Mexican Cenotes of the Yucatán Peninsula: A Complete Guide

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Beware: You should never explore wild caves alone or without proper gear. Consider getting in touch with a Grotto of the National Speleological Society at or a qualified cave club. These groups are skilled and will train you. Without sufficient knowledge, preparation, and equipment, cave exploring can lead to serious injury or death.

If you haven’t heard of cenotes before, don’t worry. They don’t come up in everyday conversation. A cenote is essentially a natural pit or sinkhole, which forms when limestone collapses and exposes groundwater to an open surface. For cavers and divers alike, they provide an intriguing location for exploring. For history lovers, the Mexican cenotes in particular are intertwined with perhaps the most important event in Earth’s history.

You might be wondering what they have to do with Mexico, or what that event was. Well, cenotes are most commonly found in Mexico, due to an interesting phenomenon that occurred roughly 66 million years ago. Dinosaurs existed up until about that time, when a massive asteroid struck Earth and changed the planet forever. Today, there are over 6000 cenotes found in this region alone.

Enter Chicxulub, The Maker of Mexican Cenotes

The 9-mile wide asteroid that visited Earth has a name: Chicxulub. This is a Mayan word, roughly translating to “tail of the devil.” Fun fact: if you google Chicxulub (or click here), it actually shows an asteroid striking the lower portion of your screen.

An overhead view of the water and the large crater formed by Chicxulub.

When this devastating asteroid landed in the Yucatán Peninsula, it made a crater about 110 miles (180 km) in diameter. You can see a glimpse of its scale in the image to the left.

As mentioned before, cenotes form from limestone collapsing and revealing underlying groundwater. So when the limestone adjacent to the crater sustained lots of fractures from the impact, openings for sinkholes and caves began to form.

While it is logical, this theory has not been completely accepted yet. But what we do know is that there is a plethora of cenotes to be found all around the rim of the Chicxulub crater. The correlation seems self-evident.

What’s also interesting is that these Mexican cenotes only formed roughly 100-200 thousand years ago! After over 66 million years, it seems there has been a dramatic shift in the limestone all around the region, resulting in these beautiful wells.

More Mexican Cenotes History

Chichén Itzá Pyramid

Cenotes form over thousands of years when rainwater dissolved limestone bedrock and created cavities in the ground. Like most underwater caves, they are a step backwards through time for spelunkers and divers.

Many cenotes are still found at Mayan archaeological sites like Chichén Itzá and Tulum. With no other main source of freshwater in the Yucatán Peninsula, the Mayans relied on these cenotes for drinking water.

The Spaniards also made use of cenotes during their exploration of Mexico in search of gold and other treasures. In fact, one famous cenote known as El Oxman is said to have been used by Hernan Cortes himself.

Cenotes were also important sources of freshwater for colonial settlers who built cities near them. These cities including Mérida, Tizimin, Valladolid, and Izamal.

Today cenotes remain an integral part of Mexican culture. People flock to these stunning natural wonders to take in breathtaking views and explore their mysterious depths below. From snorkeling and scuba diving to simply admiring its beauty from above, the thousands of Mexican cenotes offer something for everyone to enjoy.

The Mayan Take on Mexican Cenotes

A map shows the ring of cenotes found in southeastern Mexico at the Yucatán peninsula.
The Cenote ring at the Chicxulub Crater.

Human history goes back further than that, and ancient civilizations had their own take on these interesting wells.

Cenote comes from the Spanish version of a Yucatec Mayan word. “D’zonot”, or “Ts’onot means “well.” After some time, this word has made it into the English language as cenote, and as more have been discovered around the world, the label has become more fixed.

From what we know about the Mayans, they lived in the pre-Columbian Americas. With a sophisticated writing system, they explored art, mathematics, and astronomy. Upon finding this occurrence of cenotes in the area between Mexico, they viewed them as having a spiritual significance.

The Mayans believed that each cenote had its own special energy source or spirit guardian.

They would perform religious ceremonies in the larger and deeper cenotes, making offerings to their gods and goddesses. Worshippers would sometimes dive into the water, looking for sacred artifacts. Others made animal sacrifices to pay tributes.

While there are other cenotes to be found around the globe, the Mexican cenotes boast unique features due to Mayan history. Some contain ancient artifacts at the bottom, and some have evidence of human sacrifice rituals as well. This is perhaps a bit unsettling for some, but quite a fascinating tidbit for the history lovers!

What are The Four Types of Cenotes?

There are four main categories of cenotes: open, semi-open, cavern, and ancient. There are thousands of each of these four main cenotes just in Mexico, but let’s see what differentiates each one.

Open Cenotes

Open cenotes are the most recognized, found mostly in the Yucatán Peninsula region of Mexico and Central America. The unique geology of this region makes it possible for these formations to occur. High levels of limestone in the soil allow underground rivers to break through the surface and create openings in the ground. This leads to a beautiful landscape filled with lush vegetation, turquoise waters, and jagged rocks scattered around the area.

People often confuse open cenotes with lagoons (shallow bodies of water separated from a larger body of water by a narrow landform). At open cenotes, there is extensive vegetation providing this border. Cenote Zacil-Ha, Cenote Azul are two examples of open cenotes.

An overhead view of the large and beautiful Aitutaki Lagoon.
The Aitutaki Lagoon

Deep Open Cenote

One subcategory of open cenotes is the deep open cenote. These are more known and more popular, because they are also the most impressive. With a cylindrical shape, they have completely vertical walls, and it’s like entering a manmade tube in some cases. Their water is still used as drinking water by some locals, making them important to preserve as well.

Open cenotes are ideal for simply floating and admiring the open sky. They are generally accessible by foot or small boats, but some may require more specialized equipment such as scuba gear. In order to ensure safety, precautions such as life jackets and other necessary items should be worn.

Many cenotes in general offer unpredictable depths and currents. It’s important to remain aware of any signs or warnings posted in or around the site. When in doubt, ask for important information regarding safety procedures or access rules set by local authorities.

An image of the Cenote Azul in Playa del Carmen of Mexico.
Cenote Azul

Most open-air cenotes offer a variety of recreational activities such as snorkeling, cave diving, kayaking, and swimming. People also enjoy simply exploring their beauty from shorelines or pathways near them. For those seeking a more extreme adventure, try rappelling down into some of these cenotes from aboveground locations such as cliffsides or towers.

Semi-open Cenotes

Semi-open cenotes tend to have a pitcher shape, due to the way they form. With a small opening above, the diameter increases toward where the water is, until it reaches the bottom where its diameter is slightly smaller. In order to access the water, explorers must enter from above. But unlike some of the deeper caves we’ve visited here on this blog, there is often plenty sunlight with semi-open cenotes.

The more open cenotes are those which allow sunlight to penetrate the depths and provide a good view under the water. However, these types tend to become very hot in the summer months. On the other hand, the semi-open and closed cenotes are completely or partially covered by rock formations or overgrown vegetation. They are much cooler inside, though darker as well. Sightseeing activities such as scuba diving or snorkeling are less rewarding here.

Gran cenote is an example of a semi-open cenote.

Cavern (or Closed) Cenotes

Cavern cenotes are the youngest variation, typically found in tropical regions such as Central America, South America, and Mexico. When the limestone bedrock collapses, an underground cave-like structure opens up, and becomes filled with water. While some exist above ground, the most remarkable and beautiful examples are those that exist beneath the Earth’s surface.

Cavern cenotes have a more circular shape, and are closed by a vault that often allows a more limited amount of sunlight to enter. Passages or tunnels from caves found at water level give access to closed cenotes, but it is not always safe to enter them. Inside, you will find some familiar formations like stalagmites and stalactites.

Bats commonly inhabit cavern cenotes, and it’s often a great place for rappelling.

Exploring a cavern cenote requires professional dive certification, due to the risks associated with deep diving in enclosed environments. Thus, any divers who plan to explore these remarkable sites must prepare extensively. A thorough understanding of the techniques involved and proper safety training are self-explanatory prerequisites.

However, it’s well worth the effort. Crystal clear water, intricate rock formations such as stalactites and stalagmites created by thousands of years of erosion processes, stunningly beautiful light displays that only form under these conditions – all of this and more await the patient and dedicated explorers. A plethora of aquatic life thrives within the depths of these sinkholes as well. Some fish species adapted over time to living in complete darkness far below ground level. Needless to say, you get what you came for once you are able to explore these regions yourself.

Some cavern cenotes include Cenote Dos Ojos, Cenote Calavera, Cenote Tajma-Ha, and Cenote Angelita.

Ancient Cenotes

Ancient cenotes look like lakes with very high walls in the middle of the jungle. Wilderness surrounds it, and often flourishes in the water itself. Fish, frogs, birds, and more are found here. In Mexican cenotes, you can even find the toh bird. In anceint mayan history, the toh bird was considered a guide for jungle explorers.

What makes them unique is that they are older, more mature formations. They are usually open to the surface, and have much larger diamaters. They often look more like lakes than small wells. As cenotes become more mature, they open up as the rock around continually gives away and exposes the underlying water.

However, they also have a limited natural flow, so the water is quite still.

Cenote Iik’ is one example of an ancient cenote.

A close-up view of the Toh bird, one of the ancient birds tied with Mayan history and found in Mexican Cenotes.
The Toh Bird

Visiting the Mexican Cenotes Today

Mexican cenotes are quite beautiful, and as you know by now, have a long and storied history as well. The Maya believed that cenotes were gateways to the underworld, the realm of their gods. Cenotes had great spiritual significance and many of them can still be found throughout Mexico today.

While there has yet to be any evidence of an actual gateway, Cenotes are popular tourist attractions. For example, you can experience some of the well-known ones through the Xenotes Tour in Cancun.

Xenotes Tour in Cancun

In Cancun, you get an opportunity to see the four types of cenotes. In addition to learning about each type, you will get a chance to see some of nature’s unique beauties. Clear blue waters, stunning rock formations, and rare wildlife species await!

Appropriately named, the Xenotes Tour offers visitors with a comfortable experience in Cancun. This tour includes kayaking, zip-lines, assisted rappeling, and swimming.

The four cenotes are named Lu’um (cavern cenote), Iik (ancient cenote), K’áak (open cenote), and Ha’ (semi-open cenote). Visitors will be able to either view them from above or dive into them, based on the type. Learn about how you can book your Xenotes Tour here.

In addition, the Riviera Maya, a stretch of Caribbean coastline, is known for incredible resorts and beaches. Tourists enjoy yoga retreats, archaeological sites, natural parks, and more water activities here. You will gain an appreciation for Mayan culture and see why one tour is called Oasis Maya.

Interesting Facts about Mexican Cenotes

As you can tell by now, cenotes are some of the most intriguing locations on Earth. After chicxulub dramatically altered the planet forever, life found a way to flourish again, as it often does. Now, these sinkholes are home to numerous species of aquatic life which are not found anywhere else in the world, making them a truly unique biosphere with a wealth of biodiversity. This includes various types of fish, crustaceans, amphibians, reptiles, and other creatures that can only be found in Mexico’s underground waterways. 

A diagram showing some of the various wildlife and fish species found inside Mexican Cenotes.

Water levels in cenotes can fluctuate greatly throughout the year due to changes in rainfall and surface runoff. In times of drought, some cenotes may completely dry up while others may be filled with more water than usual due to increased precipitation. This can have drastic effects on the species living within them, so it is important for visitors to be aware of their surroundings when exploring these alluring locations.

Many Mexican cenotes contain underground rivers connected to other bodies of water as well as abundant amounts of stalactites and stalagmites. Research has revealed evidence of undiscovered plant life living deep underwater within certain Mexican cenote systems.


All in all, Mexican cenotes offer an incredible array of features that make them truly unique places worth exploring! From their cultural significance to their stunning visuals and abundance of wildlife species—there’s something for everyone at these special locations located throughout Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.

If you’d like to learn about specific cenotes, don’t worry. We have an extensive list in the works already, and you’ll be able to take in their beauty in the next article.

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