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After hiking around the well-preserved Mayan ruins at Dzibilchaltun, just 30 minutes north of Merida, I was hot and sweaty, so plunging into the cool, crystalline water of the nearby cenote was a delight. It was much more than a swimming pool — it was an oasis. Floating through the lily pads, I understood why the ancient Mayans worshipped these sublime places (limestone sinkholes, grottoes, caverns and cave systems).
The underground freshwater river systems of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula flow throughout the Mayan heritage states of Yucatan, Campeche, Quintana Roo and others. Massive cave systems were formed when highly porous coral limestone dissolved during the Ice Age, and today the peninsula is dotted with an estimated 30,000 cenotes.
Cenotes come in many different forms. Some are dry, while others are filled with cool, turquoise water. Many are located alongside important archeological sites, and a number of them are considered sacred for honoring Chaac, the Maya rain god. Cenotes also range in size, from small crevices in rock formations to giant openings spanning more than 300 feet across. Some are covered with stalactites and stalagmites.
In most areas of the peninsula, the cenotes are the only source of fresh water. Many animals make their homes in and around them, including endemic species such as blind cave fish and blind crayfish.
En RouteThe Route of the Cenotes runs east to west from Merida to Puerto Morelos, just south of Cancun. The cenotes are promoted as an ecotourism attraction, and many tour operators in the region offer cenote tours. Visitors can snorkel, dive, swim or wade through them. Some cenotes contain fossils of prehistoric animals in their walls, while others are home to many species of tiny fish that will delight snorkelers and swimmers. Most cenotes are found inside Maya jungle areas, with enormous trees and other lush vegetation that is home to tropical birds. Some are privately owned, while others are run by local Maya communities that may charge a small admission fee, although the tour operator may include that in the package. It is advised to travel with a tour operator, such as AllTournative, since many cenotes are difficult to locate, are on private land or are only accessible by all-terrain vehicles.
Top Cenote SitesCenotes are extraordinary in any case, but there are a few particularly amazing sites that visitors should make a point of seeing.
Run by local Maya women, Yokdzonot Cenote and Ecological Garden is a relaxing getaway. It offers azure water, clean facilities and a charming restaurant with shady palapas on site, as well as an eco-friendly water waste system.
Cuzama consists of three spectacular cenotes located near the village, and they can be reached by hiring a local guide. The guide carries equipment to the site via a horse-drawn cart running over an abandoned narrow-gauge railroad.
Another option is Bolonchoojol, a deep hole that is accessible by a ladder made of welded old railroad ties. The ladder leads to a well-lit cavern with crystalline water and huge stalactites and stalagmites.
Eco-Arquological Park Ik-kil is home to the 85-foot deep Sagrado Cenote Azul (Sacred Blue Cenote). It is about 20 minutes from Chichen Itza, and only 30 minutes from Merida. Surrounded by exotic plants and trees, it is also the habitat for hundreds of wild birds and is ideal for swimmers.
Zaci, situated just a few hundred yards away from the gorgeous colonial city of Valladolid, is traversed by a walking path that passes under a curtain of dramatic stalactites. Southeast of Valladolid lies Dzitnup, with brilliant turquoise waters intersected by shafts of sunlight from above.
Cenotes are freshwater pools that are a popular attraction for visitors in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. // (c) Cancun CVB
Cenotes are fed by underground rivers that run throughout the Yucatan Peninsula. // (c) Cancun CVB
Many cenotes are filled with lily pads and fish. // (c) Cancun CVB
Underground cenotes may have stalactites and stalagmites in addition to crystal-clear water. // (c) Irene Middleman Thomas
Cenotes can be found at the bottom of deep holes in the ground or in caverns, such as Luum. // (c) Cancun CVB