A cenote is a natural phenomenon, a sinkhole in the Earth’s surface. The Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico has an estimated 7,000 cenotes because it is primarily made up of porous limestone. For millions of years, rainfall slowly ate away at the limestone and a huge system of underground caves and caverns was formed. Many filled with water from rain or from the underground water table. When the roof of a water filled cave collapses, a cenote is born. The water found in a cenote may be fresh water, salt water, or both. Structurally it may be completely open, like a lake, almost completely closed with just a small opening at the top, or somewhere in between.
The Mayan Connection
Cenote comes from the Mayan word “dzonot” or “ts’onot” which means sacred well. Cenotes were the main source of fresh water for the ancient Mayan civilization. Mayans believed the cenotes contained curative elements and considered many of them to be sacred. They also believed cenotes to be portals to the underworld and a way to communicate with the gods. The Sacred Cenote (Cenote Sagrado) at Chichen Itza was used to perform human sacrifices!
Some of these beautiful natural sinkholes are open to the public. Here are the best cenotes to visit in the Yucatan Peninsula state of Quintana Roo. They are all located relatively close to Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
Called the “Sacred Blue Cenote”, Ik-Kil is a crystal clear, round, well-type cenote. Located on the highway between Chichen Itza (it’s only a couple of miles away from the archeological site) and Valladolid, this cenote is about 130 feet deep! It is about 85 feet from the surface so you will need to walk down a wooden stairway to reach it. Ik-Kil is more popular with swimmers and snorkelers than divers. There is a restaurant and small palapa homes for overnight stays. Look for the waterfalls and the lush green vegetation hanging all the way down to the water!
Cenote Ik Kil is located 3 km from the archaeological site of Chichen Itza.
2. Dos Ojos
Cenote Dos Ojos or “two eyes” is located a little over 9 miles south of Tulum on highway 307 on the right. This cenote was named Dos Ojos because it is actually two circular cenotes. There are areas for swimmers, snorkelers and scuba divers. This is a world famous cenote and there is a large cave system below where divers can explore almost 500 meters of the underwater world in the immediate area. IMAX filmed part of their film “Journey into Amazing Caves” here. There are bathroom facilities and snacks available. Look for the “Bat Cave”!
Cenote Dos Ojos is located about 15 minutes north of Tulum off Highway 307.
3. Gran Cenote (Sac Aktun)
This cenote lives up to its name (gran = grand or large) and is a must see. Located just outside of Tulum, it is easy to find. Take a right off of highway 307 at the second stop light in Tulum. After traveling almost 2 miles you will see a sign for the cenote on your right. There are changing and bathroom facilities and a restaurant. There are areas for swimmers, snorkelers and scuba divers. Look for the fish and turtles and be careful not to hit your head on the impressive stalactites! Many people say this is their very favorite cenote.
Gran Cenote is located 3.5 km from downtown Tulum on the road to Coba.
Mexicans, expats and tourists all love to visit the beautiful cenotes of the Mexican Caribbean. They may spend the day swimming, snorkeling, diving, sunbathing or simply relaxing. Visit a cenote and you may even connect with the ancient Mayan civilization.
Book our Chichen Itza Mayan Ruins Tour.
Book our Cancun All-Inclusive + Chichen Itza Tour.
Have you been to a cenote? Which one was your favorite? Any tips? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
About the Author
Kristin Busse is currently a travel writer but has worked in many different industries. She lives in Cancun, Mexico and plans to use her diverse experiences to write about the Yucatan Peninsula from her unique perspective.