Mexico Photography

Into the Mayan Underworld: How to Visit Cenotes

Years ago, a National Geographic photo sparked my curiosity with cave diving. Photos showed a scuba diver exploring cavernous underwater systems, and just like that, I was hooked!

Fast forward some time later, and I found myself in the exact same spot the photo was taken. No matter if you’re a snorkeler or scuba diver, swimming in Mexico’s cenotes is something you absolutely can’t miss!

Read on for my guide on how to visit cenotes!

how to visit cenotes

What exactly is a cenote?

A cenote is a natural pit, or sinkhole, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath. Especially associated with the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, the ancient Mayans used cenotes for sacrificial offerings. They also believed cenotes were entrances into the underworld, and it’s not tough to see why!

how to visit cenotes

Where to find cenotes

Cenotes are prevalent throughout the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Years of rainfall eroded away the limestone and soft earth of the peninsula, forming these water and cave systems underground.

The best cenotes to visit

There are numerous cenotes, but here are some of the most beautiful and famous ones!

Dos Ojos, meaning “two eyes”

Named after the two sinkholes connected by passageways, this is an extremely colorful system. The water is crystal clear and very blue, with deep mysterious cavern dives and the opportunity to surface in the “Bat Cave.” Suitable for scuba divers, snorkelers, and swimmers!

  • Location: 3km off Highway 307, 22 km north of Tulum, 50km south of Playa del Carmen
  • Hours: 8AM to 5PM daily
  • Entrance fee: 200 pesos / $14 USD
  • Equipment: Snorkeling gear can be rented on site for 100 pesos
  • Temperature: 24-25 degrees Celsius
  • Bathrooms: Yes
  • Restaurants: No

guide to cenotes

El Pit, or “The Pit”

A gorgeous and really unique cenote! Instead of a horizontal system of passageways, The Pit goes deep. There’s a halocline where fresh water and salt water meet, and at 30m a hydrogen sulfide cloud as well. You can even spot dead tree branches sticking out! The Pit continues on past 40m, but take your time to dive around in a circular pattern, exploring the overhanging stalactites.

One of my favorite parts of this dive site is the sunlight, which pierces sharply through the water creating all sorts of gorgeous patterns.

  • Location: 2.8km past Dos Ojos (read: less touristy!)
  • Hours: 8AM to 5PM daily
  • Entrance fee: yes
  • Equipment: none on site
  • Temperature: 26 degrees Celsius
  • Bathrooms: No
  • Restaurants: No

how to visit cenotes

guide cenotes

Gran cenote

Similar to Dos Ojos, this is a crystal clear shallow swimming site that’s suitable for snorkelers and divers alike. Despite its name, Gran Cenote is not particularly “grand” in size, more in its scope — with a multitude of cenotes connected by walkways.

  • Location: nearby Tulum
  • Hours: 10AM to 5PM daily
  • Entrance fee: $25 USD
  • Temperature: 26 degrees Celsius
  • Bathrooms: Yes, with lockers available
  • Restaurants: None, but food carts are around the area

Ik Kil

One of the more popular cenotes due to its proximity to Chichen Itza, this is a huge cavernous location, 60 meters in diameter. Archaeological evidence shows that the Mayans performed sacrificial rituals here, with bones and jewelry discovered deep in the cenote!

  • Location: near Chichen Itza, Highway 180
  • Hours: 8AM to 5PM daily
  • Entrance fee: $5 USD for adults, half for children
  • Temperature: 27 degrees Celsius
  • Bathrooms: Yes (there are also accommodations available to stay around the area)
  • Restaurants: Yes

Snorkeling / scuba diving

If you’re snorkeling, be wary of the “no snorkelers past this zone” signs, and don’t dive into any overhanging areas. There have been incidents of snorkelers exploring and getting lost, or coming up for air and banging their heads, losing consciousness and even dying. You definitely don’t want to be part of that statistic!

As for scuba divers…there’s a pretty fine line between cavern diving and cave diving. The upside being that cenotes don’t require you to be cave diving certified, opening up the opportunity for almost anyone with an open water certificate to scuba and explore. Of course, this comes with its downsides as well, as there’s almost no training involved and we are responsible for our own safety.

Remember:

  • Be aware of your surroundings
  • Stick to your dive instructor
  • Don’t break the rules! They’re there for a reason

Cenote diving can quickly become very dangerous, but if done safely with the correct precautions, is a magical experience!

Photography in cenotes

With light filtering through clear blue water and insane visibility, cenotes are extremely photogenic places! Some parts give the opportunity to play with photographing sunlight, while others are dark and mysterious.

The easiest way to go is to use a GoPro — its wide angle lens will help capture the scale of the place, and it’s also much easier to simply start recording a video and letting it run as you focus on the dive itself.

If you’re a photography addict like me and insist on bringing a proper camera down with you (I used a Sony RX100 with its housing), just make sure to always dive safely first! Many have lost their lives over the years trying to navigate their way through the maze of tunnels, so pay close attention to where you’re going, and keep your eyes on the safety ropes.

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Ultimately, cenotes are an absolute dream for divers and photographers. Exploring these marvelous underwater cave systems is truly the experience of a lifetime. Stay safe, and happy diving!

Dying to go to a cenote, or been to one already? Let me know below!

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6 Comments

  • Reply Bryony Clapperton (travelsandmore) September 18, 2016 at 3:45 pm

    Pinned! We got our PADI after we left Mexico so this is something I’m keen to do when next in that area. This is a really great guide and so informative! Loved it, thanks!

    • Reply Pier Nirandara September 18, 2016 at 4:06 pm

      Thank you so much for your comment and support! Really glad you enjoyed it ❤️☺️

  • Reply Josh September 20, 2016 at 8:37 pm

    Excellent guide Pier! I have been dreaming of diving the cenotes for a long time and especially photographing them. I can’t wait to get that chance once I move to Playa del Carmen so I’m close to them all! Great shots!

    • Reply Pier Nirandara September 26, 2016 at 6:01 pm

      Thank you so much, Josh! Please let me know how you enjoy them! 😀

  • Reply Maureen November 8, 2016 at 4:14 am

    WOW! That looks like a magical place to visit. So beautiful and what an unforgettable experience it must have been for you.

    • Reply Pier Nirandara November 8, 2016 at 9:57 am

      Thank you so much! And yes, it was absolutely magical. Let me know if you ever go! 🙂

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