Mexico: Yucatán’s Natural Wonders

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Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is crowded with natural wonders, and on Tobias Nowlan‘s recent visit, he was able to experience several of them with the help of local guides. Below, he offers a quick selection of some of the region’s more unusual adventures.

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Photo: Hanging SerpentThe Hanging Serpents

Bats rush around us as we near a cave partly concealed by dense rain forest. A stream of the silent mammals pours from the black cave mouth and diffuses into the forest.

It is dusk in the rain forest near the town of Kantemo on the Yucatán Peninsula. My guide, Solomon, has led me by bicycle along narrow puddle-strewn tracks to a path winding through a cluster of chico zapote trees (a species tapped for its resin and valued for its fruit). The path leads to the now legendary “Cave of the Hanging Serpents.” In this cave, like nowhere else on earth, boa constrictors have adapted to hang from the ceiling and snatch bats (six species have been recorded in this single cave) as they take flight at dusk. Torchlight on an azure pool deep inside the cave exposes white, blind eels, fish and shrimp; animals adapted to a lightless underground life.

Getting there: Las Cuevas de Kantemo de los Serpientes Colgantes (the caves of Kantemo of the hanging serpents) can be reached via bus to the nearest large town (Puerto Maria Morelos) from where a taxi can be taken to Kantemo.

Here visitors need to wait for a local guide (who may or may not speak English) to arrive at the small eco-center. Eco Travel Mexico is a tour company that takes people there:

Diving in Cenotes

In the north of the peninsula lie thousands of cenotes – underground sinkholes where areas of cave roof have collapsed. Cenotes are connected by underground rivers and are often filled with water. While many are popular as swimming holes, some (principally those close to the town of Tulum) may be explored by scuba diving. My diving partner and I trekked two-thirds of a mile through rain forest in wetsuits to reach what seemed only to be a muddy, mosquito-ridden pool.

We descended into the pool and continued to drop for 140 feet. “The Pit,” as this dive was named, revealed a new underwater world. Sunlight broke through the surface of the pool, casting columns of blue light down through the cave. As we descended through the halocline (the boundary of freshwater and the denser saltwater), a sulphurous cloud leached from the rain forest floor. Fingernail-sized shrimp were feeding within the cloud, suspended in the water. Among six-foot stalagmites and -tites lay piles of animal bones and Maya pottery. When I ventured to the cave floor I found myself face-to-face with a 10,000-year-old (pre-Maya) deformed human skull.

Getting there: I traveled with the group Scuba Tulum, but most tour operators will take divers to “The Pit” upon request. There are plenty of online photos and trip reports about diving “the Pit”.

Photo: Calakmul ruins and reserve

Calakmul Biosphere Reserve

The splendor of the cenotes is replaced in the southern interior of the peninsula by Maya pyramids and some of the wildest, most pristine rain forest in Mexico at the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve (pictured, above). With a local guide and Maya tracker I followed puma and jaguar footprints and waited in trees above lagoons in the reserve to see what might arrive to drink in the heat. It was worth enduring the mosquitoes to watch undisturbed feeding groups of brocket deer, Yucatán white-tailed deer and the greatest surprise of all; a Baird’s tapir standing in clear view.

Getting there: Nicolas Feldmann, my guide, can arrange for a Maya tracker to help a visitor see (at least signs of) large mammals.

Animal Tracking in the Sian Ka’an Wetland Reserve

On the central Caribbean coast the traveling naturalist can stay in thatch-roofed tents with views of the Sian Ka’an wetland reserve. The tents are all beachside and run by the reserve ecological society (CESiak). On summer nights volunteers patrol the beach for the “tractor-tire tracks” left by nesting green and loggerhead turtles. Following the tracks up the beach will often yield a six-foot turtle spraying sand around her in circles as she digs her nest, or she may be in mid-lay, in which case the lucky observer may handle one of her soft, golf ball-sized eggs.

Getting there: More information on programs offered by CESiak at the Sian Ka’an reserve can be found online at:

Snorkeling with Whale Sharks on Holbox Island

Marine life also abounds on Holbox (pronounced “ol-bosch”) island, north of the peninsula and a half hour ferry ride from the mainland. It is here where the visitor can spend a day (between May and August) snorkeling with the greatest concentration of whale sharks on earth. The outing is typically combined with delicious fresh ceviche (raw fish salad) and some reef snorkeling where you can see nurse sharks and three-foot-high sea fans. The island itself is rich in natural treasures. I walked the length of the mangrove-bordered northern beach, and came close to 60 or so brilliantly pink American flamingos. During this walk I encountered several of the large and evolutionarily ancient horsehoe crabs feeding in the shallows.

Getting there: Isla Holbox can be easily reached by bus and ferry starting from either Cancún in the east or Merida in the west. Holbox Tours and Travel ( is one operator working in the area.

[Mexico Travel Guide]

Photos: Tobias Nowlan

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