What Is a Cenote?

Just “say no tay”! Even though it’s written Cenote, you actually pronounce it “say-NO- tay”. Apart from cenote pronunciation, it may be a funny Latin-American word for a ditch in the ground, but for divers and snorkelers they promise so much more. Think portals to adventure, intrigue and fun. To find a Cenote you’ll need to travel to Mexico, and some of the best are located near the ancient port of Tulum on the Yucatan Peninsula’s Riviera Maya Caribbean coast.

How Were Cenotes Formed?

They were formed by naturally-acidic rain filtering down over thousands of years and dissolving away the limestone. This carved out huge caves and underground rivers and in places, where the roof of the cavern collapsed under its own weight, the result was luxurious lagoons in the heart of the jungle, connected by hundreds of miles of secret streams and waterways.

What Makes Cenotes Unique?

Most Cenotes are back-filled with deep seawater which travels inland via subterranean rivers leading to the bottoms of the sinkholes. Between fresh and saltwater, the flows mix in a curious zone called the halocline. There is even a hidden underwater river with fallen trees in Cenote Angelita. Experiencing the sudden temperature change as you cross this divide is a must for any adventurous diver.

Mysterious sulphur clouds can also be observed at a depth of about 20-30m – it is a result of a decomposition of leaves and branches that occasionally fall into the cenote.

Cenotes are natural entrances to underground cave systems filled with water, such as Sistema Sac Actun – the longest underwater cave system in the world. In January 2018 the cave system Sac Actun, previously 263 km long, was merged with the 83 km Dos Ojos System – reaching the record 346 km.

How cenotes form, what are they

How Deep Are Cenotes?

One average cenotes are pretty deep – about 8-15 meters (49ft). Cenote the Pit is the deepest in Quintana Roo with its spectacular 119 m / 391 ft of depth. Cenotes dives are reserved for skilled divers only and the depth they can reach should be not more than 40 m (131 ft ). Angelita, The Pit & Pet cemetery even require advanced open water diving certification.

Top 5 deepest cenotes in Mexico:

  1. El Zacatón – 339 m (1,112 ft) – located on El Rancho Azufrosa in Tamaulipas, Mexico
  2. The Pit – 119 m (391 ft) – located on Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Mexico
  3. Sistema Dos Ojos – 118 m (387 ft) – located on Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Mexico
  4. Angelita – 60 m (196 ft) – located on Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Mexico
  5. Cenote Ik-Kil – 40 m (131 ft ) – located on Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Mexico

 

Which Are the Best Cenotes in Yucatan, Mexico?

There are more than 7,000 Cenotes in Yucatan, from the majestic Dos Ojos to the romantic Jardin del Eden (Ponderosa). Each has its own ecosystem of plants and wildlife, with colourful and exotic fish and the fascinating calls of bizarre birds up above. There are clear blue waters to swim and snorkel, rocks on which to bask in filtered sunlight and cliffs to jump from, and you can even find the odd zipwire or two. For the more adventurous cave divers there are Cenotes which have never seen the light of day, called caverns and caves,  but you’ll need cave diving gear and proper training to reach and enjoy those. Basing yourself in Tulum on Mexico’s spectacular Caribbean coast, where a five-star hotel costs just $221 (£165) a night, gives you easy access to some of the best known and most fascinating Cenotes in Mexico. Here are the selected Tulum’s best cenotes that Koox Diving can take you to. Let’s go!

Top 5 open air cenotes for swimming or snorkeling:

  1. Dos Ojos – open air part is about 3m deep
  2. Casa Cenote – the open air part is also 3 m deep
  3. Gran Cenote – 140 m² for swimming & snorkeling, has a sandy bottom
  4. Jardin del Eden – Garden of Eden – near Playa del Carmen
  5. Car Wash (Aktun Ha) – with water lilies and fish

Top 5 underground cenotes for a swim or exploration:

  1. Cho Ha – vast as a football field with stalactite formations and a water pool
  2. Cenote Hilario – a cave with a small tunnel leading to a crystal clear pool
  3. Aktun Chacmool – vast air dome with light effects
  4. El Alamo – a dry cave with a sacred Alamo tree inside
  5. Las Calaveras – near the archaeological site of Coba is the largest underwater Mayan grave ever found

How Did the Ancient Mayans Use the Cenotes?

For the ancient inhabitants of Yucatan – the Mayans – Cenotes near Tulum and elsewhere around the peninsula were places of worship, gaping mouths through which they could speak with the gods, and receive the divine blessing of fresh water.

Here are 7 of the Best Cenotes in Tulum

Map of Koox Diving Locations for Cenotes Diving & Snorkel Tours

Dos Ojos — Spanish for “Two Eyes”

It is a 15-minute drive by colectivo (a local mini-bus) on the road to Playa del Carmen. Ask the driver to drop you off at Dos Ojos cenote and you’ll discover one of the best known – and biggest – of all the Cenotes in Mexico. Its cave system extends for at least 37 miles (60km) of cool crystal-clear water, and one point – the Cenote El Pit – is almost 400ft (120m) deep.

Dos Ojos Cenote
Entrance fee for divers is around $35 (£26) and $27 (£20) for snorkelers. Dos Ojos gets its name from the two big sinkholes connected by a large subterranean cavern rich in stalactites and stalactites. From above, this pair of holes appears like two large eyes peering out from the underworld. One of the main attractions of Dos Ojos Cenote is its adjoining “bat cave”, a cavern which plays host to thousands of bats roosting on its ceiling.

Dos Ojos is a popular location for cenote and cave diving. Non-certified swimmers can snorkel in the open air parts and crystal clear waters of the most famous underground system in the world.

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.

Diving in cenote Angelita

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.

Dive into cenote Calavera

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.

Explore Gran Cenote

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.

Casa Cenote

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.

Snorkel tour in Casa Cenote

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

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.

Car wash technical diving

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.