What is a Cenote?
A unique experience that is readily available in this part of the world–one that is still relatively unknown–is visiting some of the natural freshwater pools found in the jungle. Known as “cenotes,” these sinkholes have been providing residents with fresh drinking water for generations.
The Yucatan Peninsula is laced with a network of subterranean rivers. Typically a cenote begins as an underground reservoir in this network. As the centuries pass, some of these limestone caves collapse in on themselves, creating incredible open-air pools of various depths. They are beautiful to see and refreshing to cool off in during a hot Mexican day!
Cenotes are also a great attraction for divers as well. These captivating freshwater pools are connected in a labyrinth of underground flooded caverns. They are known for stunning visibility! If you are an experienced diver and enjoy cave diving, this could be an opportunity you won’t want to pass up. Keep in mind that these are fed with underground rivers and they are generally quite cool (water temperature usually in the low to mid 70’s ˚F / low 20’s ˚C).
Types of Cenotes
There are four main types of cenotes, and all of them have a unique beauty.
Jug or pit cenotes are open to the sky, like a big blue swimming hole. These are very fun for swimming and snorkeling.
Cylinder cenotes have vertical walls, with dramatic shafts of sunlight beaming in and sometimes vines and tree roots extending down.
Basin cenotes have shallow water basins and usually the most stunning crystalline, aqua-colored water.
Cave cenotes are enclosed, often with impressive stalactites and underwater stalagmites and pillars.
If you’d like to go and check out any of these natural marvels, you’ll have to travel a little. There are literally thousands in the area. Some are more developed than others. Just north and south of Playa del Carmen, you’ll find some of the best cenotes. Of course, each cenote is slightly different and has its own distinct flair. Enjoy your exploring expedition!
Jardín de Edén
Also known among divers as “Ponderosa,” this cenote is located about 25 km south of Playa (about 3 km south of Puerto Aventuras). Eden is one of the largest and most popular cenotes. The price of entry is currently around $100 pesos for an adult and $60 for children (this is typically the charge for any cenote). It is one of three cenotes clustered off the highway (the other two being the next on our list). Well-named, Eden is basically a large, blue swimming pool surrounded by lush jungle! It has several platforms with stairs leading into the water and a 12 – 15 foot (3 – 4 m) cliff to jump from. Like most of the cenotes on our list, it is home to a variety of fish. Keep an eye out for turtles, freshwater eels, as well as an abundance of aquatic plant life. Make sure and bring your mask and snorkel as there is much to see and fun to be had.
Situated right next to the entrance to both Eden and Azul is this beautiful cenote. This is another predominantly open cenote where you can work on your tan as you enjoy the natural beauty and refreshing water. Cristalino is in the shape of a crescent. Many mangrove trees surround the water’s edge. There’s also a section that is still an intact cave (fun to swim through), as well as a cliff to jump off of that is around 12 feet / 4 meters high. At the cenote entrance, you can buy snacks, and rent snorkel gear or inner tubes to float on. Side note: there are little fish that are natural exfoliates and found at many of the spas around Playa del Carmen. If you dangle your feet in the water for a few minutes, they’ll swim up and nibble off any dead skin. Be aware, it tickles! But don’t worry; if you’re swimming, they won’t bother you.
The last cenote of the three located here on the federal highway is called Cenote Azul. As has been mentioned, each cenote shares many similarities, but at the same time has many differences, so you may prefer one over another. This one is a crowd-pleaser and fun for the whole family. Cenote Azul may be a bit more kid-friendly than other cenotes, since it has many shallower areas where you can stand and enjoy the beautiful blue, crystal-clear water. There are definitely deeper areas to swim as well. There is also a cliff to jump from that is about 15 feet (5 meters) high. Make sure you snap some pics at this beautiful spot.
This is a special stop since you can enjoy the beach and also cool off at a cenote all in the same location. Also near to Tulum (about 40 min drive south of Playa del Carmen), this is a tranquil spot with gorgeous views from the beach. It costs around 20 pesos to enter but can be a great getaway for the day. The cenote here is small and not super deep, but is just a short walk off the beach and through the jungle. The fact that you can enjoy both the beach and a refreshing clear cool cenote at the same stop is the reason it’s on our list. On-site is a bathroom with showers, as well as a shady picnic area (just bring your own snacks and drinks). Watch for turtle-nesting areas staked out on the beach as you stroll to the cenote.
A bit further to the south, just outside of the coastal city of Tulum, lies the Gran (Grand) Cenote. Once you enter Tulum, you will turn west onto highway 109 towards the Coba ruins. Around 4 km more, on the north side of the road, is the entrance to the Grand. This is an absolutely beautiful cenote that is sunken into the ground a little ways, hidden out of sight from the surface. As you descend the staircase that takes you the cenote, you can go to the right and swim through a cave to another section of the cenote or go left and explore the deeper section. (Bring or rent a mask so you can see the impressive underwater stalagmites and pillars.) It is not a very big cenote but it is very beautiful and relaxing. It’s a great option for a fun afternoon. The far section of this cenote has a shallow sandy area with aqua blue water that is fantastic for young children, so it may be a great option if you have kids. Also, watch for the little turtles swimming around! There are lockers, a picnic area with exotic birds, bathrooms and change rooms on-site. You can rent life jackets and snorkel gear here as well.
One of the best cenotes for diving, this spot is located just north of Tulum off of the federal highway. Dos Ojos is translated as “two eyes.” The site is made up of two cenotes around 70 meters in diameter that are connected by a 400 meter long passageway. It’s as if they are luminous blue eyes gazing deep into the underground. This is also the third longest underground river in the world, measuring more than 82 km in length, with more than 28 explored cenotes! It also has the deepest known cave passage in Quintana Roo, with a maximum depth of 396 feet (118 meters). Dos Ojos boasts some of the clearest water around.
Moving north of Playa del Carmen just before you hit the town of Puerto Morelos, there is a road known as the “Ruta de Cenotes”. It heads west into the jungle and is home to a large number of cenotes. Feel free to explore as many as you desire! Kin Ha is spectacular and offers a variety of cenotes to experience with one entrance fee. This is a nice option considering you’ll be traveling for almost an hour to get here, so having the opportunity to see several cenotes in one locality is a treat. Here you can enjoy a totally enclosed cave cenote. There are only a few holes in the cenote’s dome that you can jump through if you are brave enough!