For me, my favorite part about the Yucatan is not the pristine beaches, the ancient ruins, or the tropical jungle (all of which are amazing) but the ancient freshwater caves also known as “cenotes”. If you don’t know what a cenote is, keep scrolling because you are about to be amazed!
My first trip to Tulum was the first time I got to swim in a cenote and it was such a magical experience. Since then, I’ve been to at least a dozen across the Yucatan and there were some that I enjoyed more than others. There are a few key elements to what makes for a great cenote for swimming, including:
How clear is the water?
How crowded is it?
How much is the entrance fee?
How big is it and can you tour it?
Cenotes were once sacred to the Mayas who used them as spiritual sites for ceremonies and sacrifices (a little creepy, I know). Cenotes can be anywhere from tens of thousands to millions of years old. They were formed by the famous asteroid that sent the dinosaurs into extinction 66 million years ago. The oldest cenotes are those that are completely open, and the younger ones being those that are still partially or fully enclosed. I personally love the fully enclosed cenotes because it truly makes you feel like you’ve stepped into the Mayan underworld and it’s a feeling you can’t quite explain. Below I am laying out not only my favorite cenotes that I’ve visited but also a few others I haven’t gotten to visit but I believe are worth mentioning!
Tulum is famous for it’s luxury eco-hotels, trendy cafes, and bohemian vibe. But you would be greatly missing out if you came to Tulum and didn’t visit the surrounding cenotes. There are many to choose from within 30 minutes of town, some more crowded than others but all truly stunning.
The first on the list is Gran Cenote, which might be the most popular cenote in Tulum. But it’s popular for good reason, and despite the crowds is one of my favorites I have visited. It has two areas connected by a cave you swim through to reach the other side – one side is very crowded which I like to avoid, and the other side is more tranquil with bright blue shallow water. Thanks to Instagram this place has really blown up in recent years, so I recommend going right before it closes at 5pm for a less crowded experience and better lighting for photos.
Entrance Fee: $180 MXN (about $9 USD)
Next on the list is Dos Ojos, about 30 minutes north of Tulum. A bit smaller than Gran Cenote but unique in its own way. It’s more enclosed and is a deep turquoise color you truly have to see to believe. I really like swimming as far as you can until it gets dark to feel like you’re not around other people. If you come right when it opens or wait around long enough, you might also have it all to yourself like we did!
Entrance Fee: $200 MXN ($10 USD)
This cenote is one of the few that you have to hire a professional guide to visit. It’s actually the largest underwater cave system in the world, and therefore you will want a guide to show you around! It’s also the most expensive on the list, but I felt it was beyond worth the price and was an experience I’ll never forget. Your tour includes a guide, a life jacket, and snorkel equipment. Warning: If you’re afraid of the dark, this might not be the place for you! The tour lasts about an hour and takes you through narrow passageways, various caves, and to openings where you can see the stalagmites under the water as deep as your eye can see.
Note: I didn’t get many photos of this place since I didn’t have an underwater housing or dry bag on this trip and the tour is all swimming. If you want to take professional photos you will need to bring one. If you want to see more of Sac Actun, check out my Best of the Yucatan video on Youtube.
Entrance: $600 MXN ($30 USD)
This small cenote is on personal property and is one of the most affordable for that reason. It’s essential a giant hole you can jump into, so a bit more exciting than some of the others if you’re not afraid of heights. It’s not shaded at all so make sure to bring sunscreen, and a bag to put your belongings since there are no benches or tables like the other cenotes. Just as a warning, we actually had our car broken into here since it’s more secluded (they didn’t break the window but just stole our iPhone cables and a pair of sneakers) so make sure you don’t leave anything visible in your car.
Entrance: $50 pesos
Taak Bi Ha
So this is one cenote I have not been to yet but it’s on the top of my list for my next trip to Tulum! It’s similar to Sac Actun in the sense that it’s a system of caves that you can tour. It’s completely enclosed but lit up inside so you can appreciate the bright, icy blue color of the water. Though not as big, this is a cheaper alternative to Sac Actun if you’re on a tight budget.
Entrance: $350 without guide, $400 with guide
Valladolid is a small colonial town in central Yucatan, just 30 minutes away from the famous Chichen Itza. But what most tourists don’t know is that the area around Valladolid has some of the best cenotes in all of the Yucatan. Valladolid is about 1.5 hours from Tulum and is definitely worth the trip.
This might just be my favorite cenote, but it didn’t come without some effort. This cenote has become extremely popular due to social media and what once was a tranquil, spiritual place has now turned into an overrun tourist attraction. Although I usually visit cenotes early in the morning, I arrived around 11am to be able to witness that epic light ray (see photos below) that shines right on the central altar at midday. When we arrived, there were literally hundreds of people inside with bright orange life jackets and it was the complete opposite of a spiritual experience.
However, we were determined to experience this place the right way and waited two hours until every single tour bus eventually left and we had the entire place to ourselves. It was beyond worth the wait and once we were alone, we were able to truly appreciate the spiritual nature of this place which is something you have to feel yourself to understand. We spend another 45 minutes here in complete silence, wading in the shallow waters and sitting under the warm light ray and it’s an experience I’ll never forget.
Entrance: $120 pesos
Cenote Xkenken & Cenote Samula
These two cenotes are on the same property and are completely enclosed except for a small hole that lets light in. They are very large and usually empty compared to many other cenotes in the Yucatan, but equally beautiful. It’s quite dark inside of them so I recommend using a high ISO if you want to take professional photos.
Entrance: $125 MXN for both, $80 MXN for one
Cenote Ik Kil
This might be the most popular cenote in all of the Yucatan, and is the most developed on the outside which does take away from the experience a bit. But we decided to get here as earlier as possible after Chichen Itza, and arrived around 9:30am and there were only a couple other people! I have heard that it gets extremely crowded once the tour buses arrive later in the day so I highly recommend going early. Despite being more developed, it truly is a magical place with the vines running down the walls; it feels like a tropical oasis. You can also jump off the stairs which is about 15 ft, which we had a lot of fun doing! It’s also more affordable than other cenotes which is a bonus.
Entrance: $80 MXN
So these cenotes are technically about an hour outside of Mérida, and can be visited from either Mérida or Valladolid. The benefit to the cenotes that are more remote is they are much quieter and super cheap! We recently visited Mérida and didn’t realize how far some of the best cenotes actually are, so unfortunately there were a few we didn’t get to see but I’ll still share about them below.
I had never even heard of this cenote until we booked a trip to Mérida and started searching for best cenotes in the area. I hadn’t seen any other professional photos of it, so I wasn’t sure what to expect but man it didn’t disappoint. This cenote has it all – a platform to jump off of, plenty of spaces, and cool stalagmites and stalactites to see both above and below the water. Not to mention it’s only $1 USD to enter! There were other people around so if you want a quieter experience I recommend going right when it opens.
Entrance: $20 MXN
Cenotes Dzonbakal & X-Batún
This is another set of cenotes you’ll never hear about on the blogs. I actually was told by a local to go here and it was quite the adventure to get to – about a mile down a bumpy dirt road but the best adventures look a bit like that, right? I preferred Dzonbakal out of the two which is a small, partially covered cenote similar to Dos Ojos in Tulum. We didn’t swim in X-Batún, but it’s a fully open but has a really interesting color to the water. If you prefer places a little more off the beaten path, then this is for you.
Entrance: $80 MXN
The last cenote on this list is one I discovered Jess Wandering, who is the person who inspired me to explore the cenotes around Mérida to begin with! Unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit it on our trip because it was pretty far from the other cenotes we visited, and about 1.5 hours from Mérida. But if you’re looking for a cenote you can have all to yourself, this is the perfect spot. You can even jump off or use the rope swing for more of an adrenaline rush.
Entrance Fee: 30 MXN
I hope you all found this guide helpful and are even more excited for your own Yucatan adventure! Having lived in Mexico for a year and a half now and traveled to over 40 countries, I can truly say that experiencing these cenotes is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever done. It’s something so unique and special and if you want to get a sense of what ancient life use to be like for the Mayans, then this is the perfect way to do it. Just remember that these are not just places to get a cool Instagram photo – they are wonders of nature and considered sacred to many, so be mindful of protecting them and sharing the importance of doing so when you post your photos 🙂