The Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico is home to an ancient underwater world, formed from cenotes which have created stunningly clear groundwater pools. Cenotes are formed when porous limestone bedrock collapses, leaving mineral-rich freshwater pools teeming with marine life and featuring awe-inspiring stalactites and stalagmites throughout hidden locations underground. As their only source of water, the ancient Mayan civilisation revered these pools and believed they acted as portals for speaking to the gods. Today, the cenotes attract divers from across the globe, seeking to experience the spectacular underwater scenery and ‘step back in time’.
As a lover of travel, the Mexican Cenotes is one of my top destinations. The amazing diving opportunities combine with the unique culture of Mexico to create the perfect family holiday location. The region truly stands out for its people, culture and activities such as cave diving, cliff jumping and snorkelling.
History of the Yucatan Cenotes
The term ‘cenote’ (say-NO-tay) comes from the Mayan word D’zonot, meaning ‘sacred well’. It refers to any subterranean chamber that contains a body of water, be that a cave with a pool, a well-like shaft with water or an underground passageway. These underwater systems began to attract human settlement some 10,000 years ago, in a region where fresh water sources are scarce. In this one region are the three longest underground systems of water on the planet: Dos Ojos at 82km, Sac Aktun at 172km and Ox Bel Ha at 180km long. These unique ecosystems developed at the turn of the last ice age, when ocean levels dropped dramatically. This left the giant underwater reef of the Yucatan peninsula exposed, causing the coral to die and thick jungle to sprout over the limestone platform. In turn, mild acid in rainfall caused the alkaline limestone to begin to collapse, which created the cenotes.
Visitors to the Yucatan peninsula who wish to explore the cenotes have many different options to choose from, depending on what they want to see and their level of experience or certification as divers. Those with little or no experience need not miss out! There is snorkelling gear for hire and many spots where snorkelers can take advantage of the amazing clarity of the water to see many of the spectacular underwater sights without having to venture into deep waters or into caves or caverns. For more experienced and certified divers, there are even more options, including beautiful cavern dives at Dos Ojos. Dos Ojos literally translates as ‘two eyes’ – a reference to the two large cenotes leading to the underground system. One is clear and blue, the other dark and mysterious. Nearby dive centres include flashlights in their rental gear for near-dark snorkelling or diving.
Family Friendly Cenotes
The cenotes have many areas that are family-friendly, such as Cenote Azul near Playa del Carmen. Clear turquoise waters teem with tropical fish and a small natural diving platform has been created by a mini-cliff. The area has several smaller pools for those who prefer to paddle rather than swim and dry areas suitable for picnics in stunning surroundings. For those who want to witness the cenotes without getting wet, Grutas de Loltun offers guided tours through huge networks of caverns featuring shining examples of the limestone stalactites and stalagmites that draw so many visitors, plus the opportunity to see some hand drawings thousands of years old on the cave walls.
Visitors to the Yucatan peninsula will certainly not want to miss out on the cenotes, but there are many other things to see and do in the local area as well.
Lovers of history, architecture and ancient mysteries will want to visit Chichen Itza. A complex of platforms and pyramids built by the Mayans, the Chichen Itza is a spectacular demonstration of architectural achievement.
Adventure-seekers may prefer a day out at one of the three Xcaret parks, where guests can enjoy activities such as zip lining or tubing downriver.
The town of Playa del Carmen offers both a stunning beach and a vast array of restaurants and cafes to choose from, while Cancun is great for music lovers and those that like to party into the small hours.
Most of the local dive shops around the major tourist areas of Playa del Carmen, Cancun and Cozumel are able to arrange guided cenote dives. Booking in advance is recommended, with average prices somewhere around the £100 mark for a whole day, including lunch and transportation.