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The Cenotes of Cuzama & Chunkanan


One of the great things about living in the Yucatan is the amount of things to do, not only in the city of Merida, but in the outlying areas and beyond. Many of these are not readily apparent or obvious, as they would be in more touristy places. There are no crashing waterfalls, no spectacular beaches and no (thankfully) theme parks.

There are, however, many magical places that hold a special charm of their own. Many of these have to be discovered with a little exploration and an adventuresome spirit. One of the more popular attractions in the Yucatan are the cenotes, some of them so magical and beautiful that they are sure to enchant even the most jaded tourist or bored teenager.

Cenotes We Have Known and Loved

You can read all about the creation, formation and theories behind the cenotes elsewhere (just follow the links at the end of this article!). In a nutshell, cenotes are underground water formations; some are open to the sky and resemble small sinkholes, some are completely hidden in darkness underground and still others are partially accessible through holes where the roof has caved in, exposing the crystalline blue water within. There are hundreds of cenotes on the Yucatan Peninsula, but some are easier to visit than others. There is the famous open-air Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza, the swimmable cenote of Ik-kil near Valladolid (where the recent Red Bull Diving competitions were held… see link at end of this article), the not-so-secret cenote of Yokdzonot and the Xlacah cenote (also open-air) at the ruins of Dzibilchaltun. But arguably the most famous cenotes are now the three cenotes of Cuzama.

Cuzama Cenotes – A Brief History

The Cuzama cenotes, as they are known, are a small cluster of cenotes of which three have been fixed up to allow relatively easy access for visitors. Locals from the area and even from Merida have known about and enjoyed swimming in these cenotes for many years, but one day, an enterprising man from the village of Chunkanan formed a cooperative and created a tour of the three cenotes. The truck to the Cuzama cenotes

This tour included traveling to the cenotes on a horse-drawn “truck” , a small platform on rails once used to transport workers to and henequen leaves from the hacienda. At haciendas all around Yucatan, the leaves were processed into bales of fiber which in turn were then shipped to Merida for conversion into rope and the rest is well-known history. In the last few decades, many of these haciendas had stopped producing henequen, and much of this machinery had gone idle. So the idea to use this unique mode of transportation was an original idea that fit perfectly with many visitors’ desire to experience something ‘local’. It also fit the trend towards eco-tourism and over the last five years or so, this has become a very popular tour. Even visitors from the cruise ships that dock in Progreso each week inquire about this option as an alternative to the many Mayan ruins packages offered.

Details of the Cenote Tour

There are three cenotes on the present version of the tour: Chelentun (chay-len-TOON), Chacsinicche (chok-seen-EETCH-chay) and Bolonchojol (bow-lone-choh-HOLE). The first two are now easily accessible by concrete stairs that have replaced wooden ladders. These in turn replaced the original method of getting to the cenotes, which was shimmying down the roots of the trees that hang from the cenote roof, struggling to find water.

Preparing to Jump into a cenote in YucatanThe last cenote, considered by many to be one of the most beautiful in the Yucatan, is accessible only by a vertical wooden ladder affixed to a round hole in the rock. While a little frightening at first, it is well worth overcoming ones fears and descending into this magical place!

Many folks worry about whether or not they will be able to climb down into the cenotes and once in the water, climb back out! This is really a matter of knowing your own personal limits, as we have seen visitors over seventy years old enjoy all three cenotes without too much difficulty.

There are life jackets available from your “truck” driver… just ask and be sure to leave a little tip at the end of your tour. Changing rooms and bathrooms are available at the first and last cenote to make it easier to be modest. Keep in mind that you can have your “truck” driver lash your cooler onto the little vehicle so that your water or other refreshments are handy for your entire trip. There are no stores or stands along the nine kilometer (about seven miles) tour to buy anything, so if you want something along, you’ll have to bring it. (We assume it goes without saying that you should take everything, including your trash, away with you as well.)

This situation changes slightly on weekends and holidays, when local ladies from Chunkanan set up shop at the first cenote and you can purchase things like handmade jewelry, small embroidered handkerchiefs and even peeled oranges, known locally as chinas and typically eaten with salt and chile powder. Yum!

The “trucks” are pulled by horses, some of which look quite healthy and cared for, while others look a little worse for wear. Don’t be cheap and try to fit all six of your party onto one little “truck”. Think of the horse! The horse will eat better if the driver has had a better day financially, and will appreciate a lighter load. If you have the time, pick up a few carrots or apples before leaving Merida so you have a treat you can feed ‘your’ horse… with the drivers permission, of course.

Local Gossip In the cenote in Cuzama Yucatan

Chunkanan is an abandoned hacienda located just five minutes after the town of Cuzama. Since the machinery at the Chunkanan hacienda was wiped out by Hurricane Isidore in 2002, the processing of henequen or sisal came to an end there and the cenote tour became the villages main economic activity.

Things were going swimmingly (pun intended) until, as luck would have it, the mayor of the town of Cuzama noticed with increasing concern that many tourists were passing through his neck of the woods without stopping. Instead, they were going straight to visit Chunkanan and its cenotes.

Noting that the cenotes were on ejido or public land, which belonged to the comisaria (municipality) of Cuzama as well as to Chunkanan, he realized that the good people of Chunkanan did not have any potential proprietary claims on the cenotes. So, he initiated his own project, creating an access point to the cenotes from the Cuzama end of the route. Once he had put in place a new cooperative with more “trucks” and drivers from Cuzama, he put his plan into operation.

At one point he even employed local police to stop tourists on the small road to Chunkanan to inform them that the Chunkanan option was ‘closed’ and the only access to the cenotes was through the new Cuzama entry point. While the police are now gone, there are still men with red flags waving down unsuspecting tourists on the previously-mentioned road to Chunkanan. Many visitors, unaware that there are two places from Swimming in the cenotes at Cuzama and Chunkanan Yucatanwhich to take this ever-more-popular tour, are led to believe that this is the “official” entrance and turn in here, leaving the folks in Chunkanan with nothing to do and no income from the cenotes.

Two Tours, Three Cenotes

Little by little, the two groups have overcome initial hostilities which in one case led to an all out fistfight between members of the competing groups. They have now come to an uneasy truce, grudgingly accepting the existence of each other. There is still some dispute regarding the subject of maintenance of the cenotes, particularly the removal of trash and the repairs to the wooden ladders and stairs. These are now showing signs of wear and tear, especially after periods of heavy use such as Easter and summer vacations when many Mexican families visit the Yucatan from other parts of the country.

At the time of this writing these disputes are ongoing and the maintenance issue is becoming particularly critical. In two of the cenotes, climbing out of the water after a refreshinggoing home from the Cuzama cenotes swim requires some dexterity and strength as some of the wooden ladders and platforms have crumbled away.

How Do You Choose?

While we make no suggestions on which option is better (in terms of price and the tour itself, they are identical), we would suggest that if you visit the cenotes more than once, spread the wealth a little! The cost of the tour is $250 pesos per truck, with four people maximum. If you take advantage of the life jackets from the driver and he’s a personable sort of fellow, a $50 peso tip is certainly in order. We recommend taking the tour from both the Cuzama and Chunkanan end and meeting the good people from both towns. The cenotes are a unique and natural Yucatan attraction and a perfect outing on a hot summer day!

 

****

Definition of ejido land in Mexico

All about Haciendas in Yucatan

Wikipedia’s page on cenotes

The "secret" cenote of Yokdzonot

The Red Bull Diving Competition at Ik-KilCenote

Special thanks to Tucker Shannon and Cathal Austin for the photos from their recent trip to the cenotes of Cuzama and Chunkanan.


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22 Responses to “The Cenotes of Cuzama & Chunkanan”

  1. We are in Merida this week and are very interested in visiting these cenotes. How do we get there from Merida? Also, where is the cheapest place to buy a cooler?

    Thanks so much,

    Kat

    Hopefully the rain will stop!!!!!!

  2. Kat, probably the cheapest place to buy a cooler is at your local OXXO (like a 7-11). They have styrofoam coolers for about $40 pesos. For directions to Cuzama, take Highway 180 (the main highway to Cancun) towards Cancun. Go south on the 18 to Acanceh. At Acanceh, go east towards Cuzama. It should be pretty easy to find! If you want to support the Chunkanan group, go south from Acanceh towards Tecoh. Follow the 18 until you see a sign to San Isidro Ochil. At San Isidro Ochil, make a left to Chunkanan, thus avoiding Cuzama altogether. Good luck!

  3. You can try to buy the cooler at Walmart in Paseo Montejo close to Avenida Colon. At “El Centro” is a corner store called “El Sol”, I believe is located at 65th Street close (walking south) to the Main Square. Be ready, it is raining a lot here in Merida, I am not sure when is going to stop. Enjoy your stay.
    Sincerely,
    Kevin Cott

  4. Yes, the first time I visited the Yucatan, I felt the call of these Cenotes. I believe they are sacred places, I mean they look completely magical. Thank you for this information. I hope people can appreciate the amazing beauty of our Earth and its special places and approach them and conduct themselves accordingly — with love and respect — when they are there. Mexico has so many such places … they need to be enjoyed but also respected. These places are gifts and reminders.

  5. Also what’s happened is the rent is up on 2 of the cenotes and the Mayor of Cuzama has decided because of all the tourists he’d rather not give Chunkanan it again…sad as it’s the villages only form of income.
    Don’t buy a cooler, 10 mins away is this awesome little hotel called Hacienda Cuch Balam, 100% sustainable and the lady is really nice and cooks organic meals… not expensive! I We stayed 3 nights with her, and visited the cenotes of Cuzama one day, the bike route with cenotes of Sabacché the next and then the 3rd Mayapan…well worth it!

  6. How do we take a bus from Centro to the cenotes in Cuzama

  7. seren living, there is no “rent” on the cenotes. The land is public land, “ejido,” and is basically the property of both Cuzama and Chunkanan. Sounds to me like someone is feeding more propaganda to keep more people from going to Chunkanan.

  8. I will be in Merida but will not hava a car. How can I get to the cenotes using public transportation…not a cab though!

  9. These cenotes are amazing. Being there is like you are in another world, fairy tale like. Very affordable to spent a day out there. Don’t forget your swimsuit!

  10. One good reason to access the cenotes from Chunkanan is the excellent restaurant at the heart of the village. After visiting all three cenotes you’ll have an appetite and this place is perfect for a cold beer and a generous plate of fajitas mixtas or stuffed chilies, with tortillas made on the premises. The food is really good and prices very reasonable.

    I can’t remember the name of the restaurant but you can’t miss it, just look for the huge palapa roof about 50m down from where you catch your truck.

    Also the driving route where you turn just before San Isidro Ochil takes you on an attractive undulating road through two interesting villages with old haciendas.

  11. If you are posting on additional online social sites, I’d like to follow you. Could you make a list of every one of all your social sites like your linkedin profile, Facebook page or twitter feed?

  12. Our Twitter feed is yucatanliving: https://twitter.com/yucatanliving
    Our Facebook pages are:
    https://www.facebook.com/YucatanLiving
    https://www.facebook.com/Yolisto
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    And we have a Pinterest page too:
    https://pinterest.com/yucatanliving/

    Thanks for asking!

  13. Hello, we are heading to Chunkanan from Merida next Month to check out the Cenotes. We would use the horse-drawn carriage to get them.
    Then we will drive to Oxkutzcab.

    How many hours should we “reserve” for the cenotes?
    I would like to be in Oxkutzcab before dusk, but i also want to spend some time in Merida in the morning.

    Thank you in advance.
    Sven

  14. It would be helpful to know where the cenotes are and how a car-less person can get there.

  15. Hi,

    read that the original 3 cenote tour does not exist any longer due to rivalry between the neighbouring villages: http://www.yucatantoday.com/en/topics/cenotes-cuzama (author’s note June 2013).

    Does anybody have an update on this?

    Thanks!

  16. If Ralf H. said it, then its true. He’s probably been out there most recently of anyone I know.

  17. I wanted to know if anyone went to these cenotes in 2014. I’d like to know if they are being maintained..been to Yucatan before, but not to these…It would be so sad to see dirty cenotes. Any updates on the situation here ?

  18. Hi guys!
    I’m from Merida. I’m a tourist guide living in this beautiful and hot city. If you are interested in a guide around the city or state, let me know!
    I’m a certified guide!!

    Contact me on my mail or Facebook: Alicia Bastarrachea

    Aly

  19. I really recommend to swim at the Zací Cenote near Valladolid, a very beautiful one ;) http://yucatan.travel/blog/los-cenotes-de-valladolid-cuatro-buenas-razones-para-el-asombro/

  20. Could anyone give me information on how I could get to these cenotes from Merida in public transportation? I won’t have a car

  21. Check out this tour operator: http://turitransmerida.com.mx/excursiones/page/2/?lang=en
    We did the Cuzama Cenotes tour with them and really enjoyed it.

  22. Thanks, Joe! Turitransmerida is a good company!

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