I can’t remember exactly when my fascination with cenotes began.
Actually, that’s a lie. It was when my friend Veesha went to Mexico in 2015 and posted the wildest photos of these underground water-filled lairs that looked like something out of a Guillermo del Toro flick.
Since then, I knew that if I ever went to Mexico, I would have to see these geological wonders for myself, and maybe, if I was brave enough, even take a dip in one.
The opportunity presented itself this August when I deliberately booked a Carnival cruise for my boyfriend and I that stopped in Mexico.
At first, browsing the shore excursions on the Carnival website, I assumed we would end up in some ancient ruins, climbing mind-boggling man-made structures in the sweltering heat and jungle steam.
Then, I saw it. A cenote-hopping tour.
Well, I’ll be damned.
It was an easy choice for me – reviews on most of the tours to the ruins confirmed my worst fears – long commute to and from, crowded, and very little face time with the actual structures. Not my idea of a day well-spent.
The cenote tour, on the other hand, promised a visit to four different cenotes, plus lunch!
My boyfriend went along with it only, I learned on the day because he didn’t expect to have to go into the water (more on this later).
On the day we docked in Cozumel, Mexico, we took a roughly 30-minute ferry to the mainland, disembarking at Playa del Carmen – a posh beachfront lined with hotels, restaurants, shops and a healthy heaping of sargassum seaweed.
Our guide, Martin, was a blast. It would be around an hour by bus to our destination of Tankah Village – a private compound inhabited by descendants of the Mayans, villagers who maintained the cultures and traditions of their forefathers as much as possible.
Martin explained that the site itself only opened up to tourists around 6 months before we arrived, and that part of the money we spent on the tour would go towards running electricity to the village.
We visited four cenotes on the compound – Cenote Piranas (not the best name for a body of water, IMO), Cenote Cueva, Cenote Naval and Cenote Azul.
Piranas was a good ease into the cenote experience – freezing cold water, possibly around 20 feet deep with a cavernous mouth you could easily jump off of into the water about 10 feet below. This particular cenote had a blowhole further back, under the rocky outcrop you see in the photo. So you could swim into the darkness then look up at your friends on solid ground, but since the cavern seemed to be teeming with bats I passed on that epic photo op because fuck bats. This was probably the most creature-filled cenote since there were also heaps of little fish that were nibbling on your feet, allegedly giving you a pedicure but who knows, maybe they were baby piranhas.
Brandon isn’t a fan of bodies of water where you can’t see the bottom so I didn’t get him to venture too far into this cenote. Clearly, I need to work on my peer pressure skills. He did climb down the stairs though and got a mini pedicure from the fish before he was like nah, fuck this.
Once we left Piranas we headed to La Cueva. This cenote had a zipline running across it, and for the more adventurous, you could swing yourself across before dropping into the water below. Of course, your girl was out here zipping around in the people cenote. Other than the zipline there wasn’t too much excitement around this particular cenote.
Brandon mostly hung out on the dock and recorded me dropping into the water like a big heavy stone. We took a minute to observe one girl in our group being egged on to jump into the water from the surrounding wall, and she was getting visibly upset in the process. Fun fact guys – people are allowed to enjoy themselves however they see fit. Traumatising members of your party into doing things they aren’t comfortable with really isn’t the best approach to a great time in a foreign country.
After La Cueva, we walked about five minutes to the next location – a cenote we wouldn’t be swimming in, but ziplining across in a harness.
This was Cenote Naval, and while we weren’t allowed to swim there (I presume due to ancient water creatures dwelling within) we did get to canoe across the cenote to get to our next location. Pro tip: sit up front and let your boyfriend who used to be on a dragon boat team do all the work.
One we disembarked rather precariously from our canoes, we walked to the next cenote – and the crowning glory of the compound – Cenote Azul.
Talk about an appropriate (even if not super creative) name. Wow oh wow was this water pristine and a strikingly blue (and cold).
You could literally see to the bottom of this particular cenote without even needing goggles (so I wasted my money renting goggles since this was the only cenote worth peering into anyway). And this is how I managed to cajole Brandon into getting into the water to frolic for a bit.
For the duration of our stay at Cenote Azul, one member of our group (a different woman from the one before) stood at the edge of the cliff trying to muster up the courage to jump in. She literally stood there for the entire time we were there, and never jumped, and she didn’t get to swim in the water below at all. Seems like a good metaphor for travel, or life in general.
Anyway, once we said goodbye to Cenote Azul, it was time for lunch!
Some of our group stopped for a tequila tasting on the way to lunch but we opted to head straight on to the grub.
The menu was simple but very delicious – chicken pibil, pork, rice and beans and fresh salad. You also had the choice of salsa rojo or verde. On each table was a little clay pot filled with freshly made corn tortillas (like so fresh they were literally making them as we were eating).
Lunch was washed down with a cup of piping hot Mexican coffee.
After we ate Martin guided us through some of the homes in the village so we could see how the people in Tankah lived. The village is currently working towards getting electricity so for now, they use car batteries to power whatever they need to in their homes.
When you’re on a cruise and only have one day to spend in a country it can be tough choosing how to spend that time. I think we chose the best possible experience given the time constraints – able to experience some of the Mayan Riviera’s natural wonders as well as observe the life of the people indigenous to the area, who remain something of a world apart from the tourist-laden beach fronts.
I’ll be back to Mexico in the near future, but for now, the cenotes at Tankah Village will keep that vibrant country vivid in my memory of my travels in 2018.