If you’re splashing out on a trip to the beautiful Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and you’re checking on the local attractions, you’ve probably heard of them. The Cenotes. And if you’ve ever been to this wonderful region, you may have already visited some of them.
The Cenotes are one of the great attractions of Yucatan, and some of them have already become real celebrity. No wonder – each of them is different and unique in its own way. They are quite magical places that already instilled great reverence for the ancient Maya as an access to the underworld.
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How a cenote is formed?
Cenotes are technically underground caves in karst areas with access to groundwater. That doesn’t sound quite exotic at first, doesn’t it? However, due to the erosion of the limestone, the ceilings of the caves have often simply collapsed over time. The result are underground ponds and lakes of incredible beauty that get light through the collapsed cave ceiling.
The cenotes are often inhabited by fish and turtles and some of them also have vegetation, depending on the light. Many of the caves are decorated with impressive stalactites and stalagmites and act on the eye of the visitor like underground cathedrals.
The name Cenote comes from the Mayathan, the Mayan language. He refers to these underground, water-filled caves as the “Holy Spring”. And in fact, the water in the cenotes for the Maya was often the only supply of drinking water, as there is no fresh water on the surface on the Yucatan peninsula.
What types of Cenotes are there?
The cenotes are all completely unique – it is impossible to find even two that are similar to each other. They also have a very different age. And this leads to a completely different appearance. You can distinguish the cenotes according to the following criteria.
They are the youngest among the Cenotes. Their water level is still inside of a closed cave. The color of its crystal-clear water can appear between emerald green and deep blue. But it is only visible when the sunlight falls through the holes in the ceiling. The cavern cenotes usually carry magnificent decorations made of stalactites on the ceiling.
This type of cenotes is in middle age. You are still too young to be completely open. But a part of them is already exposed to the elements. Some of them are connected to other cenotes, and often you can see beautiful plants in their crystal-clear waters.
The open cenotes are already very old, and with the course of the millennia the cave ceiling has completely disappeared. They already lie free and open in the daylight. Their steep walls are often overgrown with flowers and plants, giving them a magical look. There are usually many species of birds and butterflies living in their vicinity.
At the very old cenotes nothing can be seen from the former cave. In millions of years the rock has eroded and they are completely open. They look more like lagoons and have the magic of beautiful little paradises in the middle of the Mayan jungle.
How many cenotes are there?
Most cenotes are found on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico and in neighboring Belize. Their exact number is unknown as new ones are discovered again and again. In total, however, their number on the Yucatan Peninsula is estimated at more than 6,000.
Only in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, where the Riviera Maya with the famous resorts of Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum is located, more than 1,000 cenotes are known. They have an average depth of about 15 meters – but some of them also make it to more than 100 meters.
Most tourists see the Cenotes only as a natural swimming pool. But this is perhaps a naive way of looking at. Many cenotes in Yucatan are linked to the largest known system of underwater caves on Earth.
The longest detected system to date is Sac Aktun with a length of 222 km. It is connected to the surface over 226 cenotes and has its lowest point in the Blue Abyss at 119 m depth. Due to a dry passage, it is also connected to the system Dos Ojos further north.
With a total length of 372 km, Sac Aktun/Dos Ojos is the longest known system of underwater caves in the world. Closely followed by Ox Bel Ha with a length of 256 km, which is accessible over more than 140 Cenotes. In Quintana Roo, Mexico alone, more than 1000 km of underground rivers have already been explored.
The Maya and the cenotes
The ancient Maya used the Cenotes as a drinking water well. Other ancient high cultures have always originated on large rivers: Euphrates, Tigris, Ganges or Nile. The Maya in Yucatan did not have this luxury, because there is no fresh water on the surface. But they had the cenotes.
In addition, the Mayans have probably also used the cenotes as sacred places for offerings and burial sites. Ceramics, jewelry and human bones were found in several cenotes near the entrance. Especially famous for its finds is the Cenote Sagrado in Chichén Itza, where the Maya offered their gods richly decorated human sacrifices.
Traces of human activity have been found in some places in the underground rivers deep inside the cave systems. Bones or fireplaces, for example. But they are much older than the Mayan culture. Some of them date back to more than 8,000 years ago. That was shortly after the last ice age. Many of the caves were still dry at the time because the high glaciation caused the sea level to be about 130 meters lower than it is today.
What to expect on a cenote?
Today, of course, the Cenotes are no longer used as drinking water wells. Nor for human sacrifices. Instead, they receive plenty of inflow of adventure-hungry tourists. But who wonders?
The Cenotes are all beautiful and unique without exception. Some are large, others small. Some entrances are visible from afar, others are well hidden. But all are full of fresh, cool water. And that’s a huge advantage in the high heat in Yucatan.
Depending on the type of cenote, you can experience a wide variety of things. The places with crystal clear water are of course very popular to take a refreshing swim. Or for snorkeling in the gardens underwater.
Other cenotes offer more experiences and adventures. In some places you can snorkel or paddle in a canoe, plunge from high rocks into the cool water or fly through the air with zip lines.
Especially after an exploration of the ruins of the ancient Maya or the colonial cities of Yucatan, swimming in a cenote is a refreshing change.
Especially in the places that are well prepared for visitors, you will usually also find some facilities. Sanitary facilities, hammocks or deckchairs, changing rooms and lockers, and possibly even snacks and refreshing drinks ensure your well-being. To some cenotes there are also great guided tours.
In many cenotes there is also the opportunity to dive. These dives are unique. You can find out more in our article about diving in Cenotes.
If you’re traveling without a guide, never swim into the underground tunnels. Often the water level rises abruptly with the tides of the sea, and you can drown quite quickly. Apart from that, it is also very easy to get lost.
How can you get to the Cenotes?
Most cenotes are quite remote in the middle of the jungle of Yucatan. Or just remote. For example, in the north of Yucatan, near the Gulf Coast of Mexico.
There, a larger number of cenotes lie in a circular collocation on the edge of a very large crater. It is the Chicxulub crater with a diameter of about 180 km. It was formed about 66 million years ago by the impact of a very large meteorite. That was the one that made the dinosaurs die out.
But well – if you want to go to the cenotes, you should first consider which one should be. The touristy well-developed places are easily accessible by guided tour. The more natural Cenotes, on the other hand, can only be reached by car. And depending on where you want to go, you might have to expect a drive of several hours.
So, you should plan your trip carefully. To help you, we have compiled these guides to the most beautiful cenotes for you.
10 things to keep in mind when visiting a Cenote
1. Never use sunscreen, insect repellent or make-up before you get into the water in a cenote. Also, no biodegradable products. They contaminate the crystal-clear water terribly and harm the plants and animals that live there. Many cenotes with infrastructure have showers where you can wash off before swimming. Inform yourself before your visit – if there are no showers, please refrain from such products in advance.
2. In some cenotes there are activities that require special equipment. For example, life jackets, safety helmets for zip lines and more. If safety equipment is needed, you should use it. There is a reason why it is offered.
3. You should dispose of your waste without any exception in the designated places. If there are no such places at your cenote, take your garbage back to the city and dispose of it there. This applies not only to “bigger” things like bottles or cans, but also to “little things” such as cigarette butts.
4. It should be taken for granted, but still – don’t perpetuate your visit to a wonderful place. Unless in your photos. Your scratched name is absolutely inacceptable in the rocks of a cenote or the trees of the surrounding area.
5. If you are lucky enough to swim in a cenote with stalactites and stalagmites, do not touch them. And try not to bump into them when snorkeling or diving. You can easily break them and then they are lost. Remember, they took millennia to form. They grow by about 1 cm in 100 years. And for this it took an ice age, in which due to the strong glaciation the sea level was 130 m lower than in our time.
6. In most cenotes, pets should not be brought. If you’re an international air traveler, that should not be an issue. But if you are a local traveler with your dog, inform yourself in advance.
7. For reasons of safety, some cenotes have an absolute ban on alcohol. A strict smoking ban also applies at some locations.
8. Opening hours: Most Cenotes are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
9. Money: Most Cenotes do not accept credit cards for entry or any activities, food or drinks. Just bring Mexican pesos!
10. Packing list for your visit to a cenote:
You will definitely get into the water when you visit a cenote. In addition to your swimwear, a towel would be handy. Bath towels made of microfiber are particularly suitable. They are available in many colors and sizes. They dry rather quickly and are very light. This is good for the weight of your suitcase when checking in at the airport. And of course, also if you have to carry them through the jungle.
On some cenotes, which are especially great for snorkeling, the equipment is offered to the visitors. But let’s be honest – do you really want to use foreign devices? After all, the pandemic has taught us completely new standards in terms of hygiene. You may feel much more comfortable with your own snorkel set.
Not all people want or can swim with fins. For my part, I don’t feel comfortable with them. And in the Cenotes, there is no strong current. So, it should be enough to protect your feet from the stony ground with swim shoes. At least if you are not diving.
Well – if you’ve read so far, now you know the most important things about Cenotes. And if you’ve written a visit to one of these wonderful places in your travel planning, you’ll probably experience an unforgettable day. Therefore, we have compiled some guides to beautiful Cenotes in the main regions and a guide to scuba diving in Cenotes for you.
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