Both beautiful places where you can swim through crystal clear fresh water, and sacred wells where the Mayans spoke with their gods, the cenotes of the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico are hidden wonders of the natural world.
In a cenote, you can be floating on top of the turquoise water but still beneath the earth. Look up, and you’ll often see the bright light of the sun shining down through the hole in the cave roof you entered through and the jungle above you, the roots of the trees reaching down.
What are cenotes?
Cenotes are underground caves filled with fresh water. Accessed through sinkholes, they are naturally occurring where the limestone bedrock has collapsed. The caves are a Mecca for cave divers and snorkelers from all over the world and many thousands of people visit them every year.
You’ll find more than 6000 freshwater caves in Mexico, making for a truly jaw-dropping addition to the country’s picture-postcard beaches. The Yucatan Peninsula, in particular, is the number one place to go if you fancy experiencing diving in cenotes for yourself.
What are the best cenotes in Mexico?
Cenotes are Mexico’s hidden wonders. But they’re not all created equal. Here are eight of the best cenotes in Mexico:
1. The Pit Cenote
With an awe-inspiring light show and deep depths to explore, the Pit is known as the “dream dive” amongst the team of my local diving shop. It’s well known for being just an all-around amazing experience, which starts as soon as you get into the water.
A wide shaft of glorious light beams down through the sinkhole entrance above. You’ll see this all the way down to the cenote’s depths. As you go diving in the Pit, you’ll pass through the halocline, the layer where the fresh water and salt water meet, and see how this has a strange but beautiful effect on the light. Finally, you’ll reach the murky bottom. Here sediment and the occasional piece of interesting free-floating detritus like tree branches make for an eerie view.
The massive cavern of El Pit is one of the prime sites for lovers of underwater photography and the cenote is probably the first one you should try if you have a little diving experience under your belt.
2. Gran Cenote
Unlike the intermediate or advanced diving skills required by El Pit, Gran Cenote welcomes divers but more particularly snorkelers of all skill levels (here’s a great guide to buying snorkel masks). It’s a little slice of paradise, being easy to dip into thanks to the small sandy beach at the entrance. It is also filled with fish and turtles, which are a joy to swim alongside.
Gran Cenote is also easy to get to, which is why it’s such a widely popular tourist spot. This means it’s always best to ask someone local what time is best to visit if you don’t want to be pushed for space. But. given that the walk down to the cavern is like moving through a jungle garden, that there’s an actual garden with space for sunbathing and that there is interesting land and air wildlife such as toucans present even in the winter months, Gran Cenote is popular for some very good reasons.
3. Dream Gate Cenote
While Gran Cenote is ideal for beginners or snorkelers, to dive in Dream Gate Cenote you’ll need some experience. One of the most remarkable of Mexico’s underwater caverns in terms of geology – stalagmites, stalactites and complete columns can all be found here amongst other formations – at the surface level, you can actually see how the jungle grows down into the bedrock.
Little frequented because the rocky formations are delicate and need some real skills to navigate around, you can see both bats and the occasional blind fish in Dream Gate in addition to it being a caver’s dream.
4. Dos Ojos
The name “Two Eyes” refers to the way the entrance to this cenote must look to a god’s eye view of the world.
Two sinkhole entrances which are the starting points for two very different possible dives to a shared central cavern. This central cavern is huge and possesses stunning geology. At one “eye” entrance you will find an open cave suitable for all comers who want to try snorkeling. At the other, there’s a dark, narrow entrance more suited to confident cave divers.
There’s also the hidden “bat cave”. You’ll probably need a local to guide you to this one, but the hidden cave – named for the hundreds of winged flyers which roost in the cavern roof – is a real gem. Well worth the short trip, even if it’s just to thank the bats for keeping the air around Dos Ojos remarkably free from the insects you’ll find elsewhere.
5. Casa Cenote
Casa Cenote is one to visit no matter how good a diver you are and what time of year you’re visiting Mexico. As one of the best Cenotes in Mexico, it is mainly a large lagoon surrounded by and teeming with mangrove trees and other jungle plants. Dive or snorkel here and you’ll feel like you’re truly diving in the jungle, with fish, barracudas, eels, shrimp and blue crabs meandering past you.
It’s a very different experience here to most other cenotes. Casa Cenote is a brilliant place to take some photos and you have a great view of the halocline layer formed because this cenote links the Sistema Sac Aktun (one of the longest cave systems in Mexico and the world) and the ocean. It is not one to be missed.
6. Car Wash Cenote
A real favorite for fans of wildlife, Carwash is teeming with fish and turtles when you dip beneath the clear, water lily-topped surface.
A good choice for both snorkeling and diving, I’ve come across small freshwater crocodiles here, swimming between the stalagmites, stalactites, and columns which the cavern is known for. Definitely bring your camera if you’re going diving in Car Wash Cenote.
7. Cenote Calavera
The entrance to Cenote Calavera has three holes in the rough shape of a skull. Hence, many people who know about this often quiet cenote refer to it as the “Temple of Doom.” Though it doesn’t always get the same number of visitors as other locations, Cenote Calavera is an absolute feast for the eyes.
Located conveniently close to Tulum, it has one of the clearest and most impressive halocline layers as well as some wonderful rock formations.
8. Cenote Angelita
Cenote Angelita is another for the more experienced diver. With a halocline layer and a murky bottom which lies 55m straight down, the “Little Angel” is small in name only.
Many guides to the cenotes of the Yucatan Peninsula will mention to you that Angelita has a “hidden river” or something similar under the water. This effect is created by the hydrogen sulfate sinking beneath the fresh water and then not necessarily moving in the same way as it because of its greater weight. This layer passes between the sides of the cenote, which at the base are marked with debris including trees, branches and even bones. To the eye, it is a mesmerizing effect, as if you are hovering in the air above a stream. It’s something you should definitely consider seeing if you have the necessary skills.
Like all cave diving in cenotes, you’ll need both equipment and either experience or local knowledge to get the best out of your time. But when the rewards which cenotes offer are so huge, they’re something which simply can’t be missed if you’re visiting Mexico.
Also known as “Chucho” around the surfing and diving scene in Tulum, Mexico, Jesús is deeply familiar with the cenotes in the local area, having helped map some of them for National Geographic. Co-founder of locally renowned diving shop Ko’ox Diving as well as the XookBoards line of wooden surfboards, Jesús divides his time between surfing, diving and playing with his two children.