Xenotes review (Riviera Maya)
By Karen Waldman, Family Travel Gurus Travel Consultant
We loved our day tour with Xenotes! It was a highlight of our week-long trip to Riviera Maya (the coast south of Cancun) in June 2015. We were shuttled to four different cenotes, which are basically freshwater sinkholes in the jungle, and we had a different activity at each one. We rappelled, zip-lined, kayaked, swam, snorkeled, and jumped in. The tour was well-run, kept safety in mind, and provided all the equipment, including life jackets. For lunch, they served a “glam picnic” under a big palapa in the middle of the jungle, and it was quite tasty after swimming all morning. My whole family highly recommends this tour.
Xenotes is a tour run by the Xcaret corporation, and is a play on the word “cenote.” Cenotes are freshwater pools, rivers, and open caverns that are created when rain erodes the limestone surface of the Yucatan Peninsula over time. The collapse provides entry to the groundwater below the surface. The cenotes are all over the peninsula, and only in the last few years became popular tourist attractions. This full-day tour was really well put together and had everything well thought-out.
A minibus picked us up at our Barcelo Maya Palace lobby around 9 am, and we were back a little after 6 pm. For our group tour, we were the furthest hotel from the cenotes, so we had the longest ride – about 1/2 hour to the next couple people, and another 1/2 hour to the next group of 11 people. There were 17 of us total, plus our guide/shuttle driver, and a photographer. There was usually another one or two Xenotes tour groups at each cenote, staggered a bit so that we really didn’t affect each other’s experience.
The tour took us to four different cenotes, each of a different type (a different “age”). I was pretty surprised that right off the bat they had us jump into one. I thought they’d ease us into it a bit more slowly. The jump was about 9 feet. The kids and my husband had no problem, no worries, but I stood on the edge awhile. I knew that if I didn’t do this one, I’d be nervous about the later activities. I needed to get it over with. There were only two other women more nervous than me. One didn’t do it at all. After the jump, we swam down the river to the pool at the end, where we could do a zipline into the water and go down a slide into the pool. For those who don’t want to jump, you can go straight to the slide or zipline and meet the group there. At each stop, there was a way to meet up with the group afterward, without doing the activity.
After each cenote, there were drinks and snacks/fruit. The hot chocolate was a special type that they said the Mayans used to give to the little kids to keep them healthy. It had cinnamon, chocolate, corn, and water. The kids thought it was “okay,” definitely different than the sweet hot chocolate they drink at home. The tour also provided towels, life jackets, snorkel gear, rappel gear, hard hats, etc.
The second cenote was the coolest cenote in my opinion. It had a relatively small opening in the ground, leading to a deep, dim, and cavernous interior. We had to “rappel” down into it. The rappel was really just a very steep, fairly slow zipline, controlled by zipline staff. You could go down sitting or upside down. The kids both did it upside down. There were fish in the cenote, and bats in the cave. Once down inside the cenote, you could dive off the ledge if you wanted to. This was my son’s favorite cenote.
The third cenote was the oldest cenote, a big open pool with lily pads. To get down into the pool, we ziplined, either by sitting in a sling (a swing-type thing), or by holding onto a zipline bar and jumping off once you got close to the water. We got to have at least two runs with the zipline, from each side of the pool. They also let people jump into the cenote; this ledge was fairly high, maybe 25 feet. This was my daughter’s favorite activity of the tour.
We had a “glam picnic” after the third cenote. They served soup, build-your-own sandwiches, and brownies. The sandwiches were surprisingly good, with a secret sauce. They also had beer, wine, soda, hot chocolate, water. It was a nice break. We sat under a big palapa, so no worries about getting too much sun. The whole time in the jungle today didn’t feel hot; I didn’t even notice the temperature. The cenotes were chilly, but not unbearable. I saw a sign for one that said 72 degrees. Our guide was wearing a wet suit; I suppose it can start to get cold going into chilly pools all day, every day. The rest of us were just wearing swimsuits.
The final cenote was a kayak and snorkel experience. We first kayaked down a river. The cenote rivers have walls covered with vegetation and it is a peaceful and beautiful place to be. Because the walls are fairly high, it was a mix of sun and shade. Kayaking was my favorite activity of the tour. Then we walked through some dark caverns to get to the entrance of a cavern cenote which opened into a pool. We spent some time snorkeling in the pool. There were a few bats in this cavern as well.
My husband was excited to see a monkey cross the road in front of the van. He said it was pretty good-sized. Other people on the tour saw it, but the rest of our family didn’t see it. The kids love animals and would’ve loved it.
The tour is west of Puerto Morelos on several bumpy, narrow, dusty roads, off a main bigger gravel road. We went by a couple small villages. We were told that the seats at the back of the minibus get the brunt of the bumping around, so we made sure to sit at the front. This was easy, since we had the minibus to ourselves for the first part of the trip. The setting for each cenote was beautiful, with vegetation all around. They created nice paths through the jungle. Even the bathrooms at each stop were nicely integrated into the natural landscape.
Make sure to bring eco-friendly sunscreen to protect the balance of the cenotes’ ecosystems. Though there was usually shade because of the jungle canopy, there were times in the more open cenotes that there was no escape from the sun. You may also want to bring bug repellent just in case, though there didn’t seem to be mosquitoes around when we were there.
Overall, it was a fun day with a mixture of adventure, relaxation, and experiencing the jungle.