***Updated version 2022! ***
In early times, the Mayans used them as sacrificial sites, today they offer an ideal retreat from the hustle and bustle along the Riviera Maya: The cenotes in Mexico have always exerted a magical attraction on people. Here I would like to present some of the most beautiful ones.
To go a long way: 66 million years ago a meteorite is said to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, so the theory. The fact is, however, that the celestial body was located directly north of the coast of Yucatán. The powerful impact caused several caves to collapse and exposed groundwater in a radius of about 80 kilometers.
These newly formed, mostly underground lakes are now among the most beautiful swimming spots imaginable: Crystal clear fresh water, plenty of fish and an exciting environment invite you to swim and snorkel.
Especially for divers, the so-called cenotes are a huge attraction, as many of them are connected underwater by kilometer-long cave systems. No wonder they have been successfully marketed in recent years and attract more and more travelers. Some of the most beautiful cenotes for diving and snorkeling are found around the cities of Tulum, Valladolid und Mérida.
Cenotes near Tulum
Cenote Calavera (“Temple of doom”)
This quiet place is a good start to get an idea of what a cenote is. It is much less dangerous than the name suggests: The nickname “Temple of Doom” has caught on because, with a little imagination, the three holes in the floor form a skull. In the largest hole, you can watch fish or dive to explore the underground caverns that branch out in all sorts of directions. However, the full extent of this cenote can only be guessed from the outside. A nice place without much hustle and bustle, but very small.
Entrance fee: 100 Pesos
Of all the cenotes around Tulum, this is the largest. Accordingly, it attracts numerous tourists who come to refresh themselves in a picture-perfect environment. Snorkeling and diving is doubly worthwhile here, as there are great rock formations to marvel at in addition to the breathtaking number of fish. Another highlight is the small turtle farm in the middle of the cenote.
Entrance fee: 180 Pesos
Casa Cenote is located inconspicuously along the highway to the north, near the coast. The special thing here is the elongated structure, so that it also branches out above ground several times. Especially under water it is a lot of fun to explore the system while the sun makes the water glitter. Here, too, numerous fish cavort – and with luck you can spot the house crocodile.
Entrance fee: 150 pesos + 100 pesos GoPro fee
Cenote Aktun Ha (“Car Wash”)
Yep, you probably guessed correctly: The Cenote bears its name because not too long ago the residents washed their cars there. In the meantime, however, it has become a popular destination for splashing around and diving. Especially the underwater water lily garden is extraordinarily pretty!
Entrance fee: 50 Pesos
Cenote Dos Ojos
This cenote is nationally known and one of the most expensive. For that you get an amazing scenery with several bathing places and a nice hammock area. Especially divers get their money’s worth, because the underwater area is huge. Almost all dive centers in Tulum offer underwater tours in Dos Ojos.
Entrance fee: 350 Pesos
Cenote Cristal & Cenote Escondido (“Mayan Blue”)
Cristal and Escondido probably have the best price-performance ratio. While many cenotes around Tulum cost about 100 pesos and more, here you can explore two beautiful, open cenotes for 150 pesos. There are many possibilities to relax all around. Probably the most peaceful of all cenotes.
Entrance fee: Both together 150 pesos
The Cenotes of Chemuyil
Hidden in a small inconspicuous place near the highway in the direction of Tulum, four cenotes are waiting to be explored. While three of them belong to the smaller ones, the largest of the quartet is almost completely underground. During my visit I was completely alone, the paradisiacal silence of this wonderful place was only broken by the squeaking of the bats. And the best: None of these cenotes costs anything. Maps.Me knows the exact locations, otherwise you can just ask around in town.
No entrance fee
Also along the highway towards Tulum is this gem, where at least during the week there is hardly anything going on. With many provided sunbeds, shaded areas, picnic corners and even a hammock quarter, one cannot complain about the entrance fee of 120 pesos. The idyllic scenario also consoles over the fact that this cenote is not one of the cleanest in some corners.
Entrance fee: 120 Pesos
This cenote is absolutely unique and only accessible to divers. In this round, 40-meter-deep and spooky-green hole, you will find a setting that could come straight out of a scary movie: A layer of sulfur provides a mystical floor to penetrate. Underneath it is pitch black and only the glow of the lamp and weightless floating foliage surrounds you. A dive in Cenote Angelita is like a night hike in the Twilight Zone. Absolutely unforgettable!
Entrance fee: Included in the diving price
Cenotes near Valladolid
Zaci is located right in downtown Valladolid and is therefore the most easily accessible. The price is affordable and those who dare can jump into the cool water from about 5 meters. There are fewer fish to be seen here and it can get quite crowded as tourist groups stop here regularly. However, the pleasant location and the affordable price speak for a visit.
Entrance fee: 30 Pesos
Cenote Ik Kil
Guided tours to Chichen Itza usually include a visit to the nearby Cenote Ik Kil. The crowds somewhat dampen the enjoyment of this spectacular site. It’s not uncommon to have to wait in line to even get into the water, and while swimming you have to be careful not to get a foot in your face. But somewhere you do find a spot to lie down in the water, look up and enjoy the massive cave formation.
Entrance fee: 80 Pesos
Near the Mayan ruin Ek Balam lies the Cenote X’Canché. The wonderful location in the middle of the jungle compensates for the sanitary situation, which is in need of improvement, and the two kilometer walk to the entrance. X’Canché is also one of the less visited cenotes, so you have a great place to cool off after a day in the heat of the ruins. However, snorkeling enthusiasts will not be entirely happy because of the comparatively murky water.
Entrance fee: 80 Pesos
Insider tip: Cenotes in Homún near Mérida
Homún is a small, sleepy village not far from Mérida. The special thing about Homún is the multitude of cenotes that you can visit here for a ridiculously low price. We visited the cenotes Tza Ujun Kat in the west and Santa Maria a bit further east.
Tza Ujun Kat has with a huge hole through which the sun floods the entire room. Santa Maria, on the other hand, is hidden in the back garden of a residential building. The family living there manages the entrance and keeps the luggage for a small contribution. To get to the end of this underground water-filled cave, you have to wade a few meters through waist-deep water. At the end, a wonderful bathing spot awaits amidst hundreds of stalactites.
Entrance fee: 30 Pesos each
Many cenotes around Tulum can be easily reached by bicycle. However, the way leads along the hot and dusty highway. Don’t forget sunscreen! Depending on your condition you need about 20 minutes to the west (Escondido & Cristal), 15 minutes to the north (Temple of Doom & Gran Cenote) or 40 to 50 minutes to the northeast (Casa Cenote & Dos Ojos as well as Chemuyil and Yax-Kin). It’s worthwhile to book a hostel with bike rental – directly at the junction to the ruins are two of them.
The cenotes in Valladolid are best combined with a visit to the nearby ruins of Ek Balam (Cenote X’Canché) and Chichen Itza (Ik Kil). Minibuses depart regularly from the city center, exact times are best asked at the bus station. In addition to the cenotes described here, there are several others that can be reached via rental bike.
Also the way from Mérida to Homún is not a big problem. It is best to go to the bus station the day before, ask for the time, buy a ticket and off you go. There, everything is within walking distance. So you don’t need to go for the offers of the motorcyclists. Back to Mérida, the last minibus leaves at 6 pm.