I remember watching the ‘Caves’ episode of Planet Earth in early 2012, where they explore Mexico’s famous cenotes of the Yucatan and never imagining I would get the chance to do it myself one day! Turns out a few months later, there we were chilling in one of the most unique natural attractions in Mexico.
What is a cenote?
A cenote is an underground cave or sinkhole in the earth that has been formed by the above limestone rock collapsing to reveal freshwater pools and caverns. Mexico has the largest network of these underwater cave systems in the world, with over 6000 cenotes in the states of Quintana Roo and Yucatan!!
Cenotes of the Yucatan were used by the ancient Mayan civilization as a source of freshwater and often for sacrificing a few lads! It is said that the Mayans believed some cenotes, especially Sacred Cenote in Chichen Itza, were portals to the afterlife, as many human remains and gold offerings were found at the bottom of the waters during exploration.
Cenote water is exceptionally clean, a beautiful turquoise blue colour and also very very cold! Makes for a nice relief from the extreme heat of the Yucatan Peninsula though!
Cenotes of the Yucatan: Dzitnup Cenote (or X’kekén Cenote)
Lets just call it by its nickname, cenote Dzitnup, as I have no idea how to pronounce X’kekén and I don’t want to keep copying and pasting it here as I write.
Anyway cenote Dzitnup was one of the first cenotes of the Yucatan that we visited and it leaves a pretty good first impression.
After climbing down some very narrow stairs cut into the rock, you arrive into a large underground cave. As your eyes gradually adjust from the brightness outside to the darkness of the cave, you can hear the echoes of people’s voices and the sound of the water.
The roof of the cave is about 50 meters above you with a small hole in the center, allowing a beautiful stream of light to shine in from above in classic God style!
The area is well lit with tacky coloured lights that insist on changing colour every few seconds and there is an area to sit and put your stuff.
In the water, little black fish surround you while bats fly waaay too close to your head from above. The cave roof is covered with amazing stalactites of all sizes and huge ancient looking thick tree roots dangle from the interior of the rock above, to the surface of the water below. It’s really quite beautiful!
There is an area to the right where the stalactites hang down very low in a huge cluster, some of which looks bubbly and weird. Swimming underneath them is amazing, as you feel the 3D-ness of them…if that makes sense?
Cenote Dzitnup is a short and cheap taxi ride from Valladolid (we shared our taxi with a local indigenous woman and her box full of baby chickens….a sight not so uncommon in Mexico!).
Cenote Dzitnup is $50 pesos to enter. There is another cenote, Samula, across from Dzitnup but we didn’t enter it, as it cost another $50 pesos, which felt like a rip-off seeing as they both were in the same area. Both cenotes are open from 8:00am to around 16:30 but be sure to give yourselves at least 2 hours, especially if you want to visit both cenotes.
Cenotes of the Yucatan: Gran Cenote
Gran Cenote was my favourite of the two we visited because it had so much to offer. Gran Cenote has open water pools, underwater caves and caverns and rock corridors connecting different sections of water.
Unlike Dzitnup cenote, which is completely underground, Gran Cenote is a circular shaped hole in the ground, mostly out in the open air. The center has a boardwalk, and even a mini swamp, where we saw two little turtles chilling out in the sun as people snorkeled past them.
We entered the freezing water and headed straight for the entrance to the pitch-black cave ahead. Bats were like boomerangs around our head, shooting in and out of the cave at lightning speed. That did not settle my nerves. I hate bats.
The further in we waded, holding onto the guiding rope in the water, the more visible the inside of the cave appeared to our eyes. Once again, aggressive looking stalactites loomed and passed slowly over our heads and our movements in the water echoed all around the large cave. More hanging bats perched themselves upside down above us in huge numbers…I could see they’re little beady eyes!
We unfortunately didn’t have snorkel gear with us and we were too stubborn to pay the rip-off prices at the booth in the park, so we just used our ‘human-eyes’ to see everything beneath us, which is a pretty cheap and effective goggle replacement…
…if you can stop the water moving by staying completely still…
…and putting your eyes right above the water, parallel to the surface…
…we’re so cool!
Anyway…Gran Cenote was amazing and we spent the whole day there instead of going to the Coba ruins (a good decision when you’ve already seen 3 Mayan ruins and are going to Palenque next!). We also went exploring to find the other cenotes that we heard were in the area. The first one was almost unnoticeable as we walked along the path. A creepy and rickety wooden ladder was placed at the entrance and led into a deep black hole in the earth…naturally we climbed down.
Andres went first and I followed hesitantly. As I was on the shitty ladder he told me to stay still coz he just heard something. Crap.
It turned out to be nothing…not the crocodile I had imagined anyway.
When we got down we could only see using the natural light streaming in from above and the flash on my camera, which reminded me too much of a Spanish horror film we’d seen, where the girl uses the camera flash to find ghosts in a haunted house. We quickly left.
Gran Cenote is about 10 minutes outside of Tulum by taxi. Most taxi companies have set prices and it cost us $60 pesos to be taken to Gran Cenote. Be sure to tell them if you want a lift back to the town later as we left pretty late and were waiting for a while for a taxi to come along.
The entrance to Gran Cenote is $100 pesos, making it one of the more expensive ones but we really loved it so we see it as money well spent. The site is open from 9 to 5…what a way to make a living…
Have you got other cenotes of the Yucatan to recommend? Leave your suggestions in the comments below!