What is a Cenote?

White Line

Cenotes - The Magnificent Treasures of Mexico

Table of Contents

The cenotes are the most exquisite jewels of the Yucatan Peninsula, both gorgeous, mysterious, and magical. Swimming in a cenote protected by the jungle is an adventure you should take advantage of when on vacation in Cancun, the Riviera Maya, or Tulum.

So you must be wondering what cenotes are and why they’re so magical and enigmatic. Continue reading, and we will tell you everything you need to know about the hidden jewels of Mexico

Best cenotes in Mexico: Cenote Suytun
Best cenotes in Mexico: Cenote Suytun

What exactly are the Cenotes?

The cenotes are deep water wells supplied by the filtering of rain and the currents of rivers born deep inside the soil. That is why swimming in a cenote feels so refreshing; consider that the average temperature of its waters is 75°F (24°C)!


🇲🇽 Mexico Travel Resources We Use:


The Mayans gave these wells their name, Dz’onot, which means “cavern with water,” From there, it got its modern name that we use today, cenotes.

Cenotes are enormous sinkholes or caves filled with cool, clear groundwater and rains over time. They are typically found in sedimentary limestone rock. Cenotes are formed when a cave falls on itself and might be open-air (the roof has entirely collapsed) or cave cenotes (most or all of the roof remains). Many cenotes support a variety of fish, plant life, and even turtles! 

Cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula

The Yucatan Peninsula is a flat piece of limestone that was formerly a massive reef until the sea level receded and exposed what is now known today as the Yucatan Peninsula. This huge network of fissures drains precipitation from the surface into several vast underground river systems. It’s difficult to say how many cenotes exist in the Mexican jungle, but there are over 7,000 of them, with over 2,200 of them registered. At least 900 of them are considered part of the ‘Ring of Cenotes,’ located around the city of Merida.

Some of the world’s longest subterranean cave networks may be found in the Yucatan. The Sistema Sac Actun, located in the Riviera Maya, is the world’s longest underground cave, measuring 350 kilometers long and 119 meters deep, featuring over 226 cenotes. Archaeologists have uncovered 9000-year-old human bones and the bones of creatures that roamed the earth during the ice era.

What is a Cenote?

Cenotes can be found throughout the world, but the Yucatan Peninsula, and particularly the Riviera Maya cenotes, are unique due to the sheer amount of cenotes; you will not find this abundance anywhere else.

The significance of Cenotes for the Mayan Culture

The cenotes were very important to the Mayans. While cenotes were their primary supply of water, they were also thought to be the entrance to the Xibalba, or underworld, and a site where the Mayan gods would visit, particularly Chaac, the Mayan god of rain, lightning, and thunder. Because cenotes were so essential, most temples and communities were erected nearby, or, as recent finds show, the Mayans built on top of cenotes, such as Chichen Itza.

Seven wonders of the modern world: Fall Equinox at Chichen Itza Pyramid
Fall Equinox at Chichen Itza Pyramid

Some cenotes were turned into religious sanctuaries, with offerings and rites undertaken to appease the gods. Archaeologists have unearthed Jade, ceramics, gold, incense, and human remains at the bottom of religious cenotes. A analysis of some of the human bones discovered at Chichen Itza’s Sagrado Cenote (literally Sacred Cenote – seen top right) revealed that they bore scars associated with human sacrifice. However, there are additional cenotes in the Xibalba that feature human bones but no scars that suggest sacrifice or ceremony. These cenotes could simply have been an alternative burial place, awaiting the next cycle in life.

Cenotes are still an important source of water for the peninsula today. However, they have also gained appeal among millions of tourists that flock to these incredible natural wonders to swim, dive, and investigate the cenote’s extraordinary mysteries.

Thousands of Cenotes have emerged throughout the Yucatan Peninsula as attractive sites for people and visitors to cool off from the jungle heat.

Types of Cenotes

Cenotes Categorized by Age

Cenote Dos Ojos diving
Cenote Dos Ojos diving

Cenotes in Cancun, Cenotes near Tulum, Cenotes near Playa del Carmen, Cenotes near Valladolid range in age and are categorized as follows:

  • Cavern Cenotes. It is the youngest, and its color ranges from emerald green to vivid blue, as viewed through the gaps in its vault.
  • Semi-open Cenotes. Middle-aged, albeit a piece, is already out there and may be linked to others.
  • Open Cenotes. The oldest ones are where the vault collapsed and are home to a wide variety of species
  • Historic cenotes. A lagoon and an oasis in the heart of the Mayan forest.
Cenote Ik Kil From the top
Cenote Ik Kil From the top

Types of Cenotes

  • Open Cenotes: Open Cenotes are often enormous, circular pits. Open cenote water is often clear and blue in hue.
  • Closed Cenotes: are cenotes that are fully underground and can only be reached by a cave or tunnel. The water in closed cenotes is frequently dark and cool.
  • Semi-open Cenotes: These are cenotes that are both open and underground. Semi-open cenotes frequently have a combination of clear and dark water.
  • Cavern Cenotes are cenotes that are located in underground caverns and are accessed via a network of tunnels. The water in subterranean cenotes is usually clear, making diving and snorkeling popular.
  • Freshwater Cenotes: These are cenotes with fresh water that are ideal for swimming and diving.
  • Cenotes with Saltwater: These are cenotes that are connected to the ocean and contain salt water. They are typically found along the Yucatan Peninsula’s shoreline.


🇲🇽 Mexico Travel Resources We Use:


What are the Cenotes? Gran Cenote
Gran Cenote Tulum

There are numerous open, semi-open, and underground cenotes on the Yucatan Peninsula.

How were the Cenotes in Yucatan Mexico formed?

The vast majority of cenotes are located in the Yucatan Peninsula and have a particularly porous limestone soil that, when collapsed due to rain and the current of underground rivers, gives rise to the formation of the cenotes.

When seawater enters the continental area of the Riviera Maya and meets the freshwater of underground rivers, the halocline dissolves the rock more quickly, creating landslides that build large flooded chambers such as the Dos Ojos and Sac Actun cenotes.

Flora and Fauna in the Cenotes

Each cenote has its own unique flora and fauna. Several fish species, such as guppy and catfish, and some marine crustaceans. Fish like the endangered White Blind Lady and Yucatecan Blind Eel can be found in cave cenotes.

Turtles, iguanas, frogs, and butterflies, as well as swallows and Toh Birds, often known as the “bird of the cenotes,” can be found in the area.

The vegetation varies depending on its proximity to the coast, and it is typical to see tree roots, as well as diverse algae and lilies, blending into the environment.

The importance of the Cenotes in the Maya Culture

For the Maya society, cenotes were a sign of dualism because they represented both life and death. They provided water to the Maya cities and served as a portal to the land of the dead: the Xibalbá.

Various rites were held in cenotes at the start of the voyage. The Popol Vuh has the first official record of these rites. Furthermore, the Aluxes, the forest keepers, and the cenotes are emblematic. Nowadays, offerings are made to them in exchange for crop care, building authorization, and permission to visit a cenote.

Cenotes in the Yucatan Today

The cenotes in the present day are more important than ever as silent witnesses of the past and invaluable information about planet development, our species, and even unknown data about the Mayan Culture.

They are water sources due to the absence of surface rivers in the Yucatan Peninsula. They are also magnificent sites for nature exploration and archaeological expeditions, finding remains of ancient Mayans and older settlers.

Help preserve it by rinsing off before entering one and using environmentally friendly sunscreens and repellents.

Help preserve it by rinsing off before entering one and using environmentally friendly sunscreens and repellents.


Traveling to 🇲🇽 Mexico soon?

I recommend these travel resources for Mexico that I personally use:

🏨 Hotels: I have found that Expedia and Booking.com consistently have the best deals on hotels and resorts in Mexico. If you prefer to stay at a vacation rental, check VRBO that is usually cheaper than AirBnB’s added fees!

✈️ Flights: To find the best flight deals to Mexico, I always use Kayak. Remember to subscribe to their price alerts for the travel dates you want. Another great alternative for flight deals is Expedia.

🚗 Rental Cars: I always use and highly recommend Discover Cars because it allows me to compare several car rental companies and view ratings on various factors such as overall value, pick-up procedure, agent efficiency, car condition, and total time taken.

🚙 Cancun Airport Transportation: For the fastest and easiest way to travel, I suggest arranging a private transfer with Cancun Airport Transportation. Honestly, no better way to travel from the airport to your hotel or resort.

🤿 Tours & Activities: For tours and activities in Mexico, I highly recommend using either Viator or GetYourGuide. These websites offer a full refund if you cancel your booking 24 hours before the start of the tour, and they also provide excellent customer service in case of any issues.

🚨 Travel Insurance: I always suggest purchasing travel insurance as a precaution before traveling, especially after a recent accident in a taxi in Mexico. For short trips, I recommend Travel Insurance Master, whereas for digital nomads, Safety Wing is a better option.

📷 Best Camera for your trip: I always carry with me a GoPro, It’s light, compact, takes great video and pictures, and most importantly, it’s waterproof! You just can’t go wrong with one. If you are interested in higher quality video and photography, I always carry with me on my trips and highly recommend the Sony A7IV which I think is the best travel DSLR Camera out there.

☀️ Biodegradable Sunscreen: Remember to include a good sunscreen to protect yourself from the summer sun. I always use and suggest Sun Bum Sunscreen, which is vegan, reef-friendly, and cruelty-free.