the magical cenotes of tulum, mexico

The cenotes of the greater Tulum area are a natural spectacle like no other. As this is one of the only regions in the world they exist, they are well worth a visit or two or three when traveling through this region.

Cenotes (pronounced cen-o-tays) are exclusive to this part of the world, and date back in history as ancient Mayan watering holes and very important to Mayan culture. They are tranquil, mysterious, and unique, and serve many varied interests for visitors. They are comprised of different environments, sizes, and depths, and offer different recreational activities, and fun for all ages.

Whether one is seeking solitude in nature and inspiration from silent jungle cenote settings, to sit, think, write, and gaze into their placid waters, or adventure: jumping into them from zip lines, rope swings, snorkeling them, cave diving them, platform jumping, picnicking, photographing, swimming, exploring, or simply bird watching, there is a cenote for everyone, and everyone loves them. Although, I do find that many people don’t know what they are (and definitely pronounce them wrong).  For the record, cenotes are gifts from nature. Please, if you are in the area, go see what all the fuss is about. Cenotes are incredible. Go conquer some!

So what is a cenote?

A cenote is a sinkhole in the earth, sometimes a small circle, sometimes an islet of caverns, full of freshwater: natural pools in the rock. Cenotes are located in jungle environments around the Tulum area. The water is so fresh that is usually cool, and the water colors range from turquoise to green to deep aquamarine blue. Some are very deep, some are shallow. But all are magnificent, especially when enjoyed in their ancient magical context. All house incredible wildlife, and if you close your eyes and listen to the sounds of nature at a cenote, and be in the moment, the experience will transport you to a different universe. Birds, crickets, leaves swaying, fish jumping. Cenotes are truly amazing.

When traveling in and around Tulum, you will notice cenote signs with arrows everywhere, all with Mayan names as Zacil-Ha, and Tamcach-Ha, providing directions. People say Tulum is like ‘swiss cheese’ because of all the cenotes holes in the earth. I was always thankful to see the names of cenotes being Mayan, symbolizing their natural state, and not haven been bought out by corporations and capitalized on, turned into Disneyworlds and massive adventure parks. Instead, they are quietly protected and respected, for having historical significance to the traditional indigenous roots of this area, and also for being secrets of nature, lying still in simplicity and beauty, and giving the present-day users the freedom to experience them in their own manner, in historical awe, silence, fun, adventure, exploration, and bliss.

Although still preserved in natural state, the private landowners whose land the cenotes fall on, do charge small fees for use and upkeep. Some have no fee and are open all times, but some charge a fee, open and close at certain times, and even rent adventure gear such as snorkels, masks, life vests, underwater cameras, and snacks. I shy away from these types, as I prefer the quiet empty wild ones. However, I was not a tourist, I lived there, and I understand that tourists often need these things. I will break it down for you both objectively and subjectively so you can find the cenote best suited to your needs. If you do enjoy them as a tourist, please remember to appreciate them in their natural state, and be sure to take a moment of silence to give thanks to nature and for this gift of a beautiful blue natural water pool in a wonderful country, while you are exploring them, and before you leave.

A Few Tulum Area Cenotes

Cenote Cristal

Situated in an overgrown jungle setting, Cenote Cristal is a shaped as a big circle, filled with trees, lily pads, birds, and green water. It feels like the lush jungle areas of Vietnam. There is a high platform jump which I love, and a few hammocks strung lazily into the sagging trees. There is a cave diving access to the right of entering the cenote at the stairs. This cenote is good for adventuring: jumping, diving, snorkeling, as well as meditating: thinking, journaling, photographing, and being immersed into the heart of beautiful, wild nature. 

Directions: south through Tulum town on the road to Chetumal. Directly off the highway a few kms down on the right, hidden in the jungle paradise. Watch for the sign.

Fee: Entrance with Escondido (across the street) is $100 pesos for both. Plus $100 peso taxi ride from town.

Setting: Raw, private, empty, wild cenote. No developed areas, lockers, rentals, etc. Just you and the cenote.

Worth it/not worth it? Worth it! Awesome jumping platform! Extremely peaceful, natural environment.


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Cenote Escondido

Situated in a jungle setting a few kms in from the road, it is an adventure just getting to this cenote. The actual cenote reminds me more of a natural creek than a cenote. It is long and narrow, down a long cliff, with the entrance on one end down some stairs. The water is dark and it is kind of creepy, which makes it all the more adventure. Like Cristal, there is a cave diving access here. This is definitely more of an adventure cenote, like Cristal. It has some ropes to swing out over the cliff on and its kind of hairball. I like this cenote but I wouldn’t go alone. There are wild dogs, lots of mosquitos, and it is really far into the jungle. That being said, it is a very fulfilling day of adventure for a couple or a few adults. But I would leave the kids at home.

Directions: south through Tulum town on the road to Chetumal. Directly off the highway a few kms down on the left, hidden in the jungle paradise. Watch for the sign. After you park, look forward to a 30 minute trek through the jungle to reach access.

Fee: Entrance with Cristal (across the street) is $100 pesos for both. Plus $100 peso taxi ride from town. Pay at Cristal.

Setting: Raw, wild, private, empty cenote very deep in the jungle. No developed areas, lockers, rentals, etc. Just you and the cenote.

Worth it/not worth it? Worth it! A great day of adventure, for those who seek it out like I do. Fills the adventure void that we crave. Fun and thrilling.

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Zacil-Ha Cenote

This is a different type of cenote. It is a circle pit of piercing blue aquamarine water. I love love the color of the water in this cenote. It looks like a bunch of food coloring was dropped into it. This is a smaller cenote with a less natural feeling because the fact that there are chips for sale and lifejackets and towels for rent, but it is better for families, is closer to town, has fewer mosquitos, and has cold drinks. It does get crowded though, mostly with locals and not usually with tourists. I have had it all to myself, but I timed it that way. And when that happened, it was incredibly still and quiet and wonderful. There are a few platforms for jumping, and there is a zip line that goes over the cenote which is always fun. The water is very fresh and cool. You are able to snorkel this one and see some fish but they are contained in the circle shape cenote. This cenote also has a cave diving access. There is a rope to hold onto that runs across, in case you have small children or cant swim that well. This is a nice option should you need it. I have spent many days jumping into this fresh cenote. It was the best one to go to with a 2 hour window for some adventure, without making the whole day commitment. And, no matter how many times I went here, I was always amazed by the color of the water, and never got sick of jumping from high into the fresh, cool water.

Directions: in the center of town, at the 711, head away from town and the beach, towards Coba, on Coba road. Directly off the highway about 6kms down on the left, after Gran Cenote. There is a small sign but watch for it. The sign has a picture of a cenote with some very blue water. That is it. Watch for the sign.

Fee: $50 pesos, $30 for locals. Closes at 5.

Setting: Stone circular pit in the woods. Surrounded by palms. Semi-developed area, lockers, rentals, snacks, changing rooms, lounge chairs, zip line

Worth it/not worth it? Worth it! Beautiful colored water, freshest feeling water, zip line is fun, jumping off the rock platform is freeing, relax and lounge or jump in.

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Gran (Grand) Cenote

This is the most popular cenote in Tulum, as it is the one most advertised to, and visited by, tourists. It is the least secluded and least private cenote, and also most expensive. It is usually busy everyday with people from all areas of the world coming to catch a glimpse of a magical cenote. However, it is still worth a visit and hasn’t lost its charm as a beautiful and unique cenote. The setting is very beautiful, located on a farm, down steps into a magical oasis of lush nature, birds, and picturesque cenote views of waterways wrapping around and caverns full of stalactites and stalagmites and bats, a true tropical paradise. Gran Cenote is also the main entrance to the 2nd longest underwater cave system in the world, which is how all the cenotes in the area are connected underground. Therefore, you are likely to see cave and cavern divers emerging at Gran. The way the light hits the water as seen from below is truly amazing. There is snorkel gear to rent, and the snorkeling area is protected, safe, and fun for all ages. Gran is the best place to bring a family to snorkel and swim a classic cenote. There is no cliff jumping here, only swimming, snorkeling, and diving. Great place to bring some beers and have a fun day in a magical cenote.

Directions: in the center of town, at the 7-11, head away from town and the beach, towards Coba, on Coba road. Directly off the highway about 4kms down on the right, you will see a big sign. You park right there on the road.

Fee: $120 pesos. Plus a cab ride from town is $70 pesos.

Setting: Tropical oasis of lush foliage close to town. Down some steps into the earth opens up into a beautiful cenote of winding waterways, caverns, and beautiful, incredible nature.

Worth it/not worth it? Worth it! Beautiful colored water, freshest feeling water, zip line is fun, jumping off the rock platform is freeing, relax and lounge or jump in.

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Tortuga Cenote

Tortuga cenote is yet again a different type of cenote. I love Tortuga so much. There are rumors that it is manmade. I am not sure. But it is one of the most peaceful ones, mostly because it is a hidden gem. So, shhh.. I am about to give you an inside scoop. Tortuga means turtle in Spanish. This is an enormous green cenote in the shape of a turtle. The guy who owns the land has built a little smoothie hut in the middle of the center rock. They will crack coconuts for you and you can buy fresh natural drinks. This coconut smoothie caretaker lives in a tent on the property and cares for the cenote. He always has on perfect soothing or reggae cenote music, so that when you get out of the car and walk up, your mind immediately melts into a paradise mindset of natural beauty and relaxation. The cenote has a yellow kayak you are free to use, a very high cliff jump, and a rope swing. Or else, you can float around the perimeter, jump off the dock platform, or walk around taking photos and spotting Motmot birds, beautiful protectors of the cenote, with turquoise tail feathers, exclusive only to cenotes. And they are everywhere in Tortuga. This cenote is especially fun for kids as it is more of a lake setting with lots of room to swim and goof around. This cenote is not possible for diving or snorkeling. A good picnic day for a weekend with kids. 

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Directions: Drive towards Playa del Carmen from Tulum. On the left off that highway is a very small sign that you will probably definitely miss. For this one, you will most likely need to ask someone where it is, and then they will most likely not know what you are talking about. No one really knows of this one. I dont know how to explain it any more than that. But, just find it.

Fee: Free

Setting: Deep drive into the jungle, the land opens into a large stone circle filled with green water and Motmot birds and serene nature.

Worth it/not worth it? Worth it! Amazingly serene, worlds away from everything, the cliff jump is thrilling, the kids swim around, the kayak is fun, rope climb is awesome, the music is always perfect, and fun for hours for everyone. Bring a picnic and some beers, lie in the sun, float, climb, and love life.

Tamcach-Ha Cenote

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This cenote is near Coba. At Coba there are three known nearby cenotes to explore after the ruins. This is one of them. This cenote is a fully enclosed cave. This cenote is for thrill seekers and brave, fit souls and none other. The entrance is literally a small hole in the ground that you climb down into, and follow the steps straight down into the earth for a ways. Be careful if it is slippery, and is not good if you are scared of heights because it goes straight down. You must shower off before entering the hole so as to keep the cenote water free of chemicals so that the fragile environment down there is harmed only as little as possible by cenote visitors. Once down the stairs there is a small bench to ut your things on, but the water can get high and get it al wet, so best to leave everything in the car. You cannot dive or snorkel here, so leave that all up there too. This is just a thrill seeking cenote. It is dark and there are black blind cave fish slithering everywhere. The water is an amazing fresh turqouise, under a big cave dome. There are 3 levels of platform jumps. You walk up the spiral staircase until the level you want. The highest is 30 feet and is so scary, jumping into a dark abyss, stomach dropping. Truly amazing! This is not for children.

Directions: At Coba, you will see signs to follow to the nearby cenote. Follow them. 🙂

Fee: I cant remember, but I think $100 pesos for entrance to 2 Coba cenotes of your choice.

Setting: Deep pit in the earth, fully enclosed cave with piercing aquamarine water and blind cave fish.

Worth it/not worth it? Worth it! Incredible thrill jumping, and fascinating underground cave environment.

For all cenotes, take bug spray, sunscreen, cameras, and towels.

Please note that there are many more cenotes in the Tulum area, and this is just a few. Enjoy! And find some bliss and adventure from these pieces of fascinating nature.

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crystal blue
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Dennis November 15, 2014 at 9:32 pm

Great piece

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