One of the best things you can do during a visit to the Yucatán is head out to see the cenotes. These water-filled sinkholes offer you the chance to swim in beautiful limestone caves, an experience you should definitely prioritize if you are traveling to Mérida or Cancún. There are quite a few cenotes to pick from in the area. After visiting some in Chunkanán and Homún, I definitely preferred the three Chunkanán cenotes.
Chunkanán Cenotes: Essential Details
Visiting the three Chunkanán cenotes is an easy half-day trip from Mérida. Depending on when you get rolling for the day, you could easily enjoy all three and wrap up in time for lunch. Combined with other cenotes in either Cuzamá or Homún, you have the makings of a full day trip enjoying these natural wonders.
Here’s what you need to know about visiting the Chunkanán cenotes:
- Drive time from Mérida: ~90 minutes
- Cost: 500 Mexican pesos (per cart, I think?)
- Time commitment: ~2-3 hours
- What to bring: swimsuit, towel, camera(!)
Getting to Chunkanán from Mérida
Chunkanán is about a 90-minute drive from Mérida, depending on where you are staying and what traffic is like. I found renting a car in the Yucatán to be both cheap and easy, and driving around the city was pretty stress free. I’d actually say it was the least stressful international driving I’ve ever done. Well…except for driving in Canada. But overall, I found Mérida and the surrounding area super easy to navigate.
To get to Chunkanán from Mérida, you’ll need to make your way out to the circunvalar highway that makes a ring around the city. I’m not sure what its exactly called, but it’s a circle that runs around all of Mérida. You can take Calle 59 east out of the centro, or make a jog onto Calle 39 if you’re coming from the Hyatt Regency. Then head south along the ring highway until you get to the giant roundabout where Highway 180 toward Valladolid splits off.
You’ll then make a right onto Highway 184 toward Chetumal, and then a left when you see a sign for Maquiladora. You’ll know you’re in the right spot when you pass under the Acanceh arch. You’ll head through the town of Acanceh. Just don’t go the wrong way around the plaza like I did. Continue along the two-lane road until you get to Cuzamá. Here you’ll head right at the plaza and church, following the signs for Cenotes and Chunkanán. The rest is self explanatory. You’ll have arrived when you see the rail carts, your next form of transportation.
My Experience Visiting the Three Chunkanán Cenotes
After parking my rental car, I asked the guy waiting there if I could visit the cenotes. He said a driver would take me there and it would be 500 pesos. This seemed a bit steep at first (~$25 USD), but given that your driver has to wait for you and you can take 2-3 hours of his time, it’s actually entirely reasonable. Soon we were off! And by off, I mean off on a rickety cart pulled by a pony.
It was here that I realized one way the Yucatán surprised me. I expected jungle. The short trees, dry leaves, and overall look of the Yucatán forest made me think it would fit better somewhere in my native California rather than Mexico. Both Mérida and Cancún get around 40 inches per year. They’re in the tropics, but this doesn’t feel all that tropical. I did visit at the tail end of the dry season, though.
The ride is maybe 15 minutes to the first cenotes. My driver gestured along a path toward the first cenote – Santa Cruz. This is the moment you realize you are willing heading down stairs into a very dark cave and start to question the choice of activity for the day.
Cenote Santa Cruz is a small pool at the bottom of the cave. Best I could tell, it is a pretty cool cave, but it was admittedly creepy in the dark. I changed into my swim trunks in the pitch dark, feeling oddly exposed given the setting. I had just put my feet in the water when the lights came on. I could faintly make out a generator running. Now this is a whole lot more inviting, if one can call it that!
I didn’t jump all the way into this first cenote, settling for sitting in the shallow end. I did enjoy the beautiful cave.
Content with my 15-minute visit, I headed back to the surface. The second cenote is located a short distance away by foot. It’s both better and worse in different ways. From the surface, it’s even less inviting.
You climb down steep steps and then a ladder. At the bottom is a pool about 10 meters long by 3 meters across. It looks really cool. And really creepy. If this was shallow, I would have been all over it. Instead I found myself staring into the dark abyss below.
Given that I was alone, I was the most anxious contemplating swimming in this cenote. I made it onto the wooden platform where I down and dangled my feet over the ledge. At this point I was submerged up to my neck, but still very secure. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking on how to face fears in life, and this was a moment of testing. The things most worth doing are often the most difficult, and if we allow fear to run the show, we’ll never step out of our comfort zone. But I could not work up the courage to get in and swim along the rope stretched across the water. Creepy cenote: 1. Ian: 0.
Let’s hope the last one isn’t as deep and dark. I can’t imagine heading into this cenote without the lights.
The Last of the Three Chunkanán Cenotes
The trek to the final cenote is about 15 minutes by horse rail-cart. It’s by far the biggest and best of the three Chunkanán cenotes. The hole into the cenote is much larger and less intimidating than the previous two. You can look over the edge from the top and see the blue water receding into the cave below.
The staircase, though, is…interesting. It’s far more solid than it looks like from the top, but it is still steep and narrow.
I was way more comfortable swimming here. There is when a ledge you can jump off, and I swam in the section close to the entrance. The cave is pretty deep, and you can swim into the back of the cenote if you want. Like the previous one, there is a rope stretched along the length of the water as well.
You’re given up to an hour at the final cenote, and I took up most of it, enjoying swimming and just sitting in the sun. I had all three Chunkanán cenotes to myself the entire time.
There are bathrooms at the final cenote, if you’re wondering what you’d do if you need to use the facilities during your visit. Given that you could be here nearly 3 hours, it’s definitely a concern. And they are top-notch facilities.
Visiting the three Chunkanán cenotes was a highlight of my brief trip to Mérida and the Yucatán. After driving the short distance over to Homún and visiting another three cenotes at Cenotes Santa Barbara, I realized that I preferred the more “natural” setting at Chunkanán. One of the three at Cenotes Santa Barbara was beautiful and quite fun to swim in; there were maybe two dozen other people enjoying it while I was there. But another was very much altered from its initial state. With no limestone cave features to be seen, it made me wonder if they just hollowed out a smaller sinkhole and installed a wooden staircase down into it.
Aside from the structures built for accessing them, the three Chunkanán cenotes feel less touched by humans. Sure, there was the creepiness factor of visiting them all solo. But sitting in the warm Yucatán sun at the final cenote, I realized how cool it is to swim in these cool natural formations. If you have a chance to visit Mérida and the Yucatán, definitely plan a day trip. It doesn’t need to be the three Chunkanán cenotes. There are plenty to pick from. But I sure did enjoy my visit here!