In the 3.5 seconds it takes for your body to leave the safety of the limestone you stand on, to the moment you submerge into the crystal-clear water to explore the unknown beneath you, it seems as though an eternity of adrenaline has passed. While you free-fall through a Yucatan cenote, your heart rises in your chest with thrilling emotions of both fear and excitement.
The best part? This one-of-a-kind experience is just minutes from your Cancun hotel or resort.
When traveling to Mexico, white sand beaches, clear blue waters, and all-inclusive resorts with a multitude of flowing cocktails, are what come to mind for most tourists; relaxation and hakuna matata. For those more adventurous folks, the appeal of a sacred freshwater cenote might be worth making a day trip for.
What is a cenote?
A cenote is a sinkhole dating back several centuries that is revealed after the cave roof of limestone bedrock collapses. There are over 6,000 cenotes in Mexico, most of which are located in the Yucatan. Thought to be the door to the underworld, the Mayans considered these unique structures sacred. Some even believe they are the result of the same asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. Although I’m not an expert on the history of cenotes, after experiencing a few myself, I can attest that there is some sacred feeling about the way the water compliments the stalagmites and allows visibility almost completely to the bottom.
The most common types of cenotes are Open, Cave, and Semi-Open Cenotes.
- Open Cenotes – Open Cenotes are the oldest of the three types, as its cavern ceiling has collapsed in on itself. Looking almost like a large natural pool, here, you can swim in the open water exposed to the sunlight.
- Cave Cenotes – These type of cenotes are the youngest and are located deep within a cave. You can typically access these cenotes through a land-level entrance and are ideal for avid divers.
- Semi-Open Cenotes – As the name suggests, semi-open cenotes are both open and hidden. There are specific areas located inside of caves and other areas open to the elements.
Things to Know Beforehand
If you’re a Cenote beginner, you should be aware of a few things before you pick one at random.
Wearing sunscreen or lotion into the cenotes is harmful to the fish and plant life, unless it’s a biodegradable sunscreen. Upon entering a cenote, outdoor showers are readily available and required before dipping your toes in the refreshing water.
Because Cenotes are fed by underground rivers, the temperature never gets much warmer than 75 degrees. That may seem cold, but trust me, that summer heat will have you begging to take the plunge.
Although the thought kept swimming through my head, there’s no need to worry about sharks and sea monsters below you. Cenotes don’t contain much wildlife, but you might see the occasional turtle or catfish. Watch your head though, bats live within the caverns and enjoy making an appearance.
Fun fact: The fish that are known for giving you the best pedicure, Red Garra, can also be found in most cenotes, but are rarely spotted due to the high volume of tourists.
I suggest purchasing a snorkel set of your own. If you plan on snorkeling, you will be charged to rent a snorkel and the renting price, though typically only 4-10 USD, can add up quickly if you choose to explore more than one during your stay.
The way in which you reach your cenote destination is completely up to you, but I prefer the solo exploration by either renting a car or hailing a taxi. If driving through the streets of Mexico or taxi riding isn’t for you, there are many cenote tours offered through resorts and excursion websites. These tours typically take up a better part of your day as you’ll visit two to three different cenotes; transportation to and from the cenotes, as well as stop for lunch.
Depending on the distance between your resort and the cenote, renting and riding a bike is always an option that will save you the most money.
Regardless of how you venture to these magical places, I recommend experiencing one of each cenote – open, partially open and closed – since no one cenote is the same.
The Gran Cenote is a celebrity in the cenote world. If you experience one cenote in Mexico, let it be the Gran Cenote. The perfect beginner experience, Gran Cenote is located only a half mile away from the Tulum town center and open from 8 am to 5 pm.
Don’t expect a massive cenote because the area that is underground isn’t as big as you would expect and can quickly look and feel crowded; however, this is one of the best places for snorkeling. The large opening allows for enough light to illuminate the underwater stalagmites and stalactites while still enjoying the dark ambiance of deep within the cave.
Life jackets are provided, and optional, although I recommend one as it’s easier to float for long periods of time. There are shallow areas located on the north end, ideal for less confident swimmers or if you’re traveling with kids. To capture Instagram-worthy photos or take a break from swimming, there is a large deck at the center of the cenote.
The facilities at Gran Cenote are tailored to tourists’ needs, with onsite bathrooms and changing rooms, snorkeling rental stations, and lockers to keep your personal items safe while you explore. The grounds are also home to a small snack shop and picnic tables in the shade for those who plan on making a day out of swimming. Keep in mind when renting snorkel gear that your ID is required as a deposit to guarantee getting the equipment back when you’re done.
The Gran Cenote entrance fee is MX$180, and they only accept cash.
Here’s a helpful tip: Make sure you have crisp bills. They inspected each dollar bill I handed them for rips or tears and those that weren’t perfect, were not accepted.
Calling all adrenaline junkies! If you’re a thrill-seeker, adding “The Temple of Doom” to your visitation list will not disappoint.
Located about a half mile away from the Gran Cenote, you can find Cenote Calavera. Calavera is one of the less popular cenotes in the Tulum area, but as Tulum’s social media presence grows, the tourist activity has increased. After arriving a little after 11:30 A.M., there were probably around 8 different couples already enjoying the skull shaped holes.
There are three ways to enter Cenote Calavera. The first is a main hole that boasts a large wooden ladder descending into the water with a swing on the opposite side – ideal for those Instagram vacation photos.
Note: I suggest using the ladder if you’re afraid of heights or unsure of your swimming abilities. It’s the only way in or out of the water so it must be used one person at a time.
The other two holes, the eyes of the skull, are more narrow and more dangerous. The only way to get through them is to jump! This form of entry was much more thrilling, especially for those who enjoy a rush of adrenaline.
This particular cenote is more secluded than most, which means the amenities don’t equate to that of the Gran Cenote. There are restrooms at the entrance, a picnic area off to the side and colorful chairs lined around the holes, perfect for spectating. Although there isn’t a secure place for your personal belongings, you can set them on a lounge chair without worry. Since Calavera is a smaller area, your personal stuff will be visible no matter where you’re standing.
The Cenote Calavera entrance fee is MX$100 and they are open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.
Cenote Dos Ojos
The atmosphere at Dos Ojos is much more laid back than Gran Cenote and Calavera. Cenote Dos Ojos is a system of two different cenotes, holding the record for deepest underwater passageway, at 396 ft. Can you say diver’s paradise? There are two separate cenotes, Dos Ojos One and Two, where you’ll find fragile stalagmites, stalactites and perfectly clear blue water. For the most part, there aren’t as many shallow areas here as there are at others such as Gran Cenote.
To enter it is MX$350, with an additional charge if you want to rent snorkeling equipment. If you’re looking to scuba dive, you have a few options. You are able to bring your own dive gear for a slightly higher entrance fee, with the option of a guide. The offered guided tour lasts about two and a half hours and comes highly recommended. For those who don’t have dive experience, a 30 minute instructional class is available on site, along with gear to rent.
Note: In order to avoid getting lost among the various underwater passageways, the locals recommend using a guide.
There are quite a few cenotes located on the grounds of Dos Ojos; there are over 1,400 acres of native land, all passed down through the generation, housing about 14 families. In order to reach your destination, you must drive a mile down a narrow gravel road, lined with monkey crossing signs, before you arrive at Dos Ojos.
No, we didn’t see any monkeys, but I was looking.
There are two main platforms where you can enter the water. The first platform is larger and located to your left after entering. Here, divers come in and out of the water, so it tends to be a busier section. This area is shallower, making it an ideal spot if you’re traveling with small children or aren’t a great swimmer. Unfortunately, the designated swim areas are smaller, so as to not interfere with the divers. This can cause it to quickly feel congested.
The second platform is located to your right after entering, making this water system feel like two separate cenotes. Shaped like a giant ring, this section has less traffic than the first platform and is quieter. In addition, it’s also darker on this side because of the large overhang from the rock formations.
This cenote is definitely more of a diver’s playground, but regardless, it is still beautiful to see. The drop down is jaw dropping, the caverns are inspiring, and the raw beauty that exists at Cenote Dos Ojos is stunning.
The facilities include restrooms, lockers, and a very cute and friendly restaurant across the way from the entrance.
What Are You Waiting For?
If it isn’t obvious yet, the Cenotes are an absolute MUST on your visit to Cancun. Grab your towel, snorkel, waterproof camera, and hit the water! Whether you prefer a calmer setting like Dos Ojos, or an adrenaline fueled cavern like Calavera, there’s an abundance of cenotes that cater to everyone’s liking.