Yucatan: Cenotes, Crocodiles, and Cancun

After leaving the mountains of San Cristobal we had three days to drive 16 hours to Cancun to pick up my sister Chyanne at the airport. We did eight hours the first day of driving through the mountains of Chiapis, back to the jungles of Veracruz, and on to the Gulf of Mexico. In those eight hours we were stopped at five different security check points by cops both, municipal, state, and federal, who all wanted to “inspect” us to varying degrees. These stops would have been intimidating in our first couple months in Mexico, but by this point we were more comfortable, confident, and had a much better grasp of the language. Almost all the cops we encountered were pleasant and curious, and never asked us for anything more than our papers. Several of the cops asked us point blank if we were carrying drugs, to which we replied no, and they let us go on our way. Others just seemed bored and wanted to chat with us while they made a cursory look at our camper. The majority seemed confused as to what our camper was, thinking it was for cargo, until we explained it was our casa.

These stops were ultimately a non-event, but seems worth mentioning in our blog so you can see a couple things. One, the cops are not all bad and these stops may be inconvenient, but they are trying to keep the area safer for all of us. We have met a lot of people who have a story of corruption and bribery (attempted and/or achieved), but our experiences have been mostly pleasant. Two, don’t be stupid and carry something illegal into Mexico, whether it’s a gun or drugs, etc. it’s seriously not worth it. We have had numerous people ask us if we have a gun with us, or tell us we should have one, but man is it not worth the small sense of security it would give us to risk it being found. And ultimately, we have NEVER felt we needed it. The third thing worth mentioning is Mexico has been an incredibly safe country in our experience, but there are still areas where you need to be careful and aware. Your state department is a good resource for this, but ultimately common sense is your best guide.

Now to the fun stuff! We stopped our first night and free camped on the beach, something we hadn’t done since Baja months earlier. That was great, but the humidity hit us hard that first night and was a reminder that this would be something we dealt with as we headed south. Next night we camped at our first Cenote, an amazing underground cavern with the most unassuming entrance that dropped you down into the surreal underground world with super clear cold water, stalagmites, and bats flying around! Plus, since we were camped there they let us swim at night when there was no one else! It was so neat that we brought Chyanne back a few days later as we passed through the area.

We picked Chyanne up finally, and immediately took her to the nearest taco stand for nourishment! Her first tacos were roadside carnitas, and the whole experience delighted her the way it had us the first time we had tacos in Mexico. Next was a stop at the Croco-cun Zoo, an interactive zoo where they guide you through exhibits of birds, reptiles, and crocodiles, most of which they let you hold. Yes, it was super touristy, but Chyanne was on vacation and we wanted her to get the tourist experience before we made her live in our car camping in parking lots for a week.

We stayed two nights at a jungle campsite south of Playa del Carmen run by a vivacious Dutch man named Renzo. He made us very welcome, telling us where the beach access was, the many caves and cenotes, and even the best live music in the nearby village. Chyanne and I decided to be beach bums for a day and proceeded to sunburn the shit of ourselves on day 1, adding to our well-rounded tourist experience. Then we went to show Chyanne what our experience of live music was in Mexico, usually a white Canadian baby-boomer playing American classic rock or jazz to a room full of other white baby-boomers. Not what Chyanne was hoping to find, but the unfortunate reality of the touristy areas of Mexico. Still a good time (and many margaritas) were had by all!

We headed North the next day to Rio Lagartos, or Alligator River, which is neither a river, nor filled with alligators. It is in fact a saltwater bay with a few crocodiles and a large population of beautiful flamingoes. It also has an area of high salt density which gives the illusion that the water is pink and makes for an incredible Instagram picture… most days. Unfortunately, when we were there the water was more orange colored, and mostly looked toxic, so we snapped a few pictures and jumped back in our boat. At least the flamingoes and crocodiles did not disappoint. Our guide decided it would be hilarious to have these squealing white girls try to touch one of the crocodiles, which we thought at first was a joke, then realized he was serious. My brave sister reached right over the side of the boat and touched the crocodile’s side. I was more tentative at first, and since it was out of reach of me I said I didn’t need to touch, but our guide said no way and angled the boat close enough I could reach its tail. So I leaned over and touched its tail, then our guide yelled “grab him!!!” and I said “OK!!” and grabbed the crocodiles tail and held on for what felt like minutes, but was merely a few seconds before he swam off. The whole experience was ridiculous, surreal, and incredibly fun!! KP made an awesome video that you can check out at the bottom of this page!

The next day we drove back to the first cenote we had visited and watched Chyanne go through the experience we had of seeing an underground cenote for the first time. It involves a lot of “Wow,” “holy shit,” and “this is so cool’s.” We swam for hours and Chyanne was even able to convince me to swim back to the dark corner with no lights above or below water while I imagined the crocodile from yesterday getting revenge on me for harassing him. After we swam all we could, we made friends with the farmyard animals of the people who ran the cenote, including tiny baby goats and sheep! Chyanne named the little brown one Todd and it never left her arms or lap until we finally had to get up to go to dinner. Chy and I wandered into the village for food where she got even more adventurous and ordered tacos de cabeza for dinner… Cabeza is of course “head” in Spanish, so these were made from the stewed meat of the head. We wouldn’t say they were “good,” but we ate our two each and then immediately headed to another vendor selling French fries! While we ate, we were treated to a show by the locals, who were having some sort of dance lesson in the square, and though I tried to convince her to jump up with them, Chyanne was at the limit of her adventure for the day.

We got up early the next morning to be the first people at the ruins of Chitchen Itza in the morning. We arrived 15 minutes before opening, and were the 7th car in line, with a huge line forming behind us of cars, taxis, and tour buses. Chitchen Itza was a Mayan city built between 600-750AD and some of its remaining buildings are quite spectacular, but its designation as one of the 7 modern wonders of the world, and its unfortunate proximity to Cancun, make it a VERY touristy experience. There are merchants at every turn in the site trying to sell you trinkets for “$1 dollar, almost free, good price.” It’s hard to fault them for trying to make a buck, but it definitely takes away from the experience of an otherwise pretty authentic site. Honestly though, this was not even close to as neat as Teotihuacan, and the whole site took us less than two hours to see. At almost 4x the cost per ticket, we felt a little gipped by the experience of Chitchen Itza. But getting done early meant that gave us the rest of the day to explore another cenote!!

We found one on our way back towards Cancun that turned out to be perfect! It was the middle of a hot Saturday and we were the only people there until late afternoon when a nice couple from Switzerland showed up, also overlanding, and a Mexican family came by a little later. The Swiss couple we will probably meet again as they are traveling South as well. They go by the name Break A Way which we totally approve of. 

We were thrilled to have this cenote to ourselves for awhile because it was one of the most incredible we had seen! The wooden stairs led down three stories to a platform about 10 feet above the water with a diving board for the brave, and a set of stairs to the water for everyone else. We all of course took the exciting way in and jumped off the diving board to the cold water below and it was amazing! We dove and explored, and jumped several more times before we were all finally too tired and cold to make it up the stairs anymore. It was an awesome end to the day!

For Chy’s last night in Cancun, her and I decided it would be fun to ditch KP and have a girl’s night in the Zona Hotelera which is just like a mini-Vegas but with less rules, and more free drinks! We stayed at a hostel for the night, in a dorm with a whole bunch of 20-something spring-breakers and, like them, pretty much never saw the place except to sleep. We wandered down the “strip” doing some shopping, some drinking, and a little of both at the same time. I mean that literally, since as we were paying for souvenirs for Chy to take home the lady handed us two Modela Especials and said, “you get these with your purchase.” Ok lady, if you insist! The night was a blur of tequila shots and new friends from there on, at least for me, but Chy assures me we had a good time. : )

We dropped Chyanne off at the airport the next day after a week of fun exploring Mexico. I hope we showed her a good time, and I hope she is just the first of many visitors to come see us on the road! Love you sister!

Next week, we make our way south to Belize, but get stuck making new friends in Playa del Carmen and Laguna Bakalar. It’s going to be very hard to say goodbye to Mexico!!