If you are doing research on the Riviera Maya or planning to spend your vacation in Tulum, Akumal or Playa Del Carmen, you will inevitably stumble on the word ‘cenote.’ These geological creations are an integral part of the history of the Yucatan. Today, people love to visit several cenotes to understand more about the diverse ecosystem unique to Quintana Roo and the beliefs of the Maya. Cenotes are the perfect places for you to swim, snorkel and explore off the beach.
Cenote (pronounced “Say-note-tay”) is a naturally formed pit or sinkhole made of limestone. The Yucatan Peninsula, including the Riviera Maya, has a vast river system that flows underground throughout the area. Over the course of the centuries, portions of caverns and the the limestone roof that supports the waterways has weakened, and in some places collapsed, creating cenotes.
It is easy to identify a place where this natural weakening of the limestone roof has occurred. The rubble pile of a collapse typically has little soil. The jungle plants that grow on the surface of the limestone find natural holes in the limestone and grow towards the water located in the underground river. The winding root systems are amazing and one of the beauties of the cenotes. When you are touring the coast looking for a cenote to explore, entrances are identified by the name of the cenote making it easy to turn in and discover a cenote on your own.
The basins of some cenotes, like Dos Ojos, may be filled with the natural rubble from the collapsed roof, but others, like Cenote Cristal south of Tulum, look very much like a normal pond. Each cenote has their own unique features so the term, you have seen one cenote you have seen them all does not apply. Pick a day, pick a cenote, and discover these beautiful, natural swimming pools.
For the ancient Maya, cenotes were their only source of fresh water. Mayan cities were built around a cenote for the sole purpose of a water source, and today, cenotes are used for daily water sources. In addition to a water source, cenotes were considered to be ‘sacred wells’ where religious ceremonies often took place. Cenotes are the entrance into the underworld, the most sacred place for the Maya.
The affluent Mayan city of Chichén Itzá (translated as “At the mouth of the well of the Itza”), was named after a cenote.
There are an estimated 6000 cenotes in Mexico, but less than half have been explored.
The Yucatan Peninsula is also home to the Longest Underground River and Cave System in the World. Many cave explorers assisted in the discovery and mapping of the cave system but in 2007 by British diver Stephen Bogaerts and his German colleague Robbie Schmittner found the area where two of the largest cave systems joined, a discovery that documented the river as 95 miles (153 kilometers) long.
Some cenotes contain spectacular cave formations, like the one at Gran Cenote. Inside, the cavern stalactites hang from the ceiling and penetrate the water, while submerged stalagmites rise from the floor.
Not all cenotes have clear water. Tannic acid from fallen leaves can stain the water, making it tea colored. While warm water algae blooms can turn the water a cloudy green. Some cenotes, like Casa Cenote are a mix of salt water and fresh water, which creates a natural halocline, the area where the salt and fresh water separate.
Nowadays, local Maya and tourists come to dive, snorkel and swim in the crystal-clear waters of these natural pools. The easiest way to explore cenotes is to book a tour with a dive center anywhere in Riviera Maya. Playa Del Carmen, Puerto Aventuras, Akumal and Tulum all have dive centers offering cenote snorkeling and diving tours with a qualified dive or snorkel guide.
Small children and non-swimmers can explore these tropical sinkholes as well. The thick floating ropes tied across many of the “open” cenotes make it easy to stay afloat, enjoy the cool water and experience there sacred waters.
Partially closed cenotes are great for snorkeling and diving. For example, Gran Cenote, located near Tulum, is the main entrance of Sac Actun (The White Cave), which is currently the 2nd longest underwater cave system in the world, interconnecting 110 miles (176 km) of mapped passages and over 130 freshwater cenotes. The overhanging cavern roof makes this adventure a not-to-be missed experience.
Cavern snorkelers stay in the large open air space under the cave ceiling while scuba divers with dive gear and a certified guide, can explore areas where there is no air space. Cavern divers only require open water certification to experience an overhead environment. What is a must for cavern diving is a certified guide who is trained in overhead environments and diving protocols built specifically for cavern diving. Cavern diving is defined by the very rule that sunlight is a primary reference to the cavern exit, and it should always be kept in sight. Dos Ojos Cenotes, located south of Playa Del Carmen and north of Tulum, are some of the best in terms of diving, snorkeling and natural beauty.