Perhaps you know this already, but I did not. The Yucatan Peninsula is filled with hundreds of cenotes. Not sure what a cenote is exactly? Yeah, I didn't really know either. Turns out, cenotes are natural swimming holes formed by collapsed limestone. This phenomena unearthed an entire subterranean world of underwater pools. Most of these cenotes hold millions of gallons of fresh water filtered by the earth making them home to some of the clearest water in the country.
The Mayans referred to these fresh water sources as "sacred wells" or "cenotes." Many cenote regions are also home to Mayan ruins that were built based on the proximity to fresh water. Even now, descending into one of these secret pools, swimming in the pristine waters, surrounded by a forest of tropical trees and wild vines, and looking up through shafts of sunlight, feels pre-historic in a way.
Many divers seek out these pools because nearly all of them are connected by long underground tunnels, meaning that you could start in one cenote and end up in another with the help of scuba gear. Of course, this requires you to be completely fine venturing into completely dark water underneath the ground. I fully support the idea of getting cool underwater photographs, but I am not a huge fan of tight spaces that are both underground and underwater all at the same time.
Part of loving to travel is loving the unknown and the thrill of adventure. To be honest, there isn't much I haven't or woouldn't try. But, I have completely chickened out twice even after paying and signing insurance waivers. One time was when I was standing a top the world's tallest bungee jump overlooking a deep ravine in South Africa. The second time happened while in a deep, dark chlostophobic underground lava tunnel in Hawaii. Both times, I was like, "on second thought, I'm good."
It wasn't until visiting this cenote with the full intention of exploring the tunnels that I realized again, "ok, clearly caves and tunnels just aren't my thing." This is why I thought the Gran Cenote was perfect. yes, there were plenty of people suited up in gear to venture into the off-shoot, underground tunnels, but there were also people like me who preferred the shallow, open waters, and by people I mean mostly children... under the age of 8. But, hey, I am ok with that. Some stories I just don't need to tell. Anyone have an extra juice box?
El Gran Cenote has one larger swimming hole (shown above) that is connected by a very short and wide tunnel leading a much shallow swimming area. The tunnel between these two pools is a great place to spot fish especially with a flashlight.
No matter which pool you decide to relax in, it is important to note that the water isn't exactly warm. I visited on an over cast day so it is possible that with a full day of sun the water would be a few degrees warmer, but even still, most of these cenotes are surrounded by quite a bit of shade. The tree cover coupled with the underground temperatures makes the water considerably cooler than the ocean beach water.
TOP 4 CENOTES TO VISIT AROUND TULUM:
There are, quite literally, thousands of cenotes in the Riviera Maya due to the geology of the region. Some are quite small, while others are large and deep enough for exploration with scuba gear. Do your research to find out which cenote best fits your wanderlust. Here is my list of the top 4 popular cenotes worth visiting while in Tulum. All of these were chosen for there unique difference to the others so chose the one that fits your travel needs best:
Entry: 70 pesos ($3.90 USD) per adult, kids free
Located 3 miles from Chichen Itza, this cenote is well deserved after a day touring the ancient ruins in the area. Trust me, after walking around Chichen Itza, you will want to cool off and this is great place to do just that.
As you get closer and closer into the cenote, you start to feel like you are entering into another world. Vines and flowers cover the walls of the sinkhole. The water is not as clear as other pools in the area. Catfish actually swim at the bottom here, but it is regarded as one of the most breathtaking cenotes.
It is important to note that this cenote has more rules and an authoritative presence. For instance, you can only bring a towel down with you. Like most of the cenotes, there are lockers to store your things. but, travel light, and follow the swimming rules!
Entry: 100 pesos ($5.60 USD) each, kids free
Just 20 mins. outside of Tulum on the road to Coba sits this hidden gem. As the name implies, the main pool is quite large. The main draw, however, is not its size, but rather the caverns that are accessible from the cenote. Many of these caverns do not require scuba or snorkel gear. You can swim or snorkel to explore the stalagmites and stalactites that make these cenotes such geological marvels.
There is a small staircase down to the smaller, more shallow pool, or you can swim through a small cairn to access it from the main pool. There are quite a few bats in the roof and fish in the water so be sure to be on the look out for wildlife.
Entry: 40 pesos ($2.25 USD) each
Casa Cenote is beautifully surrounded by mangroves both above and under the water. This cenote is different from the others in that it feels more like a river than a sinkhole/cave.
Adorned with mangrove roots, these waters are home to lots of fish making snorkeling an adventure. The water here is not as deep as the others. That coupled with the open waters makes this spot a great place for beginning divers.
There is also a long cave going from the cenote out to the sea for anyone looking to test out their swimming skills. Thanks, but no thanks.
Cenote Dos Ojos:
Entry: 100 pesos ($5.60 USD) each, kids free
This cenote is located south of Playa del Carmen and north of Tulum. This cenote is know to be one of the large cave systems in the world documented at a span of 61 km.
It is called Dos Ojos, meaning "two eyes," because of the two cenotes joined together by short caves.
This cenote is also the deepest on this list with a depth of 61 meters making it a prime spot for divers to scuba to its depths. If you want to scuba dive, but aren't interested in dark underground tunnels, then this might be the spot for you to explore.
CENOTE TRAVEL TIPS:
Make sure to bring the right amount of pesos with you. You are not allowed to bring much of anything into the pools including any use of sunscreen. I recommend a good backpack, beach towel, sunglasses if visiting an open cenote, and pouches to keep your wet clothes in. If you want to take some underwater shots, make sure to get a good protector for your iPhone or camera, otherwise, I recommend a go pro or professional underwater camera.