The cenotes of Mexico are sink holes in porous limestone filled with crystalline water and there are literally thousands of them in the Yucatan peninsula. The ancient Maya saw them as gateways to the underworld and offerings have been found in many cenotes. Here is Frederick Catherwood’s 19th century illustration of the Bolonchen cenote. It’s a great depiction of how they used to be.
If you’re a diver, you’ve already heard about cenotes. The cenotes of Mexico often form a connected underground system of many cenotes that divers love to explore but today we’re going to discuss the ones you can visit above ground, although many of them also offer dive/snorkel options. They make a tranquil change of pace from the beach scene and Mexican families love to visit them on weekends for a refreshing alternative to the ocean. There are usually changing facilities and some sort of snack bar or restaurant, so they make a great place to spend an afternoon with kids. Here are some to explore in the Cancún/Tulum area. Keep in mind that this is Mexico so typically there won’t be a myriad of handrails, warning signs, lifeguards, non-skid surfaces, etc. to protect the unaware tourist. The general rule of thumb here is to act sensibly and carefully. Prices have gone up a bit but you’ll usually get in for $10 or less per person.
There are so many great cenotes it’s literally impossible to know or list even a small portion of them. Let’s start with some of the better-known ones.
Ik-Kil – This cenote is quite close to Chichén Itzá so it’s a popular tourist stop after a hot day among the ruins. It’s spectacular, with the cool water about 85 feet straight down through limestone walls and long jungle vines hanging to the water. Yes, you can swim in it and you’ll want to, believe me. Follow the stone paths down to the water or jump from the one of several platforms, depending on your bravery. Do not ignore the signs and jump from the uppermost lip. You will be turned over to police authorities.
Gran Cenote – This one is also close to a popular tourist destination, Tulum. It’s nicely set up for visitors with lockers, showers, etc. It’s gets crowded in the afternoon but the water, stalactites, and wildlife make it a great place to visit.
Suytun – This cenote deserves the Most Dramatic Setting award. It’s perfectly circular, with a stone walkway out into the middle of the water. There’s a little window in the stalactite-covered cave -roof that allows in a beautiful shaft of light. Conveniently close to Valladolid, which is about two hours from Cancún.
Sac-Actún – Quite close to Tulum, this cenote gets rave reviews because it’s almost entirely covered by a limestone roof, with enough light coming in to make you realize the water is a completely transparent sapphire blue. It’s a magic fairy land of stalactites under the limestone roof and some tree roots have grown down from the limestone ceiling.
Dos Ojos – You’ll love this one for its jungle path access, its impressive limestone roof, and it’s a snorkeler’s and diver’s paradise. Also quite close to Tulum, it’s a great place to spend the afternoon after you see the ruins.
Ok, so that’s five of the better known cenotes. As I said earlier, there are thousands to choose from and many of them offer jungle tours, zip lines, snorkeling equipment, rope swings, and so on. Most of the better-known cenotes offer a spectacular, high-adrenaline experience of some sort and it’s definitely worth your time to visit them. However, I’d like to go out on a limb here and suggest that you also consider some of the lesser known, less spectacular cenotes as a change of pace from the over-the-top. Why? Because you’ll share them with Mexican families and that can be just as rewarding as the big-ticket adventure sites. Here’s a few to check out.
Cenote Azul – located about 30 miles south of Tulum, this is one the tourists don’t get to very often. It’s one of my favorites for its jungle setting, little caves, and lack of crowds. There’s a nice restaurant too. I spent one of my best afternoons ever here with my family and didn’t see a single other tourist. BTW, this is not Cenote Azul Bacalar, a heavily visited tourist destination, also very cool.
Choo-Ha – Near Tulum, this cenote has a lot of appeal. You’ll love the descent down the well-constructed stairs right into the waters of the cavern pools with their roof of overhanging stalactites. The water is clear and very swimmable. It’s also near the Mayan Cobá ruins and Choo-Ha will organize a tour for you if you want. At the ruins, with their 138-foot pyramid (the tallest in the Yucatán peninsula), there are two other cenotes to visit and swim in, making for a great day. Take your insect repellant.
Cenote Naharon and Cenote Escondido – Again, just south of Tulum, these two cenotes on opposite sides of the highway, are actually connected by an underwater tunnel. You have to be a cave-certified diver to make the trip between the two cenotes, by the way. One entrance fee gets you into both.
With over 6000 cenotes in Mexico, you’ve got plenty of options. Whether you choose the big-event, spectacular cenotes or prefer something a little more intimate and quieter, there is a cenote out there just right for you. Look around, you’ll find something great.