Cenotes: What They Are and Where to Find Them

Cenote Tza Ujun Kat Merida in Valladolid Mexico

 TripSavvy / Angelina Pilarinos

On a hot day in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, there are few things more refreshing than taking a dip in a cenote. There are thousands of these natural pools in the region due to a large amount of limestone in the soil. Cenotes played an important role in Mayan cosmology, and nowadays are a big draw for tourists who come to swim, dive, and explore these refreshing swimming holes. 

What Is a Cenote?

A cenote is a deep, water-filled sinkhole formed in limestone. It is created when the roof of an underground cavern collapses. This cavern is then filled with rain and water flowing from underground rivers. The word cenote comes from the Mayan word dzonot, which means "well" in English. Some cenotes are vertical, water-filled shafts, while others are caves that contain pools and underwater passageways in their interior. Cenotes tend to have very clean and cool freshwater.

What Is the Significance of Cenotes?

Cenotes were ritually significant to the ancient Maya people because they were considered passages to the underworld. Many cenotes, including the Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza and the cenote at Dzibilchaltún, were used for sacrificial purposes. Human and animal skeletons, as well as sacrificial objects of gold, jade, pottery, and incense, have been dredged from them.

What to Expect When Visiting a Cenote

The most popular thing to do in a cenote is to swim and dive in the clear water. Some cenotes are easy to access, with steps leading down to the water, while others are a bit more tricky, requiring a ladder. In either case, take caution when descending to a cenote because the steps can be slippery. 

Since the water filling the cenotes is either rainwater or from an underground river, it usually has few suspended particles, making for excellent visibility. Due to this clarity of the water, cenotes are a delight to snorkel or dive in.

You may have the opportunity to be blessed by a Maya shaman before entering the cenote. This is a way of showing respect for the significance of the cenotes to the Mayan culture. The shaman or healer will burn some incense and say a few words in Mayan, to bless you and cleanse you of any negative energy before entering the cenote.

That will take care of your spiritual cleanliness, but you should also keep in mind what you're bringing into the cenote on your body. Chemical sunscreens and insect repellents may contaminate the water and damage the cenote's ecosystem. Instead opt for biodegradable, environmentally-friendly options.

Woman swimming and floating in harmony with nature in heart-shaped zenote in the jungle in Mexico Yucatan Peninsula.
Travelstoxphoto / Getty Images

The Best Cenotes to Visit

Gran Cenote, Tulum

With a convenient location on the road between the archaeological sites of Tulum and Cobá archaeological sites, the Gran Cenote is a perfect rest stop between hot walks around the ancient Maya ruins. Known as Sac Aktun in Mayan, this cenote has crystal-clear water with a depth of around 30 feet. There are accessible caverns (which are a little deeper) that are home to small fish and some fascinating formations. The cenote is surrounded by jungle and gardens. 

Gran Cenote attracts snorkelers and divers who come to explore the caverns or to cool off in the beautiful crystal-clear water. A shallow, sandy-bottomed snorkeling area near the stairs leading down to the cenote is the perfect spot for beginners to explore the underwater world. More experienced swimmers and divers venture into the large cave, which is hung with stalactites.

Dos Ojos Cenote

A must-see destination for divers and snorkelers, Dos Ojos (meaning “two eyes” in Spanish) is a part of the world's largest underwater cave system. The name Dos Ojos refers to the two neighboring cenotes connected by a large cavern which are said to resemble a pair of eyes marking the entrance to the underworld. Dos Ojos also contains the deepest passage in the state of Quintana Roo, an almost 400-foot deep hollow called “The Pit.”

There is a safe, family-friendly part of the cenote that is perfect for snorkeling, with access in and out of the water from large wooden decks. Cavern diving is the most popular activity here though. The cave system is so vast and the underwater sights so extraordinary that this is a bucket-list destination for divers visiting the region. Along with incredible stalactite and stalagmite formations, you’ll see bats (there’s an actual bat cave), small fish, and freshwater shrimp in the beautifully clear freshwater.

It's located just off Highway 307 between the towns of Akumal and Tulum.

Cristalino Cenote

This easily accessible and beautiful swimming spot is a part of the Ponderosa cave system (along with Cenote Azul and Jardin del Eden). The setting is picturesque, with mangroves and jungle surrounding the cenote. While most visitors come to swim it’s also possible for divers to explore the cave here, which links Cristalino with Azul.

Given its relative obscurity, Cristalino is an uncrowded dive spot, featuring an overhanging ledge and a beautiful cave beneath. Out in the open, there’s a ledge with a ladder from which swimmers can dive or jump into the clear water below.

Cenote Cristalino is located just off the main Highway 307, south of Playa del Carmen.

Ik Kil Cenote

This cenote, also known as the Blue Cenote, is a very picturesque swimming spot located near Chichen Itza on the highway to Valladolid. Many visitors to the archaeological site make a stop here to cool off before heading back to their hotel, so it can get very crowded, especially between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. The cenote is open to the sky and the water level is about 85 feet below ground level, with a carved stairway leading down to a swimming platform. If you want to skip the steps, you can jump into the water from a wall.

Article Sources
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  1. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Into the Centipede's Jaws: Sumptuous Offerings from the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá." May 21, 2018.

  2. CNN. "Divers discover world's longest underwater cave system in Mexico." Jan. 18, 2018.