What to Know About Cenotes and Where to Find Them

The history—and controversy—surrounding one of Mexico’s most popular landforms.

People swimming in blue water surrounded by limestone

Cenote Saamal is one of the thousands of cenotes in Mexico.

Photo by Chloe Arrojado

Sinkholes (also known as dolines) are found all over the world. Travel to places like the Bimmah Sinkhole in Oman and Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas and you can admire the way these landforms have been forged by erosion and water. But only in Mexico is the phenomenon referred to as a “cenote,” which comes from the Mayan word dzonot—meaning “water-filled cavity.” Throughout its Yucatan region, there are anywhere from 6,000 to 10,000 cenotes.

Sign up for a tour to Chichén Itzá and you will most likely have the option to see and swim in a cenote. (I took a dip into some when I visited the Yucatan in June and admired their dramatic beauty.) But there’s plenty more to know about these landforms—including whether you should visit them.

Here’s what to know about cenotes and where to find them in Mexico.

So, what is a cenote?

Cenotes are water-filled sinkholes, primarily found throughout the Yucatan Peninsula in the southeast of the country. There are several theories to how exactly cenotes have formed, but to understand the basic idea you have to rewind millions of years.

Remember that asteroid that allegedly wiped out the dinosaurs? Blasting into Earth 66 million years ago, it not only demolished most life on the planet, but it left a ring of sinkhole pools, called cenotes, throughout Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Over eons, rainwater fell into the area’s limestone—which is said to have been weakened thanks to that asteroid—creating holes of the underground pools.

What did the Mayans use cenotes for?

Cenotes have been intertwined with Mayan life since their arrival to this part of Mexico during the preclassic period (500 B.C.E.–250 C.E.)—and still are important for the hundreds of thousands of Mayan people who live in the Yucatan today. (Even the famous archaeological site of Chichén Itzá means “mouth of the well of the Itza” in the Mayan language.) Today, most cenotes are owned by Mayan communities. A lot of their historical importance stemmed from their usefulness: Cenotes are the main water source for the riverless Yucatan, so ancient Maya relied on them for irrigation. The peninsula still uses cenote water to a massive degree—covering over an area of approximately 165,000 square kilometers (approximately 63,000 square miles) in México, Guatemala, and Belize—the Yucatán Peninsula Aquifer is one of the biggest aquifers in the world.

These cenotes also inspired legends. Take Cenote Sac Uayum, about 25 miles south of Mérida in the peninsula, which was said to be the home of child-eating serpent Hapay Can (and is filled with human bones to add to its reputation). Many ancient Mayans thought of cenotes as the home of rain god Chac and functioned as portals to the underworld. They were used as a part of human sacrifice rituals for rain and fertile land—the remains of more than 200 individuals have been identified from the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá. Even though human sacrifice isn’t a practice anymore, many beliefs around its powers still exist.

Sunbeams penetrating in opening of Blue cenote

From swimming to diving, there are various ways to explore cenotes.

Photo by Sergey Novikov/Shutterstock

How to visit a cenote

There are plenty of ways to see a cenote, whether part of a packaged tour or renting a private car and driving to them on your own. And while you can often swim in cenotes (sometimes accompanied with a life jacket as some are more than 100 feet deep), multiple studies have investigated the impact of tourism on them.

Cenotes are the primary source of freshwater for the peninsula’s approximately 2 million residents. The introduction of contaminants like sunscreen in the Mexican Caribbean—where an estimated 229.76 tons are used annually—have impacted the quality of the water for residents. In a 2017 study, more than 50 local survey respondents reported that they could drink water directly from cenotes before the mid-1990s, but they no longer do now out of fear of getting sick.

On the other hand, the Mexican state of Quintana Roo is highly dependent on tourism, and cenote tourism is a key part of the economy. In a 2020 paper, Diego Armando Casas-Beltrán from the Yucatan Scientific Research Center and other researchers found that cenotes are becoming an alternative to beach tourism in the wake of massive sargassum events. However, the paper also recognized the Mexican peninsula overall lacked adequate regulations when it came to protecting them.

If you do decide to visit a cenote, there are several best practices to keep in mind. First, ask around to ensure that the cenote you’re visiting is being properly managed. Look for practices—like shower mandates before entering—to ensure you are minimally contaminating the water. In that same vein, remember that you may have to forgo sunscreen when visiting. Even though I was armed with sunblock deemed “eco-friendly” when visiting the cenotes of Bacalar, a local resident informed me that its chemicals still pose a danger. Finally, remember that these landforms still have a sacred significance and respect Indigenous knowledge when visiting these spots.

With that in mind, here are places for cenote exploration on your next trip to Mexico.

Cenote Saamal


The waters of this 150-foot-deep cenote look especially blue thanks to sunlight streaming into this open-air sinkhole. Between Chichén Itzá and Valladolid, this cenote is often included in tour packages to the famous Mayan ruins (which is how I experienced it) and has fully embraced tourists. Here you’ll find a gift shop and restaurant in the cenote complex. Admission to this cenote is around 80 pesos (US$4.80) and includes the life jacket with the price.

Cenote Zaci


Some cenotes aren’t in the outskirts of civilization, but in the heart of it. Cenote Zaci is a prime example, being a two-hour drive east in the heart of downtown Valladolid. This place is usually busy thanks to its accessibility, but a 30 peso (US$1.60) entrance fee makes it a great value. After a dip in this cenote, explore the jewelry and textile shops the city is known for. An overnight stay in Valladolid offers a look into the slower side to Mexico that contrasts with the well-visited Yucatan cities of Cancun and Tulum.

Lago Bacalar


Bacalar’s lake is known as the “lake of the seven colors” because of its seven shades of blue. The four cenotes here—Cenote Negro, Cenote Esmeralda, Cenote Cocalitos, and Cenote Azul—all have their own depths and characteristics. I highly recommend local guide Augustin’s lagoon tour, where he includes plenty of historical and ecological context to the lake. Visiting the lake is free, but be aware that swimming is not permitted in some areas.

Chloe Arrojado is the associate editor of destinations at AFAR. She’s a big fan of cafés, dancing, and asking people on the street for restaurant recommendations.
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