Cenotes: the veins of the earth in the Riviera Maya
“Caverns with water”; that is what the ancient Maya word dz’onot or ts’ono’ot literally means, from which the name “cenote” derives. But anyone who has visited one, or seen a photo or video, knows that these magical places are much more than simply flooded caves. The cenotes are the veins of the earth, the doors to an underground world full of magic and mysticism. Above all, they are outstanding works of art created by Mother Nature.
The calcareous terrain of the Yucatan Peninsula, which functions as a vast sponge, makes the formation of rivers and lakes on the surface practically impossible. However, the filtration of rainwater to the subsoil has formed the largest network of underground rivers and water wells in the world, and the cenotes are, precisely, outcrops of this unique circulatory system. You can find open-air cenotes, semi-open cenotes, and underground or cave cenotes. Some of them are deeper than others. They can be found in the middle of the jungle or near the coast. Diversity is the leitmotiv, but all of them are true natural wonders!
- Cenote Chac Mool
- Cenote Las Mojarras
- Cenote Ki-ha
- Chilam Balam
- Gran Cenote
- Cenote 7 bocas
- Cenote Rio Secreto
- Cenote Dos Ojos
- Cenote Ponderosa
- Cenote Cristalino
A colossal aquatic universe under the earth’s surface that for the ancient Maya civilization was especially important. Not only because it was its primary source of drinking water, but because the cenotes were considered a “communication channel” with Xibalbá, the underworld. Remains of human sacrifices and archaeological pieces were found in many of them, like the Sacred Cenote of Chichen Itzá (link to Chichén Itza). Such findings confirm that these natural sinkholes were places used for ritual purposes by the ancient Maya.
In any case, in Cancun, the Riviera Maya, and the rest of the Yucatan Peninsula, there are more than 7,000 cenotes. Many of them have become incredible ecotourism projects where you can swim, snorkel, and dive (link to Where to dive in Riviera Maya) in its super crystalline waters. You can discover the capricious rock formations that time has sculpted in its caves. Or get to know the rich flora and fauna that inhabits them. In short, these extraordinary places invite you to enjoy a good time. But they also represent the fragility and invaluable wealth of a unique ecosystem that, of course, we all have to take care of.
Cenote Chac Mool: an open-air paradise
Located in the Puerto Aventuras area, a step away from the fantastic Barceló Maya Grand Resort, this “open-air” type cenote has become one of the most visited places in the area. Because of its different depths, it’s an ideal place to enjoy an unforgettable experience with the whole family. Also, there’s a natural platform (about 16 feet high) from which it’s allowed to jump into the water. Moreover, the place is quite a beautiful spot to snorkel and enjoy the views offered by its rocky bottoms, as well as the different species of fish and plants that inhabit it.
Cenote Las Mojarras: a great natural pool
Further north, towards the Puerto Morelos area, this is the largest cenote of the famous “Ruta de los Cenotes” (the Cenote’s Route). Among its various attractions, you can enjoy an exciting zip line that flies over the 75-yard long cenote until it falls into the water. In addition, there are areas to jump from different heights and put your bravery to the test. You can also enjoy other types of activities in the same place, from a fun zip line that flies over the jungle to horseback riding and ATV circuits, among other options.
Cenote Kin-Ha: a light and water show
Also in the “Ruta de los Cenotes” of Puerto Morelos, this cenote still conserves part of its rock roof. It’s quite a spectacle to contemplate the cavern decorated with stalactites, with the sunlight making its way through the darkness until it touches the water. It’s no coincidence that Kin-Ha is considered one of the most beautiful cenotes in the area. Also (like Las Mojarras and many others), in Kin-Ha, there’s a water zip line, platforms for diving, and other alternative activities, such as horseback riding and ATV rides. An important detail is that from Kin-Ha you can access 11 different neighboring cenotes, so it is the perfect place to fully enjoy these incredible geological formations.
Cenote Chilam Balam: the emerald cave
This is another cave cenote surrounded by jungle. It has a spectacular upper opening through which the roots of a large tree descend until they connect with a rocky platform just above the water. A clear example of the charm and mysticism that makes these places simply magical. Inside, its waters have an emerald color that makes the place even more spectacular. With depths reaching over 160 feet, it’s perfect for swimming and snorkeling. Chilam Balam is also part of that 20+ miles strip of dense jungle, located between Puerto Morelos and the town of Leona Vicario, where there are about 60 cenotes. Obviously, the place is known as the “Ruta de los Cenotes.”
Gran Cenote: inexhaustible beauty
Located about 2 mi from Tulum, along the same road that goes to the archaeological site of Coba, this is one of the most famous cenotes in the southern part of the Riviera Maya. Its crescent moon shape includes shallow areas for swimming and snorkeling and deeper areas suitable for scuba diving. Similarly, parts of the cenote are open to the sky, and others are beautiful caves covered with whimsical geological formations. The diversity of its rock formations and the dense jungle that surrounds it make this cenote a place of infinite beauty. In addition, the Gran Cenote has different additional services, from bathrooms and showers to snorkeling equipment rental.
Cenote Siete Bocas: subterranean maze
This great underground cenote has, as its name suggests, seven “mouths” (Bocas means mouths in Spanish) or vents. Also a “member” of the “Ruta de los Cenotes,” Siete Bocas has diving areas, rock formations, roots that descend into the water, interconnected galleries, fish, bats… In addition to swimming and snorkeling, it’s also a good option for scuba diving since it has several underground galleries that can be explored. In short, it is a natural subterranean maze that you have to visit.
Rio Secreto: an underground world
More than a cenote, this place is an underground world and a true jewel of nature! Rio Secreto comprises a network of interconnected and partially flooded underground galleries some 40 miles long. However, only less than 10% of the total area is open to the public. In any case, touring this underground world, accompanied by expert guides who will show you all its richness, is a truly extraordinary experience. In addition, in this beautiful natural setting, you can enjoy an exciting rappel and a bicycle route through the jungle trails, among other activities.
Selvatica: jungle adventures
This breathtaking adventure park in the middle of the jungle offers all kinds of activities, from impressive zip lines and fun 4×4 routes to, of course, spectacular cenotes. As far as the latter are concerned, Selvatica has a semi-closed cenote and an open cenote, two different types but equally spectacular. The first is a display of rock formations. The second is a large cenote with crystal clear waters and beautiful underwater gardens. A wonderful place, surrounded by virgin jungle and full of unforgettable adventures.
Cenote Dos Ojos: two blue eyes
Located just 20 miles north of Tulum and very close to the Xel-Ha Park, it’s one of the most spectacular and best-known cenotes in the Riviera Maya. This semi-open cenote is formed by two springs of water (hence its name, obviously), and it’s part of a massive system of caves and underground rivers. More than 50 miles of underground galleries connect with the Sac Actun System to form the most extended network of flooded caves and underground rivers in the world. An unbelievable labyrinth of more than 180 miles! Moreover, the clarity of its waters is awe-inspiring, ideal for scuba diving and snorkeling. This incredible cenote is located within Dos Ojos Park, a community tourism initiative that includes more cenotes and different activities.
A tip: Check with the folks at Vacations Barcelo all the incredible options they offer you to discover these fantastic collection of underground treasures. Make yourself a favor and let the professionals take care of things so that you can forget about any complications and just enjoy the magical (under)world of the cenotes!
Cenote Ponderosa: the garden of Eden
Also known as the Garden of Eden, Ponderosa is the third group of cenotes located in the Barceló Maya Grand Resort area, about 15 mi south of Playa del Carmen. It’s a large open cenote (one of the largest in the Riviera Maya) surrounded by virgin jungle (hence the Garden of Eden) where you can swim, snorkel, and scuba dive. It also has a diving area and a rest area. Due to the different possibilities it offers, it is an ideal place to enjoy a wonderful day with the whole family.
Cenote Cristalino: a large natural pool
Almost in the same place as the Ponderosa, this cenote is also a large natural pool located in a beautiful natural setting full of vegetation. The place is perfect for swimming and having fun in its diving area. Of course, you can also snorkel and discover all the beauty of its depths. A small cavern adds to the charm of this magical place. In addition, the easy access and popularity of this cenote make it almost always have a very good atmosphere. And don’t forget to try some natural coconut water; they sell it right there, it’s delicious!
Frequently Asked Questions
What to take to a cenote?
Swimsuit and towel, obviously! But, don't forget to check with each cenote the local rules and requirements. Also, if you take repellent and sunscreen, make sure they are biodegradable. Better yet, take a shower before getting into the water (in some cenotes, it's mandatory). Taking care of the ecological balance of these magical places is very important.