Of all the natural wonders I have encountered traveling and living in Mexico, cenotes might be the most magical discovery of all. The Yucatan Peninsula is home to one of the most intricate underwater river systems in the world. Cenotes are freshwater springs that occur when these subterranean rivers surface. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of cenotes throughout the entire Yucatan Peninsula, and each cenote is unique. Many cenotes are still partially or fully underground as the limestone rock below the Yucatan’s shallow tropical dirt has created a system of caves and rock formations around these springs. Cenotes range from waist-deep to hundreds of meters of profundity and are deliciously cold. They are generally somewhat inland from the beach, hidden among lush rainforests with an abundance of flora and fauna both in and out of the water. Most cenotes are on private land, and owners charge an entrance fee to help keep them clean and the land around them cleared for parking, diving decks, zip-lines, and palapas so that guests can relax and spend the day swimming. I have chosen three of my favorite cenotes to portray in the hopes that you will visit them and enjoy them as much as I do.
Casa Cenote or Cenote Manati (some call it Caleta Tan ‘Ka which is a Mayan name) is located off of the main highway that runs from Cancun to Tulum, roughly twenty minutes north of Tulum. There are collective vans that run between Playa del Carmen and Tulum that can leave you at the entrance of the dirt road that leads to the cenote, but beware that you will have to walk a good 30 to 45 minutes to arrive. Occasionally there are taxis that can take you those extra 3 km, but don’t count on it. Obviously, having a car is ideal for exploring cenotes as they are generally off the beaten path. The entrance fee is 120 pesos, and lockers and snorkeling gear can be rented at an extra cost.
Casa Cenote is essentially three large, very deep cenotes connected by small canals that run under mangrove bush. A unique aspect of these cenotes is that they are located directly in front of the beach and consequently have white sand bottoms, spectacularly turquoise waters and are completely surrounded and infiltrated by mangrove. Snorkeling is a must, scuba-diving is highly recommended, and a good set of lungs is required to swim your way from one cenote to the next.
Chemuyil is a small village located right in between Playa del Carmen and Tulum; it is about 30 minutes away from both Playa and Tulum off of the main highway. To get to this cenote, you must have a car. It is possible to take the collective to Chemuyil from either Playa or Tulum, but once in the town, you will have a very long, very confusing walk ahead of you. Most tourists do not know about this cenote as it is mainly for locals. Everyone in the town is very friendly, and all very willing to help with directions; however, most do not speak English.
Cenote Xunaan-Ha is a completely open cenote surrounded by lush forest, with a cleared area for picnicking, a tall pool deck for diving, and a zip-line that runs from one end of the cenote to the other. This cenote is more for swimming and recreation than for snorkeling or scuba diving as it has a mud bottom and thus bad visibility. I love this cenote because it is family owned, under 100 pesos, and the zip-line, well, need I say more?
Cenote Jardin de Eden -which in english means Garden of Eden- lives up to its name, and is my all-time favorite cenote in the world! This cenote has it all; it is enormous, deep, and perfectly clear with caves, canals, and a 4-5 meter high cliff at one end with a deck built on top for diving or jumping. There are two giant boulders in the middle of the cenote where guests can perch mermaid-style while tiny minnows nibble at their feet. There is a smaller cenote that connects to a narrow canal which is separated from the main cenote by a giant rock formation. Underneath the rock formation are underwater caves and passageways that can take you from one side of the formation to the other either with scuba gear or, for dare-devils, just holding your breath and feeling your way through to the other side.
Like most cenotes, Jardin de Eden is surrounded by forest, however there are benches, palapas, picnic tables and restrooms on site. They also sell snacks and small meals, and they rent snorkeling gear and life vests. The entrance fee is 200 pesos which is considerably more than the previous two cenotes, but oh, so worth it. Furthermore, this cenote is very well-known and right off of the highway just past the small town of Puerto Aventuras; a mere 25 minutes outside of Playa del Carmen. Collective vans going from Playa to Tulum will leave you right at the entrance at your request, and then it is just a quick 10 minute walk through the forest to the cenote. If you are vacationing in the Mayan Riviera, this magical place must be on your list of attractions.
Jardin de Eden, Cenote Xunaan Ha, and Casa Cenote are three very distinct fresh water springs that are all part of the Yucatan peninsula’s massive subterranean river system. If you want a break from the salty Caribbean beaches, don’t hesitate to check out one, or all three of my top picks. This will hopefully wet your appetite for a more expansive investigation of these freshwater gems as there are literally hundreds to visit.
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