Beyond the ruins in Mexico’s Yucatán

By Birute Skurdenis
This article appears on page 34 of the October 2015 issue.
This is subscriber only post.
Get one year of online-only access — only $15!
Below is a sample of the article.
Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.
View of Cenote Ik Kil from above.

If you’re planning a visit to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula and want a break from Mayan ruins and Catholic missions, there are active adventures to be found near Chichén Itzá and in the coastal areas north of Mérida.

Fancy a swim?

Five kilometers from Chichén Itzá and the nearby town of Piste, a swim adventure awaits at Cenote Ik Kil, one of the largest cenotes in the Yucatán. Not only is it one of the largest, it’s one of the best appointed, with lockers, clean showers, hotel rooms, a decent restaurant and a large gift shop. 

A cenote is a sinkhole in limestone that reveals the groundwater underneath. The surface of the water in Cenote Ik Kil is 85 feet below ground level and is reached by a wide staircase carved through the limestone. You can look down into the cenote from above and from several balconies off the staircase. 

The water in the cenote is about 130 feet deep, and visitors can slip in from the edge of the pool, use the provided ladders or dive in from a variety of heights surrounding the pool. The water is refreshing on a hot day but can feel cold to those who are used to heated pools. 

The natural pool is quite spacious, covering an area of about 25,000 square feet. You can swim under waterfalls that drip from the overhanging rocks that surround the pool. 

I was staying at the Mayaland Hotel (call, in the US, 800/235-4079, www.mayaland.com) at Chichén Itzá, so I took a cab to the cenote. My cab driver recommended going at lunchtime, before the afternoon tour buses arrived. When I got there at 1 p.m. on a January day, there were about two dozen people in the pool. When I left at about 4 p.m., that number had doubled, with more arriving. 

Admission plus a locker rental cost about $10. There is little room to leave items at the pool area, and what is there is wet, so it’s best to separate your photo-taking from your swim. If you arrive unprepared or the depth of the pool seems daunting or you’re unsure of your swimming strength, the resort rents bathing suits, towels and life jackets. The day I was there, a good number of the people in the pool were using the life jackets.

If you don’t have your own transportation, make sure you prearrange for a cab driver to pick you up. I did not see any taxis stationed at the cenote.

Bird-spotting

On the north coast of Yucatán is the sleepy town of Celestún, about a 1½-hour drive from Mérida on country roads. Ría Celestún, an estuary, is the home of thousands of migrating flamingos and other seabirds. 

The tour company I used said there were flamingos year-round, though online information I read said they were in Celestún from November to March and at another area, Río Lagartos, all year. When I visited in January 2015, there were two large flocks of about 100 birds each, which was impressive enough. 

In Celestún, the small boats that take you out on the ría are organized as a cooperative, you buy a set-price ticket and are assigned a boat, so there is no jockeying for tourists by the operators or bargaining for price, which I understand is not the case in Río Lagartos. 

The boat ride to the flamingos’ site took about 15 minutes, and we spent an equal amount of time there. On the way back to the dock, we motored around islets inhabited by pelicans and other aquatic birds, drove through a mangrove swamp and got off the boat to visit the Ojo de Agua, or Eye of Water, a source of sweet water feeding the ría. 

Flamingos gathered at Ría Celestún.

There are no rivers in Yucatán, so the water in the ría is a mix from the ocean and the same underground sources that fill the cenotes, creating a rich environment for the creatures seabirds like to eat. 

Since I was traveling solo, I booked my excursion to Celestún through Mérida Tours (Mérida, Mexico; phone +52 999 9380036, www.meridatours.com.mx) a day ahead of time. The price of $65 included transportation in a van with six others, the boat ride on the ría, a decent lunch and an hour-long stop in the town of Celestún for swimming, shell collecting on the beach or a siesta. 

There were lots of waves the day I was there, and the water was refreshing. (In late summer and fall the town can get crowded with octopus hunters.) 

I neglected to ask in which language my tour would be conducted, and my fellow tour members were all Spanish-speaking, as was our driver and boat guide. I was able to manage with my Spanish, but I was lucky I didn’t wind up in the group of Polish tourists we encountered on one of our stops. I would have been totally lost!    

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.
View of Cenote Ik Kil from above.

If you’re planning a visit to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula and want a break from Mayan ruins and Catholic missions, there are active adventures to be found near Chichén Itzá and in the coastal areas north of Mérida.

Fancy a swim?

Five kilometers from Chichén Itzá and the nearby town of Piste, a swim adventure awaits at Cenote Ik Kil, one of the largest cenotes in the Yucatán. Not only is it one of the largest, it’s one of the best appointed, with lockers, clean showers, hotel rooms, a decent restaurant and a large gift shop. 

A cenote is a sinkhole in limestone that reveals the groundwater underneath. The surface of the water in Cenote Ik Kil is 85 feet below ground level and is reached by a wide staircase carved through the limestone. You can look down into the cenote from above and from several balconies off the staircase. 

The water in the cenote is about 130 feet deep, and visitors can slip in from the edge of the pool, use the provided ladders or dive in from a variety of heights surrounding the pool. The water is refreshing on a hot day but can feel cold to those who are used to heated pools. 

The natural pool is quite spacious, covering an area of about 25,000 square feet. You can swim under waterfalls that drip from the overhanging rocks that surround the pool. 

I was staying at the Mayaland Hotel (call, in the US, 800/235-4079, www.mayaland.com) at Chichén Itzá, so I took a cab to the cenote. My cab driver recommended going at lunchtime, before the afternoon tour buses arrived. When I got there at 1 p.m. on a January day, there were about two dozen people in the pool. When I left at about 4 p.m., that number had doubled, with more arriving. 

Admission plus a locker rental cost about $10. There is little room to leave items at the pool area, and what is there is wet, so it’s best to separate your photo-taking from your swim. If you arrive unprepared or the depth of the pool seems daunting or you’re unsure of your swimming strength, the resort rents bathing suits, towels and life jackets. The day I was there, a good number of the people in the pool were using the life jackets.

If you don’t have your own transportation, make sure you prearrange for a cab driver to pick you up. I did not see any taxis stationed at the cenote.

Bird-spotting

On the north coast of Yucatán is the sleepy town of Celestún, about a 1½-hour drive from Mérida on country roads. Ría Celestún, an estuary, is the home of thousands of migrating flamingos and other seabirds. 

The tour company I used said there were flamingos year-round, though online information I read said they were in Celestún from November to March and at another area, Río Lagartos, all year. When I visited in January 2015, there were two large flocks of about 100 birds each, which was impressive enough. 

In Celestún, the small boats that take you out on the ría are organized as a cooperative, you buy a set-price ticket and are assigned a boat, so there is no jockeying for tourists by the operators or bargaining for price, which I understand is not the case in Río Lagartos. 

The boat ride to the flamingos’ site took about 15 minutes, and we spent an equal amount of time there. On the way back to the dock, we motored around islets inhabited by pelicans and other aquatic birds, drove through a mangrove swamp and got off the boat to visit the Ojo de Agua, or Eye of Water, a source of sweet water feeding the ría. 

Flamingos gathered at Ría Celestún.

There are no rivers in Yucatán, so the water in the ría is a mix from the ocean and the same underground sources that fill the cenotes, creating a rich environment for the creatures seabirds like to eat. 

Since I was traveling solo, I booked my excursion to Celestún through Mérida Tours (Mérida, Mexico; phone +52 999 9380036, www.meridatours.com.mx) a day ahead of time. The price of $65 included transportation in a van with six others, the boat ride on the ría, a decent lunch and an hour-long stop in the town of Celestún for swimming, shell collecting on the beach or a siesta. 

There were lots of waves the day I was there, and the water was refreshing. (In late summer and fall the town can get crowded with octopus hunters.) 

I neglected to ask in which language my tour would be conducted, and my fellow tour members were all Spanish-speaking, as was our driver and boat guide. I was able to manage with my Spanish, but I was lucky I didn’t wind up in the group of Polish tourists we encountered on one of our stops. I would have been totally lost!