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.
Riviera Maya cenotes
We visit Mexico often (especially during our 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. Most 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.
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
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
Each cenote is different. The cenotes in the Riviera Maya are a mix of the following four types:
The Riviera Maya cenotes are magical
Many Riviera Maya cenotes are adorned with fantastically-shaped stalactites and stalagmites.
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 – and 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!
1) Gran Cenote
Swimming, snorkeling, families and easy cenote fun close to 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.
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.
2) Cenotes Casa Tortuga
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 not as busy as Gran Cenote (#1 above) and is an easy set of cenotes for “cenote newbies” to explore.
3) Cenotes Sac Actun
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.
4) Native Park Tulum
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.
5) Cenote Carwash
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.
6) Cenote Dos Ojos
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.
7) Cenotes Kantun-Chi
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.
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.
You can go independently at your own pace without a guide or get a guided tour of the grottoes.
8) Cenote Calavera
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!
9) Cenote Azul
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.
10) Cenote Jardin del Eden
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).
If you love cenotes, pin this to Pinterest!
Photo credits: 9, 19, 21 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase |1, 3, 4, 7, 18 Alltournative Ecological Adventures | 12, 14 to 17 Cenotes Casa Tortuga | 23, 24 Ecopark Kantun-Chi