Cenotes Dzitnup & Sammulá
The Cenote Dzitnup (also known as Cenote Xkekén) is 4km (2 1/2 miles) west of Valladolid off Hwy. 180 toward Chichén Itzá. It's said to be the most photographed cenote in the Yucatán, and it's easy to see why. The deep, glassy, blue water, beneath a thicket of stalactites and ropy tree roots straining for a drink, is a spectacle to behold. The beautiful pictures, however, don't reveal the treacherous stone steps, the unrelenting humidity even on an otherwise comfortable day (wear contacts instead of glasses, which will be constantly fogged), and the somewhat claustrophobic feeling if you're there with a crowd (which is most of the time). It's an awesome sight, to be sure, and you should see it at least once. Bring a suit and take a swim; it will revive you for the climb back out.
The cenote is open daily from 7am to 7pm; admission is 52 pesos. If it's crowded, you can go for a swim about 90m (295 ft.) down the road on the opposite side in a smaller, less developed but also beautiful cenote, Sammulá.
Cenote Etiquette -- If you swim in a cenote, be sure you don't have creams or other chemicals on your skin -- including deodorant. They damage the habitat of the small fish and other organisms living in the water. No alcohol, food, or smoking is allowed.
Ek Balam: Dark Jaguar
About 18km (11 miles) north of Valladolid, off the highway to Río Lagartos, are the spectacular ruins of Ek Balam, which, owing to a certain ambiguity in Mayan, may mean "black jaguar," "dark jaguar," or "star jaguar." Though tourists have yet to catch on, these ruins could prove to be a more important discovery than Chichén Itzá. Archaeologists began work only in 1997, and their findings have Maya scholars all aquiver. Built between 100 B.C. and A.D. 1200, the smaller buildings are architecturally unique -- especially the large, perfectly restored Oval Palace (also sometimes called La Redonda or Caracol).
The imposing central pyramid, known as El Torre or the Acropolis, is about 160m (525 ft.) long and 60m (197 ft.) wide. At more than 30m (98 ft.) high, it easily surpasses El Castillo in Chichén Itzá. To the left of the main stairway, archaeologists have uncovered a large ceremonial doorway of perfectly preserved stucco work. Designed in the Chenes style associated with Campeche, it forms an astonishingly elaborate representation of the gaping mouth of the underworld god. Around it are several beautifully detailed human figures, including what appear to be winged warriors. Known as Mayan Angels, they are unique in Maya architecture. Excavation inside the pyramid revealed a long chamber (so far closed to the public) filled with hieroglyphic writing that suggests the scribes probably came from Guatemala. The script revealed the name of one of the city's principal kings -- Ukit Kan Le'k Tok', whose tomb was uncovered about two-thirds of the way up the pyramid. Climb to the top and you see untouched ruins masquerading as overgrown hills to the north, and the tallest structures of Cobá, 50km (31 miles) to the southeast.
Also visible are the Maya's sacbeob, or raised causeways, appearing as raised lines in the forest. More than any of the better-known sites, Ek Balam inspires a sense of mystery and awe at the scale of Maya civilization and the utter ruin to which it fell.
A new road runs from the highway to the ruins. Take Calle 40 north out of Valladolid to Hwy. 295 and go 20km (12 miles) to a large marked turnoff. Ek Balam is 13km (8 miles) from the highway; admission is 31 pesos, 45 pesos per video camera. The site is open daily from 8am to 5pm.
Ría Lagartos Nature Reserve
About 80km (50 miles) north of Valladolid (40km/25 miles north of Tizimín) on Hwy. 295, Ría Lagartos is a 50,000-hectare (123,500-acre) refuge established in 1979 to protect the largest nesting flamingo population in North America. The nesting area is off-limits, but you can see plenty of flamingos, as well as many other species of waterfowl, on an enjoyable boat ride around the estuary.
Río Lagartos, at the west end of the estuary, is the place to get boats to the flamingos. Misnamed by Spaniards who mistook the long, narrow ría (estuary) for a río (river), it's a small fishing village of about 3,000 people who make their living from the sea and from the occasional tourist who shows up to see the flamingos. Colorful houses face the malecón (oceanfront street), and brightly painted boats dock here and there.
When you drive into town, keep going straight until you get to the shore. Where Calle 10 intersects with the malecón, near a modern church, is a little kiosk where the guides can be found (no phone). You can book a 2-hour tour, which costs about 750 pesos for two to three people. The guides also like to show you the evaporation pools used by the local salt producer at Las Coloradas (a good source of employment for the locals until it was mechanized) and a freshwater spring bubbling out from below the saltwater estuary.
The best time to see flamingos is in the early morning, so you might want to stay overnight in town. Río Lagartos has a few simple hotels, the best of which is Hotel Villa de Pescadores (tel. 986/862-0020) on the waterfront. Another is Hotel San Felipe (tel. 986/862-2067) in the pleasant fishing village of San Felipe, 9km (5 2/3 miles) to the west.
A Matter of Timing -- You'll see some flamingos any time of year (and probably ducks, hawks, cranes, cormorants, and osprey as well). But to see great rosy masses of them, go between April and October. After the birds complete their courtship rituals in Celestún, they fly to Ría Lagartos to nest, lay their eggs, and prepare their young for the return journey in October.
A sandy strip of an island off the northeastern corner of the Yucatán Peninsula, Isla Holbox (pronounced "hohl-bosh") is in Quintana Roo, and is actually closer to Cancún than Valladolid. But, unless Cancún tourists take a boat tour, they have to drive almost to the Yucatán border to get to the road north. Given the challenges of driving in Cancún, it makes sense to visit Holbox from the Yucatán side.
Holbox was a half-deserted fishing village in a remote corner of the world before tourists started showing up for the beach. Now it's a semiprosperous little community that makes its livelihood from tourist services, employment at the beach hotels, and tours. It's most popular with visitors from May to September, when more than a hundred whale sharks congregate in nearby waters to feed on the plankton and krill churned up by the collision of Gulf and Caribbean waters. Whale sharks are much larger than other sharks, reaching as much as 18m (59 ft.), and they filter their food much as baleen whales do. These peaceable giants swim slowly along the surface of the water and don't seem to mind the boat tours and snorkelers that come for the thrill of swimming alongside them. That said, they can do some mischief if you annoy them.
Besides swimming with whale sharks, most tourists come to Holbox to laze on the broad beach of fine-textured sand. The water, though, is not the amazing blue of the Caribbean but a murkier green. Diving, snorkeling, sportfishing, and nature tours of Laguna Yalahu, the shallow lagoon separating Holbox from the mainland, are the primary other diversions.
Posada Mawimbi (www.mawimbi.net; tel. 984/875-2003), starting at $75 to $90 a night depending on season, hits the best balance between price and comfort among the beach hotels in town. Casa Sandra (www.casasandra.com; tel. 984/875-2171) charges $227 and (way) up in low season, $274 and up in high season, but travelers who want only the best will find it here, along with air-conditioning, a rarity in Holbox. Just beyond town, Villas Delfines, which has an office in Cancún (www.villasdelfines.com; tel. 998/884-8606), is an ecohotel charging $90 to $150 in low season, $120 to $180 high season, for thatched-roof beach bungalows.
From Valladolid, take Hwy. 180 east for about 90km (56 miles) toward Cancún; turn north after Nuevo Xcan at the tiny crossroads of El Ideal. Drive nearly 100km (62 miles) north on a state highway to the tiny port of Chiquilá, where you can park your car in a secure parking lot; walk 180m (590 ft.) to the pier, and catch the ferry to the island. It runs 10 times per day and costs 70 pesos per person. When you arrive in the village, you can contract with one of the golf-cart taxis for a ride to your hotel.
Visiting the Whale Sharks of Isla Holbox -- In 2002, Mexico's whale sharks were designated an endangered species. The government, along with environmental groups, closely monitors their activity and the tours that visit them off Isla Holbox. Several restrictions apply to how tours are run, and all tour operators must abide by them. See details of the restrictions, and learn more about the whale sharks, at www.domino.conanp.gob.mx/rules.htm.
Whale shark tours are kept small; just two people at a time are allowed to snorkel with the sharks. Tours typically cost around $80 to $100 per person and last 4 to 6 hours. Many hotels or outfitters on the island can arrange a tour.