Banner image: ChatterSource's own Sherry De Alba swimming in a cenote in Mexico.
The World Beyond Cancun
Think of Mexico, and what comes to mind? Girl’s gone wild on spring break? Margaritas? Tijuana? Beyond the beach scene and the shady border towns, there lies an entire world that many people have no idea exists. And it’s absolutely amazing.
From underground sinkholes to hidden jungle ruins, Mexico will wow you with its natural wonders and ancient civilizations. And it’s all right next door to the USA.
Here are 6 things you shouldn’t miss when traveling south of the border.
Cenotes or Underground Sinkholes
The Yucatán Peninsula, which is the landmass that divides the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, is traversed by a system of freshwater, underground rivers and cenotes.
Some of these sinkholes are completely or partially open to the sky. Others are hidden deep in underground caves. We explored the Agua Dulce, see picture above, which a bit off the beaten path.
For a deeper look inside:
Agua Dulce FAQs
How do you get there?
Public Transit will not get you there. We suggest renting a scooter for the day; it is about a 30-minute drive outside of Valladolid - the reason public transit doesn’t take you there is that Agua Dulce and Palmoitas are cenotes that aren’t full of tourists. Renting a scooter is around $25/day (500 pesos)
How much does it cost?
There is an entrance fee of $5 (100 pesos). Palomitas is close by (200 meters away) and also $5 (100 pesos).
When is it open?
Agua Dulce and Palomitas is open from 8:00 AM - 5:00 PM. The staff recommends going between 11:00 AM - 1:00 PM for the best natural light.
How do you get into the cave?
There are two staircases to enter; one regular and one spiral. We suggest wearing water shoes because to get into the cave; there is a spiral staircase to enter and exit. For the ultimate adventurer, you can repel into the cave for an extra $4 (80 pesos).
Are there lights in the cave?
Yes! There are spotlights throughout the cave to help you see everything. While some natural light enters through the holes in the top, that is obviously not enough to guide you are the bottom.
Can you cliff jump?
Heck, yes, you can! But, we remind you to jump at your own risk. There are life jackets available to rent for $1.50 (30 pesos).
Can you drink alcohol there?
Yes, there is a restaurant on-site that sells alcohol and food there.
These freshwater jewels were sacred to the Mayans, who used them for ceremonies. Today people swim, snorkel and even go cave diving in them. Cenote Agua Dulce is just one of the hundreds of cenotes situated roughly an hour from Cancun.
For those willing to veer off the beaten tourist track, diving into the crystalline turquoise water is a breathtaking experience.
The Yucatan peninsula is also home to the ruins of the Ancient Mayan Civilization. An indigenous tribe of Mesoamerica, they are renowned for its sophisticated art, architecture and numerical system.
Chichen Itza pictured above is one of the most famous ancient cities, is one of the new 7 wonders of the world and a popular tourist site. For a more unique experience, visit it at night for the light show. Seating is limited so that it won’t be as overrun with people. And seeing the ancient structures under the light of the moon is both eerie and thrilling.
6 Things to Know Before Heading to Chichen Itza
Full-Day Guided Tours are Available - If you are traveling with your family or a group of friends and want to visit Chichen Itza, a guided tour is a great option. Not only are the transportation accommodations covered, picking you up from your hotel in Cancun, but lunch is also provided. The tour guides are also bilingual, so no need to worry about the language barrier. This tour is $69 per person.
Parking is Available - If you are renting a car or scooter to visit Chichen Itza, there is shaded parking available on-site close to the entrance for $2 (30 pesos).
Arrive Early - You can book a tour ahead of time to avoid the crowds and the heat with a private archeologist. Early mornings and after 3:00 PM are the best times to visit to avoid the masses and the sun.
Have Cash Handy - There is an admission fee of $13 (232 pesos) to enter the ruins. While they do ‘accept’ credit cards rumor has it, the machines are often broken, so it is smarter to be prepared with cash. There is an ATM on-site as well, but if you can avoid the fees, we suggest it.
NO FLIP FLOPS - You will be walking a lot around Chichen Itza. We know it is hot, but the sidewalks around are not paved and there are a lot of uneven areas: Pack tennis shoes or hiking sandals for this excursion. With the limited option to shaded areas, we also suggest packing lots of water, sunscreen and a hat.
Tourist Traps - Like any major attraction, there will be salespeople around trying to sell you knickknacks, figurines and food. This is normal, if you are into something obviously, feel free to pick up a souvenir, but also know there are shops close by with a lot lower price tag. Shop wisely.
If you really want to get off the beaten path, try visiting some of the less frequented ruins along the Ruta Maya. Located a little more than an hour from the City of Merida, Labna (pictured above) has impressive structures with far fewer crowds.
At sites like these, you can wander around at your leisure, listen to the wind rustling through the trees and imagine yourself in a completely different place and time. You will probably want to rent a car for the day to check out the Labna ruins. These ruins are similar to Chichen Itza from a historal perspective, but the experience is much different.
Las Grutas de Loltun (Caves of Loltun)
For another mind-blowing experience, visit the caves of Loltun. Loltun means “flowers of rock” in Mayan. As you descend into this underground maze, you’ll be amazed by the incredible formations and feel as though you’ve entered a mysterious netherworld.
You’ll also pass by a series of “singing” rock columns that emit eerie tones when you hit them with the palm of your hand. The route is just a little over a kilometer but submerges you in a completely different reality. When you ascend into the air above once again, you’ll feel like you’ve been to the moon and back.
A Few Things to Know About Grutas de Loltun
- Entrance Fee of $8.50 (about 165 pesos)
- Guided Tours Available starting at $90
- Around 4 hours from Cancun - there are plenty of hotels nearby for an overnight getaway
- Open 9:00 AM - 4:00 PM
- Wear non-skid shoes (water shoes, tennis shoes that can get wet)
Las Barrancas del Cobre (Copper Canyon)
Did you know that Mexico has its own Grand Canyon? Located in the Sierra Madre Mountains in the state of Chihuahua, this natural wonder is actually a series of six different canyons and covers 25,000 square miles.
Greener and deeper than the Grand Canyon, Las Barrancas del Cobre is home to the reclusive Tarahumara tribe, famous for their long-distance running ability. Boasting a long, colorful history, Copper Canyon is haunted by the legends of fierce warriors, martyred priests and Pancho Villa’s army.
While you can definitely drive and see some of this beautiful scenery, there is much more you can do in Las Barrancas del Cobre. Hiking, river rafting, repelling or just taking the train (the Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacífico) through this historic region is a truly mythic journey.
Maybe you’ve only seen them in old American westerns, but these historic haciendas still exist today in Mexico. Many of them have been converted into hotels, restaurants and luxury spas. It’s like stepping back in time, but with all the amenities luxury tourists like.
These historic landmarks cover the country from north to south, each with its own unique flavor and history. Mission de Cerocahui (pictured above), has its very own vineyard.
And while you can’t indeed travel back in time, visiting one of these colorful, historic haciendas will give you a taste of how the legendary ranchers of Mexico once lived.
Valle De Bravo and the Return of the Monarch Butterflies
Valle de Bravo is situated a mere two hours from Mexico City on Lake Avandaro, and yet visiting this lush river valley is like being in another universe. The town itself is one of Mexico’s “Pueblos Magicos” or “Magical Towns,” colorful historic cities rich in both charm and culture.
Valle de Bravo, with its winding cobblestone streets and hidden alleyways, is the perfect romantic getaway. But because mountains surrounded it, adventure seekers like to paraglide and mountain bike here.
But perhaps the most magical attraction of all is the Monarch Butterfly Reserve. Each year between November and March, thousands of butterflies find their way back to Mexico from Canada and the United States.
Located just outside Valle De Bravo, visitors can enter the sanctuary on foot or horseback to witness one of Mexico’s most astounding sights: clouds of monarch butterflies dancing in the wind above you as they flit from tree to tree.
These delicate, ephemeral creatures will both move and astound you. Far more than just another run-of-the-mill tour, it’s an experience that will resound in your soul.
Mexico: Land of Myth and Magic
As you can see, there are a host of wonders to explore on the other side of the wall. Yes, we all love a good beach vacation. Nothing wrong with that. But if you’re looking for an experience that won’t fade along with your vacation tan, dive a little deeper. You’ll find that Mexico is full of adventure, magic and surprises. And that, amigos, is an enticing cocktail you won’t find at any beach resort.