The Other Side of the Yucatan — Page 2
by Tim Leffel

Yucatan cenote

After changing into bathing suits for what was to come, we paid for the driver/guide and his horse-drawn cart. I think the horse was happy to see the three of us since it's possible for up to six overweight passengers to go in one train cart. The horse took off, pulling us along on old narrow gauge train tracks that have been here since the 1800s. Back then they transported workers and the fibrous henequen plants (sisal) used to make the world's rope before the dawn of synthetic fibers.

We took off rolling behind our horse, the train wheels screeching when we went around a bend. Then we came to our first cenote—an underground pond fed by a spring or groundwater. Cenotes are widespread in the Yucatan Peninsula. A geologist could give you a very long explanation of how they're formed, but there are more of them here than elsewhere because of the effect of the Chixculub crater. This massive crater was formed by the giant meteorite that landed here millions of years ago, the one that is probably responsible for wiping out the dinosaurs.

Here at Cuzama the cenotes are almost completely covered, reached by entering a hole and going down steps or a ladder. The water stays the same temperature all year and if the weather is hot, which it usually is around Merida, then visitors welcome the chance to dive into the deep waters and swim around with the fish.

We visited three cenotes in three hours, swimming around in the cool and clear water. The rest of the time we were either bouncing along behind our horse and driver or getting out so he could pull the train cart off the track to let another one pass.

What the Market Will Bear

Returning to "the other Yucatan" every year or two, the stark contrast in prices would be downright shocking when we occasionally ventured back to the Riviera Maya coast. There it's not uncommon to spend more than $100 each on entrance fees for manufactured experiences run by the Xcaret empire. It seems like taxi drivers won't even bother to start their engine for less than $20.

A few hours to the west, admission to the Merida Zoo is zero. We saw loud monkeys, pumas, jaguars, toucans, flamingos, giraffes, hippos, crocodiles, and an example of "the world's biggest rodent." We walked through a bird aviary and my daughter climbed around at the big free playground. There are a few rides and activities with a fee, but all are less than $2. We took a little train around the entire perimeter of the park for one peso each. Yes, one peso. For a dollar a kid could ride around 13 times.

Later we went to Rio Salvaje water park, on the road between Merida and Progreso. We paid a total of 16 dollars for the three of us to slide on every slide for the day. Then we ordered a bunch of food and sodas (delivered to our lounge chair) for $8. We paid a dollar to rent a locker for the day and zero to park our car outside.

Rio Selvaje water park

Our lives have progressed since we first discovered the other side of the Yucatan. That little toddler is now a teenager. We eventually sold the beach house and bought a larger place in central Mexico to live in, on a hillside in historic Guanajuato. When I go back now it's usually on a travel writing assignment, staying in grand haciendas and touring around in style. This land of the Maya feels just as special now though as the first time I wandered the center of Mérida, a cool paleta in hand. Yes, it requires more attention and patience to peel back the onion layers here than on a ready-made vacation in a sequestered resort by the Caribbean Sea. The waves here come in deep experiences that linger in your memory, not the kind that lap onto the shore and are gone.


Merida is about four hours west of Cancun and is the largest base for exploring the region, but there are also evocative places to stay in Izamal, Vallodolid, and near the archaeological sites of Chichen Itza and Uxmal. Guidebooks still have the most comprehensive information on the region, but the next-best bets are the state's tourism website plus the website and local print magazine Yucatan Today. If you can afford to travel in style, book a tour with Catherwood Travels .


Editor Tim Leffel is an award-winning writer who splits his time between the USA and Mexico. He is author of several books, including The World's Cheapest Destinations and Traveler's Tool Kit: Mexico and Central America. His latest one is A Better Life for Half the Price. See his twice-weekly column on the Cheapest Destinations blog.

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Related Features:
Before Dawn in the Place of Voices by Joshua Berman
My Chiapas Misadventure by Tim Leffel
Cancun is the New Tulum by Zora O'Neill

See other Mexico and Central America travel stories from the archives

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