Everything you need to know about the cenotes of the Yucatan peninsula, Mexico, how they formed and where to find the most beautiful cenotes to visit.
The Cenotes of Mexico are deep natural wells or sinkholes where the rainwater infiltrates slowly through the ground, or from underground rivers. You can find them scattered around the Yucatan Peninsula. According to the latest data available, there must be around 6.000 in total.
WHAT IS A CENOTE?
The Cenotes originate in the limestone grounds that favor river formations underneath the entire territory. Those rivers eventually meet huge cavities where they form crystalline water lakes.
The Cenotes in proximity of the sea receive water from that source too, through an impressive underwater canal network. However the salted water, filtrated by the limestone rocks gets sweet once it gets on the surface.
The Cenotes constitute one of the most important natural and touristic resources of the Yucatan Peninsula, besides being of historical importance.
They were, in fact, the main source of water and religious place for the Mayans who called them ts´onot which means ” hole in the earth”.
According to their depth and characteristics, we have different kinds of cenotes as we will see later on in this section.
Some of them have been discovered accidentally by locals in their own garden or land.
While in the ancient Mayan times they were used for water provisions and religious ceremonies, nowadays, with the development of tourism, the cenotes have been turned into tourist attractions. Also, they remain the property of the local people who own the land, sometimes is one family but most of the time a group of family called Ejido.
The more modern ones have a convenient entrance with changing rooms and bathrooms built to facilitate access and allow anyone to enter and enjoy this extraordinary manifestation of nature power, still in the most organic way possible, trying at the same time to preserve the environment.
To enter and swim in the cenote, the owners would charge a little money, which barely covers maintenance expenses.
You will see the difference in cost between the cenotes of the Riviera Maya, more touristic and easier to access, and the ones situated more inland, scattered around the Yucatan Peninsula, which are less-visited or the Cenotes near Valladolid which are almost all cave cenotes.
This is one of the reasons why I recommend to venture out, far from the more populated region, and seek out for more unexplored ones.
If you are staying in one of the Cancun resorts or Cancun Airbnb and you are thinking of making a day trip to visit one cenote or two, worry not, because although there are no cenotes in Cancun, I wrote a list of 21 amazing cenotes that you can visit from Cancun. If you are in Tulum, you have plenty of choice among all the spectacular Cenotes in Tulum.
Not much for the costs, but because they are usually less contaminated and more natural as the human civilization ( or uncivilization ) have barely set foot on.
HOW THE CENOTES OF THE YUCATAN PENINSULA WERE FORMED?
We need to know about the Yucatan Peninsula bedrock in order to understand how the cenote had been formed.
The entire Yucatan territory is flat and low with an exception of the soft elevation of the Puuc Hills in the south-west of Yucatan close to the border with the State of Campeche.
Its bedrock is pure limestone and therefore honeycombed with caves and sinkholes, which are called cenotes (pronounce seh-NO-tehs).
The fact that territory is so full of holes made it impossible for rivers to form, but favors subterranean rivers, instead, which eventually would end up in a hole forming big or small subterranean lakes, the cenotes.
The entire process is nowadays not very clear yet but it’s certain that a huge impact in the Cenotes formation is due to a huge asteroid that hit the earth about 65.000 years ago in what is now occupied by the Yucatan State, more precisely in the town called Chicxulub, on the coast north of Merida. It is in fact called Chicxulub crater.
I was in Chicxulub for a month on a house sitting assignment but, as expected, there was no evidence of the crater, is now covered by 65 million years of sediment, much of which now has solidified to limestone.
Besides its impact on the formation of the cenotes, the Chicxulub crater also raised the interest of scientists for its possible role in the vast extinction of species that took place 65 million years ago. Much has been written about it and you can check out this article for further reading.
WHAT IS THE FORMATION PROCESS OF A CENOTE?
The limestone rocks allow the rainwater to filtrate through the cracks in the soil, favoring the erosion of rocks and, during centuries, allowing caves and water deposits to keep forming until the roof collapses as well.
That’s briefly the formation process of a cenote.
TYPES OF CENOTES
There are 3 types of Mexican cenotes according to their structures and layout:
- Open – Where you can see the sky as there is no ceiling, it’s completely open although it’s depth can vary – Examples are: cenote garden of Eden or cenote Azul or cenote Cristalino among the amazing cenotes of the Riviera Maya or Lucero Verde in the cenotes near Cancun, Miguel Colorado in Campeche, 3 Ochos in Homun among others.
- Semi-open – Where one side is open while the other has a ceiling with stalactites and stalagmites formation. This is normally not very deep as you can see the sky on one side while the other is covered. For example, Cenote Dos Ojos is one of them.
- Cave cenotes – Those are my favorite as they evoke mystery and myths. You will have to descend through a hole which is usually made easy by man-built stairs and you will feel completely in the belly of mother earth, surrounded by rock formations, sometimes with rock paintings and fossils. The water is usually more transparent and clean because it’s protected. Consider that I am usually claustrophobic, so for me to say that it means that’s really a magic place. Examples of cave cenotes are Taak bi-ha, Le Pit, Cenote Calavera, and many more in Homun and Cuzamà or the ones around Coba.
THE CENOTES IN THE MAYAN CIVILIZATION
If it was not for the cenotes probably the Mayan civilization wouldn’t be able to survive. In fact, there is no one river in the entire Yucatan peninsula.
Therefore the ancient Mayan civilization took their water provisions from the cenotes.
Probably it is also for this reason, for being a source of life, that the ancient Mayans considered the cenotes as sacred places, homes of Gods as they represented the entrance to the spiritual underworld.
Evidence of this has been brought to life by archeologists who have found human rests, and many Maya artifacts, offerings, and jewelry, a witness of possible human sacrifices in the pre-Colombian times.
Also, ceramics and utensils used in religious ceremonies were found.
I know now that you know what is a cenotes you are anxious to know what are the best cenotes of the Yucatan Peninsula so without any further ado, here are my top favorite cenotes.
THE BEST CENOTES IN TULUM
Cenote Crystal and Cenote Escondido
I love these two cenotes because they are at easy reach from Tulum. You can either rent a bike or hop on a taxi (ask how much first)-
You pay the entrance at the cenote Crystal and you will have access to the cenote escondido (meaning hidden) located on the opposite side of the road.
Cenote Crystal is a huge open cenote, surrounded by thick and lush vegetation reflecting on the blue water. It’s 7 meters deep so people love to jump from the platform, but you don’t have to. You can both swim and relax or snorkel. And there is also the possibility to dive if you contact a diving center first.
Cenote Escondido – on the other side of the main road, the cenote Escondido even allows you to play Tarzan as there are a couple of cords hanging from a tree for you to enjoy. Or you can just swim around.
Entrance is 120 pesos per person (6 YSD) for both cenotes (200 for divers -10usd)
Opening hours: Open from 8 to 5.
How to get there:
By Car – Get on the main road (Ruta 307) from the beach road to downtown Tulum, and keep going towards Muyil, Bacalar, then you can see the signs on your right-hand side. Also, you can check the map here below where the cenote you are interested in is approximately located.
By Bike – Coming from the beach road, just past the town and keep going. You will find it on your right.
By Taxi – A taxi from Tulum downtown from the beach can take you there. Ask the price first. Ask the price first. Taxi drivers in Tulum can be pretty mean.
The Gran Cenote is one of the most famous cenotes and it’s beautiful indeed although I believe they made it too expensive and it gets overcrowded sometimes. I would rather go early in the morning if you decide to visit.
Opening hours – 8 am- 4.45 pm
Entrance fee – MX$180 (or $10, they accept dollars) and renting snorkeling kit- MX$80, locker – MX$30, life jacket – MX$50.
Cenote Calavera is situated at about 10 km from the Grand Cenote, on the way to Coba. It is especially known among the divers.
The cenote is in fact very small apt for jumping and continuing the exploration underneath the surface. But there is not much space for swimming around and enjoy it.
Check out all the amazing Cenotes in Tulum
THE BEST CENOTES IN CANCUN
The closest Cenotes to Cancun are located in Puerto Morelos, on a road that is called La Ruta de los cenotes. There are organized tours that would include one of these cenotes in the Ruta de Los Cenotes, but if I were you I would either rent a car, or if you don’t feel comfortable you could go by taxi. If you contract a taxi for one day for 2 people it would cost you more or less like an organized tour but you will be on your own and can make your own personalized itinerary.
In this post on the Cenotes near Cancun I will tell you in detail all about it, the most beautiful cenotes to visit in the Ruta de los cenotes and all the possible ways to get there.
THE BEST CENOTES IN YUCATAN
I have been around the Yucatan Peninsula for a while and went back multiple times, I have visited so many cenotes I lost count (unfortunately I have also lost some of the pictures, my bad). I can safely say that the cenotes around Valladolid, in Yucatan, are my favorites.
I am going to share a couple of them here but you must check out my dedicated post on the cenotes around Valladolid to see all of them.
On the road that goes from Cancun to Valladolid, at about 30 minutes before arriving in Valladolid, you will find a bright orange road sign to indicate the dirt road that leads you to the entrance of the cenote.
This cenote has been called the Catedral de las Maravillas and is very accurate and means “Cathedral of wonders”.
This cenote is one of my favorites and when you visit you will understand why.
Open from 8 am to 5 pm
Cost: 100 Pesos (about 6 USD)
INSIDER TIP: Best times to go Wednesday and Friday when there are no cruises and it’s not the weekend. This way you might get the chance to get in alone and you will experience the real magic, just like I did. I felt so lucky.
This is one of the most Instagrammed cenotes of Yucatan and I am sure you will recognize it from the picture, even if you didn’t remember the name.
Suytun actually mean centro de piedra (center stone), in Mayan language, very accurate.
It’s located at only 6 km from Valladolid and although it’s not the best road for bikes, you can do it, worries free. That’s how I got there.
For this cenote, it’s very important to leave early morning to avoid the heat because you would be completely exposed to the sun.
The cenote Suytun opens at 9, officially, but if you bike around the restaurant on the right and keep going to the cabañas entrance they would let you in from 8 am.
I got there by 8.30 and I was all by myself. It was just magic.
Entry fee 120 Pesos per person.
There are some colorful cabañas if you wish to stay there for the night, but I believe they are very pricey for the basic accommodations that they offer (900 MXN).
They are very simple and the cenote closes in the night so I don’t really see the point in staying there.
You will also find many more cenotes scattered around the Yucatan State. It’s indeed difficult to see them all.
However there are a couple of communities, one close to the other which are worth mentioning.
They are the community of Homun and Cuzamà. In both villages you will find an entire dirt road lined with amazing cenotes. You can decide to go on your own or hire a bicycle-taxi to take you.
To see the Cenote of Homun you have a choice and you can visit them on your own if you have a suitable car. However, to visit the Cenotes of Cuzama’ you have necessarily to buy a tour, which is actually not expensive. Click on the respective links above to know more about those communities and the amazing cenotes of Homun and Cuzamà.
I had an ethical conflict about purchasing a cenote tour in Cuzamà, because to reach the cenote they use horses pulling a very cranky carriage. The horses are not in the best conditions. Hence, my concern. I would love to hear your thoughts once you have read the post
THE BEST CENOTES OF THE RIVIERA MAYA
Cenote Azul Riviera Maya
The entrance fee is only 120 MXN and you can spend there all day, swimming, jumping, snorkeling, relaxing.
There is a lot of space and benches in the shadow where to relax and enjoy the soothing nature.
In order to make the best of it, it’s advisable to avoid Saturdays and Sundays as it’s going to be crowded.
This cenote, for being so close to the city and very accessible is often very crowded. In order to enjoy it fully, you should avoid weekends and prefer early hours.
The entrance fee of the Cenote Cristalino is 150 pesos per person (7 USD)
Cenote Taak bi-ha
The Cente Taak Bi-ha is my recent discovery and now my absolute favorite one. I went to visit twice because the first time my SD card was broken so all the photos I took were basically lost. And when you see its beauty you understand why I absolutely had to go back.
Luckily the second time was successful and I took a whole bunch of pictures, but, alas, they don’t give it justice. So beautiful that is.
The entrance is from the Cenote Dos Ojos but you must keep driving and you will pay directly to the cenote entrance. If you don’t have a car and get there by colectivo, you can get transportation from the entrance to the cenote.
Taak Bi-Ha entrance fee 350 Pesos per person
You can dive if you come with a diving guide and it has a different cost (check with your preferred dive shop)
Obviously, there are so many more Cenotes in the area that I wrote a dedicated post on the Cenotes of the Riviera Maya to help you find your favorite one to visit.
THE HIDDEN CENOTES OF COBA
Coba is a well-known destination for being home to the spectacular Coba Archeological site. A few people know that at only 10 minutes drive from the site you can visit 3 spectacular cave cenotes.
Keep in mind that they are not suitable if you are extremely claustrophobic, but they are impressing indeed and worth a detour. I wrote a specific post on the Coba cenotes where I explain exactly how to get to each one of them and their detailed information.
If you have time you can even consider spending some time in the town of Coba where you can relax around the lagoon and enjoy the village life. There are actually amazing hotels including the world-class Coqui Coqui. You can read more on my essential guide to Coba.
VISITING THE CENOTES: PRACTICAL TIPS
Nowadays the cenotes are for sure one of the most impressive natural attraction for many visitors from all over the world. You don’t need to be a good swimmer or a diver to enjoy it. You can just float and enjoy the cool reinvigorating waters or if you are really scared of water you can just admire it.
I believe you cannot leave Mexico without seeing a cenote.
WHAT TO BRING WHEN YOU VISIT A CENOTE
- swimsuit and a towel
- a biodegradable repellent or sunscreen (you cannot use it if it’s not biodegradable)
- If you want to bring your mask and snorkel in some cenotes it will turn out useful, but you can find gear rental on-site almost everywhere.
- Dress light but I would recommend comfortable closed shoes to protect you from insects. They are not dangerous but certainly annoying.
DIVING IN A CENOTE
If you are a diver, diving in a cenote must be an amazing experience which I haven’t had the courage to try probably because I am not a very good diver and I am a little claustrophobic. But if you love the adventure and like to try a different diving experience you should try.
What do you need to know before diving in a cenote?
- Certificate Level needed: To dive in the Cenotes you only need a level 1 Open Water or equivalent, except for some particularly difficult ones.
- Cenote diving also requires a good level of buoyancy.
- Water temperature is about 24° Celsius, a full wetsuit is highly recommended.
- Make sure your dive computer has backlit illumination so you can read important dive info easily.
- Don’t forget your camera as Cenote diving can give you amazing scenes for your pictures.
- Make sure you pack a powerful dive light that brings out all the splendor of the cenote
- If you don’t have the equipment, I am sure the diving companies will have them available to rent.
- Regarding point 7, make sure you choose a good dive shop with updated equipment in good condition. Unfortunately not many have them. Playa del Carmen and Tulum are the main hub, closer to the most beautiful cenotes to dive. Do your search and check the reviews before booking.
COMMON SENSE RULES TO REMEMBER WHEN VISITING A CENOTE
As in every natural place I always like to recommend to follow some commonsense rules in order to preserve the environment which I am sure you know already but a gentle reminder is never in excess.
- don’t wear any sunscreen or repellent before bathing in the cenotes
- don’t leave anything that doesn’t belong to the place
- don’t hang on to stalactites or stalagmites or trees roots
- don’t do anything that can damage the environment
I hope this article was useful, but please shoot me an email should you have any further question!