Sinkholes inspire images of oversized pot holes swallowing cars, not beautiful locations and clean water. But that changed for me when I went to Mexico—and swam in a sinkhole that was nothing like I had imagined. Walking down close to 100 feet, past vines and waterfalls to reach cool blue water, I was introduced to Mexican cenotes—and no climb has ever been more worth it.
Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula has approximately 6,000 of these sinkholes, or cenotes (say-no-tays), though only about 2,000 have reportedly been explored. Forming when underground limestone erodes, eventually collapsing into the groundwater below, cenotes often boast deep pools, wide caves and clear, clean water that’s been filtered through the earth. Some have vines hanging 80 feet from the roof; others are underwater caves with stalagmites and stalactites creating mazes in the water; some are tourist attractions galore (complete with restaurants and bathrooms); while others are hidden gems, only known to locals. Their uniqueness is a part of their attraction.
The ancient Mayans used these watering holes not only in ritual and ceremony (they believed that humans could access the underworld through the cavern’s depths), but also for drinking water—a practice that still persists today. In fact, these pools are the only source of drinkable water for many people in the region. And it’s largely because of their ancient cultural significance—along with their pristine natural beauty—that cenotes, today, are being protected and promoted.
Before you visit, do some research into travel companies that can help take you to cenotes, as well as help you abide the strict health, safety and ecological standards that often present, says Gavin Greenwood, director of Rio Secreto, a nature preserve that contains a series of semi-submerged caves. If you’re going for a swim, many have showers that ask you to rinse before entering the water—and all require that you’re not wearing sunblock, lotion, perfume, hair products or anything else that could leave a film (Remember, it’s a community’s drinking water!).
Here, five incredible cenotes not to miss:
Rio Secreto, near Playa del Carmen
One the Riviera Maya’s newest reserves, Rio Secreto offers tours through an underground river system with over seven miles of semi-submerged caves. It’s an underground universe of stalagmites and stalactites, making it one of the most inspiring natural attractions in the area.
Ik Kil, near Cancun
Part of the Ik Kil Archeological Park, located just outside of Chichen Itza, this cenote is a popular stop after touring the ruins—but it’s worth the trip on its own. You’ll climb down a long set of stairs cut into the side, where waterfalls and vines tumble down 80 feet to turquoise water below.
Sacred Cenote, near Chichen Itza
Swimming is not allowed at this cenote—but its cultural history is well worth the trip. Part of the Chichen Itza sacred archeological site, this sinkhole is sixty meters in diameter with steep cliffs down to the water. The ancient Mayans considered the cenote a place of social and religious significance, at times using the waters to offer both animal and human sacrifices to the Mayan rain god.
Dos Ojos, near Playa del Carmen
While snorkeling is offered here, the main attraction is scuba diving. Dos Ojos is a cave system with over 61 meters to explore, freshwater shrimp and a cave with live bats. Remember, though, you’ll need an open water diving license and time to take one of the offered tours before taking the (deep) plunge—otherwise, stick with a snorkel.
Cenote Azul (no website), near Playa del Carmen
While tourists do visit this watering hole, it’s also rife with locals. Located south of Playa del Carmen off of Highway 307, two small pools lead you the main cenote, with blue water and catfish swimming below. A casual restaurant is onsite.
For information on efforts to protect the cenotes, visit Save the Riviera Maya.