Jump to the: The Short List of Best Cenotes in Mexico
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Why You’ll Get Excited About Mexico’s Cenotes
Mexico’s cenotes are slowly overtaking the country’s beach fame. Sure, long sandy beaches and turquoise water are alluring, but something truly unique in this world is Mexico’s cenotes – essentially, natural swimming holes formed from sinkholes, but in reality so much more. Pull yourself away from Mexico’s coastlines for a second, and you won’t be sorry.
If you know the best cenotes to visit
Your first glance will bestow the same awe as the Maya once had; pristine waters, overhanging stalactites, tree roots breaking through rocks, and eerie sun rays shining spotlights deep into the turquoise water so it glows.
Not every cenote is created equal. Certainly, each has its own charm, but it also depends on what you’re looking for. Some cenotes are touristic and packed, but they also tend to be the ones that will be visually imprinted onto your mind forever; imagine swimming inside an enclosed cave under hanging vines and rock formations.
Other cenotes look more like normal swimming holes – but you might get it all to yourself, which is perfect for a romantic day or with a group of friends.
Today, cenotes are used for all array of activities: swimming, snorkeling, zip-lining, rappelling, scuba diving, weddings and even for ‘trash the dress’ photo shoots.
There are more than 6,000 cenotes in Yucatan alone, which is where most of them are located. So if you’re visiting Cancun, the Yucatan Peninsula or anywhere else in Riviera Maya, you’ll be able to find a cenote without having to travel too far.
The big question is: which cenotes in Mexico should you visit?
What Is a Cenote?
A cenote is a natural sinkhole, created when a cave ceiling collapses – and gives access to what the Maya believed was a gateway to the underworld.
These subterranean chambers are filled with rainwater that filters through the rock – making them unbelievably clean. The visibility is excellent for snorkeling and diving.
Cenotes can be fully open, semi-open, or completely hidden away in an underground cavern. Generally, the older the cenote, the more open they tend to be; younger cenotes tend to still have their cavern roof or dome intact.
Some underground cenotes, like Calvera Cenote, even require steep downward staircases to reach the water far below – or you can take the adventurous route and jump.
Each cenote is different, so try a few out. Today Yucatan has the largest submerged cave system in the world, which is peppered with cenotes and unique experiences.
How Did Cenotes Form?
Yucatan was once a giant underwater reef, which dried out during the last Ice Age when water levels dropped. It formed a highly porous coral limestone platform, through which the water ran straight through. Slowly, the water dissolved the rock underneath to form subterranean rivers and caverns. On some cenote dives far inland, you may even see fossil evidence of its reef origins.
Today, below the ground of the Yucatan peninsula, runs two of the longest underground water system in the world – Sac Actun at 353km and Ox Bel Ha at 270km.
Additionally, as the climate warmed and sea levels rose again, some caverns flooded with sea water. Today, in several cenotes, you can see the spectacular halocline phenomenon, where the salt and fresh water meet.
Cenotes and the Chicxulub crater
Some say that the same asteroid that killed the dinosaurs was the start of the ‘Ring of Cenotes’, compounded by the geological processes that followed.
When a powerful asteroid impact hit the Yucatanpeninsula, it left behind the 180kmChicxulub crater, which researchers propose weakened the earth and curiously, ‘coincides approximately with a concentric ring of the buried Chicxulub structure.”
Interestingly, the ring of cenotes was discovered first and led to the discovery of the Chicxulub crater. Today it has been submitted to the UNESCO to be considered for the World Heritage List.
Sacred Cenotes in Maya Culture
The Maya believed cenotes were portals to Xibalba – the underworld – where their gods, supernatural beings and spirits of their ancestors lived.
The area was mostly devoid of rivers and lakes, because the water filtered through the limestone rock. The cenotes became a life source for Maya civilizations, who typically built close to the vicinity of cenotes. Mayapan, some 100km west of Chichen Itza, could supply up to 17,000 residents with some 40 cenotes. Without several cenotes nearby, it would have been near impossible for the larger Maya civilizations to grow into grand cities, such as Chichen Itza or Uxmal.
Cenotes were so vital for the Maya’s survival that they became deeply embedded into the religious beliefs. Cenotes featured heavily in rituals and ceremonies, usually to present tributes to their gods, sometimes with animal or even human sacrifices.
Skeletons, along with sacrificial objects of gold, jade and incense, have been found in several cenotes, for example at the Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza or at Dzibilchaltún. Antique ceramic pieces even date back a thousand years.
Today, the sacrifices have stopped, but the unique geological features are still around for us to explore. Some descendants of the ancient Maya still pay their respects to the mythical inhabitants of cenotes. You might even encounter a Maya shaman blessing visitors before entering their cenote, a way of showing respect to what cenotes mean in Maya culture. The shaman usually burns some incense and says some Mayan words to cleanse away negative energy.
What Does Cenote Mean?
The word cenote comes from the Maya word “dzonot”– meaning cavern with water, or well.
When you’re traveling around the Yucatan peninsula, keep an eye out for communities with “dzonot” or “dzon” in their name, such as Chikindzonot, Dzoncauich, Dzonot Carretero, Kancabdzonot, San Francisco Dzon, and Yokdzonot.
Should You Take a Cenote tour?
Some cenotes are hard to find, nestled deep in the jungle and not well sign-posted.
If time is short, but you want to visit several cenotes in one go, a tour will save time. However, some cenotes are small and sharing them with a busload of people can feel cramped.
If time is your friend, public transport is cheap and you won’t have any problems getting dropped off on the highway in front of the more accessible cenotes. You’ll still have a walk ahead of you, but jungle adventures are part of the fun. The mini buses are regular on the main roads.
However, the best way to enjoy the cenotes is by car or taxi; you can spend as much or as little time as you want, and you reach the out-of-the-way cenotes. If there is a couple of people, it can even work out cheaper than a tour. Just note that WiFi is scarce, so make sure you mark your locations or know your route before you set out, or download a map for offline use.
Are Cenotes Safe for Swimming?
You should avoid using chemical sunscreens, lotions or repellent, as it dirties the water and can kill the fish and plant life. You can get biodegradable sunscreen on Amazon.
Leave valuables at home, as not all places have locker facilities. However, you will almost always need to bring cash (entrance fees are around 100 pesos, although can be up to 400 pesos). The larger
Water shoes can also be useful, as many have rocky floors or slippery entrances.
Tips for Visiting a Cenote
- Sundays are usually the busiest day, because it’s the locals’ day off too.
- Having a cenote to yourself can enhance that mystic feeling, although it’s not always possible. You’ll increase your chances by going early in the morning or late in the afternoon.
- The smaller cenotes do not usually have food stalls, so you should bring your own food and drinks if you plan on staying for a few hours.
- Many cenotes rent snorkels, but it is sometimes cheaper to just buy one as there are plenty of occasions to use it.
- The more popular and touristic the cenote, the more facilities and amenities you can expect.
- Peak season is from late December to March; you’ll encounter less people during the rainy months of May to October, although the water level rises from all the rain in some cenotes.
Best Cenotes For Swimming
Best Cenotes For Diving
Best Cenotes For Snorkeling
Best Cenotes For Families and Kids