What is a cenote and why should you visit one (or lots)?
23rd March, 2023
Nature creates some fascinating and beautiful things around the world, and cenotes are one of them: you can jump, swim, snorkel and dive in them, but what is a cenote? And why should you visit one? Read on to find out all about these natural gems…
What is a cenote?
A cenote is a type of pit or sinkhole created by the collapse of limestone bedrock, exposing the groundwater underneath. They are typically, and most commonly, found in Mexico. However, there are also known cenotes in the following countries: Australia, Belize, Canada, Dominican Republic, the USA and Zimbabwe.
The etymology of the name cenote comes from Yucatec Maya, a Mayan language specific to the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico as well as northern Belize; their term ts’onot was used to refer to locations with accessible groundwater, and cenote is derived from this. Cenote is pronounced ‘seh-no-tay’.
Cenotes are particularly associated with the aforementioned Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, where there are over 5,000 of them. In this area, the cenotes were sometimes used by the ancient Maya population for sacrificial offerings. Sacrifice was common in Mayan history.
The science behind cenotes
Sometimes in order for beauty in nature to be formed, something first has to be destroyed. In this case, it’s the structural collapse of rocks that are (or sometimes are not) linked to an active cave system. Rocks fall into the water and face further dissolution, leading to more collapse and ultimately, bigger cenotes. When the water table (the upper surface of the zone of saturation) is below the ceiling of the void, the rocks collapse at a faster rate.
Put simply, a cenote is what you get when the roof of an underground cavern collapses!
Cenotes, regardless of type or classification, will either be partially or fully collapsed. If a cenote is fully collapsed there will be an open water pool. However, partially collapsed cenotes have overhanging rock above the water.
The four types of cenotes
There are actually four different types of cenotes – in 1936, F G Hall published the Physical and chemical survey of cenotes of Yucatán which contained within it a simple cenote classification system. This publication does not take into account how the different types of cenotes are formed, however, as this was not really discovered until the 1980s. Below are the four types of cenotes:
Cenotes-cántaro (jug or pit cenotes): these have a surface connection which is narrower than the diameter of the water body itself.
Cenotes-cilíndricos (cylinder cenotes): these have strictly vertical walls.
Cenotes-aguadas (basin cenotes): these have shallow water basins.
Grutas (cave cenotes): these have a horizontal entrance with dry sections and are therefore most like a cave.
Visiting a cenote
Now you know a little bit more about cenotes, what they are and the science behind them, you might be wondering – can I visit a cenote? The answer is yes, you can visit a cenote. And honestly, you should-I visited several on my trip through Mexico! The water is crystal clear, usually fresh and cool, and there are beautiful stalactites all around. It’s like stepping (or swimming) into another dimension.
Before you visit a cenote, be sure to clean your body of chemicals. The water is incredibly fresh and needs to be protected – ensuring your body is clean and chemical-free will help this and make everybody’s cenote experiences a lot better and helps to promote sustainable tourism. If you burn easily, opt for a biodegradable suncream which won’t leave a greasy film or any nanoparticles in the cenote water. The same goes for bug spray – if you’re worried about getting bitten, use a biodegradable insect repellent spray, like this one. You may have to spend a little more to keep yourself protected, but it’s worth it to know you won’t be harming the cenotes that have been around for a lot longer than you have.
A lot of cenotes have a small entrance fee, so it’s worth looking into how much your chosen cenote will cost to visit. Make sure you have the fee in cash!
Take a look at this post to find out the 75 best cenotes in Mexico or if you are visiting Tulum then check out the best cenotes in Tulum to visit.
Getting to a cenote
The most popular place to visit a cenote (or multiple cenotes) is Mexico – and most of them you can visit by yourself without a guide. A lot of the best cenotes are in or near Tulum, so it’s best to look at hotels that area if you’re planning a visit to Mexico specifically to visit cenotes.
If you’re looking for places to stay in Tulum, there are plenty of options from adult-only wellness hotels like the Azulik Hotel to the more budget-friendly party places like the Weary Traveler Hostel.
Gran Cenote and Dos Ojos are popular tourist-traps, so if you want something a bit less crowded then opt for one of the cenotes in the area. Ask the locals or the staff at your hotel for their recommendations, or check out the list below of three cenotes near Tulum:
Cenote Ponderosa, or Cenote Jardín del Edén, is popular with the more adventurous tourists: the jump from the edge of the cenote into the water is pretty daring. There’s also a lot of wildlife to spot at this cenote – turtles, freshwater eels and motmots!
Cenote Choo-Ha, not far from the Cobá ruins, is a proper underground cenote: you have to head down a narrow wooden staircase into the cavern. The ceilings are high, and there are a lot of stalactites and stalagmites.
The Taj Ma Ha Cenote is popular with scuba divers; you can experience a halocline in this cenote and it’s also where you can see the Points of Light Room in the summer months.
Cenotes in other locations
As mentioned earlier, there are cenotes in other countries too. The Dominican Republic has various cenotes that are popular with hikers, and the Chinhoyi Caves in Zimbabwe are popular due to the air of mystery around them. This is because nobody actually knows how deep they go or what the source of the water is. Kelsey Sinkhole, a cenote in Australia, is named as the country’s most unique dive site. It’s easy to see why cenotes are popular with tourists, as each one has a little something about it that makes it stand out.
There you have it – a look at what a cenote is, a bit of science to impress your travelling buddies, and some of the best cenotes to visit in Mexico and beyond. Whether you want to scuba dive, try your hand at underwater photography, or just float and relax, a cenote should be top of your travel bucket list!