Last Updated on February 12, 2023

When my milestone 60th birthday was approaching, my family asked how I wanted celebrate? As an avid history buff, my response was: “I want to see Mayan ruins.” This had always been a dream of mine. Riviera Maya cenotes were not on my radar.

My wife and I researched various Mayan ruins and settled on Chichen Itza and Tulum as our top choices. Though we did indeed explore these magnificent ruins, little did we realize that Riviera Maya offered another surprising treasure: cenotes.

There are thousands of cenotes located throughout the Yucatan, varying in size from small to massive, most on private land, but some available to outside visitors. They also range from open-air and semi-open air to completely underground caves.

La Riviera Maya Cenotes

Sacred to the ancient Mayans, cenotes (pronounced sen-o-tays), meaning ‘sacred well,’ are geologically rare freshwater sinkholes formed thousands of years ago when limestone ground caved in, thereby creating underwater reservoirs. These cenotes were vital to Mayan society as they provided a critical source of fresh water during times of drought.

They were also believed to be sacred and secret entrances to the underworld.

We enjoyed learning the history of these fascinating geological wonders along with seeing the preservation efforts to keep these marvels of nature clean, pure and protected. Respect is key. Each of the Riviera Maya cenotes has its own set of rules. Some require showering before entering the water, some religious cleansing; all ask that visitors do not use sunscreen or, if absolutely necessary, that it be reef-safe.

Dos Ojos cenote Tulum

Dos Ojos, translated as ‘Two Eyes,’ was our first cenote experience and one we’ll long remember. It is especially memorable as we followed a local’s recommendation and ventured out to find this incredible spot. Located on a nature preserve, two cenotes, shaped like a pair of goggles, connect into a large cavern and have one of the longest underwater cave systems in the world.

The crystal clear water of Dos Ojos cenote Tulum was refreshingly cool, providing a welcome respite from the heat of the day—a perfect setting for cave diving and snorkeling. We were in awe to say the least.

On our first trip, we didn’t have the opportunity to fully experience more of these fascinating underground caverns. A few years later, we returned to this Riviera Maya cenote with a completely different agenda and that time around we were determined to experience more of these underground jewels.

Yax-Muul Cenote

Mayan Blessing at Yax-Muul cenote.
Mayan Blessing at Yax-Muul cenote. Photo by Michael Kompanik

Just 15 minutes north of the town and the ruins of Tulum, this cenote is located in a stunning nature park accessed by a two-mile, rutted, rustic dirt road.

In order to enter this cenote, our guide explained we’d have to partake in a Mayan ceremony with incense and prayers asking the gods to bless our visit. It was a lovely and touching experience outside the first cavern of Sac Tuunich surrounded by beautiful flora and fauna leading to the deeper waters of Yax-Muul cenote.

The cenote winds its way through a series of caverns, each more fascinating than the last. Massive stalactites and stalagmites were almost indescribably beautiful with the water’s shimmering variance of blue and green shades contrasted against the limestone backgrounds. Sunlight filtering through cave openings provided the only natural light and as we ventured further into the cenote, our flashlights came in handy. 

The waters of Yax-Muul cenote are cool, fresh and crystalline, staying at a mid-70s temperature. The water seems frigid to begin, but after swimming around for a few minutes, we acclimated without a problem. Scuba divers actually come with their wetsuits and headlamps to explore even deeper caverns.

The Gran Cenote: Nohoch Nah Chich

The Gran Cenote is one of the most beautiful underwater cave systems in the Yucatan. It’s so stunning that National Geographic Diver featured this Riviera Maya cenote in its publication. As we swam through the sections of the cavern, we couldn’t stifle our comments that “this is the most amazing thing we have ever seen.”

Visitors cannot access this cenote themselves as its on private land. Thanks to booking a trip with a private guide, we were able to experience this magnificent natural masterpiece. As a matter of fact, the guide and our small group of friends were the only ones here during our visit.

The collection of caves and an open-air cenote are all connected by wooden boardwalks winding through lush tropical grounds. We found the name which translates to ‘giant birdcage’ fascinating given that so many birds and bats have made this cavern their home. Throughout our tour and swim, they swooped in and out, their babies curiously peeking out from their overhead limestone burrows.

Long jungle-y vines make their way into cavern openings. To be honest, we all felt as though we were on an Indiana Jones film set. Only this was the real deal. The Gran Cenote is Mother Nature at her finest.

Nohoch Nah Chich the Gran Cenote.
Nohoch Nah Chich the Gran Cenote. Photo by Michael Kompanik

Taak Bi Ha Cenotes

This relatively newly discovered cenote may be the most spectacular of them all. The underwater cavern is situated just past the Dos Ojos entrance and oh, is it ever a secret treasure. With crystal clear waters and spectacular rock formations, snorkelers and divers love coming to Taak Bi Ha cenote. Snorkeling here is an especially memorable experience.

Visitors climb down a set of wooden stairs from the entrance to get to the cave opening. Like some other area cenotes, Taak Bi Ha is blessed with so much awe-inspiring beauty with its stalagmites and stalagmites of limestone embracing its turquoise waters – striking!

Those who come to swim in the main area of the Taak Bi Ha cenote don’t really need a guide, but adventurists wanting to explore deeper into the cavern should have a guide along with the necessary lighted headlamps.

Each time we visit Riviera Maya, we seek out a brand-new cenote. Unique to this tropical rainforest region, these underwater grottos are breathtaking. No two Riviera Maya cenotes are alike and that is what travel is all about, seeking and finding the hidden treasures of each destination we visit. It’s the difference between being a tourist and a traveler.

Author

  • Michael Kompanik

    Michael Kompanik is a retired Navy Captain, a managing editor of Rovology Online Magazine and a freelance travel writer. He currently resides in San Diego California with his wife Noreen who is also a travel writer and editor. Together they have traveled to such far off places as Europe, Thailand, Central America, Africa and more. Michael’s wide-ranging interests include history, nature, travel, photography, and, of course, military matters.