What is a Cenote?

Tourists swimming in Ikil cenote on Yukatan peninsula in Mexico
••• Victor Korchenko / Getty Images

A cenote is a deep, water-filled sinkhole in limestone that is created when the roof of an underground cavern collapses. This creates a natural pool which is then filled by rain and water flowing from underground rivers. The word cenote comes from the Mayan word dzonot, which means "well." 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 clear, cool, fresh water.

Cenotes are prevalent in the Yucatan Peninsula where the ground is primarily made up of limestone, and there are thousands of cenotes and underground rivers there; they are the area's main source of water. These sinkholes played an important role in Mayan cosmogony, and nowadays are a big draw for tourists who come to swim and dive and explore these refreshing natural swimming holes. 

Significance of Cenotes

Cenotes were ritually significant to the ancient Maya 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. 

Cenote Swimming and Diving

On a hot day in the Yucatan, there's nothing better than taking a refreshing dip in a cenote.

Some of them are easy to access, with steps leading down to the water, and others are a bit more tricky, with ladders. In either case, take care when descending to a cenote because the steps can be slippery. 

Since the water filling the cenotes is rain water that has filtered through the ground, it usually has few suspended particles, so the water is extremely clear, making for excellent visibility.

They're a delight to dive in.

If you visit the Yucatan Peninsula, 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 it's also a good idea to keep in mind what you're bringing into the cenote on your body - try to eschew chemical sunscreens and insect repellent as it may contaminate the water and it's not favorable to the natural life of the cenote.

Here are some cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula which are excellent for swimming, snorkeling or diving:

  • Gran Cenote, Tulum
  • Dos Ojos Cenote
  • Cristalino Cenote
  • Ik Kil Cenote (Blue Cenote)

Pronunciation: seh-no-tay

Common Misspellings: senote