as we were shaken and thrown about on the bumpy roads.
But Gustavo also made the very valid point. Instead of this, we could be in an air-conditioned van with a bunch of other tourists.
Wasn’t this better? It was definitely more real.
Over the next few hours, the three of us — Gustavo, me, and the taxi driver — visited three different cenotes, each slightly different from the last. And each completely different to the Ik-Kil eco-archaeological site.
There were no showers or gift shops in sight at these places, and rarely more than a couple of other visitors.
Some were entirely underground, some were partially caves, another had tiny fish nibbling on your feet, some had impossibly deep water and dark underground caves.
That kind of depth makes you feel a little funny, you’re just floating there or treading water, and underneath you, the water goes down forever.
Part of me would worry about the possibility of an underground current or undertow that might drag me down.
I don’t know how realistic that concern was, but Gustavo told me his Mum would get worried every time he went to the cenotes.
Since we didn’t have cave diving licenses, our snorkelling, consisted of just face masks and swimming, although Gustavo would frequently dive under the water where the floor was within reach, and search for treasure — lost items people might have dropped in the waters.
For lunch, Gustavo took us to a house in a local village for a home-cooked meal — while we waited for our food, I grabbed us both a couple of bottles of beer from a dusty shop next door.
The food lovingly prepared for us was Yucatan chicken, a chilli-citrus spiced chicken, and Gustavo showed me how to eat tacos properly: take a tortilla and tear it in half. Holding half of the tortilla in a slightly cupped hand, use it to tear off some chicken and grab other fillings. Tear, eat.
Gustavo laughed at the absurdity of gringos eating hard corn tacos.
Even while eating I’m excited to share this more “authentic” way to eat Mexican food with friends when I get home.