You’ve most likely seen the photos in travel articles. Stunning limestone caves with crystal clear pools of fresh water, looking like they’re straight out of a National Geographic Magazine. If you were as mesmerized by them as I was, you probably thought that you HAVE to see them at some point in your life, but pushed the idea towards the end of your bucket list because you weren’t sure where they were exactly, or maybe you prioritized other trips.
Oren, my best friend Michelle and I decided to visit the Yucatán Peninsula/Quintana Roo, Mexico and Belize during the winter holidays and let me tell you, the cenotes were possibly my favorite part of the trip. Cenotes are sinkholes that form as a result of limestone rock collapsing, exposing the fresh groundwater underneath. Many are connected by an underlying cave system, where divers can explore them one by one (some with lengths of 62 miles or more).
We flew into the Cancun Airport with hoards of tourists, most of them hurrying to get to their resorts on the beach. Having absolutely zero intentions of partying (we’re not cool anymore), we headed straight for Tulum. Tulum is a little less than 2 hours south of Cancun and has been gaining popularity in recent years as a top vacation spot. The town has its own Mayan archeological site right on the beach and is surrounded by some of Quintana Roo’s most famous cenotes. We chose to visit Dos Ojos, the Gran Cenote, and Ik Kil, three of the most well-known in the region.
Dos Ojos is located about 15 minutes north of Tulum, with entry being around 150 pesos (about $10 US). The cave system expands over 51 miles and has 28 entrances. Dos Ojos has long been considered among the top 10 longest underwater cave systems in the world since its discovery in the 1980s and contains the deepest known cave passage in Quintana Roo (391 ft). Its name (“Two Eyes” in Spanish) refers to two beautiful cenotes that connect to a large open cavern that connects them, like two eyes underground.
Ik Kil is located in the northern part of the Yucatán (2 hours from Tulum), about 5 minutes away from Chichen Itza and is often included in tours to the famous Mayan archeological site. We visited Ik Kil as part of a tour that took us to Chichen Itza and Valladolid as well. The cost was $52 and included entrance fees to both sites, transportation, and a buffet lunch.
The cenote is open to the sky, with the pool of water 85 ft below ground level. The water itself is about 200 ft in diameter and 130 ft deep, with vines hanging from the opening above. It really is a gorgeous sight, especially with small waterfalls running down the sides. Cenote Ik Kil was sacred to the Mayans and was used for both rituals and relaxation.
The Gran Cenote is part of the Sistema Sac Actun, meaning “White Cave System.” The entire underground system measures 143.4 mi in length, making it the 2nd longest cave system in the world following Sistema Ox Bel Ha. It’s super close to Tulum, only a 10 minute taxi ride from the town center and costs 150 pesos for entry ($10 US). Make sure you bring cash for all the entrance fees as most are unable to accept credit cards.
So which one was my favorite?
An impossible question to answer! All three of these cenotes had something different to offer and I would definitely recommend all three of them if you have the time. If you’re staying in Tulum, Dos Ojos and the Gran Cenote are very easy to get to and you can go on your own without a guide (unless you want to scuba dive, in which case you’ll need to go with a dive company). Snorkels and lockers are available to rent. Be respectful while you’re there and make sure you don’t touch the stalagmites – they’re millions of years old and are fragile, even if they don’t look like it.
Ik Kil was the busiest of the three, but this is probably because it’s commonly included in tours to Chichen Itza. It’s also one of the most beautiful cenotes in the area because of how deep it sits below ground level with vines hanging down into the pool below. It truly was gorgeous, but I will say it did feel a bit crowded. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s any way to escape that! It’s worth it though and if you’re going to Chichen Itza, take a dip at Ik Kil afterwards.
Every time we left a cenote, I felt completely euphoric. Maybe it’s because these are places I’ve wanted to see for years, maybe it’s because I was having a great time with my boyfriend (now fiancé, but that’s for another post!) and best friend, or maybe because I was just happy to be traveling. But a part of me believes there’s got to be something magical about the cenotes. Beauty aside, the cenotes emanate a great energy that you can feel while you’re there. The Mayans held them to be sacred places for hundreds of years and even though I can’t explain it, I can’t say that they were wrong.