There are literally thousands of cenotes in Yucatan. Cenotes are underwater sinkholes formed when limestone caves collapse, revealing these underground pools.
The Mayans thought cenotes or “xenotes” were sacred, that they were portals to communicate with the gods of the underworld. This means that in the more sacred cenotes, human sacrificial remains have been found (the Mayans were hardcore about their gods that way). Jack and I thought exploring these cenotes were a blast. I’m just glad we didn’t see any human remains at the bottom.
Some of the cenotes in Yucatan have become part of the all-inclusive amusement parks that charge up to $100 for admission *gulp*. Among these, we considered seeing Rio Secreto having heard a lot of good things about it. But they don’t allow cameras inside and they want you to buy the photos they take for $25 a pop (thats $25 per photo). That’s just not really nice.
Did I mention there are thousands of these in the area?
If you don’t feel like spending tons of money on these resort cenotes, check out a list below of what we think are the best cenotes in Yucatan for the money.
Chaak Tun Cenote – Playa del Carmen
I’ve written more extensively about Chaak Tun cenote here – Chaak Tun is by far our favorite cenote we’ve visited in Yucatan. It has many rooms to explore, impressive stalactites, and almost no crowd.
The beautiful Chaak Tun caves are kept in semi darkness and the shadows played havoc to our imagination. One time we thought we saw a water snake (and I thought my heart was going to jump out of my chest) only to find out it was a piece of rope instead.
Seriously, it was a blast. Highly recommended but not for those who are claustrophobic or afraid of the dark.
How to get to Chaak Tun from Playa del Carmen: see here
Grand Cenote – Tulum
This partially-open air cenote was lots of fun (and a lot less scary) to explore. Grand Cenote in Tulum has partially submerged tunnels that take you between open air areas, bats hanging overhead, underwater formations to explore, and docks to sunbathe on and jump from.
It was bright, airy, and popular. Recommended for first time cenote explorers.
Cenote X’Keken – Valladolid
Cenote X’Keken is completely underground and reached by a narrow stairway. The stalactite formations were pretty impressive. It was dominated by a gigantic brain-like clump of limestone. Dip your feet in the water and let a group of small fish nibble at your dead skin cells (tickles). Then watch the catfish eat these smaller fish like popcorns.
The only reason this cenote is not higher in my favorite is that it has funky lighting. The spotlights changed color every minute from yucky blue to yuckier pink. It felt like being inside a flooded nightclub. It’s a pity.
How to get to Cenote X’Keken: a short taxi ride from Valladolid will take you to the complex that contains both X’Keken and Samula.
Cenote Samula – Valladolid
Cenote Samula could possibly be the most photographed cenote in Yucatan. There’s a gaping hole on the ceiling through which a massive system of roots reaches towards the water 25 feet below. It wasn’t as inviting for swimming though being rather small in size (compared to the others). It does make for a good photo-op, however.
How to get to Cenote Samula: see Cenote X’Keken above
Dos Ojos Cenote – Tulum
Dos Ojos Cenote complex near Tulum has quite a bit of colllection of cenotes to explore. They are all connected by an underwater tunnel system which makes them popular with divers.
For snorkelers like us, we thought they were just ok. Too many restrictions on where we can/can not go without a guide. However, if you get a chance to piggyback off the scuba divers’ powerful lamps – do so. You get to see impressive formations you don’t get to see by yourself. We’ve written more about Dos Ojos cenote here.
How to get to Dos Ojos: the Tulum – Playa collectivo can drop you off at the entrance but it’s still quite a hike (1 mile?) to the actual cenote itself. We rented a motorbike in Tulum. Getting a ride with a passing vehicle is also a possibility. At the entrance they might tell you (or imply) that a guide is required – but it’s NOT true.
EDITED 2017: Even more cenotes!
Cenote Suytun – Valladolid
A nice enough cenote when the tour bus crowds are not here.
How to get to Cenote Suytun: It’s located on the road connecting Valladolid to Cancun at Km 6, about 5 minute drive from Valladolid.
Zazil Tunich – Valladolid
One of the best cenotes near Valladolid (by Zazil Tunich)
This is a very large and very beautiful cenote with impressive formations and run by a local family. Booking as part of a guided group is required though (150 pesos per person).
How to get to Zazil Tunich: KM 6, Carretera Yalcoba-Xtut, Valladolid 97780
A more personal reason why cenotes are a big deal to me: I’ve never been a good swimmer – but I finally learned how to tread water in these sinkholes. Yay! I have no doubt there are other equally impressive if not more cenotes in Riviera Maya. Would love to hear about your favorite cenotes if you’ve been to this part of Mexico before.
The Best Xenotes of Mexico
Recommended Tour: We rented a scooter for maximum flexibility and freedom. If it’s not an option for you (riding a scooter is fun, but it can be intimidating), we recommend this Viator tour that visits 4 different xenotes.
Hostel Orquideas in downtown Cancun is clean, basic, and centrally located.
Casa Tia Micha in Valladolid is affordable, highly rated, and makes a good base to explore the Yucatan cenotes.