The Yucatan: My Favorite Cenotes

Ok, I know I’ve been pretty silent on this blog the last few months, but I had good reasons: There’s a pandemic…oh yeah, and I FINISHED MY MASTER’S DEGREE! I officially have a M.Ed in International Education Curriculum Development and Supervision. Phew, you could not pay me to do that again, but I’m still really glad I went through the program. I grew so much as a teacher and I definitely see it as a valuable experience.

The major downside was that 6 of my 12 courses were supposed to take place in-person over two summers in Leysin, Switzerland. Of course, that didn’t happen. Our first summer was spent in Amman, as there were no flights out – and what would we have done anyway? But we were already vaccinated for this second summer and we knew we needed a real vacation (even if I would be in online classes for nine weeks of it).

Our initial plan was to head to Hawaii by way of Tokyo. We’re probably the only two people who didn’t know the Olympics were happening this summer, let alone that they were happening in Japan. Clearly, those plans quickly changed (also, did you know the pandemic has made Hawaii more expensive? Anyway…). We did some brainstorming and realized Mexico had all three things that had attracted us to Hawaii: Beaches, jungles, and cities.

With a lot of help from Lonely Planet, we mapped out our route in Mexico. I’ve been twice before and Chandler has been countless times, but there’s still too much to do in just one summer. Our final itinerary included Playa del Carmen, Oaxaca, Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, and Mexico City.

We spent a month in Playa because there’s so much to do in the Yucatan: Beaches, restaurants, ruins, whale shark sightings, islands, and, my new favorite…cenotes.

Chandler did most of the research for this trip (atypical for us, as we usually work as a team), but he took the lead so that I could focus on my classes. Which means that I knew we were going to a cenote, but I didn’t really know what they were. The English-equivalent word is sinkhole – not exactly inviting. We arrived in Playa and had to decide where to start our cenote journey. With 6,000+ cenotes, that was no small feat.

Chandler had a list from Lonely Planet and I cross-referenced it with different blogs – the most useful one I found was The World Is My Playground, written by Toronto-based traveller, Ioana. You’ll see by the end of this post that we couldn’t stop at just one cenote, we had to sample a few.

Our first experience was Cenote Cristalino.

First, there are three main types of cenotes (I’m saying this because I didn’t know and it will help explain how we chose our cenotes):

-Open cenotes: These are natural, open pools. Once upon a time, they used to be covered, but now they’re open and they typically have a lot of space around them for relaxation.
-Semi-open cenotes: You might have guessed it, these cenotes are partially covered and partially open. These openings can be large or small, so there’s a lot of variety in this category.
-Cave cenotes: These cenotes have little to no sunlight and often have to be accessed via land to get to the pool inside the cave. These are incredible because of their giant size.

Cenote Cristalino was an open centote. I absolutely fell in love with cenotes here because of how refreshing the water is and how calm the atmosphere was. We arrived around 9:00, having taken a collectivo (shared van) from Playa to Tulum, getting off somewhere near the middle. Cenote Cristalino is great because there are two other cenotes within walking distance: Azul and Jardin del Eden. We made plans to return to the other two, but it didn’t work out with our schedule.

Cenote Cristalino is less touristic attraction and more local watering hole. It didn’t start filling up with people until nearly noon. Which gave us plenty of time to wander around, take photos, and scope out the best swimming spots.

When you arrive, there is a small pool down a path to your right. If you continue on the main path, you get the main pool (pictured above), which is broken up by trees into two sections. This part has a fantastic ledge that you can jump off from – I finally worked up the nerve to jump just before we left.

Further up the path is a pool mainly covered by a cavern. This spot has a swing and was very popular for photographs. At this point you can go right or left. Right will take you up to the jumping ledge. Left will take you to the “hidden” pool. Easy to get to and in plain sight, the name is pretty misleading, never-the-less, nobody really ventured over to it. The water wasn’t as clean (cenotes are famous for their crystal clear water), but that was better for the fish that lived in it. As soon as I dipped my feet in, I had a dozen small fish nibbling away at my dead skin. I had experienced a fish spa once before in Chang Mai, Thailand, so I knew what to expect, but I’m still incredibly ticklish! Even if you’re not interested in the natural fish spa, the setting of this last pool is more than worth the stroll.

This was easily the calmest of the cenotes we visited and I probably could have stayed all day. That said, we definitely didn’t have the place to ourselves. Because it’s a lesser known cenote, it has somehow gained a reputation for photo shoots. As we arrived, we encountered a completely naked Russian woman applying gold foil on her face and body in the shape of a mask and swimsuit. Her entourage took photos for at least two hours.

That wasn’t the only unusual photo shoot happening. About an hour after we arrived, a woman in a yellow ball gown made her way into the water with another woman in a scuba suit. They proceeded to have an underwater photo session. Half a dozen other woman did the same thing over the next few hours.

I can’t cast too much shade, however, because I also wanted to take advantage of the beautiful scenery. I may not have had gold appliqué or a ball gown, but I was more than happy to use the swings as my props.

Our second cenote was a bit more popular and therefore a lot more crowded. We also arrived at Gran Cenote closer to 11:00, having started that day at the Muyil Ruins. Gran Cenote is a semi-open cenote. While I loved Cenote Cristalino, Chandler hadn’t appreciated the lack of shade (you’re not allowed to wear sunscreen in the water), so he was excited to have more coverage.

When we arrived, the main cenote was already pretty busy – gone was our serene cenote experience. In it’s place was something a lot more fun. We realized each cenote has a different vibe and we had definitely found the party cenote.

A little bit of exploring did reveal a smaller, secondary pool. At first, I thought they were just two separate pools, but once we were in the water, we discovered the cave connecting them. The swim between the two was perfect. Dripping stalactites covered the ceiling, along with a very large colony of bats. While this surprised us at first, we were so grateful of the shade that we didn’t mind them one bit.

And then we were through cave and at the second pool.

This pool had a much more relaxed atmosphere, but it still filled up pretty quickly after we arrived.

Something special about Gran Cenote is that sections of it are roped off to protect the turtles that call this area home. They typically stick to their end, leaving the swimmers be, but every once in a while, one will come by to say hello.

We didn’t spend quite as much time at Gran Cenote as we had at Cenote Cristalino. While we loved the cave and the quieter pool, it was still a bit too much of a party for us. Also, our late arrival meant we were there during the sunniest part of the day. We made sure to snap a few photos to highlight the cenote’s beauty and then we were on our way.

This cenote is not on the main road and since we wanted to pair it with the Muyil ruins we simply rented a car+driver for the day. It was a great experience, even if it was significantly more expensive than the shared minibus.

Our third and final cenote was Cenote Dos Ojos. Two Eyes in English, the cenote gets its name from the double sinkholes that are connected by a boardwalk. We used the same car+driver for this experience because it is farthest away from a main road (3 km down a bumpy, pot-hole filled road) and, also, because my sister was visiting us at this point. The three of us piled into the car and, just like our previous cenote, started the day at some ruins, this time in Tulum. Afterward, we made our way to Cenote Dos Ojos to cool off.

We didn’t know what to expect from these cenotes – they are part of an extensive cave system and are excellent for diving. However, there was actually plenty of natural sunlight. The first cenote is fairly small and is definitely set up to be diver and family friendly. It’s split into two sections and honestly, we didn’t spend much time there. Instead, we made our way to the second cenote.

This one was absolutely incredible. There were a couple of wooden stairs to allow access to the water, but nearly everyone stayed near the main entrance. We decided to see where the water could lead us. Turns out, it goes in a circle, depositing you back where you started after 20-30 minutes of floating, relaxing, and exploring. This cave system is absolutely incredible, and we only touched the smallest amount of its 61 km length.

Just like the other cenotes, the water was crystal clear and it was amazing how far down you could see. And while this cenote was probably just as busy as Gran Cenote, it was really easy to get away from the big crowds. We actually floated through twice because the experience was so enjoyable.

Nearing the completion of the circle, the water gets difficult to pass. It gets very narrow with both stalactites and stalagmites to navigate. However, if you leave the water, you pass through an incredibly-colored, dry cavern. The photo below shows the water in the very back of the cave.

This cenote had probably the fewest photo shoots out of the three cenotes we went to. Possibly because it also seemed to have the most serious divers. And because so many people stuck to just two locations in these giant caves, there were actually plenty of places to take incredible photographs.

Chandler joked that he was glad my sister was with us so he could take a break from photography duty. But he’s not wrong, this cave was stunning and was definitely worthy of a full blown photo shoot.

There are so many more cenotes that we have left to explore in the Yucatan. Even though we had a month in Playa del Carmen, we still found our time filled with so many other things (additional blog posts to come!). Playa is also where I did the bulk of my summer grad school classes – so I can’t complain too much about having “cenote breaks” when I needed some time away from my computer screen.

If we return to the Yucatan, cenotes are going to be the number one thing on my list.

    1. I think I enjoy places the most with a camera in my hand – these photos + blog posts will give me a visual reminder for the rest of my life. Plus – it doesn’t take long to snap a few shots : ) I always locked the camera away while we were in the water.

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