Prior to coming to the Yucatan peninsula, I had never heard of a cenote (pronounced say-no-tay). They are sinkholes formed because limestone collapses to reveal a water source. The Mayan’s thought of cenotes as sacred places where they were used as a fresh water sources, and in some instances for sacrificial purposes (If you have seen the animated film Road to El Dorado, the water pits they throw all the gold in can be considered a cenote). They built their largest cities next to these water sources since most of the region is devoid of any rivers. Most of them do not have any water on the surface, instead they are underground water caves which attract many SCUBA divers.
There are thousands and thousands of them in the region, most of them are undiscovered or known only to the locals. We were able to visit a handful of them, each with its own unique characteristics. Our studio in Playa del Carmen was just out of the main downtown area which gave us a very authentic Mexican experience living next to local people. As it so happened, there was a beautiful cenote which emptied into the beach just a minute long walk from where we were staying.
Unbeknownst to most tourists staying in the resorts nearby, this is not water that has flowed from the ocean into a small lagoon, it’s the other way around! The cenote water is fresh water and also very cold, so there is an interesting temperature change as you walk from the cenote into the ocean water. This is also a prime local hangout spot, especially on Sunday when most people have off. A great experience to behold and witness local people enjoying their own piece of paradise, not one ruined by masses of tourism.
Cenote Jardin del Eden
Our first traditional cenote experience was going to the Jardin del Eden (Garden of Eden) cenote. It was recommended to us by our friend Seth from his unbelievable website Everything Playa del Carmen (insert link). After taking a colectivo (local group taxi) for 35 pesos (~$2USD) to take us to the site which is about 30 mins away, we had finally made it. The water is crystal clear and quite chilly, but feels amazing with the Sun beating down on you. There are places that you can jump from if you’re an adrenaline junkie like Nenad.
We arrived towards the end of the day when the crowds had dispersed, divers had packed up and there were only a handful of people present. This made it an ethereal experience, you feel as though you’re in the Garden of Eden, especially with the iguanas around, they can pass as snakes 😉
There was even a rogue iguana or two that were very used to people:
This cenote is adjacent to the Jardin del Eden cenote, but we didn’t have enough time to see both in the same day so we made another trip out here. This one was more relaxing since not all of the water is deep and there are large rock formations that you can sit on while in the water.
The other thing that makes these cenotes really interesting are the fish swimming in them. If you are standing still, the fish will come and nibble at your skin; don’t worry it doesn’t hurt, it does really tickle however. People pay good money for the fish therapy back in Playa del Carmen, but by visiting the cenote, you can experience nature and be pampered by the fish all for free.
Cenotes in the Yucatan State:
We took a road trip to Valledolid (Vay-a-doll-id) which is a Spanish colonial town west of Playa del Carmen and stopped at two local cenotes along the way. The experience was interesting to say the least. First you see a small sign on the side of the road pointing you in the direction of a cenote, then you drive down a dirt road for a few minutes. You’re then greeted by an elderly man with a huge sombrero asking for 10 pesos per person as entry. After parking the car, you look over the ledge, not knowing what to expect, and deep down there is a huge crater filled with fresh water and no one else in sight! It looks as though a meteor landed in this exact spot. You walk down the steps and see this:
A truly mesmerizing sight. The water is still cold, but I’ll never forget floating on my back looking up at the sky pondering life.
The next cenote was off of State road 295 between Valladolid and Ria Lagartos. They had just opened it up and while the water was not the cleanest, it was still worth it to climb down and explore.
Most of the cenotes are undiscovered, so you may have some land and imagine discovering this on your land! This is an experience that some landowners in Mexico go through.
Diving at Cenote Casa
In order to receive an Open Water Scuba Diving certification, you must complete 4 open water dives. Because the water was rough, we were taken to Casa cenote. The water was cold, but at least this time we had wetsuits on – Daisy wore two for extra warmth! The cenote was busy with snorkelers and bathers but we were able to safely swim underneath them, and underneath the mangrove roots! This was an experience that we will never forget. We even had a friendly duck that dove next to us for a few minutes, hunting for food.
Cenotes are a huge part of the history of the area and are an amazing experience for the first time visitor. Each one is so unique and will throw your senses for a loop.
Some final tips for visiting a cenote:
- Avoid visiting on Sunday, many locals have off and the cenotes will be much more crowded.
- Use only biodegradable sunscreen which can be bought at all the souvenir stores and pharmacies. The regular lotion washes off and pollutes the crystal clear water, don’t be that person!
- Bring a mask and snorkel!
Have you ever been to a cenote in Mexico or anywhere else in the world? Leave a comment, we would love to hear from you.