The Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico (home to the Riviera Maya) rises from a continental platform that divides the Gulf of Mexico from the Caribbean Sea. It’s basically a floating slab that doesn’t exceed 200 meters above sea level. In some places, the water has created cracks and gaps in this platform, which has resulted in one of the area’s most unique geological features: Cenotes.
There are hundreds of cenotes throughout the Yucatan Peninsula. They are a bit like sinkholes, appearing randomly in the landscape, surrounded by vegetation and filled with water that is an impressive turquoise color, in part because the entire area is connected by a series of underground rivers.
They are not only a unique geological feature on the Yucatan Peninsula, but they were also important sources of water and sites of worship for the Maya. In fact, cenotes were very much a part of the Mayan culture and history; they played a significant role in their local folklore, and artifacts, cave drawings and other pieces of archeological evidence are widespread throughout the area, punctuating the importance of cenotes to the first settlers in the area.
The expansive stretch of cenotes on the Yucatan Peninsula makes this a popular place for cave diving, and in places, where cenotes once existed there are now simply underground caves, many of which served as sacred sites for the Maya. Calcehtok is the site one of the Yucatan Peninsula’s largest cave features, which is made up of 30 smaller caves, many of which are likely connected to each other. Balankanché is a spacious cave with many interesting geological features, and rock paintings, rock carvings and sculptures from generations past have been found in Loltún.
Cenotes are a big attraction in this part of Mexico. Smaller ones can often be visited on your own, but larger, more commercialized sites must be visited with a guide or through a tour. Here are a few to visit if you’re headed to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico:
> Xunaan Ha: Great for swimming or general relaxation. Located near a spider monkey and toucan sanctuary near the town of Ciudad Chemuyil.
> Hidden Worlds – Dos Ojos: Good for snorkeling or scuba diving with a guide.
> Nohoch Na Chich: A network of underground rivers with dozens of tunnels and other features. It’s the world’s longest network explored to date.
Cenotes in Cuzamá:
> Papakal – Eknakan: A cave-type cenote with a dry cave at the entrance. There are many columns created by stalactites and stalagmites.
> Oxolá – Homún: An open circular cenote where the sunlight breaks through. Located in the municipality of Homún.
> Tza Uhun Kat – Homún: One of the most visited by locals, this cenote is accessed by cement steps that lead into the swimming hole.
Cenotes in the Tecoh Area:
> Sabacché: This community has two cenotes that can be visited via eco-tours on foot or bike.
> Nayah: A free-fall cenote with beautiful blue water known for its cave diving.
> San Eduardo: A deep cenote measuring nearly 200 feet. It must be accessed though a ten-foot hole and a dry cave.
Cenotes in the Izamal Area:
> Mumundzonot – Tunkas: A cenote ideal for cave diving and swimming.
> Ox Watz – Tekal de Venegas: This area is managed by Manayn members of the community. There are numerous cenotes here as well as camping, hiking, kayaking, cycling and other activities.
Visiting the cenotes is a very local experience, and it’s something the brings together community members and visitors. However, not all cenotes are an open invitation to just dive in. If you decide to check out one of these natural features during your Yucatan Peninsula vacation, here are a few tips for visiting a cenote:
> If there are signs posted that you shouldn’t enter a cenote, then don’t. There may be environmental or safety reasons for this.
> Respect the environment. Pick up your garbage, be gentle with the local flora and fauna, don’t throw cigarette butts, don’t take archeological artifacts and don’t touch stalactites or stalagmites.
> Do not go cave diving unless you are properly prepared and certified. Hire a guide when appropriate.
> Because the Yucatan Peninsula is such an eco-conscious area, use biodegradable sunscreen and bug spray.
> Water in the cenotes is circulating beneath the ground and is likely to be chilly. Take a towel and clothes to change into when you are finished swimming.