Our Guide to the best Cenotes around Tulum
Updated: Jul 7
All cenotes are unique and there are no two alike. Exploring these underground waterways and snorkeling in cenotes is a magical experience that you can experience only in the Yucatan Peninsula. There is an endless variety of size, form and depth, including open, semi-open and closed cenotes, numbering in total more than 10,000 registered in the region. You would need a lifetime to visit them all! No worries, we have put together a selection of our favorite cenotes near Tulum so you don’t have to explore all of them yourself. But first, a little background information…
How are the cenotes formed?
A Cenote is a freshwater sinkhole where you can swim, snorkel or scuba dive and observe amazing rock formations, limestone passageways, stalactites, stalagmites and columns, as well as tropical vegetation and many different species of wildlife.
According to the experts, the formation of cenotes began some 65 million years ago, when the impact of a meteorite created cracks, cavities and fractures in the Earth’s surface.
At the time, the Yucatan peninsula was submerged under a shallow sea and formed part of an immense coral reef that also included parts of Florida and Cuba. Hence the similarity in geography between some parts of the Yucatan and Florida peninsulas.
Over the passage of time, the shifting structure of the Earth’s surface, periodic climate change and the rising and falling of sea levels exposed this prehistoric coral to the sun and air. This in turn caused the breakdown of the reef into sediment, and over further millenia the sediment of the ocean into Limestone (Karstic stone), leaving us today with the giant limestone platform that we call the Yucatan Peninsula.
Geological evolution of cenotes formations and types of cenotes. @researchgate
The formation of the cenotes themselves occurs because rainwater has a degree of acidity due to trapped gas, mostly carbon dioxide. This CO2 (dissolved in water) then mixes with organic elements in the soil & vegetation when it hits the ground. Limestone or karst is extremely permeable, which means that the rainwater filters through the rock very easily. As filtration occurs, the acidic element of the rainwater (called carbonic acid) reacts with the limestone, causing it to dissolve. This process is called dissolution.
Little by little the process digs away at the rock, eventually causing the collapse of a section and opening up a hole in the ground, and voila, a cenote is formed. These natural skylights allow sunlight to penetrate further down and help vegetation grow, in some cases creating an atmosphere of a tropical jungle oasis or a ‘land before time’.
Of course, because underground rivers flow through and underneath the Karst platform, these cenotes become the access points to flooded cave systems - now a Mecca for cave divers from all over the world who explore these waterways to look for connections and map the systems. Due to the fact that the caves have endless forms and shapes because of erosion, dissolution and changes in sea level and water currents, we are left with the huge variety & uniqueness of cenotes that you can visit today in the Yucatan.
Today the cenotes are places of relaxation & exploration, where families and visitors from all over come to swim and refresh themselves in a natural, freshwater swimming pool, or explore the flooded caves associated with them. During the Mayan era, they were considered sacred places, representing the entrance to the underworld and a connection to the ancient source of life.
Cenotes need to be protected
For all of us, then as now, the cenotes & underground rivers are the most important source of freshwater and the protection of them from pollution is absolutely critical to the wellbeing of the region.
In order to preserve these incredible ecosystems, all chemical products are forbidden such as sunscreen, anti-mosquito, cosmetics... It is important to know that any contamination of the cenotes goes directly to the coral reef, which is a marine ecosystem that is already very fragile. Their use pollutes enormously leaving a layer of fat on the surface of the water and all forms of aquatic life die (fish and vegetation). That's why, in order for everyone to participate in the conservation of these healthy and natural spaces, we recommend wearing long-sleeved t-shirts to protect yourself from mosquitoes and the sun. And don't forget that the passage in the showers is mandatory to avoid any contamination.
Cenotes are a Must Do when traveling to Tulum
Now you know a little about where cenotes come from, it's time to dive into the crystal clear waters and explore! Nearly all of our tours include a visit to a cenote, but we have 3 options that include a special focus on multiple cenotes…
You will be snorkeling among fish & turtles, relaxing in a beautiful tropical landscape, discover the caves full of breathtaking limestone formations, fly over cenotes on a zipline and even explore underground labyrinths only by flashlight in a beautiful private cenote.
Should you wish to explore by yourself, have a look at this compilation we put together. All of these options are located close enough to Tulum to reach by bike, scooter or taxi. Enjoy!
Cenote Santa Cruz : Located 10 min from Tulum, on the road to Coba, is this tranquil spot that is easily accessible and allows you to bring in a picnic to stay as long as you like. In the center of the cenote is an island with tables and lounge chairs, around which the water flows in a circle . Grab your snorkel gear and go looking for turtles or relax in the water swings and contemplate the beautiful nature all around you.
Cenote Encantado: At the end of the beach road on your right hand-side, you wouldn’t believe there is an enormous open cenote surrounded by mangroves. Very deep with numerous underwater caves, this one offers the opportunity for many activities: swim, snorkel, scuba, stand up paddle board or kayak. Teeming with fish and mangrove wildlife among the trees and roots, this cenote is a great spot to take a break away from the bustle of the hotel zone AND a freshwater sinkhole right by the beach to rinse off the salt & sand.
Cenote Escondido : Across the highway from Cenote Cristal is Escondido - the ‘Hidden Cenote’. This one is full of wildlife and aquatic vegetation and great for snorkeling, with little islands and caves here and there. It also has multiple spots for cliff jumping and is a favorite for cave divers, who you will see disappearing under the submerged shelf into the flooded caves. If you want to get some quiet time and the best opportunity to see the wildlife, arrive early.
Cenote Corazón : A couple of kilometers further past cenote Cristal & Escondido, it gets its name from its form in the shape of a heart. A huge variety of birds come to visit because it’s outside of the city, like Escondido, it’s great for a quiet swim or snorkel if you arrive early. Popular with locals it can get busy in the afternoon, there is even a little restaurant serving food & drinks, or bring your own picnic to sit at the tables around the water's edge. The clear blue fresh water is spectacular and the temperature is perfect on a sunny day.
Gran Cenote: One of the best known and most visited cenotes in the Riviera Maya, it gets extremely busy, meaning arriving early (opens 8am) is a MUST. The Gran Cenote has it all: turquoise waters, a cave full of rock formations, loads of fish & turtles, an island of vegetation in the middle and even a tunnel that leads you to a second open sinkhole with another island. Super photogenic, this cenote is very popular for good reason. The price might be too steep for some but the visit is definitely worth it.
Casa Cenote: Located literally a stone’s throw from the waters of the Caribbean Sea, this cenote is also known as Manati, as one of these beautiful sea creatures used to live here. A very unique open cenote, it connects an underground river spring to the ocean via a mangrove canal and submerged cave. An excellent place to snorkel as it is teeming with wildlife, it is also very popular as a place to learn how to scuba dive. Mangrove roots extend into the water and vegetation grows on all sides, combining with exceptional underwater landscapes that you can observe during the snorkeling.
Cenote Cristal : This cenote is to be added to your bucket list. A short bike ride from Tulum at the southern end of town and just off highway 307, the location is perfect for a refreshing break. In the shape of a perfect circle, the raised platform at one end gives a great aerial view for photos and of course is heaps of fun for jumps, dives & somersaults. Surrounded by lush vegetation, with picnic tables and plenty of hammocks too, this cenote is a longtime favorite of Tulum locals.
Cenote Car Wash : The crystal-clear water of this cenote in Tulum makes it a popular spot for snorkeling and the deep cave system it is part of attracts divers eager to explore life below the surface of the cenote. With snorkel gear you can observe the 5 meters depth and beautiful stalagmites with all the vegetation of the cenote, as well as follow the divers' path until they disappear into the underground world… Located 6km from Tulum on the Coba road, it is usually less busy than many of the others mentioned on this list and is one of the better options if you don't want to get up too early to enjoy a quiet swim in nature.
Cenote Azul : This cenote welcomes you at first with 2 small pools of translucent turquoise water. Shallow and hidden in the middle of the jungle and vegetation, you can wade in and meet the small fish that are there. Then you will arrive at the large cenote azul basin and you will understand why the cenote bears this name. Between the transparent blue, green and turquoise water and the reflection of the sun's rays on the water and the vegetation, it is simply breathtaking. Do not miss the beauty of this natural resource. Tips : arrive early in the morning because it could be crowded in the afternoon, victim of his own success. (N.B. This cenote is located further away, near Puerto Aventuras).