If you’re visiting the Yucatan you’re bound to hear many whispers of ‘cenotes’. But this one’s special.
The Yucatan is almost entirely limestone. Water has carved underground rivers that run all over the region and sometimes the ceiling collapses into one of these. The resultant sink hole is known as a cenote. Signs point them out off of the highways, tours include visits to them, and guide books build ‘must-see’ itineraries around them. But are they really worth all that bother? Well, frankly some are and some are not. Today’s post is all about one of the most fantastical natural places I’ve ever visited. My trip here was a little bit of luck, a little bit of going with the flow, and ended in a hell of a lot of pain, but it was all worth it.
We set off from Tulum at the crack of dawn. We weren’t aiming for a cenote but it was factored into the day, if we fancied it. Two days previously me and Kristina had been quizzing staff in our hotel about the best way of reaching Chichen Itza on a day trip from Tulum playa. After some internet research and much head scratching we had almost resigned ourselves to a 4:30AM rise and then a 5:30AM bus to Valladolid, followed by another bus to this world famous archaeological site. At that point English lasses Jill and Hannah galloped in on their mighty white steeds, stepped up to the plate, and saved our collective bacons.
“Sorry to interrupt, we just overheard your conversation and we were looking to go to Chichen Itza as well. We were going to hire a car so if you wanted to share costs for the day then we’ll drive you?”
Like manna from on high these ladies saved our excursion from grinding hours of public transport and insecurity over where we were going. We jumped at the opportunity.
“After Chichen Itza we thought we might go for a swim in a cenote around there, if you fancy that too?”
Not wanting to commit us to something that Kristina might not enjoy I remained lukewarm on the idea. She’s terrified of creatures in the deep any larger than a human palm, or with feelers/tentacles – and cenotes are potentially ripe to be full of those. Nevertheless we packed our swimming gear along with our sun cream for our day in Chichen Itza.
By noon we’d spent 3 amazing hours wandering around a pretty much deserted Chichen Itza but now the heat was soaring and the tourists were thronging around us. Yes, a swim sounded just grand thank you very much.
Taking the plunge
The Sacred Cenote inside Chichen Itza is in a wretched state, beside the fact that people were pitched off of the cliffs to their deaths in the murky water the whole sinkhole just isn’t very inviting. We had no idea what to expect from Ik-Kil, which is only a couple of miles back down the road. Pulling into the car park behind a coach we worried that there would be hundreds already here. I had visions of a grotty pond full of fat children.
It was nothing like that.
From the surface path you get a glimpse down into the cavern containing the cenote and immediately you get a whack in the face that something special awaits. Small birds flitter around this entrance and creepers dangle over the edge. You can see people swimming far below and the water looks beautiful where the column of sunlight slaps into its surface.
We scampered off to get changed in the pristine changing facilities and then showered outdoors to rid ourselves of the morning’s grime. You descend dozens of stone steps, past a viewing balcony, to the water’s edge. The view is unspeakably beautiful.
The midday sunlight made the pool glow radiant green but only in the centre. The rest remained dark but quite clear all the same. Water cascaded through the hole in the roof and caught the sun as it crashed down. The creepers were partially lit and many just touched the water’s surface. The birds swooped down to the surface to pick off flies, but dragonflies happily seemed impervious to these hungry critters, they just meandered around swimmers at ease. My heart opened completely and my face wore a huge grin. This was a little slice of heaven.
I bombed into the water with glee and it seemed like I took forever to come back to the surface. The water was cool, but not cold. The day upstairs was too warm for that. I absolutely loved it.
Unfortunately Kristina had spotted the dozens of small catfish in the water and didn’t want to get in. But even so I think the view made up for her disappointment. Jill and Hannah came in but Hannah was wary of the fish as well so nipped out pretty sharpish. Me and Kristina had left our cameras in the car because we are idiots, but Jill kindly sent me some pictures that she took. These adorn this post.
I splashed around and soaked up the sun from the luxury of this pool. There couldn’t have been more than ten people in the water at a time so there was no sense that it was crowded.
Then I spotted the stairs up the side of the chamber. A life guard sat at the top and made sure the tourists didn’t jump in stupidly or recklessly. Jill asked if we wanted to dive from there, I sure did! When we got up there I went first and after instruction from the lifeguard that it needed to be a pencil dive I plummeted into the water once more, but this time from 4 metres up. This isn’t a huge height but the plunge depth I attained forced water into my ear canal and trapped it inside. I came to the surface feeling uncomfortable but not too bad. Whatever I did the water wouldn’t leak out. Uh-oh…
Oh the agony!
After some time we left Ik-Kil and started the drive back to the coast. As we progressed I became more and more uncomfortable. Suddenly I realised why the pain was increasing behind my ears. At Ik-Kil cenote we were many miles inland. Even in a flat land like the Yucatan the ground level was about 30m above sea level and the air pressure was subtly different to that at the seaside. As we reached Tulum I thought my head was going to explode catastrophically, sideways out of each ear. I was in agony. I rocked back and forth like a crazy person, stifling tears. I poured warm water from the shower into my ear as it seemed to help momentarily. I dropped some pain killers and waited 45 minutes for them to kick in. Exhausted I managed to fall asleep and when I woke up most of the pain was miraculously gone.
It was a shame that such a beautiful place was, in a way, sullied by my adventurous dive but as the pain left me over the next few days more sights, sounds, and smells from our honeymoon filled the void. When I got the photos from Jill about two months later I was brought back to that moment when I rounded the bottom of the stairs and saw this fairytale swimming hole. My heart skipped a beat again, and my eardrums were forgiven.