by Hank Leukart
October 14, 2014

Dining and diving, deep in the Yucatán

The only thing better than cave diving in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is eating the mouth-watering cuisine.

Divers swim in the Dos Ojos flooded cave system near Cancún, Mexico. (photo by Ratha Grimes)

Divers swim in the Dos Ojos flooded cave system near Cancún, Mexico. (photo by Ratha Grimes)

This is the last essay in a series about road tripping through Mexico's Yucatán. Start with the first essay to get the whole story.

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LAYA DEL CARMEN, Quintana Roo, México — “Buen provecho” says the waitress as she serves me a plate of what the menu describes as “traditional Yucatán whims,” which include panuchos and salbutes — stuffed Mexican tortilla snacks native to Yucatán, Mexico. I’m sitting in my favorite restaurant in Mérida, Manjar Blanco, a hard-to-describe place that feels like a combination of a homey hole-in-the-wall serving your abuela’s best traditional Mexican recipes shoved into a foodie art gallery with a clean design and black and white furniture. With my mouth watering, I take a bite of one of the panuchos, stuffed with refried beans and topped with pulled pork, avocado and pickled red onions. It’s delicious. Then, I try a bite of a unique empanada filled with egg and chaya (Yucatán spinach) and covered in cheese.

“Oh!” I accidentally blurt out, realizing that this empanada is the best thing I’ve eaten in Mexico. This discovery is a surprise, even to me, because my road trip across the Yucatán has already been, at least, a fantastic culinary tour of the peninsula. I ate cream-filled, crunchy yet gooey churros from a zocalo vendor at a Sunday-night street dance party in Valladolid, a perfectly simple pulled-pork burrito at the lively Conato 1910 in Valladolid, a tender cut of halibut with a zesty mango salsa at the upscale Mérida restaurant Trotter’s, luscious chicken enchiladas with green salsa for breakfast (!) at Mérida’s Cafe Chocolate, a sesame-sauce covered traditional Yucatán chicken dish at Amaro in Mérida while listening to a trova (traditional Mexican guitar music) musician, homemade tortillas right out of the oven in Santa Elena near the Mayan ruins paradise of Ruta Puuc, and crushingly spicy tacos made by a dude at a service station on the side of Yucatán’s major highway.

My concerned waitress at Manjar Blanco rushes over to see why I’ve yelped. “It’s just very, very good,” I tell her.

“You should have dessert too, then,” she says in Spanish. It’s hard to say no at this restaurant, and after I finish the panuchos and salbutes and empanadas and the signature queso relleno entrée, I hear myself asking for the restaurant’s namesake, manjar blanco (blancmange), a sweet, almond-flavored custard-like dessert. I’m eating so much mostly because I love this restaurant, but, also, I’m procrastinating. I’ve decided to leave Mérida today to visit cenotes — natural, underground sinkholes that provided one of the only sources of water to the Mayan inhabitants of the Yucatán — in nearby Cuzamá. I’m not that excited, though, because I haven’t managed to convince anyone I’ve met here to go with me. I’m feeling a bit lonely about it. But, since I only have a few more days remaining in Mexico, it’s time for me to see the caves.

After devouring my dessert, which is similar to rice pudding (one of my favorites) — I jump into my tiny rental car (it’s about the size of a lawn mower) and drive to Cuzamá. Due to intense competition for tourists, seemingly every guy I pass on the side of the road near the town yells out, offering a guided tour. But, I hold out until I find what I’ve been told is the quirkiest way to go: at an abandoned hacienda, guys take tourists on a horse-drawn railcar — which I didn’t even know was a thing — to the three of the area’s best cenotes.

At the hacienda, a 50-year-old man named Roberto and a 10-year-old boy named Ernesto tell me to jump into the back of one of the carts, and its horse starts pulling us down rickety tracks toward the cenotes. When another cart approaches from the opposite direction, it occurs to me suddenly that there’s only one set of tracks. I wonder what happens now, I think. Immediately, Ernesto tells me to get out of the heavy cart, which he and Roberto then lift and slide off the tracks to let the other cart pass. For me, this is the most exciting part of my day. After I climb down a rickety ladder into an ancient-feeling underground tunnel to the first cenote, I realize that my feelings at Manjar Blanco were right: when you go swimming in magical caves, you really just need a friend to go with you.

“When you go swimming in magical caves, you really just need a friend to go with you.”

After the bumpy railcart ride back to my car, I discover a text message from my friend Chloe, a spunky, 25-year-old British radio producer who quit her job to travel through Latin America. I met her two weeks ago at a travel writers’ conference, and she told me that the first month of her trip would be spent in Playa del Carmen. “Come to Playa!” she writes. “I will snorkel in the cenotes with you if we can make it work.” I had never planned to visit Playa del Carmen on this trip — I knew I’d be annoyed by the rich tourists and chain stores and mediocre resorts — but, after a disappointing cenote adventure with only three days left in my trip, I decide it’s worth braving the tourist masses to hang out with Chloe.

In the evening, I arrive at Chloe’s hostel: Hostel 3B, a self-proclaimed “party hostel,” advertising a party on its rooftop pool-bar every night. I’m too old for this, I think. But, the truth is, I realize, that even when I was 18 years old, I wasn’t extroverted enough to get excited about staying at a “party hostel.” I book one of the hostel’s only private rooms.

But, when I walk up to the roof, the lights are off and there’s no party at all. Apparently, Sundays are the partiers’ day-off. I see four women, including Chloe, sitting on the deck alone in the dark, eating sushi out of plastic, convenience store bags. They’re enjoying the meal on a makeshift bed that they’ve built from chaise lounge cushions. I join them, and Chloe introduces me to Annie and Ellie, two Australian sisters taking advantage of time off from college, and Katie, a backpacker from Colorado who is near the end of a long trip through Latin America.

“Everyone wants to go with us to the cenotes tomorrow,” Chloe tells me.

“Fine with me,” I say. “But my car is tiny. Like really tiny.”

“I get shotgun,” nose-ringed Ellie yells out, marking herself immediately as the rowdiest of the group.

The next afternoon, the four girls and I pile into the world’s tiniest car — with Ellie in the passenger’s seat — and head toward Dos Ojos, a 51-mile, flooded, underground cave system. Because I watched a few dazzling videos of people scuba diving cenotes a few nights before, I have decided to scuba dive while the girls snorkel (none of them are scuba-certified). When we arrive, we have to split up to enjoy our respective activities, and I feel a little stupid that I’m swimming in the cenotes by myself, again, considering that the idea, this time, was to dive into cenotes with friends.

But, as soon as I’m underwater with an air tank strapped to my back, I’m thrilled. This is the first time I’ve been cave diving, which can be nerve-racking psychologically because there are places where it’s impossible to escape to the surface, due to the cave’s low ceiling. (Though the practical implications are not as comparatively grave as they seem; on some dives, shooting to the water’s surface in an emergency can kill a diver anyway, due to decompression sickness.)

My diving guide and I spend 45 minutes swimming miles and miles through the huge cave system. Using a flashlight, I see jagged rock formations, with pointy stalagmites and stalactites surrounding us everywhere. Occasionally, a dark tunnel opens into a large cenote atrium with a shimmering, greenish-yellow water surface “ceiling” overhead and spiny cave walls enveloping us. It’s one of the best dives I’ve ever done. When I reunite with Chloe, Ellie, Annie, and Katie to do some swimming, I no longer feel alone, and my love for cenotes has exploded.

In the evening, there’s a big pool party at Hostel 3B (surprise!), and Ellie somehow convinces me to pair with her against Chloe and Annie in a game of beer pong. It’s a long, contentious game, and, by the end, each team has only one cup remaining. “We’re going to take you down,” Ellie yells between gulps of beer. Finally, in a stunning display of skill (if I may say so), I fire the ball into Chloe and Annie’s cup, clinching the win for Ellie and me. Ellie raises her arms, cheers in celebration, and high-fives me as we congratulate each other. Maybe you can never be too old for new friends, I think to myself, noticing that I’m kind-of enjoying our party hostel.

I’m so hungry after our big win that I try to convince Ellie to join me to search Playa del Carmen for food at 1 AM, but she says that she can’t imagine eating — our small-margin beer pong win and the accompanying alcohol didn’t do her stomach any favors, and she doesn’t want to leave the party.

So, I head out by myself on my last food search in Mexico. Instead of venturing down La Quinta Avenida, Playa del Carmen’s boring, upscale chain-store shopping and overpriced restaurant district, I walk behind the hostel, into a local, residential neighborhood with no Louis Vuitton or Hard Rock Cafe. I ask a Mexican woman minding a tiny bodega if she knows of a place where I can get food this late at night. She tells me that if I walk a few more blocks, I’ll run into a taco stand that she likes. Sure enough, I discover a guy with a grill serving up a variety of meat tacos and order a few. He points me to a lone plastic chair on the sidewalk and delivers a plate of tacos to my lap. I take a bite of a pork taco.

“Oh!” I blurt out to no one. I realize that this taco, in the middle of the night on an obscure street in Playa del Carmen, may very well be the best tasting taco in all of Mexico. Chloe, Ellie, and Annie, back at the party hostel, don’t know what they’re missing. WB

Mouth-watering empanadas, panuchos, and salbutes are served at restaurant Manjar Blanco in Mérida, Mexico.

Mouth-watering empanadas, panuchos, and salbutes are served at restaurant Manjar Blanco in Mérida, Mexico.

The Conato 1910 restaurant in Valladolid, Mexico serves excellent burritos.

The Conato 1910 restaurant in Valladolid, Mexico serves excellent burritos.

A guide readies his horse and railcart for a cenotes tour in Cuzamá, Mexico.

A guide readies his horse and railcart for a cenotes tour in Cuzamá, Mexico.

Tourists walk down into a cenote in Cuzamá, Mexico.

Tourists walk down into a cenote in Cuzamá, Mexico.

A diving guide dives in a cenote (limestone sinkhole) in the Dos Ojos cave system near Cancún, Mexico.

A diving guide dives in a cenote (limestone sinkhole) in the Dos Ojos cave system near Cancún, Mexico.

A cenote (limestone sinkhole) for swimming at the Dos Ojos cave system near Cancún, Mexico.

A cenote (limestone sinkhole) for swimming at the Dos Ojos cave system near Cancún, Mexico.

How to Swim, Snorkel, and Scuba Dive in Cenotes in Mexico

  • OVERVIEW: Cenotes are natural, underground sinkholes that provided one of the only sources of water to the Mayan inhabitants of the Yucatán Peninsula. You can swim, snorkel, and in some cases, scuba dive in the cenote cave systems.
  • LOGISTICS: Fly into Mérida, Mexico (closer to the Cuzamá cenotes) or Cancún, Mexico (closer to the Dos Ojos cave system) and rent a car. It’s also possible to take a local bus from Cancún to Dos Ojos or arrange transportation with the Dos Ojos diving outfit.
  • CUZAMÁ CENOTES: While there are many cenotes throughout the Yucatán, the Cuzamá cenotes, which are a 1-hour drive on 18 from Mérida or a 3-hour drive on 180D from Cancún are especially fun because tourists can take a horse-drawn railcart tour to visit them (M$250 per person). The trick to finding the railcart tour is to drive to the church in the center of Cuzamá, then head south (if you arrive in Cuzamá from Mérida from the east, take a right at the church). Then, follow the road, past the conspicuous parking lot offering Cuzamá tours, to the abandoned hacienda at a big bend in the road. You’ll see train tracks and a railcar across from a small parking area if you watch closely. Take a friend — you’ll have more fun.
  • DOS OJOS CENOTES: The Dos Ojos cave system (a 90-minute drive south on 307 from Cancún, Mexico) is a 51-mile, flooded, underground cave system open 8 AM to 5 PM every day (M$100 admission). You can swim in the cenotes on your own, or you can choose to have a guide take you on a guided snorkeling (M$300) or scuba diving tour. You must be certified to dive, and an advanced certification is preferred because of the unique attributes of cave diving. The dive shop offers one dive for US $90, two dives (with a 60-minute interval) for $130, or three dives (one at Gran Cenote and two at Dos Ojos) for US $250, including all equipment. They also offer a variety of multi-day dive packages and week-long Spanish lessons combined with diving packages. During tourist season, organized dives usually leave early in the morning, so call the night before you want to dive to make reservations (+52 984-807-9110).

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