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The Yucatan peninsula has the unusual feature of resting on a bed of limestone. Over the centuries, as rainfall was absorbed into the ground, it created subterranean caverns filled with fresh water pools. Sometimes the “roof” of these caverns collapses in, leaving the pool open to the sky and creating a fresh water swimming hole in the jungle. Whether enclosed or open, these pools are known as cenotes (say- no-tays). These pools were an important—sometimes the only—source of fresh water for the Mayan people. As such they were regarded as religious sites. Today they remain an important part of the ecosystem of the Yucatan while offering a place of unique natural beauty to be enjoyed by visitors and locals alike.
There are many cenotes which are easily accessible to the public. Most are privately owned and will charge a minimum fee ($2-$10 US per person) for admission. In addition, many “adventure” or eco-tours offer cenote trips. The cenotes listed here are some of our own favorites.
Both are located on Highway 307 directly across from the Barceló Maya Resort, about 15 minutes south of Playa del Carmen. Both have small signs near dirt roads that lead back to the cenotes. An admission fee is charged for each. Both cenotes are very large and can be quite deep. As the water is crystal clear, the snorkeling is very good. However, the sea life is very limited. Cristalino has a rock overhang from which the brave can jump into the waters below. Both places have a beautiful tropical jungle setting and both places are popular with locals as swimming holes. Snacks and restrooms available.
In the same general location you will also find three other cenotes: Chikin Ha (Meaning "Water from the West" in Mayan), which is a group of three cenotes; Kantun Chi (Meaning "Snake over There" in Mayan) and Eden.
This dive site is must do for advanced divers who are looking for something a little different. The name means "little angel" in English and there may not be a better way to describe this magical dive site. The setting is perfect as you walk a short distance through the jungle to the rather large hidden away cenote. To describe it simply this cenote does nothing else but go straight down 200 feet. Fresh water with unlimited visibility makes up the first one hundred feet and salt water the other half is separated by a mystical layer of hydrogen sulfate. This layer in the middle appears as a dense cloud from the top and strange colored hue from the bottom. Bring your dive lights, as you will need them if you are going to penetrate through to the bottom. There are not many dives in the world where you can dive in the clouds at 100 feet and see trees, but this is one. The deepest point of this cenote really is at 200 feet so go with the proper gasses in your tanks but more importantly the right guide showing you the best and safest dive possible. www.cenoteangelita.com
The Gran Cenote is one of the largest open air cenotes in the area. More the size of a small lake, it offers great swimming and snorkeling in clear water plus decks to sit on and of course the beauty of a tropical surrounding. The shallower areas lead through an open cave to a smaller jungle pool. Very pretty. Off Highway 307 on the turnoff to Cobá (near Tulum). Admission Fee. Snacks and restrooms. After a hot day or tour at Cobá, Gran Cenote is a great place to cool off. For information about this cenote, see www.grancenote.com.
A park featuring walking tours of an underground cave system. From walkways, visitors can see spectacular caverns filled with colorful stalactites and stalagmites. The reflections of crystalline pools create amazing optical effects. Easily handled by elderly and children, there are also easy walks through the jungle and supervised interaction with local wildlife (think parrots and monkeys). The guides are informative and the cave pools and rock formations mysteriously beautiful. On 307 just south of Akumal. See www.aktunchen.com for times and admission prices.
This park offers snorkeling and/or diving through underground caverns. The tour is guided and follows a rope path which is well lit with underwater lighting. They provide all equipment needed, including wet suits and life jackets. This is a spectacular tour in which you feel as if you are snorkeling through the Grand Canyon. This park was featured in an IMAX theater production. We love this place. On 307 north of Tulum. See www.hiddenworlds.com for times and prices.
Please note: in order to keep these natural treasures free of contaminants, only wear biodegradable sunscreen, don’t wear insect repellent when swimming, and don’t pee in the pool.
The cenotes listed above can easily be reached by taxi, rental car, or collectivo bus from Playa Del Carmen. All are on the way to or near Tulum, so a visit to the ruins at Tulum combined with a stop at one or more cenotes makes a great day trip.