One of the most luring qualities of the Yucatan is its spattering of cenotes, or freshwater sinkholes, located throughout the peninsula. Cenotes come in all shapes, sizes and forms—from ones that are inside caves to oases in the middle of the jungle—and they are glorious places to take a dip when you need a break from the salty, wavy ocean.
Here, a guide to five great swimming holes for snorkelers.
Dos Ojos Cenotes 1 and 2
Best for: Families, groups, couples
Vibe: Dos Ojos, which, as the name suggests, is home to two cenotes, has a theme-park vibe and can get busy during the tourist season. It’s ideal for those who want the cenote experience without feeling like you’re veering too far off the grid. The cenotes are gorgeous, clear and fresh. You’ll feel like you’re swimming in a fish tank as you float around the ancient rocks and stalagmites, and play with the small, friendly fish darting up to say hello.
Game plan: Bring your own snorkel if you don’t want to rent from the facility. You can reserve a locker for your valuables before you go in to swim. Cenote No. 2 is by far the largest and best of the two swimming holes on the grounds. Start there (which means you’ll veer right as you enter the grounds). No. 2 is large, and has plenty of deep spaces to explore. As you emerge, take a break in one of the park’s wrap around hammocks or at one of the two restaurants located at the park entrance. When you’re ready for another swim, head down to Cenote No. 1. It’s much smaller than the other, with more of a swimming pool vibe. If you’re there with kids, this is probably where you’ll want to let them hang out for a while.
Best for: Adventurers, romantics, fish lovers
Vibe: Escondido is one of two cenotes offered at this unassuming stop about a couple miles west of Tulum Town on Highway 307 (more on the second of the two, Cristal, below). This was recommended to us by our hotel when we asked for a non-touristy cenote and it didn’t disappoint. You’re likely to have the whole swimming hole to yourself—and boy is it a beautiful one. The pool is located in a lagoon-type setting, surrounded by exotic trees, jungle fauna and rock cliffs. The water is crystal clear and deep. You’ll feel like you’re floating in air as you swim from one end to the other looking down at the large, limestone-covered boulders. There are hundreds of fish. They large, colorful and friendly. It’s like they’ve never known a predator.
Game plan: Cenote Escondido is located on the left side of the road if you’re coming from Tulum Town, but you have to buy a ticket across the street. The entrance is blocked off by a gate, but the ticket-taker will happily walk over to let you in. You’ll walk about 15 minutes through the jungle to get to the pool, so make sure you’re covered in bug spray—and maybe a netted cap to keep the gnats at bay. There are two wooden entrances into the water, located at opposite ends of the cenote. A path connects them. You could also jump in from one of the rock cliffs like I did. Take a picnic; there are plenty of spots to spread out for a meal, including a picnic table. The rock cliffs also make for nice spots to have a seat and soak up some sun.
Best for: Brave people, families, divers
Vibe: Cenote Zaci is located in an underground cave on the outskirts of the charming Colonial town Valladolid. From the street, you’ll descend a winding stone staircase down to the water. The view from the top is spectacular, looking down at the aquamarine water at the bottom of the deep canyon. Surrounding the water is an amphitheater-like seating area where you can get changed, or squat to watch other swimmers. The faint of heart may prefer doing just that. You can’t see through the water here, and there are black catfish swimming all around the 260-foot-deep pool. It can be a bit unnerving to those who prefer to see what they’re swimming in.
Game plan: It costs a few pesos to enter Cenote Zaci, so be sure to have cash. There’s a restroom located at the top of the steps that’ll also set you back a couple pesos. There’s plenty of space to store your belongings if you decide to take a dip in the water. More adventurous types will find myriad spots in the cave walls to dive into the water. Chances are you’ll have the cenote all to yourself—with the exception of tour groups swinging by to check it out.
Best for: Adventurers, turtle lovers, divers
Vibe: Cenote Cristal isn’t so far off the main road, but it feels worlds away. Part of a pair of cenotes offered at this facility (read about neighboring Escondido above), the clear swimming hole is surrounded by jungle vegetation, a few diving spots and, of course, the ever-present iguana or two. Lines stretch across the water to give you something to hold onto as you venture out. The water is deep, crystal clear and full of fish and turtles.
Game plan: Make sure you’re doused in bug spray—you’re liable to run into mosquitoes as you traverse to through the jungle to get here from the park’s entrance. There are picnic tables, so bring some lunch if you plan on staying for a while.
More great resources for other cenotes in the Tulum area:
More photos of our cenote experience: