You’ve seen the photos of the fabulous, remote, seemingly secret swimming holes, surrounded by verdant tropical jungle and filled with water so clear and pristine; it seems near impossible for it to be real. These cenotes are renowned in Mexico, but what are they, actually?
A cenote is a natural sinkhole that has opened below the earth’s surface and filled with freshwater. Some of the very best in the country are found on the Yucatan Peninsula, where the natural geological history of the region lend itself to a proliferation of these underground pools. There are at least 6,000 cenotes in the area that are known, with many more that are probably tucked away, deep in the jungle.
Cenotes were considered sacred in the Maya culture. The wells were considered a source of life, thanks to the freshwater within them, and were used as places of offering and sacrifice as a way of honoring the gods. Some cities, such as Chichen Itza, were built entirely around these sacred cenotes. While the sacred aura of the cenotes is a story of the past, these natural attractions are as popular as ever today, enjoyed by thousands for swimming, cliff diving and cave diving.
There are countless cenotes within Mexico for your enjoyment. Here we list a few of our personal favorites.
1. Cenote Dos Ojos
If you’re visiting the Tulum area, don’t miss this sparkling, turquoise cenote, which while definitely not a secret, is considered one of the most famous in the Yucatan for good reason. Take the wooden stairs down to the water and swim beneath limestone rocks that hang low over the surface. Go snorkeling through the caverns or even try cave diving with an expert to explore the underground tunnels. This cenote offers thoughtful amenities, including lockers and changing rooms.
2. Cenote Calavera
Also near Tulum, this is a great cenote to visit once, twice, even three times during your stay - it’s that good. While it doesn’t look like much from above (actually, if you look closely, you’ll notice that it looks like a calavera, or skull), it’s what lies beneath that is so magical. Take the wooden ladder through the narrow entryway down to the water and the labyrinthine waterways and caves.
3. Cenote Azul
The “Blue Cenote” near Playa del Carmen is popular with families and anyone looking for the quintessential cenote experience. It is located off the main highway along the Riviera Maya coastline and while it’s usually quite busy, there is more than enough room in the blue water for everyone to spread out and enjoy. Go snorkeling, jump in from the limestone cliffs, explore the shallow, open-air water (great for kids) or go further into the deep water beneath the cliffs.
4. Cenote Chaak Tun
If you have in your mind’s eye a cavernous space, surrounded by jungle and limestone cliffs, and with only pockets of light streaming in, be sure to visit Cenote Chaak Tun, inland from Playa del Carmen. Perfect for the more adventurous traveler, this cenote isn’t as wide open as others in the area as it’s mainly underground. In fact, the largest cave here has only one light source, casting a steam onto the water from a narrow hole in the ceiling. Your fee includes snorkeling equipment, a guide, a hard hat and a life jacket so that you can fully experience the two caves.
5. Cenote Verde Lucero
This fun-filled cenote experience is between Playa del Carmen and Cancun. Known as the “Bright Green” cenote, you’ll soon see why when you marvel at the crystalline emerald water. There’s lots of glee to be found here, as you zipline across the water and jump from various levels of platform into the refreshing water.
6. Cenote Ik Kil
For a cenote history lesson in addition to a sublime swimming experience, head to Cenote Ik Kil near Chichen Itza. The perfectly circular, steeply lined sinkhole is found about a 20-minute walk from the archaeological site’s entrance. This was considered one of the most sacred places in the Mayan world and you’ll feel a culpable sense of legend and intrigue as you explore the natural wonder, where long jungle vines drape above the water’s surface for a most enchanting setting.
Ready for your own Mexico cenote experience? Let’s chat about your plans and what cenotes would be best for your itinerary.