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What is a Cenote? | Exploring Cenotes in the Riviera Maya

Picture of a woman jumping into a cenote

What is a Cenote?

A cenote is is a natural sinkhole formed from the collapse of the limestone ceiling exposing the groundwater underneath. The Yucatan Peninsula is relatively flat with no surface river system, what it does have however is a vast underwater river system that connects the cenotes together.

In fact running beneath the surface Yucatan has the two longest underground water systems in the whole. Sac Actun is 353 km while Ox Bel Ha is 270 km long, pretty impressive right!?

But how did this underwater river system come to be? Well this whole area was once in fact underwater. It is hard to say how long ago this was, or for how long for. But during the ice ages as the Polar Ice Caps melted and refrozen the peninsula, that was once actually a coral reef, became exposed and eventually due to the sea level dropping. It is why the ground in The Yucatan Peninsula is made from calcium carbonate (limestone), the residue of dead coral. It also explains why you won’t see any farms in this area, as nothing much grows in the earth here!

Fun Fact: Because of this this whole area is full of fossils! If you travel to Coba Ruins look closely at the steps as you climb the pyramid and you will see seashell fossils there.

In the Yucatan Peninsula there are believed to be over 6,000 cenotes. However there are only around 2,500 that are actually registered. Many of the cenotes are on private land and not open to the public.

Why were Cenotes so Important to the Mayan People?

The cenotes were not only the main water supply for the Mayan people, they are also a sacred place that they believe act as a portal to the underworld, which is called XIBALBA. Because of this, the Mayan people often used the cenotes to make sacrifices and perform rituals. These days they do still perform secret ceremonies in the cenotes, just not the sacrifices! In fact on our Tulum tour you can get a blessing by a shaman at a ceremony in a cenote.

people taking part in a mayan ceremony with a shaman in a cenote.

Always enter a cenote with the due respect, taking in consideration that it is a sacred place that the Mayan people are sharing with us.

Are there Cenotes in Playa del Carmen?

Yes there are cenotes in Playa del Carmen. However most of them are very small and not suitable for swimming in. The closest cenote to Playa del Carmen is Chaak Tun which is located just 15 minutes outside Playa del Carmen. Because it is favoured by day visitors from Cozumel it is often very busy so the best time to visit is early in the morning.

The Three Types of Cenotes

There are in fact three different types of cenotes:

Closed Cenotes

These are the cenotes where you have to climb down to enter. Often down wooden steps, sometimes down a ladder, and if you come on our Tulum tour you can even rappel down into one of the cenotes!

Once inside you can swim in the crystal clear waters of the underground cave and admire the stalagmites and stalactites. But remember please don’t touch, they take thousands of years to form. In fact a stalactite takes around one thousand years to form around 10 cm!

Closed cenotes are often some of the most popular for Scuba Diving.

Popular closed cenotes in the Riviera Maya include: The Pit and Saac Tun

Open Cenotes

Open cenotes are where the ceiling of the cave has completely collapsed making the cenote totally exposed. These are often the most popular cenotes for snorkeling and swimming. You will also often find zip lining and platforms to jump off at open cenotes.

four women jumping in to a cenote in Mexico

Popular open cenotes in the Riviera Maya include: Angelita close to Tulum, Jardin Eden, Chikin Ha and Cenote Azul close to Puerto Aventuras , just 20 minutes south of Playa del Carmen - there are many more!

Half Open Cenotes

In half open cenotes you get the best of both worlds. Half of the cenote is open for you to enjoy in the sunshine, while the other part is still inclosed so you can swim in and explore the cave system.

A family standing above a cenote in the Riviera Maya in Mexico

Popular half open cenotes in the Riviera Maya include: Gran Cenote in Tulum and Dos Ojos.

What Can You Do in a Cenote?

If you are wondering what you can do in a cenote other than swimming we have put together this list for inspiration:

a ray or light shining in through a hole in the roof or a cenote in Mexico

Snorkeling in Cenotes

One of the most popular activities you can do in a cenote is snorkeling. There is a lot to see in a cenote. As well as fresh water fish, freshwater turtles and other marine life there are incredible underwater rock formations and even fossils that you can see while snorkeling.

If you don’t have your own snorkeling gear you will be able to rent a snorkel and mask at most cenotes for a small fee or get professional snorkel gear, life jackets and even wetsuits included in our tour.

a man and a woman snorkeling in a cenote in the riviera maya

Rappelling into a Cenote

If you are looking for a way of entering an underground cenote that will get your adrenaline pumping, how about rappelling down into it?! Well at some cenotes you will have this option. If you want to do this you will need to do a little research and find out where offers rappelling as it isn’t possible at many of them.

Claire from Claire's Itchy feet rapelling in to a cenote while on the Tulum tour

We offer the chance to rappel into a cenote on our Tulum and Coba tour.

Ziplining in a Cenote

If rappelling into a cenote is a bit too tame for you, how about zip lining into a cenote? This one is not for everyone as it involves zip lining half way across and then letting go and dropping down into the cenote!

Alternatively you can zipline across the cenote this is much more health and safety regulated and we offer it as part of two of our tours.

a father and son zip lining across a cenote

Scuba Diving in a Cenote

Scuba diving in cenotes is one of the most popular activities in the Riviera Maya and you will find an abundance of companies in the area offering this experience.

We work closely together with Tankha Divers in Playa del Carmen and recommend their services if you are interested in Scuba Diving in cenotes. .

But what makes scuba diving in cenotes such a unique experience?

Well firstly the crystal clear fresh water is a big pull. There are also hundreds of stalactites and stalagmites you can see under the water. However probably the best thing about diving in cenotes is the rays of sunlight that penetrate through the pitch black darkness of the tunnels to illuminate the underworld as you swim though. It really is a magical experience that every scuba diver should have at least once.

the emerald green water of a cenote in the riviera maya

Most cenotes dive companies will take divers to are classes as caverns which is why you are able to dive in them without a cave diving certificate. Some of the more difficult cenotes to dive require you to have an advanced certificate, and some you will need a cave diving certificate to explore.

What is the difference between cave and cavern diving?

Diving in a cavern is different from diving in a cave because in a cavern you will always be in what’s often referred to as ‘the daylight zone’. This means you will always be close to your entrance or of the surface. When cave diving you go much further into the cave system often thousands of yards. Often when cavern diving you will only go to 100 ft depth and/ or 150 ft horizontal penetration into the cavern.

Final Thoughts

Many of our most popular tours include visiting cenotes. We would love to show you around these incredible underwater cave systems. For more information on any of our tours that include visiting cenotes please click the links below:

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