Monday, June 2, 2014

Ik Kil And The Cenotes Of The Yucatán

Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula once contained a massive coral reef that became exposed to the atmosphere when sea levels sunk during the last ice age. As acidic rain began slowly dissolving the porous coral limestone, a vast network of caves formed, stretching thousands of miles across the peninsula.

Once sea levels rose, the cave system was flooded, with portions collapsing and sinkholes forming above ground. The water table of the Yucatán still contains seawater at sea level, but a layer of freshwater now floats above it, with the depth gradient dependent on how far inland you travel.

Collapsed sinkholes, known as cenotes, eventually filled with water and became access points to the flooded maze of underground caverns. Today, there are more than 30,000 cenotes all over the Yucatán Peninsula, some appearing as nothing more than small lagoons, and others featuring immense gaping orifices measuring hundreds of feet in depth and width.

One of the most beautiful and well-known cenotes in the area, Ik Kil, is located just ten minutes down the road from Chichen Itza. Due to this proximity and well-developed infrastructure on site (hotel, restaurant, gift shop, lockers, changing rooms), Ik Kil can get very crowded during the day. It remains, however, simply stunning to see in person:

Ik Kil cenote

The enormous sinkhole measures some 200 feet across, and the surface of the water is 85 feet below ground level. The depth of Ik Kil is a staggering 130 feet, so timid swimmers might want to consider wearing a life jacket while taking a dip.

Guests are able to descend to water level via a stone staircase carved into the walls, and two platforms on the way down provide breathtaking views of the entire cenote. One of the most interesting features of Ik Kil are the lengthy vines that extend from lush vegetation at ground level all the way down to the water.

Descending the stone staircase

Once at the bottom of the stairs, guests can take in the grandeur of Ik Kil in all its glory. Swimming in the cool waters of the cenote is an absolute must, and I would highly recommend floating on your back towards the center of the pool while looking up at the sky portal. It is an astonishing view that I will never forget.

In addition to the vines, there are also a number of minor waterfalls plunging down from the opening above. A swim underneath can be quite the experience. Tiny black catfish are found in abundance at Ik Kil, and sometimes, while flailing your arms underwater, you will feel their slimy bodies brush up against the tips of your fingers.

Reaching the water level

Ik Kil from below

A series of steps lead up to a jumping platform approximately 15 feet above the water. While it can be somewhat scary looking down from there, jumping into the cenote was incredibly fun once you get over the fear. My friend even attempted two head-first dives into the water rather successfully!

Jumping platform

As I mentioned before, Ik Kil is a very popular tourist stop along the road back from Chichen Itza. If you want to avoid the crowds, either arrive around opening time at 8:00 am or stay until closing time at 5:00 pm. You may very well have the entire cenote to yourself during those hours.

Even during the afternoon rush hour, however, crowds were mostly manageable. Large tour groups typically stay for only a limited time, so the mass of tourists grows and thins regularly. I recommend doing Ik Kil after visiting Chichen Itza since it is much more refreshing to take a swim in the cold waters after a long hot day in the sun.

The entrance fee was 70 pesos. If you visit Chichen Itza first, don't forget to grab a discount coupon for 5 pesos off the admission price upon exiting the parking lot. There is a lunch buffet restaurant at Ik Kil that costs 150 pesos per person. The quality is decent, but be aware that drinks are not included.

There are countless other cenotes in the region open to visitors. While I really wanted to see the popular Dos Ojos and Gran Cenote near Tulum, we only had time to visit one other small one named Cenote Azul, located south of Playa del Carmen just off the main freeway. The entrance fee here was 70 pesos as well.

Cenote Azul

Cenote Azul was far less spectacular compared to Ik Kil, but I really enjoyed the relaxed vibe of the area. This felt more like a day at the lake, and many families were enjoying picnic lunches while swimming in the crystal clear blue waters. With a shallow depth, it was possible to see all the way to the bottom of this cenote.

There was a wide variety of fish living in the waters, with one particularly beautiful species showing off its fan-like iridescent dorsal fin. Being closer to the coast, the water here was slightly brackish, and quite cold! Instead of easing your way in, I would recommend taking a leap of faith off the small wooden dock or jumping rock on the opposite side of the cenote.

It is worth the time to explore a couple of cenotes while visiting the Mayan Riviera and the Yucatán Peninsula. Some of the larger ones with extensive underwater caverns even feature scuba diving, which I hope to do one day.

It is also interesting to note that many of these pools were considered sacred by the Mayan civilization, and artifacts retrieved from the prominent Sacred Cenote near Chichen Itza included jewelry, weapons, pottery, and even sacrificial human remains. Of course, these cenotes are off-limits to tourists.

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