If you’re visiting Cancún, Mexico, there’s nothing better than a dip into cool water on a typically hot and sunny day. Taking their name from a Mayan word that means “sacred well,” cenotes are vibrant freshwater sinkholes ideal for swimming, snorkeling, and in some cases, diving.
And there are a whopping 7,000 of them around the Riviera Maya. Many are within driving distance of Cancún, making for a perfect day trip away from the beach or pool.
Almost otherworldly in appearance, cenotes form when geological and climate changes cause limestone to cave, leaving a shimmering watering hole. Some are out in the open, while others provide access to underwater cave systems. Whichever cenote you choose, you’ll most likely walk through tropical jungle past colorful birds and stealthy iguanas to reach these emerald pools teeming with tropical fish.
The easiest way to visit the cenotes is by rental car or tour bus. Since several cenotes are conveniently located near ancient Mayan ruins, such as those found in Tulum and Chichen Itza, tour operators often combine a trip to nearby ruins with a visit to a cenote, and some even include lunch.
Here’s a look at five standout cenotes within driving distance of Cancún.
Water shoes are recommended, as the limestone steps down to the cenotes can be steep and slippery at times.
Cenote Siete Bocas
Distance from Cancún: 30 miles
Why go: More of a swimming hole than a dive site, Siete Bocas (Spanish for “seven mouths”) consists of seven small cenotes connected by tunnels. You can take a walk along the serene passageways above ground between the pools, dive in from a 20-foot-tall cliff and explore what’s beneath the surface, or climb the watchtower to check out the view of the surrounding jungle.
Good to know: You will need to bring your own food, drinks and snorkel gear.
Distance from Cancún: 60 miles
Why go: Open to the elements and more shallow than its neighbors, Cenote Azul offers something for every interest.
There are plenty of spots where you can easily stand in the water here, making this a great choice for young or inexperienced swimmers. The turquoise pools teem with tropical fish, some of which might nip at the dead skin on your feet — which tickles some visitors but annoys others. (If you’re in the latter group, just keep moving and the fish will ignore you.)
The highlight here is a 12-foot ledge on the deep side of the cenote that’s perfect for adventurous swimmers. Those who are too intimidated can jump into the water from a wooden dock. The “L” shape of this cenote makes for plenty of nooks and crannies if you prefer to watch the action from a quiet corner.
Good to know: Snorkel gear and life jackets are available for rent, and a small shop sells fish food, a well as snacks and drinks.
Cenote Dos Ojos
Distance from Cancún: 65 miles
Why go: Home to one of the longest underwater cave systems in the world, Dos Ojos (“two eyes”) enjoys plenty of natural light, ensuring superb visibility for divers.
With side-by-side cenotes that look like a pair of giant eyes, Dos Ojos features an underwater cave system connected by a quarter-mile-long passageway. With a depth of more than 350 feet, a comfortable temperature of 77 degrees Fahrenheit and nearly 40 miles of caves to explore, divers can spend hours exploring this underwater paradise. Both cenotes have incredible stalactites and stalagmite formations, and the light is just low enough to accommodate a bat cave that provides a perfect photo spot.
Good to know: Dos Ojos is across from the Xel-ha Water Park, in case you want to plan your day around both activities. However, the cenote doesn’t offer any food or refreshment stands; so be sure to pack a picnic if you don’t plan to visit Xel-ha, which has a restaurant and bar.
Distance from Cancún: 80 miles
Why go: This family-friendly swimming hole is home to a turtle habitat that’s popular with young children. Located just off the highway on the way to the famous Coba ruins, the Gran Cenote is true to its name — it’s one of the biggest and busiest such spots. Visiting this cenote requires a walk through dense tropical foliage on your way to a sandy shoreline where snorkeling is the main activity. Jump in and get an up-close look at fish, turtles and stalagmite formations.
Good to know: Snorkel gear and locker rentals are available on site, and food stalls are located near the entrance. Try to go during the week or when it’s overcast to avoid the crowds.
Distance from Cancún: 90 miles
Why go: Cenote Maya, home to the largest dome roof of all the cenotes, offers the chance to rappel 80 feet down into the cavern below. The huge vines dangling from the ground’s surface to the water seem like they’re waiting for Tarzan to appear.
If rappelling isn’t your thing, you can climb down the wooden staircase in the center of Cenote Maya to swim and explore the caverns. Once you’re at the bottom, try one of two zip lines that’ll have you flying across the cavern until you release, then drop into the cool, refreshing water.
If people-watching and enjoying the natural beauty is all you really want to do, grab a float at the bottom of the stairs, away from the zip lines, and take in the scene. You can also rent kayaks or try the trepachanga, a kind of tightrope over the water with ropes on either side for balance.
Good to know: Tours are available that include lunch and a visit to nearby ruins.
Whether you’re traveling with family, solo, and/or you’re looking to meet a few locals while doing something a bit out-of-the-box, you should definitely consider adding the cenotes to your Cancún bucket list.
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