We expected Yucatan state to be a quick stopover in our traveling agenda. Our focus was to get to Cancun in Quintana Roo where we would be meeting Dudu, JP’s cousin from Brazil. Our plan was to spend a week together discovering the popular Riviera Maya, with its Cancun, Tulum and Playa del Carmen world famous resorts. We were looking forward with excitement! The apex of our journey in Mexico, we thought. Thus, at that moment Yucatan state was just a warm up in our minds of what would come next.
As usual, when we have low expectations we often get impressed positively. We were impressed to discover the cosmopolitan capital of Yucatan state, Merida, the spectacular geographical formations, “cenotes” and “grutas” in Homun. And although we were done with visiting pyramids, we were still humbled to see the grandiose Maya archeological site of Chichén Itzá.
Leaving the challenges of Chiapas state behind, we continued the road passing through Campeche on our way to Yucatan state.
Campeche was a short stop over, and to be honest we were not enchanted with the city nor with the camping sites available. We found it to be a rather built up refurbished colonial town without real character. For some reason there was something missing there: the refurbished buildings were not inhabited and this gave a feeling of an abandoned colonial city center, there were no locals roaming the streets, just couple of shops, bars and restaurants opened mostly for tourists. I must admit however that the boardwalk by the seashore was nicely refurbished and modernized. It was pleasant to stroll by the Gulf of Mexico.
The surprise came from Merida, the capital of Yucatan state. We were lucky to find a cozy hostel relatively close to the city center with a nice backyard, allowing for the parking of campers too. It was a tight entry, yet we managed well. This place had a very good vibe and relaxed atmosphere. There were a lot of other young travelers around, making the place a great spot to connect and interact with other overlanders and backpackers. It had a nice reception area with a generous patio, a pool, an excellent espresso coffee machine. The internet was good, shower and breakfast were included. All these for only 100 pesos/night (5 euro) per person. We felt lucky to find this hostel, so we decided to stop there for few days.
The magic about hostels is that you can make friends very easily. Everyone seems open to socialize and most of the time you meet interesting people with open minds and captivating adventurous life stories. That’s how we met Mike, an American traveler and Emil, a French bike rider which were visiting Mexico. The conversations flew naturally at the hostel and we decided to go out for dinner. We all ended up at a good Italian restaurant, enjoying a good pizza over nice conversations.
Walking through the city center of Merida, we discovered a rather cosmopolitan citadel, an authentic picture of modern Mexico mixed with its Spanish colonial heritage. We felt really energized networking the streets of the capital, watching the contemporary Mexicans and enjoying the night out in town over a fancy dinner. It was not the indigenous picture we found in Oaxaca and Chiapas states, it was back in present-day Mexico and we liked that for a change. Somehow it resembled to us of Mexico City, yet more organized. Switching from indigenous and traditional to contemporary authentic, finally in the middle of the Mexicans of 2018 year and their daily likes was refreshing.
We had a great time eating one of the most delicious pizza we had on the road paired with a descent Montepuciano in one of the fine local Italian restaurants. Being in the company of Mike and Emil and eating so well made our experience in Merida a really pleasant event.
The following day we went to discover the nearby village of Celestun where we were expecting to see hundreds of splendid pink flamingos. I love wild animals and birds, so I was looking forward to this moment with so much thrill. As always, when there are great expectations, the disappointment is likely to be high. To our surprise we didn’t find the flamingos on the lagoon. We learned we had to take a boat ride to find the flamingos. Renting a boat was too expensive for our daily budget (750 pesos per person, about 35 euro), so we decided to skip this ride. We thought … why don’t we take an off-road trip next to the lagoon to discover the flamingos ourselves with our awesome truck. Bad idea :))) we ended up spending hours in the dust, driving through lots of potholes, scratching Brutus with the tree branches obstructing the off-road. In the end we still saw no flamingos. What a bummer!!!
We heard there was a picturesque fishing village nearby, Sisal. It was recommended by our good French and fellow overlanding friends Celine and Patrick We didn’t want to give up having a not so good day, so we proceeded towards the village for a bite of fresh fish. When we least expected, just before entering the village of Sisal, at the tail of the lagoon, on the right side of the road, guess what… we saw hundreds of splendid pink flamingos. It was one of those wow moments. Simply magical! Funny enough when we gave up the idea of seeing the pink flamingos and when we had no expectations, that was the moment when we were fabulously surprised.
The day culminated with a well-deserved delicious grilled fish from the Gulf of Mexico. The meat which was grilled in salt was so tender and appetizing, one of the best seafood we ever ate.
By evening we headed towards Homun, a village in Yucatan state known for having many “cenotes” and “grutas”, part of the “Ring of Cenotes”. The “ring” is an aligned arch of sinkholes reflected on the surface of the Yucatan Peninsula formed by the Chicxulub meteorite that struck the Earth 66 million years ago. The timing when the meteorite hit Yucatan Peninsula coincided with the extension of the large dinosaurs from Earth. Lots of scientists believe the disappearance of dinosaurs was triggered by the meteorite hit. It was exciting to know we were walking on top of a meteorite crater 🙂
The “cenotes” are quite incredible geographical formations, natural sinkholes resulting from the collapse of the existing limestone bedrock. During ice age the level of the ocean dropped and left many reef and their dependent marine life dead. As the sea level dropped the reef emerged and in time formed a large limestone platform. In more time, rain water passed through the ground, flooded towards the ocean and carved a huge underground system of water tunnels and caves. A proof of this is that a lot of “cenote” and “grutas” are revealing marine fossils. The water is incredibly clean, clear and with striking turquoise blue colors. We were so excited to experience the underground turquoise waters known since Pre-columbian times!
The “cenotes” were considered sacred by the pre-Colombian populations like the Mayas, being the only source of water in the jungle and regarded as an entrance to the “underworld”.
In Homun we found a campground called Grutas de Candelario. This place had its own “gruta” or in translation grotto, a similar formation with a “cenote”, the difference is that its ceiling it's not collapsed yet. When we arrived we were tired from driving the bad road into the village. Looking at the property nothing seemed to be special. At the first sightseeing it looked like an empty field with a small garden, a small house and some trees. In my mind I was thinking… What a bummer! Did we get so far to see this plain field?
I thought the “gruta” must be somewhere in the neighborhood and we will get there the next day. Well, I was mistaken! The “gruta” was just in front of us but hidden underneath a big tree.
I remember I kept asking and insisting where is “the gruta”, while the owner of the property would keep pointing me the tree, and I still didn’t get it. What the heck was he showing me?
Until I got closer and I saw next to the tree a big whole that took us underground. The moment I understood that was the “gruta”, I was thinking wtf… did I get up to this place to see this whole in the ground?! I thought it’s a joke.
But as we got in deeper and deeper and I was stunned! We saw fossils of shells and former marine life engraved in the walls of the “gruta” which indicated clearly that this place was under the sea before. As we went more down, the path got narrower and the ceiling almost closed the ground. For a moment I felt claustrophobic and was thinking… where is this man taking us? This can’t be good! But very soon the narrows unleashed some unexpected views to the stalagmites and stalactites, flying bats and a pure water running underground which was connected to the whole water system in Yucatan. It was impressive to see. It really made our day! We couldn’t believe that this geographical formation was formed on top of a meteor crater that hit Yucatan millions of years ago, the same meteor that extinct the life of the large dinosaurs on Earth. We were inside the meteor crater, underground in a secret “gruta” with a crystal clean water in front of us connected to the rest of the hundreds of “cenotes” of Yucatan peninsula and to the ocean. That felt pretty… special.
The next day we headed to explore the village by bike to discover other “cenotes”. We knew there were plenty in Homun and we were so up for the adventure. We reached Cenote Yaxbacaltun which was just one street away. When we arrived we were expecting to see something from outside, a sign where the “cenote” is. The truth is that you can’t see anything from outside, the whole thing is underground. We paid 30pesos/person for the entry and proceeded towards the place where the owner indicated. I thought it was a joke or something, a hole in the ground, some touristic trap. Initially I didn’t even want to enter. I imagined something disgusting with filthy water. As I approached the hole and went down the stairs the water started to appear in tones of green, blue and turquoise. That instant feeling of “wow” came up and everything looked so beautiful, clean and peaceful. It felt almost like we were experiencing a miracle. I kept wondering how it was possible to have this water so clean, so turquoise. Simply because it is linked to a whole underground water network in the peninsula, which is connected to the ocean.
We started to swim and enjoy the clear waters, observing the stalactites, the stalagmites, the lianas falling from the ceiling which were forming natural swings, the little fish around us that were coming to clean our skin, the flying bats and their nests. What was truly amazing was the liana hanging from the top which we could use to swing and jump into the water, a natural rope one could play “Tarzan and Jane”:)). Of course, we had to experience it and it was sooo much fun! I felt a child again and that feeling was refreshing. JP couldn’t get enough, he wanted to go again and again. He was having so much fun. After we had enough of this “cenote” we decided to move forward and discover our next “cenote”. There were soooo many in that village. We felt so free biking in the search for our next “cenote” experience. It was us and the tuk tuk drivers.
We found Cenote Santa Rosa, which was kind of an upgrade. It had a very nice estate and restaurant where we had a small break for couple of beers and snacks. This “cenote” was very well maintained, it was smaller than the one we’ve been before, it had less natural light, but it had a very good set up: artificial colored light inside, a nice trampoline from where we could jump from 3 meters high. Jumping, I lost my swimming suit couple of times… but it was not an issue :-)) it was only us there and so much fun!
There was a special energy underground which made us laugh and feel good. In the afternoon having enough of “cenote” experiences we returned to our camping spot riding our bicycles. On our way we stopped to a local restaurant for a late lunch. We ate the typical traditional Yucatan marinated meat. It was a genuine and authentic event discovering the “cenotes” and eating what locals do.
What a joyful day!
Back on the road to Cancun, we could not miss the famous Maya pyramids of Chicken Iza. Although we had seen enough pyramids for a lifetime we felt we should not miss one of the best attractions in Mexico. We heard it can get really busy at Chichen Iza so we left pretty early Homun to arrive there before 9am. There were a lot of people at the site already but still not that bad as we imagined. When we entered the central area and saw for the first time the main pyramid in its full shape, we got petrified. I was simply powerful to look at it. I was impressed and touched to see such beauty, there was some sort of energy that overwhelmed me.
Walking on the left side we found the “juego de pelota” playground in one piece. So far we have seen many of those but mostly ruins. I had to imagine all the time how the playground would look like in reality. But at Chichen Iza we had the chance to see a complete playing field where the Mayas were challenging the Gods rolling and throwing the ball more than 2000 years ago. For the first time I felt really close of the Maya culture and realized they were not that much different or less evolved than us although we were looking at hundreds of years back. I felt immediate goose bumps.
That day we learned from the local vendors that the Maya calendar has in total 19 months with 18 months composed of 20 days each and 1 month of 5 days. If you count the days you will get exactly 365 days per year, the same days in one year as our calendar has. The Mayas had a great connection with the cosmos, most of their believes and values were related to the universe. They considered themselves as living conscious entities integrated with the continuous flow of the cosmos’ energy. They were guided by the vision of living in harmony with Mother Earth, recognizing the power of pure love, wisdom, tolerance and compassion as fundamental values for a peaceful coexistence. Living in a sustainable harmony with the planet biosphere and connected to the universe unconsciousness was key for the Mayas. We felt there were so many things to learn from these civilizations. In the end we were really happy we didn’t skip Chichen Iza. It was for the first time we could see clearly the structures of the pyramids, playgrounds, plazas and columns in full form which made us feel closer to the Pre-Colombian era and the fascinating Maya civilization.
Just before the crowds of tourists hit the site we left, heading slowly towards Cancun.
The following day we would finally meet JP’s cousin, Dudu who was coming to join us from Brazil.
In the end we were amazed by Yucatan state although we thought it will be just a stopover on our way to Cancun. We did not expect to discover such a genuine and contemporary energy in Merida, the abundance of “cenotes” and secret underground sinkholes of the “Ring of Cenotes” formed by the Chicxulub meteorite, while Chichen Iza was the coronation of our pyramids experience in Mexico. Truly recommend this state of Mexico still not so touristic but full of nice surprises. And if you have time, it is really nice to venture through small roads and pueblos visiting hundreds of different cenotes.
We were very excited to welcome Dudu in our expedition, our first and only visitor on the road so far. Overlanding the Americas was a plan firstly idealized by Dudu and JP, as teenager’s dream. To do it like Che did, on motorcycles, exploring the open veins of Latin America. It took a while, on a truck and not on motorcycles, but somehow the dream is coming true with the arrival of Dudu. We were so happy they could share this dream even though it was a for a short time. The much-expected moment came!