The most beautiful and most interesting wonder of the Yucatan nature in Mexico are karst phenomena, carved in limestone bedrock of this peninsula – the cenotes. These cavern systems stretch for miles and are filled with water, which forms underwater rivers and lakes. The caves are decorated with stalagmites, stalactites and stalagnates. A lot of the Yucatan cenotes are available for tourists and in many of them you can also scuba dive or snorkel. The best cenotes in Yucatan, in which you can dive, are Gran Cenote, Cenote Angelita, Dos Ojos, Ponde Rosa, Kuklan and Chak-Mol. Other that you should consider visiting while being in Mexico are: Cenote Suytun, Cenote Oxman, Cenote Choo-Ha, Cenote Zacil-Ha, Cenote Tamcach-Ha, Cenote X’Canche, Cenote Azul or Cenote Peba. Before planning your trip read also about 15 cool things to do in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico
Cenotes - a wonder of nature in Mexico
Geological structure of cenotes
Cenotes, geologically speaking, are a perfect example of karst phenomena. They were formed about 1.5 million years ago during the last ice age. The sea level decreased due to expanding of continental glaciers at the poles. During this time the limestone rocks of Yucatan were carved by rainwaters. As the glaciers melted, the sea level rose again, causing flooding of these rock formations, carved in the limestone. This is how cenotes appeared, as they are natural limestone sinkholes, filled with water. Cenotes in Yucatan form whole systems of caves, sinkholes and tunnels, full of underwater lakes and rivers. There are around 3000 cenotes in Mexico but merely half of them have been explored so far. The total length of all the underground channels is estimated to be about 500 km long.
Flora and fauna in Yucatan cenotes
Cenotes are full of extremely interesting flora and fauna. Among all the animals living there you can find, for example, bats, fresh-water turtles, alligators and venomous snakes. I’ve even seen a few tarantulas with my own eyes. Among the flora, you can also see there various species of algae and other examples of plants that are adapted to living in environment deprived of natural light. The outer parts of these karst formations are covered with thick tropical vegetation. In some cenotes you can also see tree roots, making the whole experience even more mysterious and magical
Cenotes in Mayan culture
Yucatan cenotes were very important in Mayan life and culture. The word “cenote” was derived from how they called these caves, as dzonot meant ample or deep. Their inaccessibility and mysteriousness made the Mayans believe that cenotes were entrances to another world, Xibala, so a place in which the world of the living met the world of the dead. Mayans believed that Chac, a god of water, flora, rain and storm, lived in cenotes. They made sacrifices to their gods in there, offering them goods made of gold or jade but sometimes they performed also human sacrifices.
Cenotes in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula in which you can dive and snorkel
A lot of Mexican cenotes are available for sightseeing and in many of them you can also dive and snorkel, so actively observe underwater life. Everybody can dive there, both experienced divers, as well as those who are total beginners. In Yucatan you can experience two different types of diving – cavern and cave diving. Cavern diving is when you dive in a small group, accompanied by a guide. By contrast, cave diving is more technical scuba diving, for which you need cave diver qualifications – it would be the best if you acquired them in Yucatan
One of the biggest cenote in the Yucatan Peninsula, and most frequently visited by tourists, is Gran Cenote, which is 120 meters long. It’s characterized by tremendous riches of karst forms – stalagmites, stalactites and vast rock chambers. The biggest impression is made by karst formations, called Lotus Gardens. You should remember that because of the rock formations that can be found in cenotes, the divers are required to be able to maintain buoyancy, so basically being able to hover in the depths. Gran Cenote is situated next to Tulum and quite close to Playa del Carmen. You can visit it every day, between 8 AM and 4:45 PM. Ticket costs 450 pesos and it includes entrance to all the cenotes in Dos Ojos Park, as well as San Actun and Nicte Ha, which are also worth visiting. If you want to visit only Dos Ojos, then the ticket costs 350 pesos
In the middle of a jungle, 15 km from Tulum there is a karst sinkhole, called Cenote Angelita. Location of this cenote and reaching it is an experience on its own but remember – it’s only the beginning of your adventure. Cenote Angelita is about 50 m wide in diameter and it’s about 60 m deep. At 29 meters in depth there is a 2 m thick layer of hydrogen sulfide and below there is only salt water of the sea. In depths of this particular cenote there are lots branches, parts of trees and other plants that fell to the cenote directly from the surrounding jungle. Only experienced divers are allowed to dive there, as there is a risk of developing nitrogen narcosis due to the depth of this karst pit cave. You can dive in Cenote Angelita every day, between 8 AM and 1 PM. A ticket, including transport from and to the hotel costs 159 US dollars.
Cenote Dos Ojos
Those who prefer snorkeling would love Cenote Dos Ojos, which in Spanish means “two eyes”. Its name comes from the fact that you can enter this cave from two different directions. You can find stalactites and stalagmites there. When it comes to fauna, there are a lot of turtles and bats. Cenote Dos Ojos is situated between Tulum and Playa del Carmen. You can snorkel and dive there every day between 8 AM and 5 PM. Entrance fee costs 200 pesos. You can rent scuba diving equipment for additional 100 pesos
Right between Playa del Carmen and Tulum there is Cenote Ponderosa, called also Cenote Jardin del Eden. It owes its name to the fact that at the top it’s covered by thick tropical forest, while at its bottom there are green algae. Eels, catfish and turtles live there. It’s filled with salt water, so be prepared for halocline, so a sudden transition from water with lower salinity level to much higher salinity deeper in the cave. Sightseeing of Cenote Ponderosa is available every day, except for Saturdays, between 7 AM and 5 PM and it costs 60 pesos for an adult, 40 pesos for kids younger than 12 and 80 pesos for divers.
Cenote Kukulkan and Cenote Chak-Mool
Cenotes Kukulkan and Chak-Mool are situated between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, so it’s quite easy to get there. Even though they are very close to each other, they differ almost completely. In Cenote Chak-Mool there are stalactites and stalagmites. But the biggest attraction of this place are tree roots, getting inside the cave through cracks in the limestone. Cenote Kukulkan cannot boast with majestic stalactites and stalagmites but it owes its uniqueness to incredible illusion of light at the entrance to the cave. In Cenotes Kukulkan and Chak-Mool you can dive every day between 9 AM to 5 PM, which would cost you about 250 pesos for both of them
In the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula, about 100 km from Merida, right next to Buctzotz city there is Cenote Aktun-Ha, called also Cenote Lavado du Autos, so a… carwash, which is a reference to what has been done there for many years. It caused cloudiness of the water and at depth of 3 meters the visibility is only about 1.5 m. But the deeper you descend, the better the visibility gets. It’s an awesome place for snorkeling fans, because you can watch there lots of fresh-water fish and algae at the bottom of the cenote. Diving in Cenote Aktun-Ha is available between 8 AM to 11:30 AM and then between 1 PM to 4:30 PM. Those who want to only swim and snorkel pay 40 pesos entrance fee, while divers pay 120 pesos.
Other interesting cenotes available for visiting and swimming
Cenote Suytun is situated 8 kilometers east from Valladolid. It’s really close to the city center and it’s easily reachable. Cenote Suytun is probably one of the most known cenotes, because of its extraordinary photographical conditions. In the middle of the water surface there is a platform, in which you can stand almost in the middle of the lake, having only a tight pass above your head, illuminated by a shaft of light. Cenote Suytun is besieged by tourists but I have to honestly tell you that when I was visiting it, there was almost no one there. Maybe that’s why it impressed me so much and it’s still one of my favorites. This cenote is open between 9 AM and 5 PM (last entrance at 4:30 PM). Entrance fee costs 120 pesos.
You can take a refreshing bath in Cenote Choo-Ha, situated nearby a road between Tulum and Valladolid, near the ancient Mayan ruins in Coba. You have to go down the ladder to enter the lake in the cave, through a hole bored in the rock but besides the possibility to swim there, you can find there also fabulous rock formations, which are lighted in a very attractive way. Cenote Choo-Ha is open every day between 8 AM to 6 PM and entrance fee costs 55 pesos.
Cenote Zaci is a fully open one, with relatively small surface but average in depth. The water is azure and it is crystal clear. It’s a place in which, besides swimming, you can also enjoy some sunbathing. Cenote Zaci is situated 10 km from Tulum, open every day between 8 AM to 6 PM. Entrance fee for an adult costs 50 pesos.
Another outdoor cenote, in which you can swim, is Cenote X’Canche. Water here is perfectly transparent, the basin is relatively deep and the rock walls are covered with hanging lianas. Around the cenote there is a walking platform, you can also use stairs to walk down. It’s situated north of Valladolid, near the ruins of Mayan city Ek Balam. Cenote X’Canche is open every day between 9 AM to 5 PM and entrance fee for an adult costs 50 pesos
Cenote Tamcach-Ha is fully closed off and the lake surface is very deep below the ground level. You go there through a spiral step platform and on two levels there are vantage points, where you can admire the whole formation. There are no stalactites and stalagmites there. It’s situated near the ruins of ancient Mayan city Coba. Cenote Tamcach-Ha is open every day between 8 AM to 6 PM and entrance fee for an adult costs 50 pesos
Cenote Oxmán is situated within Hacienda San Lorenzo Oxmán, only 5 km from the center of Valladolid. The hacienda is a beautiful building, erected in 1746. Its guests have various facilities at their disposal, including outdoor swimming pool with bar and a restaurant, which make it a perfect place to relax and chill out. The cenote itself is formed like a deep well and you have to take winding stairs to get to it. You can swim there while admiring sky above your head but the biggest attraction is jumping into the water, using a liana swing. There are a few pricing options:
Option 1 – 70 pesos. It includes access only to cenote Oxman. The visitors can swim in the swimming pool for free but they can use palapas and deckchairs only, if they bought drinks or food in the bar. Option 2 – 100 pesos. Includes access to the cenote and the swimming pool, as well as 50 pesos for drinks/meals. Option 3 – 150 pesos. This option includes access to the cenote and unlimited access to the swimming pool, plus 150 pesos you can use in the bar or the restaurant.
Because of lots of relatively shallow areas, the outdoor Cenote Azul is a perfect place for families with kids. Deep down there are also caverns, which connect different pools of this cenote system. A cliff dominates the water surface, from which you can jump right into the azure water. There are a lot of different fish species. Cenote Azul is situated between Playa del Carmen and Tulum and it’s open every day between 9 AM to 5 PM and entrance fee for an adult costs 80 pesos
Cenote Peba is hard to reach but it’s situated nearby a road from Merida to Uxmal. It’s a fully covered, small, underground cenote. Thanks to the fact that it’s difficult to get there, it’s not besieged by the tourists and if you’re lucky you might be there all alone. Cenote Peba is open every day between 10 AM to 5 PM and entrance fee for an adult costs 20 pesos.