While flocking to the beautiful white sand beaches of the Yucatan Peninsula, it is inevitable that one will hear whispers about the hidden, crystal clear, natural cenotes of Mexico. Popular with both tourists and local set alike, cenotes are mineral-rich, natural bodies of water that can be found deep in the Mayan jungles.
Cenotes were revered by the Mayan People as mysterious and mythical sites where human beings could directly communicate with the gods. For this reason, some cenotes were even used as a place for sacrificial offerings. The word Cenote, or ts’onot as used by the Yucatec Maya people of the region, means a location with accessible groundwater. These locations can be found both on a superficial level at the earth’s surface, or deep within caves.
Cenotes are formed as a result of collapsed porous limestone bedrock. The force of the impact reveals a subterranean aquatic system of freshwater that is filtered naturally by the earth. The result is clear, natural underground pools that house an ecosystem of tropical fish and vitamin-and-mineral rich algae. For this reason, the cenotes of Mexico are most popular for snorkeling, as you can experience the type of underground world only a professional diver would normally have the privilege of experiencing.
Those who visit the cenotes of Mexico will appreciate the tucked away, private nature of experience. Many of these cenotes are, in fact, fairly hidden away and in some cases entirely free of other guests during quiet times of the year. The most common people to spot are locals from Cancun; this is because most of the prime ocean real estate has been bought up by big chain resorts and the cenotes remain a wonderful alternative for to experience the pristine waters of the region.
It’s obvious to see why the Mayans held the Cenotes in such high regard. Enjoying a day in the Mayan jungle surrounded impressive tropical foliage, birds, and indigenous monkey-like creatures called Coatis’, in near isolation, it’s easy to be transported back in time.
Top Cenotes to discover
Best for Families, Cenote Azul
Cenotes can be dangerous with small children—most are endlessly deep with little space to wade. For families that want to experience a cenote without the stress of danger—the best place to go is Cenote Azul. The swimming site itself is pretty basic compared to others in the region. You will not find anything fancy but what you will find is a near perfect rock system below the water’s surface that create natural wading pools of shallower waters. For the older kids, there is a spot for jumping off a small cliff, that is relatively safe. There is, of course, a bountiful amount of fish visible to the naked eye from above the surface and the best thing to do is sit back, relax and let the little guppies nibble at your toes.
Best for Full Service, Cenote Yokdzonot
Photo credit: Gerardo Jaso
If you’re looking for a more “luxury” experience in the Mayan Jungle, look no further than Cenote Yokdzonot. Here you will find a collective of local women running a tight operation. For a small fee, you’ll have access to changing rooms, bathrooms, a zipline and even a restaurant with decent food. Everything is made to order, and the proprietors are generous with the portions. All facilities are clean, and the patrons of the cenote are usually local with a few dotted tourists mixed in. If you’re looking for a great place to relax in a convenient location while touring (a short drive from Chichen Itza) Yokdzonot is your spot!
Best for Adventurers, Cenote Dos Ojos
Cenote Dos Ojos is a place for adventurers and one of the most curious cenotes of Mexico. The name, “Dos Ojos” means “Two Eyes” and refers to the twin pools of water that make up this cenote. One of the “eyes” is bright and light blue while the other is dark and mysterious looking. Both pools undoubtedly deserve attention as they are equally beautiful, but it is the darker body of water that sparks curiosity. Visitors of the “dark eye” enter these waters for a truly unique snorkeling experience that is virtually in pitch-blackness. Divers can rent all the gear at the site and are given flashlights to explore the dark underground universe. The experience in exhilarating and, at times, frightening. If you’re not interested in a “blackout dive,” another entertaining alternative is to hike through the series of interconnecting caves that surround the cenotes. Tours are available for those that want more extensive cave searching.
Best for Photographers, Cenote Samula
One of the most well known cenotes of Mexico among photographers around the world, Cenote Samula houses a unique natural spectacle. This cenote is accessible through a cave that you walk into. Once you find yourself below the surface, your eye is immediately drawn to large ocular opening at the top of the ceiling. It is a breathtaking moment when you see the roots of an enormous tree spilling down into the cave. The roots have grown, with such power, down to reach the water to stay alive. It’s a poetic and stunning natural visual. For this reason, it is a popular spot and tends to feel a little more like a tourist attraction.
What to bring
- A small amount of cash; there is usually a small entrance fee or equipment to rent for snorkeling as well as life vests and flashlights
- Sturdy shoes: most cenotes are housed within some pretty rugged terrain
- Non-toxic sun screen: while more cenotes warn against using sunscreen at all in order not to pollute the natural water, there are biodegradable and organic options that can be used.
- Leave valuables at home, most time there isn’t a safe place to leave them
- Most times, it’s easy to find a taxi or snacks close to a cenote site