In Search of Cenotes & Mayan Ruins — Exploring the Mayan Riviera by Rental Car!

Hello, hello! I hope these sizzling summer temperatures aren’t treating you too badly, my friends!

I recently went on my first vacation since December 2019 and I had no idea how much I really needed that break. I was really starting to feel like the first vaxxed vacay was never going to happen for me, and I still battled with conflicting feelings of guilt when it did finally happen. I still wore a mask on the plane, airports, hotel lobby and restaurants, taxis, and other public spaces without any issues. In the end, I tried to be as safe as I could for myself and others, and I honestly feel at peace with my decision to go.

With this being the first trip in more than a year, the planned vibes for it were extreme relaxation and minimal exploration. The resort we stayed at was all-inclusive, so it made sense to spend most of our time there. We set one day to hit a couple of spots we hadn’t been to before and I was determined to take as much advantage as possible of that one day.

Many people say that the best way to explore the Mayan Riviera is by rental car. And based on our one-day rental-car trek, I’d say I agree. Our home base was Playa del Carmen and I planned out our route from some Google Maps and Instagram sleuthing. Please appreciate the following map that I very professionally Photoshopped for you all.

CENOTE SUYTUN

We left the hotel at around 7:30 a.m. on Monday morning after picking up our rental car at the airport the night before. Our first stop would be Cenote Suytun about two hours away from Playa del Carmen, as seen in the sups-profesh map above. It was an exhilaratingly green and jungly drive up the 305D toll road (the toll was $282 MXN for our car; about $14 USD), where my friend and I very loudly sang along Bad Bunny’s entire body of work. And I, of course, also snuck some classic Paramore in there for good measure.

We had zero problems driving and there were no moments where I felt unsafe. We were able to connect my phone’s GPS to the car’s screen and that guided us without issues. I have T-Mobile and my plan allows me to use data that’s pretty reliable abroad so that definitely helps. I would just note to watch out for reduced speed and lane shifting on certain stretches of the road because of construction happening on the highways.

Cenote Suytun was every bit as Instagram-able as I imagined it would be. It was everything I expected it to be and more! Suytun opens to the public at 9 a.m. and we were the second group there, arriving about 40 minutes after opening time. It costs $150 MXN to get in and this fee includes a life jacket, access to showers and changing rooms, and entrance into the two cenotes at the site.

The Yucatan Peninsula is known in part because of its thousands of mysterious freshwater sinkholes known as cenotes, which host rare and fragile ecosystems that we need to take care of. Don’t wear absolutely any makeup, creams, lotions, oils, perfumes, hair products, SPFs, mosquito or bug repellants, etc., if you plan on taking a swim in the cenotes. The chemicals in these products harm the flora, fauna and other organisms living in the ecosystem. Because of this, most cenotes offer showers that you can use to wash off any of these things before getting in. (And you will WANT to take a swim because the refreshing cenote water is THE best solution to Mayan-Riviera swamp ass that you will most definitely be suffering from.)

I have three pieces of advice for visiting Cenote Suytun. First and most important, arrive as early as you can so you can take your time with your photos. Getting your pic for the ‘gram’s relatively simple here as most people make a line and wait their turn to take a photo. There are also a couple of benches inside the cenote where you can leave your stuff while you swim. Second, bring water shoes so you can explore the other cenote that is in the vicinity because there’s a big patch of questionable mud that you need to step through to get to the water. Unless you’re not as squeamish as me because I couldn’t get past stepping on the ground seen in the photo below. And lastly, make time to visit Valladolid — a beautiful, colorful town nearby that I wish I had gotten to visit this time around!

COBÁ

Our next stop was the Cobá Ruins, a 45-minute drive away from Cenote Suytun. I looooove exploring archeological sites and I had never been to Cobá so I was very excited to scratch this one off my list. Cobá is considered one of the most important Mayan sites of the Riviera Maya even though it’s not necessarily the most visited. It’s pretty spread out with many residential settlements that are interconnected by a series of white roads, known as sacbes, all leading to the main pyramid of Nohoch Mul — one of the last few pyramids that you can actually climb.

16 of the 50 sacbes in the area of Cobá are open to the public and you have a few options for how to explore them. You can easily get around walking the whole thing. The second option is hiring a bici taxi (a chauffeured tricycle taxi) and the third is renting bikes. If you’re gonna walk it, don’t wear slide-on sandals like I did because it’s just not fun or comfortable or smart. I really don’t know what I was thinking wearing those, y’all. I also hadn’t even broken them in before wearing them that day. Anyway, I’m rusty af on traveling apparently (First, I forget my water shoes and second, I wear slide-on sandals. HELLOO?). Both the bikes and bici taxis are very inexpensive. We chose to rent the bikes and had zero ragrets!

A lot of the site remains covered by trees so it truly feels like you’re in the middle of the jungle. The trees provide cooling shade, but the heat and humidity are still pretty unforgivable — make sure you bring plenty of water to stay hydrated throughout. I hadn’t been on a bike in quite a while but I guess it was all muscle memory, y’all. Biking down the white limestone roads was so much fun and one of my favorite moments of the day. 10/10 do recommend getting the bikes!

It’s currently required to wear a mask at the site and I was happy to see that the majority of the people respected the rules. I will not lie, that shit was hot. Definitely stay hydrated! I only took off my mask for photos and while we were riding the bikes when we weren’t around people.

CENOTE MULTUM-HA

After exploring the whole site and completely turning into a sweat soup, we hit Cenote Multum-Ha near Cobá. There are actually three cenotes about 10 minutes away from Cobá — Multum-Ha, Choo-ha and Tamcach-Ha — and the entrance to each of those is $100 MXN, which is roughly $15 USD and not bad for three cenotes.

As with Cenote Suytun, you can find changing rooms, showers, lifejacket rentals and more at Multum-Ha. I was concerned about where we were supposed to leave our stuff and whether I’d be able to bring a camera for photos and videos. Luckily, we ended up feeling pretty safe bringing our stuff down into the cenote with us and leaving it on a dry rock where we could keep an eye on it.

The entrance to Multum-Ha was mesmerizing and unsuspecting at first glance — all you can see is a hole in the ground and wooden stairs that lead down deep into a cavern. Except, you can’t really see how deep it actually goes! The stairs and entrance also weren’t the widest space I’ve ever been in. Thankfully, my excitement for seeing and feeling the water down below completely distracted me from the otherwise expected claustrophobia.

After many, many steps down that slightly slippery and questionable staircase, you’re greeted by a beautiful cavern and deep-blue water. It’s just incredible to look at! The water is so crystal clear, it’s hypnotizing. This cenote is perfect for snorkeling as it’s the deepest of the three in the area. The water is a little cold, but it’s serenely refreshing after a couple of hours of exploring Cobá in the humid jungle sun.

Even though it was around 2 p.m., there were hardly any other people there and it definitely made the experience even better to have the cenote almost all to ourselves without a time limit. We swam around the cave for a bit and I tried to see underwater … and failed miserably without goggles. There’s also a water-level platform that you can cannonball off into the water. Need I say more?!

To me, every cenote I’ve visited has been different and magical in its own way. There are at least 6,000 cenotes throughout the Yucatan Peninsula and I would love to plan a trip where I just visit a bunch of different ones. At this point, my favorite has been Multum-Ha and I totally recommend that you check it out if you’re in the area.

WHAT OTHER CENOTES SHOULD YOU VISIT?!

I found these specific cenotes by looking at the photos under the #cenotesmexico hashtags. After finding different cenotes, I looked them up on Google to learn more about the location, prices, etc. I’ve found some cenotes are better taken care of than others and some are just touristy money-traps — which is what has been happening to so many areas in Quintana Roo like Tulum. Try similar hashtag variations, collect a list of 3–5 cenotes that are relatively close to each other and create your own easy-to-follow route.

If you don’t feel comfortable driving in México, you can take the ADO bus or taxi to these places from your hotel. But both times I’ve gone to visit cenotes have been in rental cars and I’ve had no problems. It’s just more convenient to drive at your own pace and go with your own schedule. You can also download offline maps from Google that you can reference and use without being on a network.

It was important to me to be fully vaccinated to feel somewhat OK with traveling during a pandemic to a country where vaccine distribution has been extremely slow. With all that in mind, I do hope that if you plan on visiting this or other parts of México, that you do so when you’re fully vaxxed so as to try to not further endanger the people of a country that still hasn’t recovered and will continue to struggle to recover from the pandemic.

Tip well, don’t be an asshole to the people and the land, and fall in love with the enchanting beauty that is México. And until I’m back to exploring México some more *cough cough* very soon, that is all for now.

-V

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