What are cenotes?If you've never heard of Mexican cenotes, then you're not alone: they're a distinctly South American phenomenon. They were once underground lakes, which have been exposed after the limestone roofs that hid them collapsed. The waters that fill these subterranean pools have been filtered through the limestone, making them exceptionally pure and clear. Swimming in cenotes is a magical experience and it'll definitely be a highlight of any holiday to Mexico. For the ancient Mayans who first discovered them, the cenotes were believed to be the gateway that allowed them to communicate with the gods of Xibalba or the underworld. However, they were also used for practical purposes, including fishing and as a fresh water source. You'll find cenotes wherever there are Mayan ruins, but the safest ones are the ones that have been cleared and opened to the public.
Types of cenoteThere are four types of cenote in Mexico
Cenotes near CancunThe only Cenotes in Cancun itself are dried up, but there's a few close by.
Cenote Popol VuhThis is an open cenote with a high water level, so access is easy. It's attached to a hotel, so you can get something to eat or even camp overnight if you want to experience the night sky away from the city lights. Cenote Popol Vuh is about an hour's drive from Cancun.
Xenotes OasisThis is a group of four cenotes cared for by one company. You can visit them by booking a tour, and join activities like kayaking, zip lining or swimming. Book online before you travel, to get a discount.
Cenote ZapoteThis is an open cenote, but there's still a bit of shade from the tree canopy. If you're looking for Mexico cave diving cenotes
,this is a good place to start. You can dive down to see Hell's Bells, which are impressive, bell-shaped rock formations.
Cenotes near Playa del Carmen
Cenote AzulThis is a popular spot just 15 minutes south of Playa del Carmen. There's clear blue water to swim in, and a curious leopard print effect caused by the dark and white rock formations.
Cenote Tajma HaThis is an underground cenote, with twirls of natural light. It's at the end of a two-mile walk, but well worth the effort. You can swim, snorkel and scuba dive here.
Cenote Xcaret Park and Xplor AdventureIf you're looking for an easy way to visit a cenote with your family, this is a good option. There are natural cenotes and an underground river, as well as organised entertainment and plenty of places to eat.
Cenote AkumalKnown to the Mayan locals as Yal-ku, this is a large open cenote close to the sea. It's a top spot for snorkelling and there's a good welcome centre where you can rent snorkel gear.
Cenote Chiken HaThis is an eco-park with five cenotes close together. There's underground cave cenotes and open cenotes so everyone can find their best spot. You'll find a restaurant here too, as well as other activities like cycling and scuba diving.
Cenotes near Tulum
Gran CenoteAlso set in the Yucatan Peninsula and arguably the best cenote Mexico has to offer, Gran Cenote is partly set in a cave, with its own subterranean beach where you'll see shimmering shoals of fish and reclusive turtles. If you need a break, chill out on the sands and look up at the reflected light playing on the rocks above.
Dos OjosDos Ojos are part of a system of caves which flooded thousands of years ago. As a result, these two still have the roofs that many others have lost, so you'll see jagged stalactites hiding colonies of bats. Dos Ojos translates as ”two eyes', in reference to the two pools being set so close together. You'll need a torch to swim in one of the caves, but the other is ideal for swimming and snorkelling in natural light.
Casa CenoteBeing near the sea means this cenote is a great place to see marine life. It's fully open so access is easy, and it's good for snorkelling.
Actun Ha (Carwash Cenote) This is an open cenote with masses of marine life. It's a green water cenote and is great for scuba diving.
Cenote Zacil-HaThis is an open cylinder cenote with zip line and ladder for getting in. It's attached to a hotel, so there's a restaurant and a normal pool you can use, too.
Cenote Cristal/Cenote Naharon/Cenote EscondidoThree of the best open water cenotes Tulum has to offer are a few hundred metres apart from each other, just south-east of the city. Cenote Cristal has a diving platform, Cenote Escondido is great for snorkelling, and Cenote Naharon has a specially designed hammock seat over the water.
Yucatan interiorSome of the best Cenotes are found in the Yucatan interior, near Chichen Itza and Valladolid.
Cenotes near Chichen Itza
Ik KilIk Kil is set inland and surrounded by dense, tropical jungle. Once you've made your way through the lush undergrowth, you'll come to a set of man-made stairs that will lead you down to the pool itself. Surrounded by emerald vegetation and hanging vines, it's the perfect place to get back in touch with Mother Nature. Ik Kil is very popular, so be sure to get there as early as you can. It opens at 9am and closes at 5pm and is only accessible by car.
Yokdznot CenoteThis glorious open cylinder cenote is 25 minutes west of Chichen Itza, there's crystal water and lots of tree vines which give it a magical quality. It's open 9am to 6pm every day.
Cenote ChihuanThis underground cenote is perfect if you're hoping to escape the tour bus crowds. The cave is so long that few people have swum to the end, and the only illumination is from shards of white light that scatter across the surface. It's accessible from a local farm between 9am and 7pm and is about an hour west of Chichen Itza
Cenotes near Valladolid
Cenote San Lorenzo OxmanThis beautiful cenote has perfect blue water and it's a great example of the open cylindrical cenotes. You take steps down to the water. It's off the tourist trail, about ten minutes' drive south of Valladolid. Above the cenote is a restored Hacienda where you can enjoy traditional Yucatecan food.
Cenote SuytunThis cave cenote is a great spot for photos, there's a hole in the ceiling that allows a perfect beam of light, so you can grab your spotlight moment. At certain times the light shines directly on the platform.
Cenote ZaciIn the heart of Valladolid, this is an open top cenote. There are lots of facilities including zip lines and a café.
Cenotes Agua DulceSet about 30 minutes' drive north of Valladolid, this is an underground cenote with lots of stalactites. You take a steep spiral staircase down to the water and it's perfect for a lazy swim.
Cenotes DzitnupThe story goes that this cenote was discovered by a hapless pig falling through the roof as it was foraging for food. It's one of the most interesting underground cenotes Mexico offers. Coloured lights have been installed in its roof to add an even more stunning effect.
Plan your visitYou'll be able to take a tour from your resort, and these often go to several different cenotes. If you'd rather visit independently, or the cenote you'd like to go to isn't on the tour bus trail, then it's easy to hire a car. Most cenotes are open between 9am and 5pm, and some are open a little longer. You'll find details for individual cenotes online.
Entry pricesEntry is between 50-200 Pesos and is payable locally. If you're on a tour, you'll find it works out a little more, but you have the benefit of travelling with a guide so someone else can do the work while you get on with relaxing and exploring.
Top tipsIf you want to wear sun cream while swimming in cenotes it must be biodegradable. This isn't available in Mexico, so pop some in your case before you travel. If you're planning a dip in one of Mexico's cenotes, bear in mind that the water is often considerably colder than your hotel pool or even the sea, so ease yourself in slowly to avoid any cold-water shock. Remember when you're planning your visit to cenotes, Mexico has different types, so if you're not keen on being in the dark, or you want to avoid lots of steps, check which type of cenote you're heading for.