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Sotuta de Peon

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During the Yucatán’s henequen boom, there were close to a thousand haciendas (plantations) in operation across the state. Today, they’re nearly all in ruins. And in the area surrounding Mérida, only one still manufactures henequen: Sotuta de Peon. We joined a tour of the hacienda which led us through a mansion, the factory, a Maya house in the agave fields, a cenote, and ended at a restaurant serving up Yucatecan specialties.

Hacienda Sotuta de Peon

Our tour started in the hacienda’s main residence, which was filled with antique furniture and framed, faded photographs of the family who once lived here. Like all other henequen plantations, Sotuta de Peon closed up shop after the introduction of synthetic fibers in the mid-twentieth century. It was only recently purchased by a local businessman, renovated and restored to working operations.

Outside the mansion, we were introduced to the henequen-making process. The fiber comes from the leaves of an agave plant, similar to that which produces tequila. We saw both the old, labor-intensive method for producing the fiber and then moved to the more modern machinery. I use the term “modern” in a relative sense; these massive, roaring machines date from the early 1900s. We watched as stacks of henequen leaves were deposited into the machine, which broke them and “combed” the fiber out of the plant’s flesh.

Next, we boarded a cart hitched to a mule and set off into the fields where, at the top of a hill, Don Antonio was awaiting us in his palapa. He’s been living and working at Sotuta de Peon for most of his life and, since retiring from field work, has become a part of the hacienda’s tour. After explaining the process of cutting henequen, he showed us around his home, expressing his wonder and gratitude about his lot in life. Years ago as a simple henequen cutter, he couldn’t have imagined that he’d ever meet so many people from all around the world, and he seemed as interested in us as we were in him.

After saying “ka’a xi’itech” to our new friend, another short mule ride brought us to Sotuta de Peon’s cenote, where we had an hour to swim and enjoy a drink at the mobile “Wagon Bar”. The water was warm, and the underground cenote was more beautiful than we had expected. During our three months in the Yucatán, we saw many cenotes, and kept waiting for one to disappoint us. But it never happened.

Our tour ended with lunch in the hacienda’s restaurant. The food was excellent, and the prices reasonable. The tour itself, in fact, is a major bargain considering everything that it entails. If you have time to visit just a single hacienda during your time in the Yucatán, you’d be well-advised to make it the Sotuta de Peon.

Location on our Map
Sotuta de Peon – Website

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February 15, 2014 at 4:06 pm Comments (0)

The Cenote Siete Bocas

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The road leading inland from Puerto Morelos has just one thing on its mind: cenotes. Sign after hand-painted sign exhorts you to visit Cenote Las Mojarras! Cenote Boca del Puma! Cenote Verde Lucero! Without prior information, it’d be impossible to know which to choose, so we made sure to get a recommendation. And those we talked to were in agreement that Cenote Siete Bocas, or the Seven-Mouth Cenote, would be unforgettable.

Cenote Siete Bocas

Siete Bocas is found at the end of a long and poorly-marked dirt path leading off the main road. We were overjoyed to see that ours was the only car in the parking lot, and a woman immediately came out to greet us. She told us a bit about the cenote, and then asked for 250 pesos (about $19) apiece. For a cenote, that’s quite steep. I looked around but couldn’t find the normal price listed anywhere, so we had more than a sneaking suspicion that she had sized us up before inventing the figure, but whatever. We weren’t in the mood to haggle, and handed over the cash.

Luckily, the cenote was amazing; easily worth the price, however inflated. As its name implies, this is one large cenote with seven small entrances that have opened in the earth. Because of high water levels following a long period of rain, two of the bocas were closed during our visit, but it hardly mattered.

We started at the first hole, and jumped off the subterranean platform into the cave. With light pouring in from above, the water was a deep, beautiful blue, and the cave itself was both scary and exciting. We swam slowly around, discovering a passage which led to Boca #5. I swam around the back of a huge stalactite and into a section of the cave that received very little light. Just as I was about to turn around, a bat flew out of darkness and past my head.

Bocas #3 and #4 were connected by a small passageway. You could climb down a ladder into #3, but #4 required a leap of faith. This was a huge, perfectly circular hole where the water was extremely deep. I gathered my courage and made the jump, holding it together until the very end, when I couldn’t resist letting out a shriek of terror (or a bellow of virility, however you want to interpret it).

Siete Bocas is especially popular with cave divers, and it’s not hard to see why. With scuba equipment, you can explore the entire underground lake and with seven sources of light pouring in, the view from the deep must be unreal.

Location on our Map

We Stayed In A Great Affordable Place In Puerto Morelos

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February 4, 2014 at 2:06 pm Comments (0)

The Cenotes of Valladolid

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An inexhaustible number of cenotes riddle the limestone earth of the Yucatán Peninsula, but Valladolid is blessed with some of the most beautiful. In a single morning, we visited three, the first of which is right in the middle of town.

Cenotes Valladolid

The Cenote Zaci takes its name from the Maya city on top of which Valladolid was founded. We visited after enjoying breakfast at the city market. Given its location in central Valladolid, I had expected a small pool, but this was a massive cave, shaded by trees and shrubs. We descended a set of stairs and felt as though we’d entered a lost jungle paradise, unable to believe that this gorgeous pool is in the middle of a busy city.

But it is in the middle of a busy city. Let’s just say that, although it’s technically allowed, I wouldn’t want to swim at the Cenote Zaci. And the locals apparently agree. Despite the morning heat, there wasn’t a single person in the water.

In the nearby town of Dzitnup are two of the Yucatán’s most celebrated cenotes: Xkekén and Samulá. Dzitnup can be reached by bike from Valladolid; after the pleasant 20-minute ride, you can reward yourself with a cool swim. The two cenotes are right across the road from each other, and though you have to pay for each separately, both are worth seeing. We started at Samulá, which is famous for the dangling roots of the giant alamo tree that sits above it. Xkekén was perhaps even more stunning, a massive cavern with stalactites and crystal blue water.

Dzitnup is a popular bus stop on the well-established route between Cancún and Chichén Itzá, so the chances of finding its cenotes unoccupied are slim-to-none. They’re extremely photogenic, but the crowds and ubiquitous vendors are off-putting. We stayed out of the water.

Locations on our Map: Cenote Zaci | Dzitnup

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January 30, 2014 at 5:32 pm Comments (0)

The Three Cenotes of Chunkanán

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Hundreds of cenotes pockmark the earth of the Yucatán Peninsula. Fed by subterranean rivers, these pools once served as sources of fresh water for the Maya, but today they’re primarily used for fun. We visited three amazing cenotes on a popular tour leaving from the village of Chunkanán.

Three Cenotes of Chunkanán

Our trip began in front of the restaurant Dzapacal, where we hopped into a cart pulled by horse along old railway tracks. The restaurant wasn’t hard to find; it’s the only large building in this minuscule town. Chunkanán was once home to one of the Yucatán’s many henequen plantations, and has struggled to survive since the collapse of the industry. The tracks along which our cart was being pulled had been used to transport the fiber to the port of Sisal on the Gulf Coast. After a short ride of about ten minutes, we arrived at the first cenote: Santa Cruz.

At each cenote, our guide allowed us as much time as we wanted, and we took full advantage at Santa Cruz, which we had all to ourselves. This cave was lit perfectly and we were able to float on the cool water, looking up at the stalactites and the swallows that circled them.

The second cenote was near enough to walk to. Dzapacal means “short throat” in Mayan and shares its name with the town restaurant. Without a guide, we would have walked right by this hole in the ground and completely missed it. To get to the water, you have climb ten slippery meters down a pair of ladders. The pool itself is narrow but extremely deep at nearly 33 meters (100 feet), and swimming down here was terrifying. So far from the surface and swimming in a hole that extends endlessly into the earth… who knows what ghastly creatures lurk in the deep?

Three Cenotes of Chunkanán

We hopped back on our cart to reach the third and final cenote of the day, Chelentun. There was quite a crowd when we arrived, but no bother. At over 100 meters (300 feet) in length and 40 meters (120 feet) deep, Chelentun is big enough to share. We dove in, and I went straight down until my ears started to hurt. The water is amazing, stunningly clean and clear, and glows bright blue when hit by the sun. You might think that the water of a subterranean river would be freezing, but it’s actually quite pleasant.

We can’t recommend this tour enough. Be warned, though. To reach Chunkanán, you have to pass through Cuzamá, a neighboring village which is trying to steal the cenote business. Jealous of the success of Chunkanán’s tour, Cuzamá started up its own “Three Cenote” package. Guys with red flags lurk on the road and will aggressively wave you down, even forcing you off the road. They direct you into their parking lot, and will lie about their tour being the only one. We had to be very insistent, even rude, before we were able to continue on to Chunkanán. It’s an awful practice, especially since struggling Chunkanán truly depends on these tours as nearly its sole source of income.

Apart from that bit of unpleasantness, we loved our time in Chunkanán. After the tour’s conclusion, we enjoyed an excellent lunch in the restaurant, and then hired a kid to take us to the ruins of the town’s old henequen plantation. A really fun day out, not far from Mérida.

Location of Chunkanán on our Map

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January 15, 2014 at 3:02 pm Comment (1)

The Life of a Baron in the Hacienda Temozón

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The gate of the Hacienda Temozón functions like a time machine, transporting you to an age when the Yucatán was among the richest areas in the Western Hemisphere. The henequen boom was a period of unimaginable wealth for the Yucatán… if, of course, you were among the lucky few who owned land.

Hacienda Temozón

I’ve always wondered how the ruling elite of grossly unequal societies can justify the abject misery suffered by the common people. I mean, how do they reconcile it, within their private souls? The landowners of the henequen-era Yucatán were no dummies; they were aware that their grand mansions and dainty luxuries were bought and paid for on the broken backs of an oppressed people. How could they sleep at night knowing that?

Most likely, they slept very well indeed… we started to understand that at the Hotel Temomzón, where we lived like barons for one glorious day. In the evening, as the sun was settling down, I stretched out on a hammock overlooking the hacienda’s garden with a tamarind margarita. At that moment, if someone had approached me with the choice to return to the 1800s as either [1] a spirited revolutionary fighting for social justice, or [2] a filthy rich landowner grown fat off the labor of others, there can be little doubt which box I’d have ticked.

The main hacienda building has floors with original tiling, photos of famous guests like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, a billiards hall and a restaurant on the patio. Behind the mansion is a beautiful pool and an old factory, with ancient machinery still in place. We loved walking through these equipment rooms, especially as they’re covered in old-time photos of life during the boom years.

Our room was in the former carpentry building, and I don’t even like thinking about it. It’s depressing that I’ll never be staying there again. The bathroom alone was a thing of perfection. The room was cavernous in size, and had an incredibly powerful shower that immediately turned on at exactly the right temperature. Sigh. Don’t ask me to describe the bedroom… the memory may reduce me to tears.

Hacienda Temozón

We woke early enough for a morning trip to the hacienda’s cenote. Three kilometers away, it’s reached along old railway tracks previously used to transport henequen. Climbing aboard a creaky wagon hitched to a donkey named Paco, we arrived at the pool after a bumpy and fun ride through the jungle. A deep hole with a ladder reaching down about six meters to the water, this was the first cenote we bathed in, and it couldn’t have been more beautiful.

Our day at Hacienda Temozón was everything we had hoped it would be. It’s a luxury hotel, so you can’t expect to book a room on the cheap. But you can expect a relaxing stay in a lovely and historic setting, hearkening back to another age.

Link: Hacienda Temozón

Location on our Map

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January 3, 2014 at 5:04 pm Comments (0)

The Grutas de Loltún

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One of Mexico’s biggest cave systems is found just south of Oxkutzcab. With woolly mammoth bones and evidence of human presence dating back to the Pleistocene Age, the Grutas de Loltún (Caves of the Flower Stone) served as a refuge to both the Maya and to those who came before them.

In order to visit the caves, you have to hire a local guide. There’s no set price for this service; instead, you’re asked to pay what you think is fair. So before we departed, and throughout the entirety of the tour, our guide was reminding us to tip generously. “It’s up to you. Most people give me 700 pesos. Totally your choice, though! But 700 is normal. Just saying. I have a family to support.” He never stopped needling, and it was a real annoyance. I decided to give him 500 pesos ($40) for the both of us, and he was happy with this.

Luckily, it was easy to ignore the money-grubbing once we got inside of the cave. We began in an enormous chamber named “The Cathedral”. The path wound into another spacious room where a long, heavy stalactite hung close to the floor. The guide, unbelievably, started pounding on it to produce a low booming sound. Apparently that’s allowed. He asked me pound on it too, which I did, albeit more tenderly. One day, some roided-out rage freak is going to take a tour of Loltún, and it will be lights-out for that poor stalactite.

From here, we came upon a section of the cavern called the “Grand Canyon”, due to its uncanny resemblance to Arizona’s natural wonder. We also saw red hand paintings on the wall, left by the cave’s original occupants. The Maya were not the first people to make use of the cave, and they must have been as mystified by such paintings as we are today.

Our tour ended at a section of the cave where the ceiling collapsed, allowing in light to flood in. Along with natural rock formations that look like a lion and a monkey, there are huge piles of stones. During their battles against the Spanish in the Caste War, the Maya would retreat to Loltún, and these stones were from a wall which had been a part of their fortifications.

We loved our walk through the caves, though it was a shame about the guide. When he wasn’t pestering us for money, he was rushing us through the cave as quickly as possible, making it difficult for Jürgen to get pictures. Also, much of the information he fed us was completely contrary to what we had gathered from more trustworthy sources. But hiring a guide is unavoidable if you want to gain entrance, so just be aware.

Location of the Grutas de Loltún on our Map

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December 24, 2013 at 5:21 pm Comment (1)

Río Secreto

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A vast system of underground rivers flows through the limestone earth of the Yucatán Peninsula, with the largest found just south of Playa del Carmen. The Río Secreto allows visitors an exhilarating chance to walk, wade, and float through an extensive network of subterranean chambers.

Río Secreto is one of a number of attractions along the Riviera Maya promoting themselves as family-friendly theme parks. Despite rave reviews, we almost avoided it for this very reason. (A special adventure for the whole family in the Secret River? What are we, twelve?) But once we put away the glossy brochures and got past the front gates, the park revealed itself to be much more serious and interesting than expected.

After a bumpy bus ride to the site, we put on wet suits and helmets, and followed our guide into the woods. Soon, we had arrived at a gateway to the underworld. Illuminated perfectly by light filtering in from above, we entered into a mesmerizing cave full of stalactites whose reflections shone off the still blue water covering the ground. Although it has long been known to locals, Río Secreto was only discovered by the world at large in 2007, and was almost immediately made into a national park, which helps explain the immaculate condition of the caves.

For 90 minutes, we followed the river into vast chambers and underneath delicate, chandelier-like stalactite formations. Sometimes we’d wade, sometimes float, and occasionally the darkness was complete. Our guide once had us turn off our helmet lamps in order to experience being alone in pure, pitch blackness. But more often, there would be light shining through. The Maya considered these caves to be sacred, and it’s not hard to understand why. Their beauty is absolutely sublime, and their size is difficult to comprehend. Although our tour lasted 90 minutes, we saw only around 3% of the entire system.

At $69 USD per person ($99 if you need transport), Río Secreto isn’t among the cheapest entertainment options in the Yucatán, and I’m sure the high cost turns a lot of people off. Even more frustrating, a professional photographer who follows you into the cave will take some truly excellent pictures, but the CD costs another $99 USD (with the option to buy individual pictures at $25 a pop). Shameful. Still, we can’t recommend a trip to Río Secreto enough. We’ve visited a lot of the Earth’s special hidden corners, but this was among the most unforgettable.

Location on our Yucatán Map

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December 9, 2013 at 11:15 pm Comments (7)
Sotuta de Peon During the Yucatán's henequen boom, there were close to a thousand haciendas (plantations) in operation across the state. Today, they're nearly all in ruins. And in the area surrounding Mérida, only one still manufactures henequen: Sotuta de Peon. We joined a tour of the hacienda which led us through a mansion, the factory, a Maya house in the agave fields, a cenote, and ended at a restaurant serving up Yucatecan specialties.
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