On the northern part of the Yucatàn Peninsula, there are no above ground rivers. The Peninsula is basically a large hunk of limestone. Over the centuries, rainwater has permeated the limestone and formed hundreds (if not thousands) of miles of underground rivers and caves. Centoes are the freshwater sinkholes and wells where the roof of a cavern has been exposed to the surface. They come in all forms and shapes, from completely underground lakes to lakes on the surface to large lagoons. They all have shockingly clear water and make great places to swim, snorkel, and scuba dive.
There are a number of cenotes along Highway 307. Any bus or collectivo will let you out at the entrance. Most charge an entrance fee of around a few bucks. Dive shops (like Tank Ha) in the larger cities will arrange dive trips into the centoes for around $100 for two dives.
Here are our favorites:
- El Gran Cenote is easily the best cenote in the area for snorkeling. You can swim in electric blue waters under cavernous arches and rocky shelves seeing stalactites and other formations that you'd normally have to scuba dive to see. El gran cenote is located near Tulum - about three miles from the intersection of the main highway (307) and the road to Coba. It costs around $8 a person to enter. To get there, it's pretty inexpensive to take a taxi from Tulum. After your visit, you can stand along the road until a collectivo or bus (or friendly local) stops to pick you up.
- Casa Cenote / Manatee Cenote is a very lagoon surrounded by mangrove trees set just off the beach. It’s deep, clear, and long, and makes an excellent snorkeling location. The lagoon enters a cave that passes under the road and the beach and exits into the ocean. The beach is an excellent area to hang out in between swims and there is a restaurant and small hotel there. There is no fee for swimming in the cenote. There was no secure place to leave your things, so if you don’t have a car, be aware not to bring anything valuable, or take turns swimming.
Casa Cenote is located a few kilometers north of Tulum. Collectivos will drop you off at a dirt road that runs to a resort at the ocean. Walk down the road until the resort and then follow it north. It’s about a fifteen-minute walk from the highway.
- Cenote Azul is a large turquoise lagoon located in the jungle. It’s clear waters are an excellent place to go snorkeling. It is located a few kilometers south of Playa Del Carmen and collectivos will drop you off at the entrance.
While not actually in the Maya Riviera, the ancient Mayan city of Chichén Itzá is a must see destination for any traveler heading to that part of the world. Major construction at the site began in 900 BC and today the site is filled with temples and pyramids that are a sprawling testament to the skills and the ingenuity of the Mayan people.
Chichén Itzá is located in the middle of the Yucatàn Peninsula, about 3 hours away from Playa Del Carmen. There are three main options for visiting Chichén Itzá. The first is to arrange a tour from one of many tour companies in Playa del Carmen or Cancun. These tours usually last all day and include a bus ride directly to Chichén Itzá, a guide at the site, a stop at one of the nearby cenotes, sometimes lunch, and almost always a stop at a trinket stop. The second option for visiting Chichén Itzá is to rent a car. This has the advantage of allowing you to be on your own schedule and explore the area but also has the hassles that come with, well, renting a car.
Finally, for travelers with more time, we highly recommend taking a bus to the nearby town of Valladolid and spending the night there. Valladolid makes a great base for exploring the ruins.
Chichén Itzá Tips: Bring lots of water and sunscreen lotion. If you are traveling on a budget, bring food with you as the restaurants there are very expensive. Arrive early in the morning if you can to avoid the heat and crowds that come mid-morning on buses from the resorts. Plan on walking a lot and being very hot. Bringing a guidebook with detailed descriptions of the buildings or hiring a guide with make the visit better. There are usually two sides open for climbing El Castillò, the central pyramid. One side has a rope strung down the middle of the stairs that can be used as a railing or banister. The other side does not. El Castillò is very steep and the rope helps. Finally, the tunnel inside of El Castillò is very narrow and steep. There appears to be no limit to the amount of people the authorities will let in at any given time, so people with claustrophobia should be warned that they will be spending the next 20 minutes of their life in a dark, dank, hot, and humid tunnel with what feels like 10,000 of their closest friends.
Valladolid is a quiet colonial city that makes a perfect base for exploring Chichén Itzá and the nearby cenotes. Staying a night or two in Valladolid will get you out of the Maya Riviera for a bit and allow you the chance to experience the rich culture and atmosphere of the Yucatàn Peninsula.
Valladolid Accommodations and Sights
Besides Chichén Itzá, Valladolid is a great colonial city with an amazing main square and several cenotes nearby. Here are our recommendations:
- Albergue La Candelaria Hostel (201-F Calle 35 / 856-22-67) is simply a great hostel. Inexpensive with a friendly staff, it also has an outdoor jungle-like garden where you can lounge in a hammock or cook your own meals in the outdoor kitchen. It's located at the Parque La Canelaria, about a five minute walk from the main zocolo.
- Hotel Zaci (191 Calle 44 / 856-21-67) is a modern place with tv’s, air-conditioning, and a swimming pool. If you’ve been staying in Tulum in a sand floor cabana it’s a great place to get used to being back in the world again.
- Cenote Zaci (3 blocks east of the zocalo) is a large cavernous lake in the middle of a sinkhole in the middle of town. Vines hang down into the deep azure waters where local families and children swim while bats swoop above. It’s a great place to hang out and people watch. The admission (around $2 USD) also includes access to small zoo, which consists of a dozen or so metal cages filled with sad monkeys and other depressed local fauna.
- If you’re limited on time, skip Cenote Zaci, and visit two other, much nicer cenotes about 7 km away from Valladolid. Cenote Dzitnup is in a large underground cave with massive stalactites that hang from the ceiling and plunge into the surface of the lake. The water is very clear, cold, and swimable so bring a swim suite and goggles. Nearby Cenote Samulà is in another cave. Visitors enter through a steep stairway carved tunnel into a massive cavern. Roots from a tree snake in through a small opening in the ceiling and plunge many feet down to the lake. Both cenotes charge a couple of dollars in admission.
The easiest way to reach these cenotes from Valladolid is to take a taxi there. To save money, after visiting the centoes it is easy to walk out to the main road and then flag down a bus or collectivo heading back into Valladolid. You can also take any westbound bus or collectivo and ask to be let off at the cenotes. It is also possible to rent bikes in town to ride to the cenotes.
- The Convento de San Bernardino de Siena is a massive convent built in 1552 over a cenote with stones from a Mayan temple. If you go when it's open, it's likely someone will offer you a tour for a few pesos, which I recommend as it's a very cool place and the oldest ecclesiastical building in the area. It's about a 15 minute walk to get there from the main zocolo. It's at the end of the super pedestrian friendly Calle 41A (called "El Paseo de Los Frailes"), which is worth a stroll in itself.
- Finally, check out the murals on the second floor in the city hall building which is located next to the main church in the zocolo. The murals tell the entire history of the area and are amazingly painted.
Izamal is a small town of about 15,000 people, located about two hours away from Valladolid. It's one of the most beautiful cities on the Yucatan Peninsula. Izamal was once a religious center for the Mayan people and was home to 12 pyramids. The Catholic, as they were good at doing, knocked down the largest pyramid and built a huge yellow convent on top of it. The other pyramids still stand today and most of the other buildings in town have been painted yellow to match the convent. Strolling along the tranquil streets, taking a carriage ride, sitting in the zocolo, climbing a pyramid, or eating some of the best regional cuisine in the Yucatan makes for a great escape from normal tourist activities. To get there, take one of the many buses from Valladolid. A direct 5 hour bus also leaves from Cancun.
Izamal Accommodations, Sights, and Restaurants
Besides the obvious things to check out (like the convent) here are our favorite places in Izamal:
- Machan Che Bed and Breakfast (Calle 22 #305 / 52-988-954-02-87) bills itself as an oasis and it truly is. An easy five minute walk from the heart of Izamal, Machan Che is a collection of bungalows situated in an amazing garden. There's a pool and an outdoor dining area where wonderful breakfasts are served and where you can hang out at night and play board games. The owners are often around and will provide great tips of things to check out. There's also a number of cats who like to be pet if you need some quality animal time. Rooms start at about $30 USD.
- Hacienda San Antonio Chalanté (52-999-1327411) is a bit farther from town and you'll need to arrange a taxi or horse drawn carriage to get you there and back. Located on a Spanish colonial hacienda, it's a completely relaxing, beautiful place. They offer meals and horseback riding. Rooms start around $35 USD in the off season.
- Kinich-Kakmo is the largest of the 12 Mayan pyramids that are located right in the middle of the town. You can climb it for free and have a great view of the city and surrounding jungle from horizon to horizon. The other pyramids in town are worth checking out as well, ask locals for directions. Kinich-Kakmo will always be a special place for Jen and I as we somewhat expectantly got engaged there on our last trip to Izamal. It's located three blocks north of the Convent.
- Hecho a Mano(Calle 31 #323 / 52 99 26 0002) is a great little store that sells folk arts and crafts from all over Mexico. The owner, Hector, who is from Florida, will give you a personal tour of his store, an explanation of the types of arts displayed, and recommendations of things to see Izamal. Purchases from his store directly benefit the artisans of Mexico, who receive commissions and orders for their work. Hecho a Mano ("handmade") is located on the corner of the Zocolo.
- Restaurant El Toro serves some of the best food on the entire Peninsula. It specializes in traditional Yucatacan cuisine and is really cheap. Be sure to try the Sikil-Pak (a pumpkin seed salsa) or, my favorite, panuchos. Wash the meal down with a jarra of horachata and you'll be dreaming of the meal for years to come. It is located next to the bus station, one block back from the main square. Resturant Kinich Kakmo near the pyramid of the same name also serves some great regional cuisine.
Puerto Morales is a sleepy little town about twenty minutes north of Playa del Carmen. It’s home to a large ex-patriot population and also serves the resorts that are located to both the north and south of town. It’s a nice place to go if you need a slow change of pace.
Snorkeling at Akumal
Akumal is a tourist city of luxury condos and hotels about 40 km south of Playa del Carmen. It is also home to two of the best snorkeling sites in the Maya Riviera: Half Moon Bay and the Yal-Ku Lagoon. To reach Akumal take any bus or collectivo going north from Tulum or south from Playa del Carmen and ask to be let out at the main Akumal entrance (there are several). The highway is a few kilometers from the main part of Akumal but it’s an easy walk and there are often taxis waiting at the junction. Half Moon Bay is a large shallow bay that is protected from the open ocean from a reef. It is ringed with luxury condos but all beaches are owned by the government of Mexico and are open to the public. The reef starts about a ten-minute swim from shore and you can expect to see colorful clown and angelfish, sea turtles, eels, and thousands of other types of marine life. To reach Half Moon bay from the Akumal turnoff on the highway, either take a taxi or walk to the main village of Akumal and then walk north along the coastal road. Half Moon Bay is about a half hour walk from the turnoff.
The Yal-Ku Lagoon is a large protected inlet of water that is perfect for snorkeling. With no waves, abundant fish and sea life, and ultra clear water, the Yal-Ku Lagoon can rival scuba diving for an amazing experience. To reach it, continue on the northbound coast road from the main part of Akumal until you see signs. There is an admission fee and snorkel gear is rented on the premises.
Xcaret (pronounced Ish-Car-Et) is large Mayan World theme park. There are real and mock ruins and Mayan villages; a large zoo-like complex with jungle cats, monkeys and bats; an aquarium with massive sharks and giant turtles (but not in the same tank); an underground river to go snorkeling in, a large beach complex, wading pools, Mayan churches, and even a mushroom farm. After dark, there are shows which feature Mexican folk dances and recreated Mayan ball games. Xcaret is very expensive ($40+ USD) but like Disney World it can be a lot of fun.
Xcaret is located a few kilometers south of Playa Del Carmen. You can buy your tickets in any of the major cities and they’ll show you where to catch a bus. Likewise, any collectivo or bus will also let you off at the entrance.
Xel-Ha is worth skipping. For more rewarding and far cheaper snorkeling try the Yal-Ku Lagoon or Casa Cenote.