Last updated May 19, 2023
There’s something magical about swimming in a cenote—especially a cenote in Mexico. Dating back millions of years, cenotes are some of the most coveted places to visit in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
Not only are cenotes stunning natural landscapes but they also offer a beautiful setting to relax, connect with nature and, of course, cool off from the jungle heat.
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Keep reading to uncover more about cenotes in Mexico. Find out which cenotes are the most popular and which are slightly off the beaten path (read hidden gem).
Cenotes in Mexico are sure to be a highlight of your vacation, so don’t miss the opportunity to take a refreshing dip on your next trip.
What Is a Cenote?
A cenote (pronounced “seh-no-tay”) is a natural freshwater sinkhole formed in limestone. A cenote is created when the ceiling of an underground cave has collapsed. The term originated on the Yucatan Peninsula where cenotes were commonly used for water supplies by the ancient Maya and occasionally for sacrificial offerings.
The vast majority of the cenotes are located in the Yucatan Peninsula. In recent years, scientists discovered this area in Mexico to have a rather large and intricate underground river and cave system. It’s a huge area that spans the states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo. Researchers are still trying to work out how big it actually is.
Cenote formation is caused by the underlying bedrock sinking over many millions of years leaving the different shapes and sizes of the cenotes we see today.
There are generally three different types of cenotes depending on the rock and how it has eroded over the years.
- Fully open sinkhole with water at the bottom
- Half cave and half open air
- Closed cave cenotes that are completely underground
No two cenotes look the same. This is what makes cenote-hopping in Mexico so much fun. You never know what you might see!
Significance of Cenotes in Mexico
To discuss origin of cenotes in Mexico means to dive into the history of the Yucatan Peninsula. About 65 million years ago, the Yucatan Peninsula was an underwater coral reef covered by ocean. The reef grew and strengthened over millions of years until a meteorite hit and caused the Central American plates to shift. This event brought the reef to the surface for the first time.
Over the course of Earth’s history, through the many ice ages, rising and shrinking sea levels and later acid rain, cenotes or holes in the limestone began to form. The holes exposed the massive underwater river system that was preserved since the beginning of its formation.
Much of the Yucatan Peninsula’s culture and history is attributed to the Maya. And it’s impossible to visit and not learn about their impact on this part of Mexico. The cenotes were extremely important to the Maya who believed that the cenotes were home to a god, named Chac Mool.
To please him, they made offerings inside the cenotes. These offerings ranged from semi-precious stones and pots to living sacrifices. This might be why archeologists have found bones at the bottom of cenotes.
Today, cenotes in Mexico are still sacred sites to the Mayan families that own them. So it’s important to preserve these and keep them clean.
Seven Best Cenotes in Mexico
The Yucatan Peninsula’s lush jungles are home to some of Mexico’s most unique natural features in the world. With well over 6,000 cenotes just in the Yucatan Peninsula alone, it’s impossible to list them all. There are probably hundreds yet to be discovered.
This also means that during your trip to the Yucatan Peninsula you’ll never be too far away from one. Here are my personal favorites that are well-worth a visit.
1. Cenote Dos Ojos
Meaning “two eyes,” Cenote Dos Ojos is one of the most popular cenotes near Tulum that’s also great for scuba diving. Cenote Dos Ojos is part of a complex of many different cenotes whose water comes from a giant subterranean river that runs through this area.
There are two different parts to Cenote Dos Ojos and while part of it is above ground, so much of this cenote is below the surface which is what makes it such a special dive site.
There are many spots to relax when you’re not swimming in some of the bluest water on the planet. If you have snorkeling gear, it’s definitely worth bringing it or you can rent some onsite. You can also book a dive here, too.
If you have time, Cenote Tak Be Ha is another fantastic cenote to visit in the Dos Ojos complex. You’ll need to buy a separate ticket but it’s well worth seeing this very atmospheric, beautiful cave cenote.
2. Cenote Oxman
Cenote Oxman is a popular cenote located just outside the small town of Valladolid in Yucatan. It’s located inside Hacienda Oxman where you’ll also find a restaurant, garden, cafe and pool. Its popularity has grown over the years due to it being one of the only cenotes with a swing, where visitors can swing off a wooden pier before jumping into the water.
Cenote Oxman is a huge round, deep, open-air sinkhole so you’ll need to descend down some stairs to get to the water. You can relax, jump in and swing around. It also has tree roots that cascade down from ground level into the water—a truly spectacular sight.
This cenote is absolutely magical early in the morning before the crowds arrive so make sure to pop in early when visiting this one.
3. Cenote Samula & Xke’Ken
Located very close to Cenote Oxman are two other cave cenotes: Cenote Samula and Xke’Ken. They exist side by side inside the same complex and you can choose to visit both or just one.
These cenotes are huge cave cenotes with a small, circular opening at the top which lets light in. Visit at the right time of day (generally around midday) and you’ll get a magical ray of light illuminating the water.
Both cenotes have incredibly blue and clear water which you can jump straight into and swim around. You’ll also find some wild, black catfish swimming inside. Make sure to also take note of the amazing stalactites and columns of limestone formed over millions of years.
If you choose to visit just one, make it Cenote Samula. The water here is just that little bluer, clearer and the cenote larger.
4. Cenote Azul
If you’re basing yourself in Playa del Carmen or Tulum on the Riviera Maya then Cenote Azul is a lovely open cenote to spend the afternoon. This cenote is so open, it’s more of a natural lake than a cenote—the ground water really comes up high here.
There is one large swimming area as well as two smaller natural pools as you walk in. Jagged rocky sides surround the water onto which vegetation clings giving it a wonderfully wild atmosphere.
You can relax right by the water on the decking area that runs right into the cenote or cliff jump from the natural rock platform on one side of the cenote.
This is a great cenote to visit when traveling as a family as the water here is quite shallow. For those that might feel a little claustrophobic in cave cenotes or if you’re just after something with more light, Cenote Azul is a fantastic option.
5. Cenote Santa Cruz
Cenote Santa Cruz is one of the more hidden gems in the Riviera Maya. I love this cenote because it’s the perfect mix of open-air sinkhole and underground cave cenote.
Visit for the afternoon and you’ll be able to relax by the sinkhole, swing off its rope swing and swim in the pristine, blue water. You can also explore the underground cave system of this cenote with a guide, snorkel around and discover the secret passages of one of the largest underground waterways in Mexico.
6. Cenote Casa Tortuga
Another great option is Cenote Casa Tortuga, consisting of beautifully large, pristine, open-air pools where you can relax as well as an underground cave cenote to explore. This cenote isn’t as popular as other cenotes and is surrounded by pristine jungle. It’s a great cenote for those wanting a more raw experience rather than a more developed, commercialized cenote.
7. Cenote X’Batun
For those really looking for an off-the-beaten path gem, make your way to Cenote X’Batun, located just 45 minutes outside of Merida. This open-air cenote is a lovely natural pool with jungle growing around it and tree roots cascading down into the water. I love this cenote because it’s never really very crowded.
Right next door is Cenote Dzonbakal, a semi-open cenote which is also worth the visit. Your entry ticket includes access to both cenotes.
Take the Plunge
From the popular Cenote Dos Ojos to the lesser-known Cenote X’Batun, there’s something for everyone on this list. Whether you’re looking for a place to cool off on a hot day or somewhere new to explore, you’re sure to find the right one for you.
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