Exploring the Cenotes of Tulum

Mar 18

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I had seen pictures of cenotes on Instagram, however I was unaware of their uniqueness to the Yucatan Peninsula specifically when I booked a girls’ trip to Tulum in early 2018. While planning that trip, my mind was on the beach scene, as that is what I had seen of Tulum after following a few local eco-resorts and food joints. It was only about a month before our departure, that I saw another travel blogger post from a cenote, with Tulum geotagged on the post. I exploded with excitement as I opened my laptop to start researching how to find and get to said cenote. To my surprise, I quickly found out that there are over 6,000 of them peppered across the area in Mexico. Holy FOMO, Batman. I started making a list of the ones I had to see and started researching.

If you are unaware, a cenote is a natural sinkhole. “Who the fuck would want to swim in a sinkhole?” you are probably asking to yourself right now. Well these aren’t exactly your typical sinkholes. These are crystal clear, aqua blue natural swimming holes bursting with aquatic wildlife. The quite literally take your breath away when you approach them. Beyond their aesthetic & physical beauty, the Mayans believed that cenotes were an entrance to the underworld, thus making them quite sacred. I hope you can agree with me that it is badass to get to explore pools that were once used to make sacrifices.

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If I am being perfectly honest, the cenotes are the primary reason I returned to Tulum with Ben less than six months after visiting for the first time. Ever since I left, that “over 6,000” statistic has been stuck in my head. I have routinely thought about how unexplored I left the Yucatan Peninsula by only seeing two cenotes on my first visit to Tulum due to being underprepared in a few areas. Ben and I headed into the second trip far more prepared to explore these otherworldly basins. We made a list, mapped a route, and got up early… twice. We went in with a heavy goal of hitting at least five cenotes. Mission not quite accomplished, but still managed to hit four!

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Below, I have accumulated the following…

  • All the things you need to know before visiting any cenote. Some of these things I was ahead of during my first visit, others I wish I knew ahead of time. If you follow these guidelines, I can assure you that no matter which cenotes you end up at, you’ll have a great experience.
  • A comprehensive list of all the cenotes we’ve visited on the Yucatán Peninsula, along with a few honorable mentions of popular ones I haven’t personally made it to. With each cenote, I include: photos, what to expect, price, and location.

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Things to think about ahead of time…

Rent a car. “How many fucking times is this chick going to tell us to rent a car?” ALL THE TIME, so get used to it. Renting a car puts you in control of time and the situation. It removes all language barriers, so you can get to exactly where you need to go. It is safer. It is easier. It ends up being far more cost effective. You can absolutely opt for public transportation, as it is readily available throughout Tulum. But being a photographer, I prefer maximum flexibility when I travel, as I like to be able to stop and get out should I happen to see an adventure. **NOT SPONSORED, but we use CarRentals.com**

Have Cash. There is no way around this. All of the cenotes you want to go to cost money to experience, and for good reason. They need to preserve and protect the area so that people like us can continue to experience them and enjoy them. Visiting the cenotes is a great way to directly support the local economy, as they provide local jobs. The reason I made note of cash specifically, is because I mean cash. No cenotes will not accept card for entry. We made the mistake of showing up to Dos Ojos a few pesos short for four people. You can’t haggle a cenote entrance fee down. We could not get in due there being no ATMs nearby. Luckily, it ended up working in our favor, as the cheaper cenotes are empty.

Get There Early. I can’t stress this enough. I know to most people, vacations are few and far between. Hopefully I can change that for you, but that is for another blog post. What I am getting at, is that vacation often means the rare opportunity to sleep in. That’s fair, but trust me and get up early just one morning to be the first people there. It is worth it to be the first ones to jump into that perfect water with no one else around. It is also worth it to get pictures sans other tourists. People tend to distract from the pure natural beauty of these environments. If you refuse to get up early, visit one of the less popular cenotes so that the magic isn’t lost.

Map It Out. The reason we only saw two cenotes during my first visit is due to poor planning and being short on cash. Instead of mapping out how to see the most cenotes, we just aimed to see the ones we really wanted to see. This bit us in the ass, as we probably could have seen 4-5 had we planned better & actually mapped out a more efficient route, hitting small cenotes in between the bigger ones. 

Bring a Towel. This is one of those things that seem really obvious, but it is alarming to see how many people climb out of the cenotes (that are often in the jungle and completely shaded) with no way to dry off. Even if it is warm outside, the drive out will be far from comfortable wet. If you decide to go against all my advice and not rent a car, bear in mind how you feel if a soaking wet foreigner climbed into your car that you could barely afford. I suggest getting a travel microfiber towel. Light, packable, and practical for every trip you will ever take.

Don’t wear sunscreen. As mentioned above, very few cenotes are in direct sunlight. Sunscreen is incredibly harmful to the delicate ecosystems in the cenotes. The chemicals in popular sunscreen brands can literally destroy underwater environments. If you poison an innocent fish, you’re a dick. Given the cenotes are typically in the thicket of jungle, sunscreen is far from necessary. If you have super delicate skin, you can find a mineral biodegradable sunscreen. You are looking for non-nano zinc oxide as the only blocker.

The Cenotes…

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The moment you have all been waiting for! The cenotes, their characteristics, and their locations! Should you want to see all of them, I really think you can do it in two mornings if you plan it right. Or even in one day if you want to pull an all-dayer.

There are all types of cenotes… lakes, caves, lagoons, below ground, and more. Some are more easily accessible than others, residing right off a main road. Some require quite the trek. Some aren’t on maps. Some are very developed and have showers. I suggest getting the best of both worlds. Those famous, picturesque cenotes are those things for very good reason. On the contrary, the lesser known ones are absolutely serene, as they unruffled by people. The big ones mean more people, more noise, more distractions.

If you go to the TULUM highlight on my Instagram account, you can see video of every single one of these cenotes to get a better look at them if you so choose.

Gran Cenote

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This is probably the cenote you have seen the most pictures of on Instagram, especially if you follow me. I would say this is the most well-known cenote in the area along with Dos Ojos, but the reason you see it more, is because it is far easier to photograph. This cenote is the reason we got up before 6am and left our hotel by 7am. We were the FIRST people in line. By the time the cenote opened, there were close to 50 people in line behind us, so it absolutely paid off. ESPECIALLY when we ended up with a TON of photos unpopulated with tourists in the background. We also got a solid 5 minutes of solo swimming time in before anyone else made it down to the cenote.

When I Ben and I returned the second time, we weren’t so lucky. We arrived at about 11am on our way back from Coba, and it was SWARMED with tourists. If you are going to come here midday, be well prepared to share the space.

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The cenote has two parts, both are equally beautiful. They connect underground, where you can wade through a cave to get to either side. If bat caves aren’t your jam, you can also walk above ground to get to the other side. The main part of the cenote is super deep with the ability to swim and free dive a bit, as you can’t touch the bottom. The farther side is entirely waste deep and great for photos. In my opinion, Grand Cenote is a Tulum must see.

  • Price: 180 pesos
  • Location: Easy to get to on the main highway out of Tulum.
  • Vibe: Tulum’s most famous cenote that is always busy. Be the first or last people there if you want to enjoy it with less people.

Cenote Nicte-Ha

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This cenote is a major hidden secret, as it resides in the same park as Dos Ojos, so it often gets entirely overlooked. This is not a bad thing at all, as I am here to let you know that you will have the entire place to yourself given that it is entirely off the beaten tourist path. We had zero intention of coming here, as were guilty of wanting to see the famous one. When we were literal pesos short from getting four people into Dos Ojos, we looked at the park map and literally said “what about this one?” because it is the only one we had enough cash on hand to get in to.

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This cenote is absolutely beautiful. I have never seen water so clear in my life. Lili pads are sprinkled across the entire surface, making you feel like you are in some secret fucking garden of magic. There are two wooden docks to sunbath on, as well as a platform to jump off of, safety into the crystal blue water. The water is deep enough for diving, which is a must, as there are some cool caves. Once you’re done swimming, you won’t want to leave, as there are well maintained gardens surrounding the entire cenote, fully equipped with hammocks for reading, relaxing, or snacking.

  • Price: 100 pesos
  • Location: North from Tulum on the 307 highway; easy to find.
  • Vibe: Completely empty. If you really want to listen to nature, this is one pf the most peacefully quiet places I have ever been in my life. Everyone I know who has been here also said they had entirely to themselves.

Laguna Kaan Luum

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This is the big, blue hole I posted on Instagram that everyone quite literally lost their shit over. I protected the name on Instagram, as it is still the area’s best kept secret and a hidden local’s spot. A taxi will not take you here. Tour busses don’t pull into the parking lot. There is absolutely nothing touristy about it. This is one of those places that was so pleasant, I almost kept it entirely hidden from everyone. But I trust that the people who follow me are good people and will also keep this place somewhat hidden from the masses.

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In the center of the lagoon, is a cenote that is an estimated 262 feet deep. You cannot swim over the cenote. The entire lagoon is shallow and you can touch the bottom pretty much anywhere, the aqua blue water will graze you from your knees to your shoulders. There is a long dock that takes you through the center of the lagoon, up to the edge of the cenote. I suggest bringing a drone here. Additionally, the entire area is simply beautiful and peaceful.

  • Price: 50 pesos (what a steal)
  • Location: South of Tulum on the 307 highway. Apple maps won’t find the location, use Google maps. There is a small sign (that is easy to miss) on the left of the highway directing you to the lagoon. Follow the dirt road back to the parking lot where you will pay, then walk to the lagoon.
  • Vibe: We were the first people there at opening. We had the place entirely to ourselves for a solid 30 minutes, when four locals showed up. No one else showed up before we left around 10am. You can expect to have the place pretty much to yourself on any weekday. It is local hangout on the weekends.

Cenotes Cristal & Escondido

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These cenotes come in a pair, laying on each side of the highway. I see a lot of travel bloggers suggest seeing one or either. You are already there, see both! They are a couple hundred feet apart from one another, so why not? I know, because we skipped Escondido ourselves, only to regret it after we picked up a couple hitchhikers who said it was great. On top of that, your entrance fee covers both cenotes. We stopped on our way back from Laguna Kaan Luum, as they are pretty much the only thing between that and Tulum on the 307.

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Cristal is the larger, brighter cenote of the two. There are multiple docks are tables surrounding the cenote and the sun touches almost the entire thing. Additionally, this cenote has a massive wooden platform built above it, where you can climb the stairs, getting a running start, and jump or dive into the middle of the deep cenote. I literally felt like a kid on a diving board at summer camp again. Not a bad feeling to have at 30.

  • Price: 100 pesos
  • Location: South of Tulum on the 307 highway. There is a large sign.
  • Vibe: Super low key. Most of the people there were there alone with a book, laying on one of the platforms or hanging out at one of the numerous picnic tables. Even though there were about 10 people here, it was peace and quiet.

Honorable Mentions…  I have not been to the following cenotes, so I can’t personally give you much info. What I know about them is what I have found online or heard from the other travelers. The photos do not belong to me and I could not find credit.

Cenote Calavera

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From inside this underground cenote, the light pierces through the earth, shaping into a skull. “Calavera” is Spanish for “skull”. From above, there is a spot to jump in. Once you are in, you can hang on a swing, or climb out via the wooden ladder. This cenote was the one I was dying to see both trips, but missed it both times. It is right before to Gran Cenote and easy to miss. So if you make it to Gran, this is must see. Since I didn’t make it to this one, I don’t have any additional insight. I am simply going to share a picture of it which should be more than enough to get you to go.

Dos Ojos 

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Another one that was on my list that I didn’t make it to. After the universe diverted me from it once, I deemed it entirely unnecessary to go back, especially once I realized there are equally beautiful hidden gems, you just have to look a little hard to find them. From what I understand, this cenote is the most visited cenote in the world for good reason, so I put it on the list. Given it is a cave, I hear it is hard to photograph most of the day. If you do make it here, adventure around the entire park and check out the lesser known (thus less busy) cenotes within the park.

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Photos by Krissy & Ben Harclerode