Throughout Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, tens of thousands of natural swimming holes, called cenotes, beckon travellers and locals, especially on warmer days. These natural limestone sinkholes are filled with cool waters that make them ideal for swimming, snorkelling, and even scuba diving.
If you’re visiting the popular Yucatan city of Tulum, exploring nearby cenotes is a must. Some are more crowded than others, some more challenging to get to, and some require tour guides. To help you narrow down your options, we’ve curated a list of our 15 favourite cenotes near Tulum.
Visit the 15 best cenotes in Tulum, Mexico
About 20 minutes northeast of Tulum is a pair of spectacular cenotes called Dos Ojos, or two eyes, which are highly regarded for their crystal-clear water. As such, they’re a very popular scuba and snorkel spot — divers can even explore 1,300 feet of underwater passageways that connect the two cenotes. One is known as the “blue eye,” as sunlight illuminates its blue waters, while the other is a cave known as the “black eye,” and it requires flashlights or headlamps to explore.
Jardin del Eden
Located in Xpu Ha, 30 minutes outside of Tulum, this gigantic open-air cenote surrounded by jungle is popular with swimmers, sunbathers, and snorkelers. It can get busy, but its size prevents visitors from feeling too constrained. There are also convenient amenities here, including snorkel and life vest rentals, bathrooms, and food vendors.
This unique cenote just 20 minutes from Tulum is unique in that it feels a lot like a river — it’s not just an open pit, but more of a snaking path through mangroves. It has a gentle current, a mix of freshwater and saltwater (as it’s connected to the sea), and a fair amount of wildlife, including birds, fish, and crabs. It’s also the home of a local legend: Panchito the crocodile. He’s small and relatively harmless, as long as you don’t bother him.
Half cenote, half lagoon, Yal-Ku is a paradise for snorkelers and scuba divers looking to spot sea life — you can see sea turtles, rays, parrotfish, and barracudas here, just to name a few of the local residents. These creatures are drawn by the cenote’s reef, which provides shelter from larger predators. As such, Yal-Ku is something of a natural aquarium, so arrive ready for wildlife encounters.
If swimming in a cave sounds good to you, head to Cenote Chaak Tun in Playa del Carmen, about one hour from Tulum. You must book a guided tour to come here, and getting to the cenote requires a combination of walking and snorkelling. With the price of your tour, you’ll also receive all the gear you need, including a wetsuit and snorkel equipment.
El Gran Cenote
There’s a good reason this cenote is called “grand” — it has immaculately clear waters, several chambers for exploration, and even some resident turtles. Located just outside of Tulum, this very popular cenote is great for the whole family. Be sure to bring goggles or snorkels to peer at underwater stalagmites, and don’t forget to look up, where bats often dangle from stalactites.
This swimming hole is 10 to 15 minutes from the centre of Tulum, yet it’s still one of the less-crowded cenotes in the area. The small, open-air pool is highly regarded for its amenities — there’s a restaurant here, as well as bathrooms and changing rooms. For a little more action, ride the short zip line over the cenote, which has you land in the water with a splash.
Yax-Muul isn’t a single cenote, but rather a nature park with four cenotes. As it’s rather tucked away down a dirt road, it’s often pretty quiet here, allowing you to float or snorkel through the cenotes peacefully. Its calmness makes it great for families. Note that weekends are of course busier, so if you must go on a Saturday or Sunday, arrive early. Yax-Muul is about 15 minutes outside of Tulum.
This is another option for cave lovers. Sac Actun is the world’s longest underwater cave system, measuring about 228 miles (366.93 km) in length, though new passages are still being discovered. It’s filled with hundreds of cenotes, so you could spend a whole day cenote hopping here. This is an ancient system of caves that were found only recently — Mayan artefacts and fossilised animals are among the treasures spotted in the waters.
As you might’ve guessed from the name, this cenote is a giant pit, measuring 130 feet deep and ideal for scuba divers. For those diving far below the surface, beams of sunlight penetrate the water in a mesmerising display. El Pit is technically part of the Sac Actun network, but its significance as a dive site makes it worthy of individual mention.
If you visit enough cenotes, they can start to feel a bit repetitive. This one stands out from the crowd with a unique activity: kayaking. You can rent a kayak onsite or bring your own to cruise through Manati’s clear waters. And as you navigate the cenote, whether, by kayak or snorkel, you’ll be treated to Riviera Maya’s “hidden forests” of mangroves, which grow both above and below the water’s shimmering surface. You can also dive here, as Manati reaches a depth of about 164 feet. Find this pool just 20 minutes outside of Tulum.
Although it’s a 40-minute drive from Tulum, this large cenote is a cliff jumper’s paradise — and that makes it worth the trek. Many guests leap into the cool waters from a small cliff at the cenote’s edge, but there’s also a dock for easier access. We recommend bringing snorkel gear to see all the fish that live here.
Not far from the centre of Tulum is this picturesque cenote. Surrounded by the jungle, Atik is only accessible by a large ladder that descends into its blue waters, where you’ll likely spot turtles. Surrounding the cenote are art installations, including a wall of skulls that nods to the Mayan belief that cenotes are entrances to the underworld.
This cenote is certainly not misnamed — it has crystal-clear waters popular with swimmers of all ages. One of the best things about this cenote is that its entrance fee is rather affordable at around USD 10 (INR 825) (though this is always subject to change). Because of that, it can get crowded, so visit on a weekday morning for a more serene experience.
Tortuga is a nature park with a lovely cluster of four cenotes, all located about 15 minutes from Tulum. Three of the cenotes are cavernous, so you’ll see rock formations like stalagmites and stalactites, plus fossils. The fourth cenote is a large, open-air pool good for cliff jumping. There’s an onsite restaurant, and even a hotel if you’d like to stay for more than a day.
(Hero and feature image credit: Elijah-Lovkoff/Getty Images)
All currency conversions were done at the time of writing
This story first appeared on travelandleisure.com