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10 Best and Most Beautiful Riviera Maya Cenotes

We felt like Alice in Wonderland falling down the rabbit hole.

Except we were climbing down a ladder instead.

And this hole was one of the fabled Riviera Maya cenotes.

What we gaped at inside, though, was every bit as trippy as what Alice encountered. And we were snorkeling in this cenote!

A snorkeler gives a thumbs-up in a stalactite-filled cenote

Riviera Maya cenotes

We visit Mexico often (especially during our cold Canadian winters).

We particularly like the Riviera Maya area.

You can laze about on insanely gorgeous white sand beaches, explore the Tulum ruins and swim with turtles at Akumal.

But of all the wonderful things to do in the Riviera Maya, swimming and snorkeling in the cenotes is the most special.

What are cenotes?

The first question you’re probably asking right now is: “What is a cenote?”

Cenotes are sinkholes in the limestone ground, where the roof has caved in.

Stalactite-filled cenote with hole open to the sky

Most cenotes are fed by underground rivers and so they’re filled with freshwater. This means the water is usually tequila clear.

And splashing about in these cool clear waters is a welcome change from soaking up the sun (sometimes too much sun!) on the beach.

Two people snorkel hand-in-hand in an underground river at Cenotes Sac Actun.

The word “cenote” (pronounced “say-no-tay”) comes from the Mayan word “dzonot” or “tsonot,” which means “well.”

The ancient Mayans recognized the incredible value of these freshwater wells – they could supply the freshwater needs of large cities like Chichen Itza.

Many cenotes were, in fact, considered sacred. They were thought to be the passage to the underworld, where Chac the rain god lived.

The Mayans would offer sacrifices and perform ceremonies at sacred cenotes, asking for rain and good crops.

At the most famous cenote in Mexico – the 200-foot wide Sacred Cenote near Chichen Itza – archaeologists have found gold, jade and other precious objects, along with the skeletal remains of over 200 children and adults who were offered as human sacrifices.

Those cenotes viewed as sacred are closed to the public today.

Thousands of cenotes in Mexico and Riviera Maya

A couple float on their backs in the aqua water of a Riviera Maya cenote.

No one really knows how many cenotes in Mexico there are.

But according to some estimates, Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is pock-marked with more than 8,000 cenotes.

Other figures say the number is closer to 6,000 Yucatan cenotes.

Cenote with wooden steps leading down into the water

Whatever, that’s a huge number of cenotes! (Only about 3,000 cenotes are registered – meaning there are many more still to be explored.)

The Riviera Maya alone has about 300 of these natural pools.

Types of cenotes

Each cenote is different.

A young man paddles a yellow kayak in a Mexican cenote

The cenotes in the Riviera Maya are a mix of the following four types…

Open cenotes

Open to the surface, open cenotes look like small lakes with high walls in the middle of the jungle. These are old or mature cenotes, as the cave ceiling has fallen into itself.

They’re great for swimming, kayaking and jumping into (but they don’t have any caves you can explore).

Semi-open cenotes

Semi-open cenotes have one part open to the sky and another part that’s hidden in a cave.

Cave cenotes

These cenotes have vertical tunnels open to the surface.

You climb down into the cave half-filled with water. Often the ceiling has small holes through which sunbeams shine and sparkle on the water.

Sometimes you can can swim and snorkel through dreamlike subterranean passageways that connect to other cenotes.

Underground cenotes

As you’d expect, these cenotes are underneath the ground. Only expert scuba divers and cavers can survey these underwater caves and tunnels.

Looking up through the water inside a Riviera Maya cenote

The Riviera Maya cenotes are magical

Many Riviera Maya cenotes are adorned with fantastically-shaped stalactites and stalagmites.

Stalactites vs. stalagmites?

Eduardo Galeano in Mirrors poetically explains:

“Stalactites hang from the ceiling. Stalagmites grow from the floor.

All are fragile crystals, born from the sweat of rocks in the depths of caves etched into the mountains by water and time.

Stalactites and stalagmites spend thousands of years reaching down or reaching up, drop by drop, searching for each other in the darkness.

It takes some of them a million years to touch.

They are in no hurry.”

With their crystal spires and water that shines an unearthly brilliant blue, these Riviera Maya cenotes look like wondrous underground cathedrals.

We even spotted catfish and bats in some cenote caves.

The cenotes in the Mayan Riviera are truly magical places – visiting them is one of the most memorable things to do in Mexico.

Best cenotes in Riviera Maya

There’s usually a small entrance fee for cenotes that you can visit independently (ranging from a few dollars to $10+ USD p.p.).

For cenote parks or cenotes where you need a guide, the cost is more, typically around $40 USD p.p.

You can also book tours to cenotes, which include roundtrip transportation and a guide. And they cost more.

Two children wearing sunhats look at the emerald green foliage surrounding a cenote in the Riviera Maya

Note that upon entering, you shower before getting into the water (to remove sunscreen, which can harm the delicate marine life).

Okay, let’s now go check out 10 of the best Riviera Maya cenotes!

1) Gran Cenote

Great for: Swimming, snorkeling, families and easy cenote fun close to Tulum

Gran Cenote is the grand-daddy of cenotes in Tulum.

As its name suggests, Gran Cenote is the grand-daddy of cenotes in Tulum.

It’s made up of a collection of caves plus an open-air cenote, all connected by wooden boardwalks winding through lush greenery.

Small turtles swim freely around. Little fish tickle your legs. And you can swim into beautiful caves (partly underwater) with stalactites and stalagmites, where bats fly around above.

Ideal for families, parts of this cenote are shallow enough for kids to stand.

Also, unlike many other cenotes which have rocky cave floors, much of the floor of Gran Cenote is covered with sand, meaning you won’t scratch and hurt yourself if you bump into the bottom.

What with the cave formations, turtles and fish, this is one of the best cenotes in Mexico for snorkeling.

People snorkel in Gran Cenote, Mexico

The light that penetrates through is just bright enough to allow you to see the underwater pillars and rock formations. But it’s still dark enough to really enjoy the shafts of brilliant sunlight shining down through the cenote hole.

The downside to being one of the top Riviera Maya cenotes – and being so close to Tulum – is that Gran Cenote can get quite busy (unless you’re visiting outside of the high winter season).

So plan to visit in the morning right after opening or at the end of the day for the quietest time.

Want to bicycle to Gran Cenote and two other cenotes? Check out this cool cenote trail tour.  

Gran Cenote location

Gran Cenote is found just 3 or so miles from the Tulum town center, off Highway 109 (on the way to Coba).

Facilities

You’ll find all the facilities you need to be comfortable at Gran Cenote, including washrooms, lockers, showers and picnic benches. You can also rent snorkeling gear.

2) Cenotes Casa Tortuga

Great for: Swimming, snorkeling and jumping off from the cenote sides

Cenotes Casa Tortuga is made up of four cenotes.

The basic admission gets you a life vest and a one-hour guided tour of the first semi-submerged cenotes. (You have to go with a guide to begin with.)

You’ll learn some interesting facts about the cave formations and the blind cave fish that live within.

Then you’re free to enjoy the last open cenote on your own. It’s especially fun to jump off the edge into this very deep cenote!

Cenotes Casa Tortuga is not as busy as Gran Cenote (#1 above) and is an easy set of cenotes for “cenote newbies” to explore.

Cenotes Casa Tortuga location

Cenotes Casa Tortuga is located about 8.5 miles from the town of Tulum (a 15-minute drive). Head north from Tulum on Carretera 307 (the main highway between Cancun and Tulum), then turn left at the Km 239 marker (south of the Soliman Bay entry road).

Facilities

You’ll find a shower, changing rooms, toilets and a restaurant onsite.

3) Cenotes Sac Actun

Great for: Adventure lovers and ogling fantastic stalactites

Cenotes Sac Actun is one of the most interesting and unique cenotes near Tulum.

It’s more expensive than some of the other cenotes (and more remote), but it offers that incredible fairytale-world experience.

Sac Actun (meaning “white cave” in Mayan) is actually a vast flooded underground cave system – a 215-mile-long labyrinth and the largest underwater cave system in the world.

The cenotes in the Sac Actun System are filled with beautiful turquoise waters, where glittering stalactites hang down above.

Mayan artifacts have even been found there, along with 12,000-year-old human bones discovered by National Geographic divers.

Cenotes Sac Actun is one place where you can see a tiny part of the Sac Actun System.

After climbing down a ladder to get into the water, you can go through several caves. For most of the way, you’ll be able to wade through the water, as it’s fairly shallow.

What will you see?

In one cave, a piece of the roof has broken, allowing tree roots to grow down.

In another small cavern, you can see bats hanging from the ceiling. Look carefully, and you might even spot a small snake!

It’s dark inside, so bring a flashlight. If you forget, you can rent a waterproof flashlight for an extra cost.

The water is also cold, so you’ll want to wear a wetsuit (you can rent one there).

If you’d like to go on a guided tour with hotel pick-up, here’s a private half-day tour of Cenotes Sac Actun. It also includes snorkeling and swimming at an open cenote in Chemuyil.

Cenotes Sac Actun location

Cenotes Sac Actun is 15 miles away from Tulum, deep in the jungle. Head north of Tulum on Carretera 307. Turn left on the exit road for Cenote Dos Ojos (#6 below). Cenotes Sac Actun is a few miles beyond Dos Ojos.

Facilities

There are toilets and change facilities.

4) Native Park Tulum

Great for: Adventure enthusiasts, snorkeling and seeing amazing stalactite formations

A couple wearing yellow snorkeling gear snorkel in a cenote in Riviera Maya

You get a similar Cenotes Sac Actun experience at Native Park Tulum (Jungle Maya), run by Alltournative Ecological Adventures.

A Maya shaman blessed us first.

Then we rappeled down into the main cenote and snorkeled with flashlights behind our guide through pitch-black subterranean grottoes.

Janice and George rapel down into a Riviera Maya cenote at Native Park Tulum

And oh the stalactites!

Shining our flashlights on them revealed these amazing icicle-like creations in all their splendor.

Native Park Tulum location

The cenote park is 10 miles north of Tulum, just off Carretera 307 at the Km 240 marker.

Facilities

There are bathrooms. Towels and gear for the cenote tours are provided.

5) Cenote Carwash

Great for: Swimming, diving, chilling out and families

Cenote Carwash, also known as Cenote Aktun Ha, is a large open cenote (165 feet wide). The cenote got its name because it was used in the 1980s to clean – guess what? – cars!

From the outside, it looks somewhat like a very large pond (and nothing particularly special). But underwater is another matter.

The open part of the cenote pond is about 9 feet deep, but a cavern extension, filled with stalagmites and columns, reaches down to a depth of almost 50 feet.

Tree roots and water plants trail down from above, and algae and plants growing on the cenote floor create lovely light effects.

Sometimes you can spot turtles and small fish, and it’s said there’s even a small resident crocodile that swims there.

Divers particularly like scuba diving in this cenote – and many divers say they see the crocodile!

This cenote doesn’t feel as “commercial” as some of the more popular cenotes, and it’s rarely crowded. This reason alone makes it one of the best Tulum cenotes.

Carwash Cenote location

Carwash Cenote is conveniently located just off Highway 109 (Coba Highway), about 5 miles from Tulum.

Facilities

The cenote has eco-bathrooms, outdoor showers and simple locker rentals. In high season, there’s also a small store where you can buy food and drinks.

6) Cenote Dos Ojos

Great for: Scuba diving and snorkeling

Cenote Dos Ojos (Two Eyes Cenote) is one of the most famous underwater Tulum caves.

It’s made up of two different sinkholes connected by a long underground passageway, with a large central cavern between the two “eyes.”

Cenotes Dos Ojos, Mexico

Some of the Dos Ojos underwater cave system was featured in the 2002 IMAX film, Journey into Amazing Caves. Parts of the 2006 horror movie, The Cave, were also filmed there.

More recently, in 2018, a connection was discovered between the Dos Ojos System and the Sac Actun System.

It’s not a surprise, therefore, that scuba diving in this cenote is especially popular. (It’s the best cenote in Riviera Maya on our list for scuba diving.)

When you visit, you’ll be amazed at the color of the water in the first cenote – a beautiful luminescent blue!

In the second cenote (the “bat cave”), you’ll follow a guide through a tunnel of stalactites and stalagmites to a cave, where you’ll see bats hanging from the roof above.

If you’re staying in Tulum or Playa del Carmen (or anywhere in between), beat the crowds with this top-notch private VIP tour. It includes an early morning start to snorkel in both cenotes, a Mexican lunch at a jungle restaurant and hotel transfers.

For certified open water scuba divers, here’s a highly-rated two-tank dive (two sites at Dos Ojos), offered by La Calypso Dive Center in Tulum.

Cenote Dos Ojos location

Cenote Dos Ojos is 13.5 miles north of Tulum on Carretera 307.

Facilities

Bathrooms, changing rooms, lockers for rent, a restaurant – Cenote Dos Ojos has great facilities for visitors.

7) Cenotes Kantun-Chi

Great for: Adventurous fun, kayaking, swimming and an all-round cenote experience

Climbing down a ladder leads us into one of Kantun-Chi's cenotes

Remember that ladder we talked about climbing down at the beginning of this post?

That was at Ecopark Kantun-Chi.

A newer place, and not yet as “discovered” or busy as some other cenote destinations, Ecopark Kantun-Chi is home to a handful of cenotes near Playa del Carmen.

This sweet little eco-park has a mix of five cenotes (open, semi-open and cave cenotes).

Kantun-Chi Ecopark adventurers inside a cenote

Each cenote offers a different experience.

In one cenote, we kayaked leisurely about for a while, enjoying the quiet surroundings and scenery. To reach another cenote, you can ride in a horse-drawn cart.

We also waded through watery passages, dripping with stalactites.

You can go independently at your own pace without a guide or get a guided tour of the grottoes.

Kantun-Chi Cenotes Location

Ecopark Kantun-Chi is 14 miles south of Playa del Carmen, off Carretera 307, near the Km 288 marker.

Facilities

You’ll find hammocks and sun loungers for lazing about, bathrooms, showers, dressing rooms and lockers at this Playa del Carmen cenote.

8) Cenote Calavera

Great for: Cave scuba diving, swimming and cliff jumping

Ladder leading down into Cenote Calavera

Cenote Calavera (also known as the “Temple of Doom” cenote) is another one of the best cenotes in Tulum.

“Calavera” means skull in Spanish. And with three holes – a main hole and two smaller ones that resemble eyes – this cenote looks a little like a skull.

Climb down the ladder to enter the main cenote hole. Or if you dare, do a cannonball jump through the eye holes (they’re about 10 feet above the water).

Scuba divers like to see the curious visual layer effect created where the heavier salt water at the bottom of the cenote meets the fresh water above.

There’s also a ledge with some animal bones and pieces of Mayan pottery.

Off-the-beaten-path, this cenote isn’t really on the tourist radar, so if you’re lucky, you may get to enjoy it all by yourself!

Cenote Calavera location

This cenote is located about a mile away from Tulum town, up Highway 109. It’s so close to the town, that you can easily ride a bicycle there.

Facilities

You won’t find as many facilities at this natural cenote as at more commercial places (no lockers, for example). But there are simple restrooms.

9) Cenote Azul

Great for: Cliff jumping, snorkeling, swimming, relaxing and families

Cenote Azul is one of the best Playa del Carmen cenotes

An open cenote, Cenote Azul (Blue Cenote) looks like a beautiful lagoon with crystal clear water. When swimming, you can see the bottom, and tons of little “pedicure” fish dart about and nibble at your feet.

This is a great cenote for kids, as it’s shallow in many places. And it’s easy to get into (no ladder needed) if you don’t want to jump.

Cenote Azul location

Cenote Azul is one of the easiest Playa del Carmen cenotes to visit, as it’s just off the main highway (Carretera 307), about a 20-minute drive south of Playa del Carmen.

Facilities

There are clean showers and restrooms (small fee required).

10) Cenote Jardin del Eden

Great for: Cliff jumping, snorkeling and swimming

You could be forgiven for thinking Cenote Jardin del Eden is one of the most beautiful Riviera Maya cenotes – it does evoke images of the Garden of Eden!

This open cenote looks like a small natural freshwater lake, surrounded by jungle greenery.

What makes swimming at this cenote particularly pleasant is the warm temperature of the water – which isn’t as cold (refreshing?) as the water at other cenotes.

Wooden decks around the cenote make it easy to walk about or leap from into the water (there are also ladders you can use).

Cenote Jardin del Eden Location

The Jardine del Eden cenote is in the same area as Cenote Azul (#9) and the Kantun-Chi cenotes (#7) – about a 20-minute drive south of Playa del Carmen on Carretera 307.

Facilities

There are bathrooms (but no showers), along with small palapas to sit under to get out of the sun.

That wraps up our guide on the Mayan Riviera cenotes!

The cenotes of the Riviera Maya are hidden gems waiting to be explored.

You’ll find cenotes near Tulum, near Playa del Carmen, near Cancun – pretty well anywhere you’re staying in the Riviera Maya.

These natural sinkholes offer a unique and refreshing escape from the tropical heat. With their crystal-clear waters and mystical allure, Mexico’s cenotes are a must-visit for any adventurous traveler seeking a taste of nature’s wonders in this enchanting corner of the country.

Experience more of the Riviera Maya!

Mayan sites: From Chichen Itza to Tulum, you’ll have fun exploring these fabulous Mexican Mayan ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula.

Tulum accommodation: Tulum Beach is the best area to stay in Tulum for beach lovers. You’ll be spoiled for choice, as there are so many lovely luxury beach hotels in Tulum! Some Tulum hotels have private pools too.

Why visit Cancun? Which is better for a Mexican holiday – Cabo or Cancun? What about the island of Cozumel? What’s the difference between Cancun and Cozumel? And how do you compare Cancun and Puerto Vallarta?

Our top travel tips and resources

Hotels: Booking.com is great for scoring a “wow” hotel – or at least a decent one. (We especially like their flexible cancellation policy!)

Vacation homes, condos and rentals: We prefer and use Vrbo (Vacation Rentals by Owner).

Tours: For the best local food, walking and other guided tours, plus skip-the-line tickets to attractions, check out Viator (a TripAdvisor company) and GetYourGuide.

Car rental: Renting a car is often one of the best ways to explore off the beaten path. Discover Cars searches car rental companies so you get the best rates.

Travel insurance: SafetyWing is designed for frequent travelers, long-term adventurers and digital nomads. It covers medical expenses, lost checked luggage, trip interruption and more.

Travel gear: See our travel shop to find the best luggage, accessories and other travel gear. (We suggest these comfy travel sandals for city walking, the beach and kicking about.)

Need more help planning your trip? Check out our travel tips and resources guide for airline booking tips, ways to save money, how to find great hotels and other crazy useful trip planning info.

Pssst! If you make a booking or purchase through our site, we may earn a small commission (at no cost to you). Thanks!


If you love cenotes, pin this to Pinterest!


Photo credits: 8, 17, 21, 23 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | 1, 5, 16 Alltournative Ecological Adventures | 4, 13 to 15 Cenotes Casa Tortuga | 22, 24 Ecopark Kantun-Chi


About the authors

Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George Mucalov are the publishers of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents. See About.

Find destination guides, global food-and-wine stories, luxury hotel reviews, articles on cultural explorations and soft adventure trips, cruise reviews, insanely useful travel tips and more!

Bruce W Pincus

Tuesday 15th of March 2022

Hi...

We're heading to the Puerto Aventuras area in early May... only for 1 week and there are sooooo many choices of where to snorkel.

My girlfriend and I are in our mid 60's and are planning on purchasing Aria classic masks and our own fins. We are both fairly inexperienced. Any new updates on which brands of short fins are better quality than others? I'm leaning toward open strapped heels and some neoprene socks...

We're staying at the Barcelo Maya Palace which could have some decent snorkeling. Planning a day at Xel-Ha too but undecided on where else to go snorkeling for a day. Xpu-Ha or Akumal beach? Or other cenotes?

I'd greatly appreciate any feedback we can get...

Thank you

Janice and George

Saturday 19th of March 2022

Akumal Bay is famous for snorkeling with sea turtles, so we'd probably suggest that :-). It's fairly shallow and easy for snorkeling (getting in and out of the water is easy). And you can't beat seeing the sea turtles nibbling on the sea grass!

As for snorkel masks, some people really like the new full-face masks. We've only used the traditional masks. For the full-face mask to work properly, you need to get a good fit all around your face so it doesn't leak. Having said that, the ARIA full-face mask gets great reviews. And the full-face masks don't require any learning curve, so they might be easier for you to use. It sounds like you've done your research in the mask and fin department!

Enjoy your trip - and happy snorkeling!

Suzanne

Friday 8th of January 2016

I'm not sure I'd have the courage to head down a cenote and swim underwater to emerge in a cave - despite their beauty! Your photos are fantastic, which camera do you use?

Anda

Tuesday 22nd of December 2015

Wow, rappelling down into a cenote is not exactly my cup of tea, Janice, but it seems it's yours. I remember snorkeling in one of the cenotes on the Riviera Maya some years ago (more exactly 20). We stopped going to Mexico since the violent war among drug cartels erupted, but your post and beautiful pictures reminded me of how beautiful this area is.

Neil

Friday 18th of December 2015

We are in Playa del Carmen for four months. So many cenotes to explore! Some are hard to get to. Some are costly to explore. Some are free. All of them are magical. Thanks for the gorgeous photos. So much to see here in Riviera Maya!

Janice and George

Tuesday 22nd of December 2015

Pretty nice to spend the winter in the Riviera Maya :-). You get time to explore more cenotes than we could - a little jealous :-).

Frank

Sunday 13th of December 2015

That photo where it looks like you're going down a well? I don't think I'd like much... but your photos of the water and the colours of the rock are beautiful. We'll be doing something here in South Africa in a few weeks when visiting the famous Cango Caves, look forward to that.

Janice and George

Sunday 13th of December 2015

Just Googled the Cango Caves - that looks like fun! Except with the adventure tour there, you climb up ladders and walk through tunnels, all in dry tunnels and caves (no getting wet). It looks pretty adventurous though - did you see you go through the "coffin"?