Yucatán Adventure: Calcehtok Caves

December 1, 2008

You found it

There’s no question about it – Lol Tun Caves, on the Ruta Puuc,  Yucatan Peninsula, deserve a stop.  You may end up on a tour of the caves with a large group of Germans and Poles (as I did), you will be pressured incessantly to overtip your guide, but you will also see stalactites of a magnitude previously unknown – magnificent! breathtaking!

If, however, the Disney atmosphere and false lighting leaves you hungering for a more authentic cave experience, head west about an hour to Calcehtok Caves.   Calcehtok is the second largest dry Yucatecan cave system, behind Lol Tun.  Pronounced “kal-ke-tok,” it means “neck-deer-stone” in the Maya language.

I had read in a guidebook to simply show up at the modest entrance to Calcehtok, rouse a sleeping guide, and ask to be taken on a tour.  There was no welcome desk, no (mandatory) fee to pay; I simply drove to the road’s end and asked a small, lovely man – Rogelio – in very poor Spanish – if he would take me for a brief tour of the caves.  We managed to agree on a one hour tour, una hora ruta turistica, a typical route for a Western tourist.

My trusted guide, Rogelio

My trusted guide, Rogelio

Rogelio packed his rucksack with a few needed items, handed me a beat-up flashlight, and grabbed a small Coleman lantern as we walked to the edge of the limestone entrance.  The ancient Maya ruins of Uxmal and the city of Campeche appeared on the horizon.  Below was a scene from Jurassic Park, with palm trees  growing out of the underworld and reaching towards the blue, Yucatecan sky.  The ground looked fertile, the foliage lush.  The sounds and sights – and smells – of bats flying below inspired me to close my eyes and say a quick prayer.  I tried not to think of the guidebook warning I had read earlier that day about not entering the caves alone because the noxious fumes from bat guano could induce unconsciousness.  I eyed Rogelio, who was smaller than me, and tried to picture him throwing me over his shoulder and mule-packing me out of the cave.   He wouldn’t enjoy it, but he could do it, in a pinch.

ladder down

Down we go

We climbed down a small, iron ladder onto a limestone ledge, then scrambled over rocks, deep down into the Jurassic palms.  We continued beyond the lush green and further into the gray rock.  Here’s where the Maya built a wall to keep out their enemies, Rogelio explained.  Here are the metates, where the women ground corn.  Here are a couple chultunes, cisterns for holding water.  How long ago?, I asked.  Oh, these metates and chultunes are probably 500-600 years old, he said.  Lying next to one metate was a rock carved into a menacing face.  I was perplexed to be standing among items that would fare better in a museum than in plain view.  Rogelio stopped and fired up the lantern as I breathed in guano fumes and took in the last rays of natural light.

We walked from gray into black, into the first cave entrance, ducking down, watching our heads, and eventually standing in an immense, completely darkened chamber.  Cool water dripped from the rock ceiling overhead; sweat began to pour down my face, neck, chest.  The dirt under my feet turned to mud.

Maya ceramics

Maya ceramics

Many Maya have lived here over the past hundreds, thousands!, of years, Rogelio said quietly, reverently, as we walked across the chamber.  There is evidence of hundreds of Maya families living here as long as two thousand years ago. Later we would see shards of pottery and sacred phallic objects from approximately eighteen-hundred years ago, and two-thousand year old art etched and drawn on the limestone walls.

My flashlight flickered off and I cursed myself for not bringing my own large, high-powered light.  I stayed one step behind Rogelio – as if blind, arm reaching forward to touch him, his shirt, anything – as we walked into the next large cavern, and then the next, and then the next.  There, see over there?, Rogelio would ask,  sitting on his haunches, pointing into a distant corner with a flashlight.  We could go spelunking down there, with rope.  There are underground streams, so you’d have to wear wading boots.  It’s a long, skinny channel, but then you arrive in the most magnificent chamber.  I could take you on a two hour tour, or four, even eight!

Rogelio and quartz underground

Rogelio and quartz underground

We entered a cavern the size of a football field, containing a single, lonely boulder in the middle of the space.  Rogelio informed me that we were about 80m underground at that point (approximately 260 feet); we stood solemnly in front of the rock altar, and I listened to him describe how this was the spot where Maya women were sacrificed.  I was amazed by how proficient one’s Spanish could become when hundreds of feet underground, alone with a stranger, speaking of female sacrifices.  I leveled my flashlight, still flickering and dying, into Rogelio’s eyes.  Why only women?, I asked.  The men were sacrificed on the pyramids, and the women in the underworld. At this precise moment, my flashlight died.  Rogelio whacked it on the rock a few times, to no avail.  He gave me another flashlight.  I eyed him suspiciously.

We viewed a small room where the alux (“ah-loosh”) live, the tiny dwarves of Maya mythology, containing around a hundred small stalagmites that looked to be a room full of the alux themselves, in army formation.  Next was a small enclave for a kitchen, a portion of the cave with blackened walls and ceiling, metates, chultunes, and a complex map of the cave system etched onto a portion of the overhead wall.

Our trek continued; we marched through mud and over massive stalagmites resembling termite hills.  Bats continued to fly and screech overhead.  Water dripped, sweat coursed, mud suction-cupped, odors overpowered.  But something had happened – my fear of the dark, fear of enclosed spaces, fear of Rogelio, fear of bats – had all passed away, and I was one of the ancient Maya women, winding her way from kitchen to storage, rummaging for food, gossiping with friends, tending to the children.  I felt the vibrancy of the community and togetherness, the humanity and rawness of living in cramped spaces so far underground, and having to protect your home and family from dangerous foes.

entrance and trees

What lies beneath

Eventually, we ducked a final time and walked into sunlight.  It had been the longest and most glorious hour of my vacation.  I wiped brown muck off my face.  I gave Rogelio a generous tip, shook his hand, thanked him profusely, and marveled at my sudden inability to speak Spanish above ground.

Get your little butt out there!


Yucatán: Mérida and Her Destinations

November 16, 2008


Mérida, a Yucatecan city, is mesmerizing; if visiting, try to stay at a hotel within walking distance of the Plaza Principal.  There are many nice walks to be had in Mérida itself, to enjoy shopping, eating, people watching, museums.  It’s an attractive, electric, yet manageable city of one million people.  I felt extremely safe traveling there as a single woman – safer, in fact, than I feel in most parts of the U.S.  There are wonderful, free, cultural events like music and dancing at the Plaza Principal; most of the attendees will be locals.  The locals are as much fun to watch as the performers.

A Merida performance

A Merida performance

But one of the best things about Mérida is the day trips you can make from there to somewhere else.  I had a rental car, a secure spot in which to park at the hotel (the wonderful and charming Casa SacNicte Bed & Breakfast, http://www.casasacnicte.com), and enjoyed, by day, some of the best vacation adventures I’ve had anywhere.



Izamal monastery

Izamal monastery

My numero uno recommendation, by far, is to go to Izamal for a half or full day.  Izamal is located 45 minutes northwest of Mérida by car.  It’s the little yellow city that could, with buildings bathed in a uniform vibrant yellow and buzzing with energy.  The imposing Franciscan Monastery was built as a partial amends to the Maya people for Bishop Landa’s almost incomprehensible destruction of ancient Maya culture. Pope John Paul visited in the early ‘90s.  Small Maya ruins can be visited within town limits.


My second suggestion is to visit the three fantastical cenotes (swimming holes, sinkholes, caves, and caverns of all descriptions) at Cuzama.  Gentlemen will be hanging around waiting for gringo and Mexican families to choose them, their miniature horses, and their fashionably decorated buggies for a modest and well-worth-it fee of $20 U.S. to bring you deep into the woods where you will be left to visit and swim in each cenote.  I did the whole trip in a couple hours and felt rushed; it would be better as a half day excursion.  Be prepared for climbing up and down steep stairs and ladders, and bring your camera’s tripod.  If you can’t easily open your eyes underwater, bring goggles so you can see the beautiful underwater sights – bring snorkeling gear, if you have it.  The water in most cenotes is crystal clear with excellent visibility.  Expect a significant amount of physical jostling while in the buggy.  Add a visit to the nearby ruins of Mayapán to make it a full day trip.  I loved these ruins – they are compact and dramatic and you can still view color art friezes on several walls.  I recommend visiting Mayapán first thing in the morning and then the cenotes at Cuzama in the afternoon.

Cuzama cenote

Cuzama cenote


My third recommendation:  driving the Ruta Puuc (the Puuc Ruins Route) to see all the Maya ruins, especially Uxmal.  This would make for a long day, so it wouldn’t be the end of the world to just see Uxmal.  Uxmal is a wonder and deserves a full day of exploring, if not two.  As with all Maya ruins, the noteworthy suggestion is to arrive early, before the tour buses arrive.  I made it a habit to arrive at ruins by opening hour – usually 8 a.m. – and was able to enjoy quiet moments without the hordes of tourists (not to mention the hot sun).  If there’s one suggestion worth taking, this is it: ruins = arrive early.


My fourth suggestion is a shorter excursion than the others – drive north of Mérida to see the Maya ruins of Dzibilchaltún (less than a half hour away); bring your walking shoes as they’re beautifully sprawled.  Don’t forget your bathing suit and a towel so that you can enjoy a quick swim in the clear, fresh cenote with the lily pads and curious fish. Afterward, continue driving north another half hour to the little beach town of Progreso.  Progreso is worth visiting just to see what a beach town on the north coast of the Yucatán Peninsula looks like – it’s a small, scrappy place, but you’ll be able to enjoy a good meal and there are decent and moderately priced Maya and Mexican goods to be purchased.  Be prepared to be harassed by vendors.


Ik'kil cenote

Ik Kil cenote

My fifth recommendation would be to drive to the well-known, jaw dropping Maya ruins at Chichén Itzá, and since you’re going all that way, plan on visiting the nearby Ik Kil Cenote.  Chichén Itzá is filled with tourists and vendors by 11 a.m., so if you go, go early.  Ik Kil is also filled with tourists and you’ll have to pay more than you think you should to get in; it’s so beautiful, do it anyway.  As is the mantra, bring your bathing suit, a towel and plenty of film.  A tripod may be helpful since the cenote is deep and sufficient natural lighting is not guaranteed.


All this being said, I prefer the smaller and more recently discovered Maya ruins north of Chichén Itzá called Ek’Balam.  Ek’Balam has some of the most beautiful Maya art and carvings I’ve seen; they look like they were created last year, not in 800 A.D.  If you arrive early enough, you may be the only one there to enjoy the site for the first hour.  See these ruins now before all the other tourists catch on to their wonder.


Ek'Balam bench

Ek’Balam bench

BONUS! My sixth suggestion is a bit of an “adventure” and not for the fainthearted.  Drive to the remote Maya Oxkintok ruins down a long, deserted, potholed road to enjoy these ruins (probably alone), then take a short drive to the nearby Calcehtok Caves for a private, impromptu tour of a (dry) cave system in which many ancient Maya families used to live.  There’s no lighting of any kind, there will be hundreds of bats flying overhead; the pungent (and potentially toxic) fumes from the bat guano may be more than you can stand.  It’s also one of the coolest things you can do and see in Mexico.


Get your little butt out there!