Underground Lakes: Swimming in the Cenotes of Mexico

Given the ongoing political and military situation in Mexico, many might overlook it when considering options for their next holiday. There are simply too many news stories about gruesome executions by drug cartels, corrupt policemen running drugs, and general panic and instability. But it’s important to keep in mind that these situations affect a relatively small part of the country, near the border with the United States. The rest of Mexico remains as calm and inviting as ever, and has a lot to offer. One of the best sites to discover on an independent trip there are the cenotes of the Yucatan.

Tcenote 1he Yucatan Peninsula is probably best known for Cancún, the party capital and home to far too many “Girls Gone Wild” Spring Break movies. You’re probably questioning the wisdom of going there, and you’re probably right to do so. Instead, make your way into the interior of the peninsula and discover something much more interesting—underground lakes of deep blue water, perfect for swimming. These naturally-formed sinkholes dot the landscape, and locals know where the best ones are. Most are accessed from surface level by rickety metal staircases and ladders that look ready to topple over at any minute (and realistically, they probably are). Once you reach the bottom of one of these, a cave will open up before you. Holes in the earth provide shafts of sunlight, illuminating the interior and piercing into the cerulean water. Cenote  DOS - OJOS    Eingang des HöhlensystemsThe lakes run deep, and touching the bottom is generally impossible except for the strongest of swimmers or those joining a scuba dive group. Diving in and splashing around with locals and a few other travelers in the know is a perfect break from the heat outside and the crowds in Mexico’s tourist resorts. In one cenote that I visited, a tree growing at ground level reached its roots all the way down until it reached just under the surface of the water, maybe ten meters or more below. The gnarled root structure provided a perfect ladder for climbing, and small boys were daring each other to climb higher and higher before jumping off. Sights like this can be common.

cenote 3Reaching the cenotes can also be an adventure. Some are best accessed by donkey carts running along metal tracks through the scrubland. Rides on these carts are cheap, and you may be entertained by some good stories by your guide. My cart was piloted by an ancient man that spoke a native language other than Spanish. His grandson translated from the Indian language into Spanish, and from that I could understand more. Interactions like this are, in my opinion, a much better motivation for traveling than crazy drunken days on the beach or in the hotel pool. If you’re adventurous enough to visit Mexico, go off the beaten path. Just not too far off, though—nobody wants you to get kidnapped.