Mexico’s Cenotes: Exploring Chaak Tun

With the provocative civilization of the Maya on eminent display at the ancient ruins of Coba, Tulum and legendary Chichen Itza, Mexico’s Riviera Maya is awash with attractions just waiting for intrepid exploration. Although these are perennial bucket list favorites, even more intriguing are the sacred cenotes, underground caves and rivers that carve their way into and under the jungle terrain.

A visit to the region’s endemic cenotes will fuel the drive for Indiana Jones style adventure and should be considered mandatory. Scientists suggest that the Maya considered these sacred wells to be portals to the underworld. Archaeological research has discovered human bones and artifacts in many of the cenotes, leading to thoughts that these natural sinkholes may have been used in sacrificial rituals. Those legends aside, many have been opened for public viewing and are favored as local swimming holes.

The main highway from Cancun is blanketed with signs announcing entrances to cenotes, some crudely handmade, others more elaborate pointing to highly marketed sites like XelHa and Xcaret. Dodging these highly touted attractions, a visit to the super secret Chaak Tun, ten minutes from Playa Del Carmen can and should be considered as the best of the rest.  If you have rented a car it’s an easy drive or you can arrange a direct booking with transfers from the Chaak Tun website. Whichever way fits your schedule it is well worth a visit.

Going Underground

Cenote pools and caves are natural pits formed by the collapse of limestone bedrock, exposing the groundwater that flows under the jungle floors of the Yucatan. Chaak Tun actually consists of two massive caves, one with light rays spilling through a hole in the ceiling and the other segment relatively dark except for conservative lighting that provides an ambiance of mystery. 

These freshwater filled caverns provide dazzling cinema with stalagmites and stalactites appearing in dimly lit passageways. The overhead canopy of sights is reflected in the crystal clear water as you effortlessly drift through with guides revealing fascinating details on nature’s role in the creation of the cenote as well as the Maya and their beliefs. On arrival guests can rent any essentials needed, but lifevests, flashlights and hardhats are provided with a small on site restaurant sitting in a cave like setting for satisfying the munchies.

Go Ahead, Make My Stay

Ground zero for exploration could start anywhere along the coast but a stay in picturesque Akumal, situated midway between Playa Del Carmen and Tulum will mobilize genuine immersion into the area’s timeless culture and other attractions.

It’s been several years since we built a quaint little villa in this little known beach community, smack dab in the middle of what would eventually become known as the Riviera Maya. Indelible memories remain of our frequent trips to Cancun, renting a car for the journey along the precarious two lane road dotted with shabby palapa huts, small haciendas and makeshift shops hawking Mexican blankets and souvenirs. What was our family’s covert hideaway has grown and I’ll have to concede that the secret is out.


Photo: Steve Leland

The two lane road has been upgraded to four, with tourism injecting a new way of life to the Mayan descendants that inhabit the region. The secluded pristine beaches that were once the reward for breaching stopgap rope barriers are now secured by elaborate gateways leading to opulent resorts. 

Thankfully, Hotel Akumal Caribe has retained a significant degree of its trademark authentic charm, eschewing mega-resort glitz in favor of a casual barefoot beach vibe. Owned and operated by the same family for over 45 years, it is unique in its character which contributes to its popularity among repeat guests.

Hotel Akumal Caribe

Hotel Akumal Caribe | Photo: Steve Leland

In contrast to the concrete jungle of neighboring resorts, the property features individual bungalows positioned amongst well manicured gardens. The beachside building with its 21 rooms adjacent to the pool is the closest thing resembling a traditional hotel and the well established Lol Ha restaurant and bar is a popular hangout for the large ex-pat community and locals. 

The protected bay is well known for the annual return of nesting sea turtles and is also a  great snorkeling location, a true divers paradise founded and protected by divers. The on site Akumal Dive Center is a local institution that offers world class diving to the abundant coral and sea life of the respected reef system.

As a former Cruise Director, Steve has been cruising the world for the past forty years. Bringing a new dimension to cruise journalism, he continues to spin the globe searching for off the grid cruise adventures and unplugged destinations to share with Porthole Cruise Magazine readers.