Not far from the big-box resorts of CancÚn, The state of YucatÁn gives visitors the chance to learn about maya culture—and explore the jungle.
Get there before the buses. This is solid advice for any popular travel destination but it’s especially true for the Yucatán’s cenotes—a peninsula-wide patchwork of fresh water sinkholes, caves, and hidden pools in the sheet of limestone underneath the place. And, right now, we have Cenote Chichikan, a deep sinkhole with a tranquil pool of green-blue at the bottom, all to ourselves. The canopy of the surrounding jungle shades the cenote from the Caribbean sun and a manmade waterfall pours 50 feet down into it. The low splash of the falling water gently echoing in the silence. Chichikan is one of the most lovely of the peninsula’s famed pools, which are still sacred to the Maya people, who found life in the fresh water and places to bury ceremonial dead in their depths. On a more mundane level, Chichikan is nicknamed the “Instagram Cenote,” since it offers the chance for one of the most beautiful shots you’ll ever see on social media. Confession: Despite the banality of clicking off shots for our own feeds, it’s impossible not to do it here.
The maya are here—everywhere. They are the people of the YucatÁn today.
We—my wife and two teenagers, Isa and Kieran—scramble down the slick, wet wood of the staircase that brings us down to the water and enoy our seemingly private visit. Like everyone else in the world right now (and in our home town, tested to its core by a shooting and wildfires), we needed something likes this, some place far away from home where we could rediscover ourselves and our mutual love of travel and learning—and each other. We need to rest and heal. My wife suffered a broken neck in a bike accident. She is lucky that there was no apparent permanent damage, but she broke two vertebrae and has been stuck in a neck brace for months and is worried by shooting twinges in her arms and legs, residual tremors of the trauma. This trip marks the end of an era for us as well: My daughter, Isa, will leave for college in a few weeks and our little family unit will need to adjust to new dynamics. Travel has always been a driving force for us, and we hope we engage in it ethically, respecting and learning about the cultures and places we visit, contributing to them in a way that uplifts the people we meet. In the low, humid green and tropical sun of the Yucatán we hope to find some new perspectives on ourselves and paths forward, away from the familiar and beloved high, dry air of our Rocky Mountains.
Currently, we are simply in awe. The cenotes are unique to the Yucatán, which has no lakes or river and where layers of limestone underlay the dense jungle of the flat peninsula. In that porous rock, fresh water carves out systems of caverns and exposed sinkholes give a glmpse into the heart of it all. The Yucatán is also the site of the Chicxulub Crater, the place where the meteor that extinguished the dinosaurs and most other life on Earth smashed into the planet 66 million years ago, setting the stage for the eventual rise of mammals and our current, precarious Anthropocene. That apocalyptic event also created what’s referred to as the “Ring of Centoes,” along the deep-buried crater’s rim.
It’s not a New Age folly to say you can feel the aftereffect of that primordial event here. The Yucatán has a palpable energy to it, an intensity and also, oddly, a sense of ease. And one local tells me that while some think of the crater as the center of extinction, it’s also the place where new life, power, and hope began to emanate back to the planet.
A subtle understanding of the relationship between life and death is key to Maya culture as well. Often misrepresented with human sacrifice and doomsday predictions at its forefront, the learning of the ancient Maya represented a precise albeit far different way of observing and categorizing the world—in astronomy, a different number system, and mathematically perfect architecture that survives to this day. The Maya brought us chocolate. One other popular misconception is that they are gone. That could not be farther from the truth: The Maya are here—everywhere. They are the people of the Yucatán today.
Here we are immersed in a place sacred to the Maya. Alone in this cenote, we swim, float, stare up to the sky framed by trees far above. We sit on the edge with our feet in the water and small fish swarm to our legs in droves and begin to exfoliate us, tickling as they nip, harmlessly, at our skin. (And we all confess our feet feel softer later. Thanks, fish.) It’s what we needed so badly, a pause, a reset. Thanks, Yucatán.
Alone in this cenote, we swim, float, stare up to the sky framed by trees far above. We Sit on the edge with our feet in the water and small fish swarm to our legs in droves and begin to exfoliate us, tickling as they nip, harmlessly, at our skin.
Chichikan is not the only cenote we visit. Each one of these sunken paradises has its own unique vibe. Hacienda y Cenote Selva Maya includes a zip line park. It gives us a chance to stand high above the jungle canopy and get a sense of just how vast, green, flat, and expansive this place really is. After flying high above the jungle along with capable guides we tour the grounds and see herbs grown the traditional Mayan way, in hutches that stand above ground, both to better drain and keep out animals. Better yet, we eat a lunch that includes these homegrown goodies, chief among them chaya, a tasty spinach-like leaf that grows on trees that we zip-lined over. We don’t have Selva Maya’s cenote all to ourselves but we do beat the bus traffic to go down inside and jump off a platform into the deep water below.
Including the bustling, art-drenched capital city of Merida, the State of Yucatán is the heart of the peninsula. Most tourists come down here to enjoy Cancún’s long beaches or the club-and-chill scene in Tulum in the neighboring state of Quintana Roo. Who can blame them? But many of those visitors go straight from the airport, margarita in hand, to the hotel. They don’t get the immersion of exploring the cenotes, or more importantly of the wonderful people who actually live here.
The State of Yucatán is certainly brimming with tourists. After all, it hosts cruise ships at the port of Progreso and the world-famous ruins of Chichén Itzá. (Let me stop here and tell you that no matter how touristy you think these ruins may be, you must visit. If you want to beat the crowds, take my earlier advice of going early, or go at night, when the giant pyramid and surrounding structures are lit up and the vibe is far more mellow). But the feel here, as opposed to the beach resorts, is a bit bigger and more local.
We feel that at our accommodations in the town of Valladolid, which is renowned as one of Mexico’s magic cities. With its brightly colored buildings and street markets of artisans, the town is a big draw for cruise ship tourists who come in on buses (again, buses) but it somehow never feels overrun. If all the people, buying street corn and churros in the main plaza with its old church built on top of yet another cenote feel like too much, wander away down any street and barter or talk with the people who live here. You can be a tourist yet act more like a guest.
This is what heals us, what makes us feel as if we can return to our lives with new knowledge that can help us live better, as the best travel always does. We talk to the people who live here—the Maya, who have always lived here—and we come back as if a meteorite had smashed away the negativity in our lives and set us on a path of new, verdant beginnings.
Cover Photo: by Doug Schnitzspahn