Cenote Angelita (Little Angel)
Of all the Cenotes near Tulum, Angelita is a target for more experienced divers and home to a fascinating phenomenon – a “river” within a lake. More than 30ft wide and 200ft deep, this cenote is a little more than 10 miles (17km) from Tulum or 15 mins by road, but drop-ins aren’t welcomed and there are no facilities for changing or gear storage, so you should come prepared.
What your local guide will help you to see is a thick hydrogen-sulphide layer at 100ft (28m) down – formed by the slow rot of flora and fauna falling into the Cenote Angelita from the jungle above. It acts as a barrier between the fresh water above and the cold salty seawater seeping in below. The organic matter forms a crested heap which sticks above the sulphide layer, looking like an island in the middle of a stream. The heavy sulphide seems to move independently of the water, and so looks like a river with its own current. If there’s enough time dip through the sulphide for even more weirdness. The layer blocks natural light from above, even though the water is clear, and the effect can be very disorientating, so be sure your diving skills are up to it – advanced open water certification or equivalent is required for safely enjoying Angelita.
Cenote Calavera (The Skull)
It is also known to some as the “Temple of Doom”. But this Cenote – Tulum is about 5 minutes’ away by car – is not so daunting as Angelita and so is popular with first-timers looking for their cave-diving certificate. That said, because of its modest size, Calavera doesn’t get the crowds experienced at some of the other Cenotes around Tulum. The name comes from the holes in the limestone ceiling which, if you squint and turn your head, and concentrate hard, you might just see a “skull” or two.
If you don’t fancy a snorkel or a dive, the clear water and stunning rock formations and fossils make it an amazing place for a gentle swim among the catfish, but to do so would be missing out on the Mayan relics said to lie at the bottom. Calavera is the first Cenote out of Tulum on the road to Coba and looks like someone’s back yard. Probably the most scary thing about the “Temple of Doom” however, is the way you get in, jumping 12ft into a small, dark hole. If that doesn’t appeal, there’s also a rustic ladder for a more stately entrance. It costs just 80 pesos (around $4 or £3) to get in.
Gran Cenote (Sac Aktun)
This cenote is a little further along the Coba highway by colectivo, about two-and- a-half miles (4km) from Tulum. Sac Aktun – Mayan for “white cave system” – is everyone’s idea of the perfect Cenote, with its sandy bottom and own bat colony. At its centre is an island with palm trees and elephant ears, surrounded by water lilies, and a platform erected for sunbathing in its great natural light.
In January or February, visitors to the Gran Cenote, Tulum, include friendly toucans who seem to appear as if by magic. In 2008, scientists uncovered the remains of a giant mastodon – a sort of prehistoric elephant – as well as the skull of a teenage girl that might possibly be the oldest evidence of humans in Yucatan. Drop-ins are most welcome and for a little under $7 (£5) admission you get access to spectacular scenery and thousands of years of history.
It is about 15 mins by car from Tulum and is geared towards divers, although its size and low-level topography make it good for paddlers or even non-swimmers. The name Casa – Spanish for “house” – comes from its long-standing association with a local restaurant, but it’s also known as Cenote Manati for the manatees which used to swim there. Situated just across the street from the Caribbean coast, it connects to one of the longest underwater cave systems in Mexico, Nohoch Na Chich, and so you’ll see tons of freshwater and marine fish, as well as the occasional small alligator swimming around the shallow edges of the mangrove-lined pool.
The resulting halocline and nice light effects means divers in the deeper reaches can enjoy moving through passages and cracks in the limestone. Go early to avoid the crowds; it starts to get busy just before lunchtime. For about $20 (£15) per person you can get a private guided ground tour of Casa Cenote, as well as snorkelling equipment and life preservers (for non-swimmers), but basic entry is around a fiver.
Cenote Pet Cemetery
One of the most recently-opened Cenotes, is part of the Dos Ojos system, and has similar stunning formations of stalactites and stalagmites. But it gets its name from the discovery of a soft, dune-like bottom which concealed scores of animal bones ranging from extinct pre-historic camels to more modern species like tapirs and spider monkeys. Scientists now think the sinkhole was used as an ancient Mayan rubbish tip before the last Ice Age and was flooded by the rising waters when it ended.
Pet Cemetery is comprised of two different caves, dubbed the Blue Abyss and the Dark Side of the Moon. A great dive for advanced divers – with shallows and fragile rock formations, and therefore a need for good buoyancy control and awareness – but also a great place to snorkel in waters averaging a balmy 23C. Pet Cemetery is 7.5 miles (12 km) north of Tulum via highway 307. Drop-ins are welcome, but you’re advised to hire a dive guide.
Cenote Carwash (Aktun Ha)
It is famous for its delicate rock formations and is still ranked among Tulum’s most beautiful caves. This is another sinkhole with an odd name, derived from the fact that because it was so close to the road, local taxi drivers used its water to clean their cars. Those days are long gone and Aktun Ha (as the Mayans called it) is more valued for its tourism potential than its wax and dry. It is enormous, more than 150ft (45m) wide, and with an average depth of 10ft (3m), and filled with shoals of colourful tetras, turtles and even the odd small croc, sheltering under the lilies. Again, as a result of the shallow depth, divers need good buoyancy control, but because of its overall size it’s a popular place for diving classes.
Although the water is the usual Cenote crystal clear, weather conditions may change things … at least at the surface. In the summer, the first few meters can seem a little murky due to algal bloom, and rain can change the colour to psychedelic yellow or even red. Carwash is open daily, and the dive fee is around $14 (£10). Because of the accessibility to the main highway, it is very popular being just a short colectivo ride from Tulum, but there’s plenty of space for everyone.
There are a few simple rules for swimming or diving in Cenotes. For a start bring your swimsuit, a visor or goggles, and a life jacket (even if you know how to swim). It’s also a good idea to have proper diving certification, and carry complete equipment in good condition, although some Cenotes hire out kit.
And remember this is Mexico, so bring biodegradable insect repellent and sunscreen, and water. The heat around the Tulum Cenotes in Yucatan – especially in the summer months – can be extreme.