Getting There

It was a long journey – from the time we stepped out of the front door of our house to the time we finally stepped into the door of our hotel in Playa del Carmen, 33 hours had passed. Three hours on a bus from Canberra to Sydney, four hours wait in a Sydney Airport lounge followed by a 15½ hour flight to Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, six more hours of waiting in a transit lounge before the 2½ hour flight to Cancun and finally, after almost an hour to clear customs, another hour in a shuttle bus to reach our hotel at Playa del Carmen. It was just before midnight on the same day we had left – the International Date Line had made it a long day in more ways than one.

We had allowed a couple of days to get over our jet lag and, after a long sleep in, we caught up with our friends, Mike and Odile, who had arrived a few hours before us. The first day was spent relaxing by the pool of our colonial-style hotel (with its pink walled interior courtyard) and checking out the lay-out of Playa del Carmen. A full-on tourist town, Playa del Carmen was splitting at the seams in this peak season, as Americans and Europeans escaped the winter of their own lands for the Christmas-New Year break.

So, what to do on our next rest day – would it be to go down to the narrow strip of white sand beach to join the thousands of bronzing bodies stretched out along its length, would it be to catch a ferry to the island of Cozumel, where the beaches are lined with tall apartment towers as well as thousands of bronzing bodies, or would it be to go and see something completely different –the cenotes? We chose the latter.

Our hotel in Playa del Carmen

Much of the Yucatan Peninsula is flat, with a dense low jungle growing on poor soil above a bedrock of limestone. Here there are no mountains and, hence, no rivers – surface rivers at least. Aeons of rainfall has percolated through the limestone, creating a maze of underground water-flows, rivers, chambers and caves. At places the surface has collapsed to form sinkholes or cenotes. Where these penetrate the water-table, beautiful pools of clear fresh water are found. We wanted to see what this unique landscape looked like, so we booked a tour to visit some cenotes. Several of the larger ones have become tourist attractions in their own right and, at peak season, would be almost as crowded as the beaches. However, there are many thousands of cenotes in Yucatan, and we found a small operator who had some on his own patch of Yucatan jungle and chose this more authentic experience. 

The flat Yucatan landscape


A friendly Mexican hairless dog

Entering the cave system

The tour offered the chance to see several different types of cenote – thus, the four of us drove out into the jungle with Daniel, the owner / guide, who, along with his troop of Mexican hairless dogs, showed us this porous limestone landscape. After a short walk down a jungle track, the first stop was a humid cave, with some sections of dry floor and some pools. Armed with torches and helmets, Daniel and Canelo, the male Mexican hairless, led us down the hole in the jungle floor and into the cave entrance.

Sunlight pours through a hole in the cave roof

Finally emerging into the open

Deep in the cave interior

A narrow pinch

For about 500m, we wandered and waded through the caverns and narrow pinches of the cave system, past large blocky calcite formations and dangling tree-roots. Occasionally, light poured in through yet other openings to the surface to illuminate the caverns, until finally we emerged again into the forest through a small limestone slot at the bottom of a hole. It was impressive to think that this whole jungle landscape has such a secret world beneath it.

The interior of the caves

Forest landscape near the cenote

The second cenote was even more impressive, this time a large horseshoe-shaped depression, one part of which was filled with crystal clear water. Beneath the cliff edges, the chasm deepened dramatically, filled with the clearest water, tinted blue as the sun sent shafts of light into the depths of the pool. Moreover, it was ours to swim in for the next hour or so, as we enjoyed lunch in the shade of the forest trees.  The photos below barely do it justice.

Beneath the surface of the crystal clear cenote

Finally, Daniel led us on a short trek down a narrow jungle foot-track to a cenote that he had only discovered a year ago. It was a larger mostly dry depression, with small pools and caverns formed against the limestone cliff. Perhaps in a few thousand years it too would be like the big blue hole we had just swum in. The cenotes were certainly well worth visiting.

Surface of the cenote below a limestone ledge
Rays of sunlight penetrate the depths (can you spot the fair Nello?)

Normally, the fair Nello and I are fiercely independent travellers, but organising our own way around Central America seemed that bit too hard, so we signed up for a group tour with Intrepid, one of several such adventure travel companies. To be honest, I had some “intrepid”ations about being on an organised trip. However, back at the hotel after our brief exploration of the cenote landscape of Yucutan, our group tour of Central America officially began, with a chance to meet our guide and compañeros for the voyage. They seemed a friendly lot and my trepidations eased. Perhaps tonight, I would sleep a bit better – I can’t keep blaming my wakefulness on jet lag.