While visiting the Yucatan, its almost impossible not to hear about a cenote, or drive past one. If you are unsure of what it is, or how to see one: here is a beginners guide to visiting cenotes in Mexico.
Cenotes (pronounced say-no-tays) are sinkholes filled with freshwater, and are located all over Mexico. They also have a lot of cultural significance, with the Mayans believing that cenotes were gateways to the Underworld. Because of this, some cenotes such as the Sacred Cenote in Chichen Itza have been found to have sacrificial artefacts at the bottom. These include pottery, precious metals as well as human skeletons.
Cenotes were also incredibly important for settlements as a vital source of freshwater. Since the water in the sinkholes have to filter through the surrounding limestone, the water is usually crystal clear. This makes cenotes amazing places to see the fishes and turtles that live in the water up close. If you are visiting the region, taking a dip in a cenote should absolutely be on your list of things to do!
What to do:
Swimming and snorkelling are some of the most popular things to do, and with good reason. Not only is it a beautiful location, but the cool water is incredibly refreshing on a hot day. However, if you don’t want to swim, you can also just walk around the area and take photos. Some cenotes are also well suited for cave diving. You can find more cenote diving tours here.
When to visit:
Early mornings and late afternoons are the best times to visit the busier cenotes. Tour buses tend to arrive anywhere between 10am and 2pm, so avoid those times if you can. If you want to visit during these times, try to find a cenote that is off the beaten path.
What to bring:
If you are planning on going into the water, bring a swimsuit and a towel to dry off afterwards. If you want to snorkel, bring your snorkel and goggles. However, flippers are not encouraged so leave those behind. Many of the popular cenotes such as Ik kil and Gran Cenote have snorkels and life jackets available for rent. Lockers are also usually available for a small fee. I would also highly recommend bringing an underwater camera if you have.
Read more on what to pack for a week in the Yucatan here.
Protecting the Environment:
Since cenotes are basically natural pools, it is a very delicate eco system. Especially with rising tourism in the region and cenotes becoming increasingly popular by the day, it is important to take measures to protect these natural habitats. For this reason, do not wear any sunscreen, bug spray or cosmetics when swimming. A lot of the popular cenotes have showers on site, and it is mandatory to shower before going into the water.
Which cenotes to visit?
There are estimated to be over 6000 cenotes in the Yucatan peninsula alone, so you have plenty of choice. Below is a list of some of the more popular ones.
Near Chichen Itza: Sacred Cenote (No swimming allowed), Cenote Ik Kil , Yokdzonot Cenote
Near Tulum: Gran Cenote, Cenote Dos Ojos
Near Playa del Carmen: Cenote Azul, Cenote Chaak Tun
Anna Everywhere also has an awesome post with details of various cenotes here. If you want to discover more cenotes, there are tours that visit multiple cenotes in a day. Or talk to the people around you (taxi drivers, hotel staff etc) and find out their favourite spots to visit. You are more likely to find a hidden gem that way.
Visiting Mexico for the first time? Check out my post on tips for first time visitors here.
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