6 Months in Central America



Two Day Trips from Mérida: Uxmal and Dzibilchaltun

I’d read that Uxmal was a good day trip from Mérida but after Chichen Itza, Ek Balam, and Tulum I wasn’t sure I would make the trip out there. Then our city tour guide told us that Uxmal was his favorite ruin. So John and I decided to go for it.

Despite the weather. It was predicted to rain in the afternoon so I hoped we would make it before the daily downpour, but it started on the hour plus bus ride to get there. But we had committed, we were there, so we devised a way to both fit our belongs with us in our rain jackets. The weather gods must have appreciated our efforts; the rain trickled off as we started to explore the complex.

We quickly realized our guide was right. Uxmal is my favorite ruin so far. It is the largest site I’ve been to with multiple structures to explore, including temples and a palace. We were happy to discover that we could climb almost everything too (except what we assumed was the most important temple, for preservation reasons). The architecture was an interesting mix of forms: one temple had rounded sides and the rectangular palace was built on what appeared to be a man-made hill. Carvings adorned the facades of every building and ranged from geometric patterns to complex figure reliefs. It was the best detailing I’ve seen yet.

The preservation of Uxmal was impressive. How did these ornate details last so much better than the other places I’ve been to? Every new structure we came across was just as picturesque as the last. With at least three more ruins to go I’m curious how Uxmal will fare in the end, but so far it’s leading the pack.

I was fairly hungover when John asked if I wanted to join him in an excursion to a cenote, but the prospect of jumping in a cold body of water sounded to good to pass up. I picked up a pair of cochinita pibil tacos across the street from where the collectivos lined up to soak up the lingering mezcal and fortify me for the half an hour ride.

What I didn’t realize was that we were going to a cenote within another ruin. When we arrived we were both too distracted by the thought of swimming to really process where we were, so we beelined to the cenote. I jumped in and felt a wave of relief. The cool water was a welcomed refresher from the high humidity of the day. The fish that picked at my feet were not quite as welcomed. But still, the cenote brought me back to life.

Then I started to process where we were. We were swimming in a natural sinkhole surrounded by Mayan ruins. It may not be the best cenote in the region, but there’s something undeniably cool about that. After we got our fill of treading water we explored the rest of the site. It was a small complex but ruins are ruins so we took it in anyway.

Finding the collectivo back was more of an adventure. We had to walk a kilometer into the closest town, where we stumbled onto some sort of street fair that either was just starting or the remnants from the day before. A few stalls were selling corn or t-shirts and a band was playing on a small stage. Out the other side we found the random street corner where the collectivo back to Mérida would supposedly stop, which was happily confirmed after a short wait.

I wouldn’t rate this excursion nearly as highly as Uxmal, but it was still a good snipit of what the Yucatan has to offer.

Tulum, More About the Cenotes than the Ruins

Tulum was one of the most highly recommended places in Mexico owing to its white sand beaches and picturesque oceanside ruins. I enjoyed both as well, although they each had their own negatives too. The beach was great for an afternoon swim, but unfortunately was overrun with seaweed during my time there, which clouded its typically turquoise color. The ruins were beautiful, but by 11 am they were brutally hot and overcrowded with tour groups.

My real highlight of Tulum was the cenotes. There are plenty of these natural sinkholes around the peninsula, but Tulum was the only place I went diving in them. The first day Karim and I snorkeled in one and discovered the appeal of its crystal clear water and fascinating cavern formation. We also saw how much more the divers were able to explore. So we checked out a couple of dive shops in town and decided to go for it when we found one that would let me dive in two too (Karim is advanced certified but I am not certified, so finding one that would let me do two cenote dives was tough since technically it’s not allowed).

We started in Casa Cenote, where they take all introductory and refresher divers since it’s always possible to surface in case anything goes wrong. We barely got any lessons before the dive started, something that was fine for me having done this a couple of times already but surprising given how Discover Scuba dives are supposed to go. The point of this dive was to test our buoyancy control; cavern diving requires a much more controlled, even dive style than open water does because there are rock formations above, next to, and below us. The first moment we went into a cavern I had to check myself mentally. “Oh right,” I thought, “this is what we’re doing, diving in a cave, with solid rock around me.” Luckily my next thought was, “This is so freaking cool!”

Our guide judged that we all did well enough on our first dive so he took us to Gran Cenote. This time we would really be in the caverns. Air was never too far away, but most of the dive we were surrounded by stalactites and stalagmites and frequently had to use flashlights to light the way. It was awesome. There’s something so uniquely cool about exploring caves in water. It’s another world down there. It’s not about reefs and wildlife like open water diving is, it’s about natural architecture under the earth’s surface. When we got back on land we were all stoked about what we’d just done, and I personally vowed to return once I’m certified to do more dives like this.

The next day Karim dove in El Pit, a huge deep cenote where advanced and cave certified divers can go down to 40 meters. Visibility is 100 meters and light rays that penetrate the water looked like something out of a sci-fi movie. One day I will go back and do this.