Lovely, but mystical and full of secrets; the cenotes of the Yucatan Peninsula are a true gift of the nature. Swimming in a cenote, surrounded by jungle and rock formations, is one of the very special experiences in Mexico. There are thousands of cenotes on the Yucatan Peninsula, many still undiscovered in the jungle or hinterland. Some of the cenotes in Mexico are very well developed and are more amusement parks, such as Xel Ha near Playa del Carmen. Others are still real insider tips and lead visitors deep into the jungle of the Yucatan Peninsula.
If you are on the streets around Playa del Carmen, Tulum or inland, you will pass various cenotes. Because of their pleasant temperatures of around 21 degrees/ 70 Fahrenheit, the cenotes in Mexico are ideal for a swim stop on excursions to the Riviera Maya to Mayan ruins or colonial cities. For example, we combine our tours to Tulum or our private excursions to Chichen Itza with a stay in a cenote.
This article is about:
- How did the cenotes emerge in Mexico?
- Meaning for the Maya: Cenotes as entrances to the Mayan underworld Xibalba
- Types of cenotes
- Cenotes in modern times
- Sulfur clouds in the cenotes
- Overview cenotes of the Riviera Maya
How did the cenotes emerge in Mexico?
Yucatan Peninsula: Cenotes in Mexico, here Conote Corazon near Tulum
The cenotes in Mexico already exist for millions of years. At that time, the Yucatan Peninsula and the Riviera Maya in Mexico was a huge coral reef under the water (parts of which can still be found off the Mexican coast in the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef). During the ice ages, the amount of ice at the two poles of the earth increased. As a result, the global sea level dropped. Thus, parts of the reef on the Yucatan peninsula were suddenly exposed to oxygen and died. What remains is porous limestone, which can be found everywhere on the Yucatan Peninsula and the Riviera Maya in Mexico.
Acid rainwater made its way through this limestone and is filtered. As a result, the rock was permanently eroded and created fascinating caves, subterranean rivers and stalactite formations. The resulting cave systems are called cenotes in Mexico. After the ice age, the poles melted again and the sea-water level could rise again. This flooded many of these caves and created the world’s largest known underwater system. The total length is over 1,000 miles.
Important for the Maya: Cenotes are entrances to the Mayan underworld called Xibalba
Sacred cenote on the Riviera Maya with offerings, Chichin Ha Cenote near Playa del Carmen.
If the limestone ceilings of the cave systems collapse, shaft-like entrances occur. The underlying holes, the so-called cenotes, are partly filled with fresh water or underground caves. Mexico’s cenotes are sacred to the Maya, since they provided the most important drinking water supply. The cenotes are also the entrance to the underworld of the Maya, the so-called Xibalba. Archaeologists still find offerings from the past in many of Mexico’s cenotes. This includes jade, textiles, ceramics and even gold, which was either thrown in the water or deposited there.
The Maya went to the cenotes when they wanted to contact the gods of the underworld. Even today, some cenotes are sacred places for the Mayan descenders, where ceremonies are performed. The term cenote is derived from the Mayan language, “Dzonot” means “water hole”. They are probably the basis for the development of the Mayan culture in southeast Mexico. All important Mayan sites on the Yucatan Peninsula are located close to cenotes. They provided the water supply for the Mayan cities with several thousand inhabitants.
Cenotes meant duality for the ancient Maya. Here the transition from the world of life to the world of the dead took place. Aluxes, guardians of the forests and cenotes, are still worshiped with ancient rituals and offerings. Aluxes are knee-high creatures, living in the jungle. They have to be asked for permission when entering or building on their areas. Otherwise, great misfortune can happen
The importance of today's cenotes in Mexico
Mexico: Cenotes of the Yucatan peninsula
Cenotes in Mexico still have an important meaning for the local population:
Parts of the caves that are now under water were not yet flooded during the Maya period. Archaeologists and cave divers explore the cenotes in Mexico to find information about past life. For example, a skeleton of at least 12,000 years old was found in the Hoyo Negro cave on the Yucatan Peninsula in 2014. This got a lot of attention in the world of archeology (see video below).
The largest underground water system supplies the region of the Yucatan Peninsula with drinking water.
For visitors to the Riviera Maya, the cenotes are one of the most important sights. Whether snorkeling, swimming, diving or discovering, adventurers and those interested in culture, there are cenotes for every interest.
The skeleton of a teenage girl who lived during the last ice age has been found in the cenote Hoyo Negro in Yucatan, close tu Tulum.
Different kind of cenotes in Mexico
Different cenotes on the Yucatan peninsula
As long as cenotes are above water, the constant drops of water that wash through the stone can create fairytale-like limestone formations. Because the calcium contained in the rainwater sticks to stalactites (coming from the ceiling) or stalagmites (protruding from the ground). Stalactites and stalagmites grow extremely slowly, about 1 cm in 80 years. Stalactite caves with fascinating formations arise. The cenotes in Mexico are popular with visitors for swimming, diving and snorkeling.
Cenotes as caves
Completely covered with karst rock, these cenotes are often many meters underground. They can be filled with water or dry. It depends on the water level. Sometimes the light enters through cracks or openings. Then there are impressive light shows that often resemble a laser show.
Half-open cenotes are often just the entrance to deeper cave systems. A field covers water or grottos underneath. Light penetrates and creates a mystical atmosphere.
Open cenotes nestle into the landscape like a lake. They usually hide other caves with which they are connected. For example, divers often enter an open cenote into a cave beyond.the
Mexico Cenotes: Sulfur clouds create a mystical atmosphere
Mexico Cenotes: sulfur clouds create a mystical atmosphere
Fresh water and salt water in cenotes do not mix. This is because saltwater is heavier. Thus, the salt water is below the fresh water. The dividing line is called halocline. The halocline usually starts after a few feets of fresh water. In some cenotes, however, the halocline is almost 100 feet deep. A halocline is often surrounded by sulfur clouds. This creates an almost mystical atmosphere, for divers an impressive spectacle.
The water in the cenotes is one of the clearest waters in the world. It has a visibility of up to 100% or 600 feet (clearer water can only be found under the ice caps of the South Pole). Sunscreen, even biodegradable sunscreen or Mosquito Spray can contaminate the water and are therefore prohibited. That’s why you’ll find showers on many publicly accessible cenotes; to clean the skin before entering the cenotes in Mexico.
Every cenote in Mexico has its own identity, no one is like another
Cenotes in Mexico: The water is often in an underground cave
Below you will find a selection of the most beautiful cenotes in the Riviera Maya. On our private excursions to Tulum or Chichen Itza we stop at a beautiful cenote for swimming. We use these cenotes for our excursions, diving, swimming and snorkeling. Upon request, Leon Tours Cozumel also organizes excursions to other cenotes.
Xel Ha is an amusement park on the Riviera Maya that belongs to the Xcaret group. Located near Tulum, you can easily spend a whole day here. Admission to the park is not cheap, but there are plenty of things on offer:
- Swim on tubes across the river
- Discover cenotes and caves
- Lighthouse with a fantastic view
- Zip lines
- Jungle hike
- All inclusive catering including non-alcoholic drinks
- Children’s playgrounds etc.
Xcaret is also designed as an amusement park, it is part of a network with Xel Ha and other parks in the Riviera Maya. The focus of this park is on Mexican tradition and history. Underground rivers, beaches, lagoons and cenotes await visitors. A special highlight is the theater, in which Mexican music, dances and pre-Hispanic shows are shown.
The cenote El Eden is also known as Panderosa. A small lake marks the entrance to this beautiful cenote. It is a popular destination for snorkelers and swimmers. Even divers feel comfortable here. The open water area of the cenote is reminiscent of a large lake, the bottom of which is covered with scree and algae. Its cool water is a welcome change on hot summer days.
Divers start the dive along a wide tunnel with lots of light. At a maximum of 14 meters/45 feet, the Halokline gives dramatic effects through the incoming daylight. Do not forget your underwater camera! Due to its shallow depth, this cenote is also suitable for beginners. You can observe the halocline (dividing line between fresh and salt water) at a shallow depth. Particularly impressive are the temperature differences between the warmer salt water and the refreshing fresh water.
Cenote Chichin Ha
Cenotes in Mexiko: Chichin Ha
Chichin Ha’s cenotes are located in a park with several cenotes. Awesome, because the park has an open, a half-open and a closed cenote. This allows the visitor to discover the different types of cenotes in a single park. While you can swim and snorkel in the open and semi-open cenote, the closed cenote is a sacred cenote. There, offerings are made to the gods of the underworld in a ceremony. Depending on which package you book at the entrance, you can participate in such a ceremony.
Chichin Ha is close to Playa del Carmen. From the country road you have to drive a good distance on a gravel track through the jungle.
The cenotes The Pit and Dos Ojos are located in the same national park. This allows visitors to the National Park to take a cool dip in the Cenote Pit. For snorkelling, however, the neighboring cenotes “Dos Ojos” are more suitable. They are flatter, which makes it possible to observe impressive plays of light from the surface.
Divers with a visit to the National Park can combine the deep dive Pit with a shallow dive in Dos Ojos. The Cenote The Pit is a round cenote. To enjoy all the beauty of this cenote, you have to go down deep. That’s why we also need an Advanced Open Water or Deep Dive Adventure Dive for this dive.
The light falls from the surface like laser beams and accompanies us to the depths. The Halokline is about 30 meters and is surrounded by an impressive sulfur cloud. During the dive you can find Mayan relics and animal bones. The Pit is a clear favorite for many divers.
Cenote Dos Ojos (8-10 Meter, 24-30 feet)
Mexico cenote Dos Ojos Riviera Maya
Dos Ojos is one of the most popular cenote systems near Tulum. In 1999 the IMAX movie “Journey Into Amazing Caves” was shot here. Dos Ojos means “two eyes” in Spanish. This refers to two adjacent cenotes. Both snorkelers and divers feel comfortable here. With the snorkel you can swim independently along a string in a small part of the cave. For dives, the two cenotes are equally suitable. Depending on which direction is taken, there are two completely different dives.
Cenote Dos Ojos – Barbie Line (8 meter, 24 feet)
The first dive follows a circular walk of about 500 meters. This dive is very shallow. Accompanied by a lot of natural light, you can emerge anywhere in the shortest time on the surface. That’s why this dive is good for beginners. The incidence of light creates impressive light formations. Dreamlike stalactites hang from the ceiling. Do not forget to breathe with so much beauty!
Cenote Dos Ojos – Bat Cave (10 Meter, 30 feet)
The second dive, also called Bat Cave, feels like a real cave dive. Here it is darker, because we are in an air-filled cave. Past beautiful stalactite formations, we emerge in the Bat Cave. We admire the numerous bats hanging from the ceiling. Look for fossils, proof that this tunnel system used to be below sea level.
Cenotes in Mexico on the Yucatan Peninsula: Gran Cenote
The Gran Cenote is located near Tulum and is usually very busy. It is ideal for swimming. Folloing a rope into the cave, the lower part of the cenote is covered with water. Stalagmites hang from the ceiling from above. The Gran Cenote is also ideal for a small refreshment stop when you are traveling from Coba towards the Riviera Maya.
Cenote Angelita (30 Meter, 90 feet)
Angelita Cenote in Mexico
Cenote Angelita makes every diver’s heart beat faster. In Spanish, “Angelita” means “angel”. Because of the depth, Angelita is less suitable for swimming and snorkeling. For divers, it is a true paradise. This dive takes place in an open, circular cenote. This is a classic deep dive. The halocline is at 27 meters. We start our dive just below it. The halocline is surrounded by a spectacular hydrogen sulphate cloud. Out of it rise trees and branches. Many feel like they’re walking around an island in a misty lake. This creates an almost mystical feeling and an unforgettable dive.
Cenote Aktun Ha / Carwash (16 Meter, 48 feet)
Carwash Cenote Riviera Maya
Some taxi drivers used the clean water of the cenote to wash their car. Therefore, this cenote has its nickname Carwash. This cenote is great for diving, snorkeling and swimming. In the hot summer, the water can be temporarily mixed with algae. The algae season lasts from February to September. During this time, there is a thick, orange-green algae layer on the water surface. It is about 1 meter thick. Underneath, the water is crystal clear, as befits a true cenote in Yucatan. In front of this backdrop you can create interesting underwater photos.
For divers the dive starts in a kind of pond. Algae and roots create fascinating light effects. It is so beautiful that we could only dive under the open water surface the whole time. But are we not there for cave diving? Inside the cenote we find bones and Mayan pottery. Even in the algae-free season, we expect amazing plays of light. One of the most beautiful cenotes in the area.
Cenote Dreamgate (7 Meter, 21 feet)
Dreamgate Cenote in Mexico
The Cenote Dreamgate is a true diver’s dream. Since the treasures of this cenote are completely under water, it is only limitedly suitable for snorkeling and swimming. Dreamgate is so big that two different dives are possible. During the dive we pass fantastically beautiful stalactite formations. The underwater caves are richly decorated with stalactites and stalagmites.
Because of the shallow depth, good buoyancy is a must, so that no slag from the ground is whirled up. Slowly we follow the tunnel system and have enough time to admire the breathtaking formations around us.
Cenote Calavera (16 Meter, 48 feet)
The Cenote Calavera is only suitable for divers. Because it’s only 10 meters down before you reach the entrance to the vault. The name Calavera means skull in Spanish. From below you can see three holes of light that make you feel like diving in a skull. As we descend, we swim past ancient Mayan pottery and animal bones. A few meters further and we pass one of the best halo lines of the Riviera Maya. In the Cenote Calavera, the temperature difference between salt water and fresh water is particularly intense. The salt water below is a few degrees warmer than the overlying fresh water.
Evidence that this cave was once completely below sea level, provide numerous fossils. Surrounded by light plays and a great view, the scenery ensures a fascinating dive.
This article contains product recommendations in the form of affiliate links. If you buy something through these affiliate links, we get a small commission. This does not change the price for you.