Adventure Travel: Swimming in Cenotes and Climbing Pyramids in Mexico’s Riviera Maya

Over the past month or so, I’ve been fortunate enough to have traveled all over the North American continent, flying first to the Riviera Maya in Mexico for a few days of fun and adventure, before later zipping off to British Columbia for a completely different experience. After that, it was back home for a brief stay before once again heading out to Upstate New York where I explored the Lake George region with my friends from the Adventure Travel Trade Association, after which I was home for three days before leaving for Denver for the 2019 Summer Outdoor Retailer convention. In other words, I’ve been super busy, which is why updates to The Adventure Blog have been so sporadic in recent weeks. Fortunately, I’m now home until mid-August and have time to catch up on all of the work that has been neglected. It also gives me some time to share some updates on the things I’ve seen and done over those weeks of travel, which included some fantastic adventure travel experiences.

My busy month+ of travel started in Mexico where I joined a group of travel journalists for a few days on the Riviera Maya at a place called Quintana Roo. This beautiful place is located along the Yucatan Peninsula, falling along the coast of the Caribbean Sea. Of course, that meant lots of beautiful beaches, lovely resorts, and warm, crystal clear water, which is exactly what many travelers are looking for. In our case however, we came to scope out the local opportunities for more adventurous outings and we didn’t come away disappointed.

If you’re a history buff, you probably already know that the Mexican Caribbean was once home to the Maya and the revenants of that civilization can be found there to this day. In fact, many of the people who live in the region are direct descendent of the Mayans, and still hold their heritage and customs in high regard. On our journey, we had the chance to visit some of the local villages, where the children of the Maya still reside, getting a chance to witness their distinct culture in an up close and personal manner. Best of all however, we had the chance to visit a couple of sites where the remains of their ancient cities, temples, and pyramids can still be found, despite the best efforts of the encroaching jungle.

The most impressive and best preserved of those sites was found at a place called Cobá. This site dates back as far as 50 BC. The place truly began to take from nearly 600 years later however, when the Mayan civilization rose to prominence in the area. Visitors to the place can catch a glimpse of what it was like back then thanks to towering stone structures that include several pyramids, residential buildings, platforms, an athletic complex, and more. At its peak, Cobá was home to more than 50,000 inhabitants, although only a fraction of the city has been uncovered thus far.

Many of the Mayan pyramids found in the Mexican Caribbean are now closed off and don’t allow visitors to climb them. That isn’t the case in Cobá where my group and I were able to scramble to the top of one of those structures. The ascent was steep and challenging in the heat and humidity, despite the fact that steps are carved into the side of the building. Those stone structures are widely varying in size, forcing visitors to carefully watch their footing on the way up, but doubly so on the way down. The descent is so steep in fact that a rope has been installed to help travelers make their way down in a safer fashion.

Those who make their way to the summit of the pyramid will find themselves standing high above the surrounding countryside. From there, you can spot other Mayan structures sprinkled across the landscape, peeking out from the jungle landscape. A gentle breeze blew through as well, providing a brief respite from the heat and humidity found below. The spot is the perfect location for snapping photos, so don’t be too surprised if there aren’t a bevy of would-be Instagram stars trying to take selfies at the top. The social-media friendly nature of the pyramid’s summit makes it a lovely place to visit however, so if you do go to Cobá be sure to make the effort to climb the ancient building.

Hiking and climbing in the jungle is a good way to work up a sweat, but fortunately our next stop would allow us to cool off some, and give me the chance to check off a major bucket list item. I had always wanted to take a swim in the Yucatan’s famous cenotes, but my previous visits to Mexico had never given me the chance. This time, it was part of the itinerary, which made me extremely excited. For those who don’t know, a cenote is a cave or sinkhole that has formed in the limestone rock that grants access to underground rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water. They are extremely common throughout the Mexican Caribbean because the entire region is made almost entirely of limestone. When it rains above, that water often penetrates the porous rock and collects down below, often creating some stunningly beautiful locations with fresh water pools filling up the cave systems.

For the Maya, these cenotes were seen as sacred places that provided access to the underworld. Because of this, they would often perform rituals in the limestone caves to honor their ancestors and prepare for their own journey into the after life. To this day, archaeologists continue to find hidden locations that contain artifacts from the Mayan culture, including pottery, tools, and other items. Researchers and explorers also continue to discover new cenotes and hidden caverns that interconnect these underground waterways that spiderweb throughout the region.

After our visit to Cobá our next stop was to one of the more popular cenotes in the area to take a dip in the waters found there. After hiking to the entrance of the cave, we first took showers to rinse off any dirt, sweat, or grime that we might have on us after our jungle excursion. The goal is to keep the underground pools as clean and untouched as possible, so the local guides go to great length to ensure we’re not bringing anything in that we shouldn’t into the waters below.

Photo Credit: Chaak Tun Mayan Underworld

From there, we proceeded down a walkway and a set of stairs into the cavern, which was lit in such a way as to highlight the water and the surrounding cave walls. These lights not only helped us find our way through the cave, but also made the entire place shimmer magically. Overhead, a few bats flitted about, hidden slightly by the shadows. They let us know they were there without coming too close to where we were walking and stand-in as we prepared to take a plunge. At the bottom of the stairs a large wooden platform was built right alongside the pool of water and after gathering there, we all took in the scene for a moment. It was quiet and eerily calm down there, but also tranquil and soothing as well.

One by one we all leapt into the cool, refreshing, and incredibly clear pool. The water felt amazing after a long, hot day in the sun and while the temperature was a bit of a shock at first, our bodies soon adapted to it and we proceeded to swim about. It was definitely a unique experience and one of the highlights of the trip, although later we would get to explore an even larger and more intriguing cenote when we took a tour of a larger cave system in the area. While our first experience with swimming in the cenotes was all about cooling off and enjoying the water, the second one was more of a culture experience that took us deep into the caves where we learned the true meaning of “pitch black” while turning out our lights far from the entrance. Both were incredible experiences for sure, but the longer tour was definitely the most adventurous of the two.

If you have plans to visit the Maya Riviera region, than dropping by Cobá or one of the other Mayan archaeological sites is a must-do. It was fascinating to walk amongst those ruins and imagine the vast civilization that once lived there. Taking a plunge in a cenote is also a worth adventure, although if time is limited I’d recommend taking one of the underground tours versus just going for a swim. Don’t get me wrong, a refreshing plunge is well worth it and a lot of fun, but you’ll get even more out of the more in-depth tours for sure.

I want to thank our guides from Altournative (get it!?!) for showing us around and providing such a great experience in general. The company offers some great options for anyone visiting Cancun or the surrounding Riviera Maya region, so even if you only have a day or two, it’s worth checking out the various choices that they have for visitors.

This was just a taste of what I had the opportunity to do while in the Mexican Caribbean. I’ll share more of that incredible experience in another upcoming story in a few days time.