With over 6,000 cenotes dotting the Yucatan Peninsula, there’s no excuse to not visit at least one. So what is a cenote? (Pronounced seh-no-tay) These natural swimming pools form when limestone bedrock collapses and exposes groundwater underneath. The ancient Maya believed these sinkholes to be mystical realms and connectors to the underworld. It was also their main source of fresh water, making these natural phenomenons an integral part of their survival. Today, the top cenotes are sought after by locals and travelers for their lush landscapes, refreshing pools, and access to parts of this planet that have been tucked away for eons. There are many different kinds of formations and sizes, but how do you find these seemingly elusive sinkholes, and which ones are the best?
The Riviera Maya is home to a vast expanse of cenotes that connect to a matrix of underwater cave systems, attracting scuba divers and hydro-lovers alike, all year round. Most cenotes are on privately owned land and are usually unaccessible to the public without permission. Luckily, many of the best ones will welcome you for a swim at a nominal fee. In my experience, a really great way to hit a couple of cenotes and some other archeological must-see’s, is to hire a local tour operator for the day. With so many great cenotes to choose from, you don’t have to limit your choice to only one. After all, not all cenotes are created equal.
Cenotes to visit if you want to scuba dive:
- Dos Ojos has the deepest known cave passage in Quintana Roo, reaching depths of almost 400 feet. The water temperature generally remains at a comfortable 77 degrees throughout the year and you can find a few varieties of fish, shrimp and even cave bats if you surface to see them!
- Temple of Doom, also known as the cenote Calavera, is said to resemble the shape of a skull when the sunlight hits just right through the crevices, creating the image of two eyes and a mouth. Discovering fossils along the dive is said to be one of the more unique traits of this dive spot.
- The Pit might seems like a small cenote from the looks of it up top, but after an 18 foot drop into “The Pit”, you will find a world of wonder below. This is part of the deepest cenote in the area, connected to Dos Ojos, there are many “rooms” along the way to discover.
- Pet Cemetery is one of the more isolated cenotes to get to and is recommended for more experienced divers, as some shallower parts can be a bit tricky to maneuver in. However, the stalactites and stalagmites are incredible to witness and the waters are crystal clear.
- Dream Gate is also a cenote dive recommended for only advanced divers as there are shallow waters and imperative buoyancy control needed. The main attraction is the “Hall of Mirrors” which features thousands of stalactites hanging from what looks like an expansive black mirror.
Cenotes to visit if you want a less touristy experience:
- Gran Cenote has a laid back vibe and a much bigger area to explore than cenotes like Ik Kil.
- Dream Gate is probably not a cenote on the top of your to-do list, as it’s limited accessibility makes it hard for people to get to, making it all the more enticing for those looking to visit the off-the-beaten-path places.
- Cenote Chaak Tun is an underground cenote with plenty of nooks, crannies and chambers to discover.
- Cenote Escondido or “Hidden Cenote” can be found via Cenote Cristal in Tulum. This is more of an open cenote that blends with the natural jungle environment surrounding it. You may get lucky and spot a family of spider monkeys or exotic birds while you swim!
- Cenote Azul was hands down my favorite cenote (in comparison to Ik Kil & Gran Cenote). Once the busy season is over, this is considered one of the less touristy to visit, that also has one of the most exposed surface areas, making it big enough for many people to enjoy. There are also multiple pools and cliffs to jump from.
Cenotes to visit if you want to see stalactites and stalagmites:
- Dos Ojos is arguably one of the most popular for many reasons, including their impressive museum of caverns, stalactites and stalagmites.
- Gran Cenote has beautiful stalactites and stalagmites that can be seen perfectly through the crystal clear water.
- Dreamgate is home to the famous “Hall of Mirrors”.
- The Grutas de Loltún isn’t technically a cenote but its a great way to explore an underground cave system, including the stalactites and stalagmites, engravings and cave art without getting wet!
Cenotes to visit if you want to see marine life:
- Cenote Azul is not only a tranquil place to spend the afternoon, but it is also home to a variety of fish, most notably the little guys that like to nibble at your feet. Coincidently you’ll see plenty of “fish pedicure” places along 5th Ave in Playa del Carmen using the same kind, so you’ll really be getting the bang for your buck here.
- Dos Ojos houses a variety of fish and even some species of shrimp!
- Cenote Cristalino resembles Cenote Azul as it is a spacious, open air cenote surrounded by lush vegetation. You never know what little creatures you’ll find.
- Gran Cenote has an off-limits zone for the turtles that live here, but they are free to roam. You’ll find other small fish darting about and checking you out as well, they’re all friendly though.
- El Jardin del Eden is also an open air cenote with giant mossy rocks to rest about. The pool is brimming with life here, mostly those adorable little sucker fish.
**Ok, so Yal Ku is technically a lagoon, not a cenote, but it is definitely worth mentioning if you want to swim with brilliantly colored fish, sea turtles, starfish, urchins and other sea creatures. Yal Ku is a rather expansive area with plenty of space to swim/snorkel and spots to lounge out and picnic. Admission is around $14USD per person, making it much more expensive than entrance fees to other cenotes, but it’s definitely worth the extra dinero if you plan to spend a half or full day there.
Yal Ku Lagoon
A few things to keep in mind before visiting a cenote:
- Cenotes are somewhat fragile ecosystems. Be respectful of your environment.
- Bring your own towel. Some places will rent them, but it’s best to bring your own if possible.
- Some cenotes will have lockers for rent to keep personal belongings, otherwise it’s up to you to make sure your possessions are safe.
- Refrain from using body oils, lotions, perfumes, etc. before visiting the cenote and only use biodegradale sun-block.
- Always rinse off before entering a cenote.
- Bring your own snorkel and mask if you have one.
- Life jackets are available at select cenotes.
- The earlier you go, the less likely you are to run into crowds.
- Consider using a local tour company to take you around. (No waiting in lines for tickets, door-to-door service, no surprise fees, enjoy gazing out the window at your surroundings instead of focusing on driving and directions, and snorkel gear is usually provided along with snacks, beverages and fun facts!)
- Use the information above to create a list of your top choices and try to make it to more than one. (They’re all so unique!)
- Enjoy the experience! You are surrounded by ancient history!
Ik Kil Cenote
Thank you to YucaTreks for providing us with the Tulum & Beyond tour and, as always, all opinions expressed are my own.
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