As my ears sink beneath the chilled water and my eyes take in the immense natural dome 12m (40 ft) above me, I can’t feel any further from Cancun’s crazy beaches and the summer heat. Here, some 21m (70 ft) beneath the surface of the Riviera Maya, the porous limestone has been hollowed by eons of water erosion, finally collapsing on itself to create an underground bubble of sorts. Deep enough to reach the area’s water table, the bottom of the bubble is covered in about 4.5m (15 ft) of the clearest water I have ever witnessed. I am back-floating in one of Mexico’s cenotes and I feel a beautiful calmness, despite the drone of an electrical generator to keep the bubble from absolute darkness.
Cenotes come in all manner of shape and size, the most famous of which are typically found on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. My visit is to a completely enclosed cenote well beneath the surface (and heat!), while others are open to the sky above. There are also cenotes that are part of a larger underwater system, and they will contain sections both open and closed to the sky.
No mater the structure, cenotes share one common trait: clear and cool water filtered through the surrounding limestone rock. The coolness of the water is what draws locals and tourists alike to explore the varied options around the peninsula. As I mentioned, it is heavenly to float in a cenote after a day of exploring Mayan ruins in the steamy jungles of the Yucatan.
My daughter and I visited a few cenotes as guests of the Riviera Maya Tourism Board, and while my daughter was hesitant at first, she always enjoyed the coolness bestowed by the pools. Later, in a less deep cenote that was more commercially developed with underwater lights (greatly enhancing viewing options), she splashed and played with a rebound in energy the sapping heat had withered.
For me, the magic of cenotes is their pure natural beauty. Our first cenote, pictured in this post, was entirely underground and required the construction of a vertical shaft to the surface, then a horizontal shaft to the pool. There’s also the dock for ease of use. Beyond that, the cave structure is all-natural, with odd and foreign bulbous rock shapes along the walls. The floor under the water is uneven with heaps of rock that have fallen from the roof in times long ago. While certainly a tourist attraction, I was happy this cenote was not sanitized and made safe beyond all natural repair.
The ancient Mayans used cenotes for a number of purposes, from bathing to water gathering and even, so it is reported, ritual sacrifice. Today, it is not hard to find the popular cenotes by checking requisite guidebooks or local tourism boards, or just by driving the coastal road in the Riviera Maya in search of cenote signs. However, I have heard stories of fascinating structures off the beaten path for adventurous travelers to re-discover for themselves.
If you think the Riviera Maya is just all beaches and Mayan ruins, you really should take the time to dig deeper beneath the surface. There, etched from centuries of water’s unstoppable force, you will find a cool, clear world that will expand your view of the beauty held by Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
G Adventures runs a number of departures to Mexico encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater for different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this ray-filled country as you’ve never seen it — check out our small group trips to Central America here.