Punta Venado: Horseback Riding
A few places along the highway offer horseback rides. The best of these, Rancho Punta Venado, is just south of Playa, past the Calica Pier. This ranch is the least touristy -- though it does cater to groups -- and the owners take good care of the horses. It has a nice stretch of coast with a sheltered bay and offers horseback riding ($60 for 75 min. or $79 for a package including snorkeling), ATV expeditions to caves and cenotes ($55 for one person, $90 for two), and other activities. Transportation from Cancún, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum is available for an extra fee. Use of the beach club is included in tour prices, or you can use the facilities for $20. Make arrangements in advance so that they can schedule you on a day when they have fewer customers. The turnoff for the ranch is 2km (1 1/4 miles) south of the Calica overpass near Km 279. For more info call tel. 984/803-5224 or go to www.puntavenado.com.
The Yucatán Peninsula's land surface is a thin limestone shelf jutting out like a footprint between the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. Rainwater seeps through the surface into cenotes, freshwater sinkholes that dot the underground world. Some cenotes are like small wells. Others are like giant green ponds with high rock walls -- tempting sights to would-be Tarzans. Cenotes often provide access to magical caves where sunlight from holes in the land's surface glimmers on icicle-like stalactites and stalagmites. The Riviera Maya is filled with these formations, and it seems every farmer and landowner has posted a sign offering access to their pools and caverns for a few pesos. Some are actually blasting the ground in search of cenotes, unfortunately. More elaborate parks include underground rivers and cenotes among their many attractions. Several, including Xcaret, Hidden Worlds, Río Secreto, and Aktun Chen, are described in this chapter. Dozens of smaller cenotes and caves deserve your attention as well, and entry costs much less than at the big parks. Adventuresome types should seek out newly opened sites marked with rustic wooden signs. Below are a few cenotes accessible from Hwy 307. Most have bathrooms, are open daily from about 8 or 9am until 5 or 6pm, and charge about 30 to 50 pesos.
Cenote Azul (approximately 2km/1 1/4 miles south of Puerto Aventuras, just south of Ecopark Kantun Chi): Situated close to the highway with several large pools, Cenote Azul has a fun jump-off point on a section of overhanging rock, and a wooden lounging deck jutting over the water. Walkways along the edge make it easier to get in and swim with the abundant catfish.
Gran Cenote (about 3 km/1 3/4 miles west of Tulum on the road to Cobá): Divers are especially fond of this aptly named bottomless, crystal-clear cenote leading to caverns that seem to have no end. Snorkelers can follow the dive lights into caves close to the surface and see fantastic rock formations. Since it's off the main highway, this fabulous cenote is less popular with groups and feels like it's buried in jungle.
Jardín del Edén (1.6km/1 mile north of Xpu-Há, just south of Cenote Azul): "El Edén" is one of my favorite cenotes because it's run by an accommodating family and has lots of rocky outcroppings where you can lounge in the warm sun after the freezing water leaves you covered in goose bumps. There's plenty of room along the edges of the cenote, which looks like a huge swimming pool. Shrieks fill the air as daredevils attempt swan dives from a high jump-off point. Snorkelers and divers find plenty of tropical fish and eels.
Manatí (Tankhah, east of the highway 10km/6 1/4 miles north of Tulum): The large, open lagoon near Casa Cenote restaurant is part of a long underwater cave system that ends at the sea. Freshwater bubbling up into ocean waters creates significant but not dangerous currents that attract a great variety of saltwater and freshwater fish. The cenote was named for the manatees that used to show up occasionally; the shy creatures have disappeared as the region has gained popularity.
Xunaan ha (outside of Chemuyil, 12km/7 1/2 miles south of Akumal): Gaining popularity because of its sense of authenticity, this one is reached by winding through a Maya village and growing town that is home to locals who work in and around Akumal. Signs point to the small cenote nearly hidden in the jungle, where you can swim, float, or snorkel with schools of fish and the occasional freshwater turtle. Be prepared: no bathrooms here.
Most dive shops along the Riviera Maya offer cenote and reef diving and snorkeling. Recommended outfitters that specialize in cenotes include Yukatek Divers (tel. 984/803-2836; www.yucatek-divers.com) and Go Cenotes (tel. 984/803-3924; www.gocenotes.com), both in Playa del Carmen, and Cenote Dive Center (tel. 984/871-2232; www.cenotedive.com) and Xibalba Dive Center (tel. 984/871-2953; www.xibalbadivecenter.com) in Tulum. Rates start at $55 for a snorkel tour and $120 for two-tank cavern dives, which take place in open cenotes where you are always within reach of air and natural light; cave diving requires advanced technical training and specialized gear, and is more expensive.