15 best cenotes in Mexico's Yucatan & Tulum

written by
Shafik Meghji

updated 14.12.2020

Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is famous for its beautiful Caribbean beaches but the most memorable – and unusual – places for a swim are found inland and underground in a series of the best cenotes in Mexico. Among the other top things to do in Mexico, visiting cenotes is an absolutely essential experience, and our guide will tell you the best places and ways to get one.

This article is inspired by our Rough Guide to Mexico — your essential guide for travelling in Mexico.

What are cenotes in Mexico?

The region’s network of cenotes – limestone sinkholes, generally filled with fresh water – was vital for the Mayan civilization that dominated the Yucatán Peninsula before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s. And it is easy to see why they were considered sacred gateways to the Mayan underworld, known as Xibalba (“the place of fear”).

Many of the other cenotes in the region hold even older treasures: in recent years divers have discovered human skeletons that date back nearly 14,000 years, and even the remains of a mastodon (a prehistoric pachyderm).

Yet the cenotes, which collectively form vast cave systems, have an even greater significance, being linked to one of the most significant events in the history of the earth.

Some 66 million years ago the Chicxulub asteroid struck the Yucatán, a disaster that is considered to have contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs. The strike also caused large sections of the region’s limestone bedrock to collapse, in turn forming thousands of cenotes.

The Mayans later founded their villages and towns around these flooded subterranean chambers, which, given the lack of lakes and rivers in the region, were vital sources of fresh water.

Today many of these cenotes – known collectively as the “Ring of Cenotes” – have been turned into major tourist attractions, for example, at the Xel-Há theme park near Tulum. But others are far less developed, with little in the way of facilities and few visitors.

Mexico, Central America, Canc?n, Kantun-Chi, Cenote, visitors and local people swimming in translucent waters of natural sink hole at ecopark on Mayan Riviera

Group picture in a cenote

Rough Guide tip: Did you know that Mexica is one of the most budget-friendly destinations to travel? In our guide to the cheapest places to travel you'll find plenty of options to have an unforgettable experience and not hurt your wallet too much at the same time.

Best cenotes in Yucatán, Mexico

Cenote Xkeken

Make the most of your Cenote adventure just outside Valladolid, exploring relief, sunlight, natural wonders, refreshing waters, and tranquil solitude.

Perhaps the most photogenic swimming hole in the Yucatán, the remarkable Cenote X’keken is also called Dzitnup like the nearby village. Visitors descend through a tunnel into a huge vaulted cave, where a nearly circular pool of crystal-clear turquoise water glows under a shaft of light from an opening in the ceiling. A swim in the ice-cold water is an invigorating experience.

X'Keken Cenote. Yucatan, Mexico © Gosha Images/Shutterstock

X'Keken Cenote - one of the best cenotes in Mexico for photos © Gosha Images/Shutterstock

Cenote Samula

Afterwards, brave the midday sun and explore the nearby Cenote Samula, which is perhaps even more spectacular than its neighbour. The dome of the cave is punctuated by a sizeable hole, through which the gnarled roots of an ancient tree dangled, tantalisingly out of reach of the frigid, turquoise water below. Facilities include changing rooms, souvenir stalls, life jackets (to rent) and a restaurant. Not to be missed.

Want to experience Mexico but without the hassle of booking and planning? Our Mexico Tomb Raider Experience trip offers you the experience of seeing many of the ruins that Mexico has to offer up close and in person.

Samula cenote, Mexico © lunamarina/Shutterstock

Samula cenote, Mexico © lunamarina/Shutterstock

Cenote Sagrado

At the Cenote Sagrado, a murky green pool at the famous ruins at Chichén Itzá, for example, the Mayans threw statues, pottery, incense, textiles, jade, gold, and human sacrifices into the water as offerings to the gods of the underworld.

The few human sacrifices who survived the ordeal, incidentally, were considered to have spoken with the gods, and have developed prophetic powers. (The conquistadors, rabid for gold, ransacked Chichén Itzá for the precious metal, largely in vain, unaware that the riches they sought were so close at hand.)

Go at your own pace and discover the Peninsula de Yucatan with its many archaeological sites, colonial villages, and stunning beaches with our tailor-made trip to the Gems of Yucatan.

Cenote Sagrado © Shutterstock

Cenote Sagrado © Shutterstock

Cenote Yokdzonot

Cenote Yokdzonot is located in a dusty, sleepy village a short drive away from Chichén Itzá. A local cooperative provides a stack of lifejackets, a couple of rustic shacks to change in, and a set of rickety wooden steps, the cenote is rarely visited by foreign tourists.

Open to the elements, the deep, circular sinkhole is shaded by tall trees. After rousing the slumbering ticket seller to pay the small entry fee, you have an opportunity to dive into the aquamarine, seemingly bottomless water.

A couple of local children splashed about, thick tangled vines spiralled gently in the breeze and tiny birds, moving too fast for the human eye to focus on, swirled above. It is a perfectly relaxing scene – at least until your mind turned to the human sacrifices that might lie at the bottom.

Mexico, Yucatan, Tulum, Cavern diver in a cenote

Yokdzonot cenote

Cenote Suytun

Cenote Suytun is located just a 15-minute drive from Valladolid. Suytun Cenote is one of the best cenotes in Mexico and is primarily known for its stunning visual spectacle.

It has a circular hole in its surface through which sunlight streams in, creating spectacular natural light effects. This makes it a popular destination for tourists and photographers. Visitors can take the stairs down to the water level, where they can swim and admire the beautiful surroundings.

Cenote Suytun © Shutterstock

Cenote Suytun © Shutterstock

Cenote Ik Kil

Cenote Ik Kil is another popular cenote located on the Yucatan Peninsula, near the famous archaeological site of Chichen Itza. Like other cenotes in Mexico, Cenote Ik Kil is a natural sinkhole with a pool of fresh water at the bottom, formed by the collapse of a cave system.

The cenote is exposed to the sky, with the water's surface situated approximately 26 meters (85 feet) beneath the ground level. A meticulously carved stairway guides visitors down to a platform designed for swimming. The cenote boasts a diameter of approximately 60 meters (200 feet) and reaches a depth of around 48 meters (157 feet).

Cenote Ik Kil © Shutterstock

Cenote Ik Kil © Shutterstock

Cenote Zaci

This cenote was the water source for the former Maya stronghold of Zací (“white hawk”), from where the fierce Cupul clan fought against the first conquistadors. Broad stairs lead down into a huge cavern where the air is cool, and light reflects off the green water. It’s also home to lots of catfish.

Swimming is permitted, but not encouraged – there are no changing rooms, though you could tidy up in the open-air restaurant at the top, so long as you order something

Cenote Zaci - Valladolid, Mexico © Shutterstock

Cenote Zaci - Valladolid, Mexico © Shutterstock

Cenote Ponderosa

One of the best cenotes in Mexico and also one of the largest - the Jardin del Eden cenote or as it is known among locals as the Ponderosa cenote, is a great place for diving swimming and snorkelling.

As the name of the cenote suggests - Garden of Eden - this place is endowed with the stunning beauty of clear azure waters and tropical surroundings. Like many other cenotes, the Ponderosa cenote has holes in the ceiling through which sunlight enters, creating mesmerising light patterns on the surface of the water.

Cenote Ponderosa, Playa del Carmen © Shutterstock

Cenote Ponderosa, Playa del Carmen © Shutterstock

Cenote Oxman

Often referred to as the gem hidden in the jungle, the Cenote Oxman is one of the most popular cenotes in Mexico. Visitors can usually swim and cool off in the refreshing waters of the cenote. Oxman cenote also has a deck built along the edge of the cenote. This is a comfortable and safe place where visitors can relax, enjoy the view, and even get a little sun.

Although diving is not allowed in this cenote, you can still swim, snorkel or just enjoy the natural beauty.

Take this tailor-made trip to Mexico City and the Yucatan: From the museums to the pyramids of Teotihuacán. Afterwards, continue to Merida to explore the famous Pink Lake and the Haciendas of the Yucatan.

Cenote San Lorenzo Oxman near Valladolid © Shutterstock

Cenote San Lorenzo Oxman near Valladolid © Shutterstock

Best cenotes in Tulum, Mexico

Cenotes Dos Ojos

For experienced divers with a sense of adventure – and no sense of claustrophobia – Dos Ojos (“Two Eyes”) is one of the best cenotes in Mexico. The water is incredibly clear here and this high visibility means photographers can get some incredible shots. And even if you don’t fancy strapping on a scuba tank, you can still have an evocative experience with a mask and a snorkel.

Cenote in Vallodolid Mexico

Dos Ojos cenote

Cenote Azul

Inland from the Costa Maya, the gorgeous Laguna de Bacalar stretches along the east side. If you haven’t checked a map, it’s easy to mistake it for the Caribbean, glinting through the trees in flashes of colour from the palest aqua to deep indigo. About 45km long and 1km wide, it’s the second-largest lake in Mexico.

A distinct attraction from the lake itself, this “bottomless” cenote is an enormous inky-blue hole in the ground, with invigorating cold water. Around the edge is a restaurant that features live musicians at weekends, when it’s a destination for Mexican families – this is the only time the place is busy with swimmers and divebombing teens.

Cenote Azul in Bacalar Mexico © Shutterstock

Cenote Azul in Bacalar, Mexico © Shutterstock

Cenote Calavera

Cenote Calavera, also known as the "Temple of Doom Cenote'', is a cenote located in Tulum. Cenote Calavera is known for its unique skull-shaped entrance. This feature gave the cenote its name and gives it an intriguing feel.

What makes this cenote stand out from the rest of the best cenotes in Mexico is the fact that it is not very popular with visitors, so there is a good chance that it will be put to your complete advantage. You won't find much in the way of facilities here, but there is a small seating area as well as restrooms.

This tailor-made trip to Marvelous Mexico starts on the wonderful coast of Yucatan, exploring the beaches and archaeological highlights like Chichen Itza and Tulum. From there on continue the exploration to Palenque and Oaxaca before taking a flight to Mexico City.

Cenote Calavera tourist attraction in Tulum, Mexico © Shutterstock

Cenote Calavera tourist attraction in Tulum, Mexico © Shutterstock

Gran Cenote

The area north and west of Tulum has one of the largest concentrations of cenotes in Mexico, including Ox Bel Ha, which at almost 170km is the longest water-filled cave system in the world. Many of these freshwater sinkholes are accessible from Hwy-307 or off the road to Cobá.

Some, like Hidden Treasures, have been developed as adventure centres, and the guides and marked trails at these places can help put first-time visitors at ease in dark water and tight spaces. But it’s also worth visiting one of the less developed alternatives, such as Gran Cenote, 4km up the road to Cobá from Tulum, where the only service is a snorkel-gear and life-jacket rental.

Either way, you can float above stalagmites and other rock formations – all the fun of cave exploration, with none of the scrabbling around. Zacil-Há, 4km further (charge), is a local hangout and a great beginner pool, as you can see the sandy bottom.

Gran Cenote © Shutterstock

Gran Cenote © Shutterstock

Casa Cenote

Another lesser-known cenote near Tulum is Casa Cenote or otherwise known as Minati Cenote. Casa Cenote is an ideal place if you want to go diving or snorkelling and many tour operators offer dive tours with instructors in the area.

What makes Casa Cenote particularly attractive is its close proximity to Tulum and also its proximity to the beach. This is a great option for a day trip from Tulum as if you get bored with the cenote, you can head to the beach and spend time swimming and sunbathing there.

Explore the magic of the Yucatan Peninsula: from colonial towns like Merida to Archaeological sites like Uxmal and Calakmul to beaches in Bacalar and Tulum, this tailor-made trip to the Magic of the Yucatan shows you the real Yucatan before heading out to explore Mexico City.

Cenote Casa Tortuga near Tulum and Playa Del Carmen © Shutterstock

Cenote Casa Tortuga near Tulum and Playa Del Carmen © Shutterstock

Cenote Cristalino

Not least among the best cenotes in Mexico is the Cenote Cristalino, located very close to Playa del Carmen. Cenote Cristalino literally translates as crystal clear, which obviously refers to the clear waters of the cenote.

Cenote Cristalino is a vast open cenote surrounded by a vibrant natural environment, open for exploration, snorkelling or serene relaxation in the water. At the very centre is a central cenote with a jumping platform, while numerous shallow natural pools line the surroundings around the edge.

We also advise you to take a look at the fascinating stalactite cave, a water passage ready for swimming or soft surfacing. We also recommend you visit this place on a weekday if possible, as it is quite crowded on weekends.

Cenote Cristalino, beautiful turquoise lake near Tulum Quintana Roo, México © Shutterstock

Cenote Cristalino, beautiful turquoise lake near Tulum Quintana Roo, México © Shutterstock

Ready to start planning your trip? Check out the Rough Guide to Mexico and read our guide to the best things to do in Mexico.

If you prefer to plan and book your trip to Mexico without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.

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Shafik Meghji

written by
Shafik Meghji

updated 14.12.2020

Shafik is an award-winning travel writer, journalist and co-author of more than 40 Rough Guides to destinations across Latin America, Asia, Oceania, Europe and North Africa. A regular contributor to the Rough Guide to Everywhere podcast, he writes and takes photos for BBC Travel, Wanderlust and Atlas Obscura, among others. His new book, Crossed Off The Map: Travels in Bolivia, will be published in late 2021. Follow him @shafikmeghji on Twitter and Instagram.

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