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How to Visit and Enjoy the Yucatan's Most Beautiful Cenotes

The cenotes of southern Mexico combine area's of rich ecological and cultural history and significance with picturesque recreational opportunities to dive, snorkel or swim in some of the freshest and often most colorful waters imaginable.

Cenotes are limestone sinkholes especially prevalent throughout the Yucatan region - there are over 6000 in this area alone! Within a generally flat and low-lying landscape, all rivers through the region flow below ground, with cenotes typically set along their course. 

Ancient Mayan communities used these cenotes for human and material sacrifices, and divers have uncovered the effects of both at the bottoms of many of these over time. These cenotes were also the lifegiving source of water for many of these communities throughout history.

Picturesque underground cave formations in Cenote Agua Dulce.

Today, many of these cenotes have been developed and commercialized for recreation. Many invite locals and tourists to swim or snorkel, while others offer divers access to deep and intricate underground cave systems.

Inland cenotes often lie inside limestone caves, where formations line the cavern ceilings and walls, vines from trees above the surface reach down into the water, and holes in the limestone ceiling allow sunlight to shine in and illuminate the cavern and water. Other more coastal cenotes appear at the surface, forming lake-like bodies of water with limestone walls, and frequently access into the cavernous depths below.

 

What you can expect:

While cenotes remain a very popular place for locals and tourists alike to swim, dive, or just hang out at, the sensitive ecology and cultural history of these pools do require a set of habits that you'll likely be informed of when visiting.

First, most cenotes have a reception area or counter upon arriving, where visitors can pay the admission fee, along with any additional fees for rental equipment like lockers, life jackets, snorkel equipment and towels (these last two items often require a form of ID to be left as a deposit). Sometimes some of these may be included in the admission fee, so it is best in inquire at reception if you have any questions. Most cenotes will not take credit cards or foreign currency, so plan on having enough cash to cover your visit.

Descend into the limestone caverns at Cenote Xcanahaltun.

Most cenotes will have bathrooms and changing rooms. All guests will be required to shower before entering the swimming areas. Being that the pools are actually underground rivers flowing through cave environments, any chemicals including lotions and deodorants, bug sprays and sunblocks can be damaging to the cenote environment and likely be harmful to the water itself.

Some cenotes will have lockers for guest use, either for rent or for those bringing their own lock, however quite often there are no lockers and guests can just set their things down somewhere in the cavern.

Typically entrance is stairs that descend into the cave - often these are tight and narrow. This isn't the environment to put yourself in if you're uncomfortable making steep climbs and descents on tight walkways.

Once inside, take a second to inhale and just enjoy the beauty. Many of these cenotes are incredibly beautiful and unique, with water in surreal colors and intense clarity. Many will have ropes to assist in swimming, and platforms to jump from. While many are great for snorkeling - a small amount may snorkels and masks for rent - fins may be damaging to the environment and aren't allowed at most. Many will have small restaurants or snack stands on the property, while some are a part of full on commercial developments that may have everything from buffets to lodging onsite.

A rope swing into a blue pool at Cenote Oxman.

Cenotes will vary from having lifeguards and being well-lit, to others that are nothing more than a rickety deck over a pool. One thing many have in common is that they are set down roads in rural locations with zero phone service, so be prepared with directions beforehand.

Many require walks to reach after showering, often on rocky paths or limestone terrain. Bring shoes that can get wet. And finally, most that we visited had populations of small black catfish in the water and bats flying around the caves above, so it's safe to expect some slightly exotic company during your visit.

 

How to reach the cenotes:

While traveling with a rental car will offer visitors the most freedom, and the opportunity to visit some of the more beautiful cenotes that lie off the beaten path, there are other options for reaching them too. Often, a visit to a cenote will be included in package tours of other areas of interest. Those staying in cities like Cancun, Tulum, Valladolid and Merida will be close enough to the take a taxi to them. Colectivos are another option for reaching cenotes, as many drop off and pick up from right outside the cenote parking area. And finally, those staying in Tulum are within bicycling distance of several cenotes.

Bicycling distance from the center of Tulum is Cenote Car Wash.

 

Hours and fees:

Most will be open daily from around 9am to 5pm, though there is some variation by location. Tour busses will start stopping at some after 10 or 11am or so, so if you're looking to enjoy them with minimal crowds or get that photo with no one else around, it's best to visit right after opening or shortly before closing. The irony of this is that mid-day is when you'll have the sunlight beaming through the opening in the cavern ceiling, throwing those ideal photogenic lightwaves into the water below.  

While all prices listed in our adventure guides were current as of 2019, many cenotes are owned by families, sometimes who have their home on the property, so prices are subject to frequent changes or just whims of the person working at reception. Be prepared for fluctuations in the price.

Some landscaped cenotes will have you fighting tour bus-sized crowds. Cenote Ik Kil.

 

Our favorites:

If you're going to find yourself in the Yucatan region, the uniquely amazing cenotes are not to be missed. Below are a few of our favorites, based on different considerations...

For families: Cenote Yal Ku, Cenote Corazon del Paraiso, Cenote Azul

For those without a car: Cenote Calavera, Cenote Car Wash

For the early-risers: Gran Cenote, Cenote Dos Ojos

For those looking for a relaxing swim: Cenote Nicte-Ha, Cenote Dos Palmas

For adventurers: Cenote Oxman, Cenote Agua Dulce, Cenote Tamcach-Ha

At others, if you're able and willing to make the drive into the jungle, you may find completely to yourself. Cenote Xcanahaltun.Larger commercial cenotes will have all the amenities - food, life guards, lockers, etc. Cenote Cristalino.Clear turquoise waters. Cenote Agua Dulce.Some hidden gems are more popular with locals than tourists. Cenote Corazon del Paraiso.Whereas inland cenotes tend to be in underground limestone depressions, many coastal cenotes lie throughout the jungle floor. Cenote Escondido.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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