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