The city of Merida is full of food and fantastic hotels and culture of every stripe. Outside of the city you can indulge your more adventurous side by riding a horse-drawn train, swimming in cenotes (sinkholes caused when cave roofs collapse), visiting archaeological sites and laying eyes on the longest pier in the world.
The horse-drawn train of Cuzamá
The town of Cuzamá, not far from Merida, is the starting point for one of the most unique journeys we’ve taken in Mexico. For 200 pesos you can rent a cart (plenty of room for four people and a cooler) mounted on railroad tracks which is then hitched to a horse the size of a large dog which then pulls said cart along said railroad tracks out to a series of three stunning, naturally formed sinkhole swimming spots, otherwise known as cenotes.
The small-gauge railroad tracks are leftovers from the days when this area was booming with sisal plantations feeding a very hungry market for rope and twine. Before the advent of plastic rope killed the sisal (aka henequin) trade, these tracks were used to roll carts loaded with harvested agave from the fields to the processing factories. Quick thinking locals now hitch tiny horses to homemade carts and roll loads of tourists out to three spectacular cenotes.
We can’t say it’s a comfortable ride–the tracks jolt you, the wooden carts lurch and bounce and when two carts meet head to head one of them must disgorge its passengers, unhook the pony and get lifted off the tracks so the other cart can proceed. It is, however, a unique way to reach three wonderful natural swimming holes.
Swimming in cenotes
Allow at least three hours, the cenotes are pretty spread out plus you want time to swim and remember that the place gets crowded on weekends and wear water shoes so you can climb up and down ladders since all three of the cenotes are accessed below ground.
The first cenote was the easiest to reach via wooden stairs–just avoid the rickety, slimy nail-ridden stairs that lead into the actual pool (just jump in instead). There are also clean new bathrooms at this cenote and some ladies selling snacks and beverages (though bringing your own cooler is a better option).
The second cenote was more crowded than the first which made the steep and slippery wooden staircase down into the cenote even harder to navigate as dozens of people tried to move up and down the ladder at the same time. With very little rim around the water there wasn’t much room for standing around admiring the view–best just to jump into the impossibly clear, deep water. Feeling a bit like Tarzan? Swim to the center of the cenote, climb up a mass of tree roots dangling near the surface and dive off!
The third cenote was the most treacherous to reach. Accessed via a steep wooden ladder straight down a rocky shoot, it felt a bit like going into a well. The space opens up at the bottom of the ladder to reveal a huge cenote with really terrific rock formations and great color and shadows thanks to a number of “skylights” to the surface.
See just how beautiful these cenotes are–and just how bumpy the ride between them is–in our video, below.
Dzibilchaltún archaeological site disappointment
We’re not archaeologists or anything. Hell, we never even saw that last Indiana Jones movie. But sometimes Mayan sites just don’t live up to the hype. For us, Dzibilchaltún was one of those sites. Our expectations were high. After all, this is a Mayan archaeological site that not only has piles of rocks but its own private cenote and the brilliantly engineered Templo de las Siete Munecas (Temple of the Seven Dolls) which allows the sun to shine directly through a window every Spring Equinox, lighting up the whole building like a beacon and signaling the start of the new season.
That’s all pretty cool, but we found the site, overall, to be a bit of a dud and our experience was not enhanced by the fact that we were forced to pay the usual INAH admission fee plus a Yucatan state Cultur fee for use of the filthy toilets and closed museum. All told is cost 83 pesos (about US$6) per person to enter Dzibilchaltún–more than double what other similar archaeological sites in Mexico cost.
Mayapán archaeological site
South of Merida is the Mayapán archaeological site, which on the other hand, was a mind-blowing bargain. For just 31 pesos (no bogus Cultur charges here) this pre-Columbian Mayan site delivers a range of unusual features including a round building, gorgeous decorative carvings and remarkably intact frescoes.
Did we mention that there were only six other people there during our visit?
Ever seen a four mile long pier?
A Merida-area attraction of a more modern kind is the pier in the nearby beach town of Progreso. Completed in 1942, the pier is four miles (6.5 km) long making it the longest pier in the world.