With the mercury hitting over 90F in Cancun during the summer, plunging into the refreshing waters of a cenote could well be top of your list of things to do. Perfect for swimming, snorkelling, scuba diving, or simply for exploring, there are thousands of cenotes in Cancun to discover.
But what exactly is a cenote? The Yucatan Peninsula is a limestone shelf beneath which lies the largest cave system in the world. Over millions of years, rainwater has filled these caves and when the roof of one of the caves collapses, it creates a cenote. Some of the best-known cenotes are large open pools, resembling lagoons, often found deep in the jungle. But there are also smaller cenotes that are partially or even totally hidden underground. Cenotes contain remarkable crystal-clear water, fascinating rock formations and a freshwater ecosystem.
The history of cenotes stretches back to the ancient Mayans who once inhabited this area. Cenotes were the Mayan’s main source of drinking water, which is why all the settlements, including Chichén Itzá, were built around these natural pools. The cenotes, known to the Mayans as dzonot or ts’onot, meaning sacred well, were also of great spiritual value. Mayans believed cenotes were portals to the underworld and a way to communicate with the gods. So it is no surprise that cenotes are of huge archaeological value. Scientists discovered a 12,000-year-old skeleton along with the remains of saber-toothed cats in the Sac Actun cenote near Tulum. And cenotes still hold many secrets, as much of the underground cave system remains unexplored.
An obvious place to start your aquatic cenote adventure is the Gran Cenote, near Tulum. This popular option is good for swimmers, snorkelers and scuba divers and has a changing area and restaurant. You’ll see plenty of fish and turtles here as well as stalagmites and stalactites.
You can also try Cenote Jardín del Edén, also known as Ponderosa, located close to Playa Del Carmen. Jump or dive off the 15ft cliff into this open swimming hole where you can both enjoy the cooling waters and soak up the sun. This is a good choice for families with children. While you are there, look out for Cenote Azul and Cenote Cristalino nearby, which are equally beautiful spots for a dip.
If you like ease and comfort, Cenote Zacil-Ha near Tulum is for you. Set in a forest, this small swimming pool-style cenote has a wooden sun deck built around it with plenty of shade, sun loungers and showers. The water is 10ft deep and you can either jump in from the edge or use the steps to get in.
Situated in the middle of mangroves and right next to the beach is the beautiful Casa Cenote in Tulum. This open cenote is ideal if you want a quiet place to spend a few hours. Here you can see how the fresh water of the cenote connects to the open sea, and after your swim you can grab a bite to eat at the nearby hotel Casa Cenote restaurant.
Cenote de 7 Bocas is handy if you’re staying in Puerto Morelos. This underground cenote is a little way off the tourist trail, with waters reaching 150 meters deep. A steep staircase takes you down to a platform where you can jump into the water. A waterproof flashlight is useful as there isn’t much sunlight inside. Also tucked away in the jungle near Puerto Morelos is the Cenote Kin-Ha, another underground pool which you can enter using a zip line. Also hidden from the crowds is Cenote Chaak Tun, near Playa Del Carmen. Here you will find two dimly-lit, stalactite-packed caves which are suited to those who like an adventure.
If you are making a day trip to see the Mayan ruins at Chichén Itzá, you can also visit Cenote Ik Kil, known as Sacred Blue Cenote. This round, well-type cenote is 85ft from the surface. The clear turquoise water reaches 130ft deep and is surrounded by jungle vines and birds circling the cave. But be prepared to share this cenote with hundreds of other visitors, as it is part of the busy Mayan tourist route and one of the most popular cenotes in Cancun.
Travel blogger Crystal Blue Mascaro has explored many of the cenotes near Tulum. ‘I love Cristal Cenote,’ says Crystal. ‘It is very remote and has a high platform for jumping into the clear water. This is good for a day of both quiet isolation and thrill.’ Crystal also suggests cenotes Escondido, Tortuga and Tamcach Ha, near the Coba ruins. ‘It is a really deep, fully-enclosed cave which has the most amazing blue water with blind cave fish slithering everywhere,’ says Crystal. ‘This one has a 30ft jump platform and it is very challenging to jump into the dark cave. It makes my stomach drop and gives me the sense of adventure that I crave.’
Qualified scuba divers will find the cenotes in Cancun an interesting challenge. You have to tightly control your buoyancy and use flashlights to find your way and to signal to other divers. Cenote dive instructor and guide Alfredo Perez Duarte H recommends cenotes Dos Ojos, Pet Cemetery, El Pit and Taj Mahal for scuba divers wanting to take the plunge. ‘The experience of diving in water as transparent as air is incredible,’ says Alfredo. ‘The rays from the sun break the surface and move with the rhythm of the water. These curtains of light are spectacular.’
The cenotes of the Yucatan Peninsula are a delicate ecosystem that needs to be protected from contamination and damage. So when you visit a cenote, use biodegradable sun cream and always avoid touching the rock formations.
‘Cenotes are special to this area of the world and should not be missed while spending time here,’ explains Crystal Blue Mascaro. ‘They provide a magical, calming feeling. This may be because of their association to the ancient Mayan world, the amazing geographic formations that they are or the beautiful lush quiet remote jungle locations. They provide fun and peace and adventure for all ages, are safe, beautiful, and overwhelmingly serene.’
Have you visited any of the cenotes in Cancun? Which were your favourites? Let us know in the comments section below.
Written by Catherine Gordon
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About the author: CatherineGordonCatherine Gordon
British freelance journalist Catherine Gordon is based in Cancun, Mexico. She writes about Cancun, the Riviera Maya and the Yucatan for newspapers, magazines and online media. She specialises in travel, culture, health, luxury, water sports and off-the-beaten-track city guides. Her website can be viewed at www.catherinegordon.net