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10 Best and most beautiful Riviera Maya cenotes

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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!

Riviera Maya cenotes

Best 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.

Riviera Maya cenote

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.

There are thousands of cenotes in Mexico

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.

At Cenotes Sac Actun, you can snorkel through underground rivers

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

Swimming at Cenotes Casa Tortuga, one of the best cenotes near Tulum

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.

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

Kayaking in a Mexican cenote

Each cenote is different. 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.

The cenotes are an absolute highlight of a visit to the Riviera Maya.

Best cenotes in Riviera Maya

There’s usually a small entrance fee for cenotes that you can visit independently (ranging from about $2+ to $10 USD). For cenote parks or cenotes where you need a guide, the cost is more.

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!

A Tulum cenote, Cenotes Casa Tortuga is less busy than Gran Cenote.

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.

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.

One of the most popular cenotes in Tulum is Gran Cenote.

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

View of Cenotes Casa Tortuga

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

Cenotes Casa Tortuga is made up of four cenotes.

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 one of the best Riviera Maya cenotes

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.

Climbing down a ladder to get into the water, you go with a guide in a small group through several caves on a tour that takes about 45 minutes. 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.

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

Snorkeling in a cenote in Riviera Maya

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

You get a similar 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.

And oh the stalactites! Shining our flashlights on them revealed these amazing icicle-like creations in all their splendor.

Rappeling down into a Riviera Maya cenote at Native Park Tulum

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

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.”

Some of the Dos Ojos underwater cave system was featured in the 2002 IMAX film, Journey into Amazing Caves, and 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.

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, 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.

Here’s a good full-day tour you can book which combines a visit to the ruins of Tulum with a swim at Dos Ojos Cenote.

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

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

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

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.

Kantun-Chi Ecopark is home to 5 cenotes near Playa Del Carmen, Mexico.

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

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.

Kantun-Chi Cenotes

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

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

Cenote Azul is one of the best Playa del Carmen cenotes

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

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.

Experience more of the Riviera Maya!

Read our posts on:

Mayan sites | From Chichen Itza to Tulum, you’ll have fun exploring these 7 best Mexican Mayan ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula.

Where to stay | If you’re a foodie, the Grand Velas Riviera Maya restaurants will tickle your tastebuds!

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Photo credits: 7, 16, 18 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | 1, 4, 15 Alltournative Ecological Adventures | 5, 13, 14 Cenotes Casa Tortuga | 19, 20 Ecopark Kantun-Chi


About the authors:

Janice and George Mucalov

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

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

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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"?

Irene S. Levine

Thursday 10th of December 2015

Those are incredible photos...the cenotes seem magical but also very mysterious. You shouldn't have told me about the bats!

Janice and George

Friday 11th of December 2015

The bats were very small - and they huddled together in a clump on the cave ceiling. And you know they're really good creatures because they eat lots of bad bugs :-).