We spent the month of February with Lori’s parents, traveling around Belize and then on to Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. After staying in the colonial “Yellow City” of Izamal, taking in the UNESCO Mayan city of Chichen Itza, and sneaking our way on to Cancun’s finest beaches, we headed south to the Riviera Maya.
When visitors think of the Yucatan, the beautiful white sands beaches of Cancun, Cozumel, and Playa del Carmen immediately spring to mind. What doesn’t often come to mind, unless you’ve visited the Yucatan, are the Yucatan’s numerous cenotes (limestone water-filled sinkholes). The Yucatan is covered with them.
Cenotes take a variety of forms. Some are like caverns, necessitating some degree of climbing and clambering to get down to the water’s edge. Others, like Cristalino, are pools accessed at ground-level.
Cristalino cenote is located on the Riviera Maya and easily accessed 15 miles south of Playa del Carmen, right off of the Carretera 307 (the main highway connecting Playa and Tulum). Like most other cenotes in the Yucatan, Cristalino is a small, private operation, so there is a nominal entrance fee for visitors.
In addition to access to the cenote, your entrance fee also gets you a life jacket and access to toilet and changing facilities. The main office also doubles as a small snack shack.
The walk from the parking lot to the pools is less than 100 yards (100 meters) down a gradual slope. Cristalino is actually a series of pools connected by small mangroves. As you enter the complex, you are greeted by the smallest of the set — as you go to your left, the pools get larger and more spectacular.
Paving stones border the pools making for a nice walkway, with aluminum ladders into the water at three different points. There are numerous shaded sitting areas with wooden benches, and a lounging area in the upper portion accessible by a gravel path and stone staircase. On some days, it appears there is a lifeguard on duty, but there wasn’t one this particular day.
We felt really fortunate on this particular day, as there was only one other person in the entire pool complex when we arrived (around 9:30am), with no more than 4-5 people in the water during the busiest time. Granted, we were there on a pre-Spring Break weekday, but it still could have been much busier. The fact that Cristalino is one of the lesser known/visited cenotes and that it is neighbored by a handful of other cenotes I think helps to keep the crowds at bay as well.
Snorkeling appears to be the main attraction here, as the water, true to the cenote’s name, is crystal clear. Depths reach about 20 feet and visibility on this particular day was virtually unlimited. Cristalino’s other main attraction, however, is the jumping cliff.
Not to be out-done by my wife, I busted out my finest form. However, it took four jumps to finally capture it on camera. By that time, my form could have placed me into Olympic medal contention…given the right group of judges, of course
Another fun thing to do at the cenote is to get your feet cleaned “Dr. Fish”-style. The fish were hungry that day, my friends…which surprised me a bit given that the place wasn’t deserted and the fish had a variety of feasting options.
A few particularly large fish enjoyed their mid-morning snack a little too much, if you ask me, and were absolutely insatiable. I usually do alright with the small guys, but the big guys tickled to the point of holding back tears.
Lori’s mom indeed proved much stronger than myself as she was able to sit there for what seemed like hours and just let the fish go about their business. I, on the other hand, could only last in 1-2 minute increments. Shameful.
Lori’s dad enjoyed the show from the bench, but eventually got in the game to check out the tropical feet-nibblers himself. I didn’t hear much giggling, so either the man has nerves of steel or the fish wanted nothing to do with him. I’d like to think the former.
In addition to the nibblers, we saw catfish and an array of small, colorful fish which we weren’t able to readily identify. We also came across a turtle about 6-8 inches long, milling about, getting into to trouble.
While none of the fish were as large as what you might typically find in the waters off the Yucatan seashore, the abundance of small fish and otherworldly environment made it a very unique experience — not quite like anything we’ve ever done before.