Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is renowned for its sun, sands, Maya ruins—and cenotes, underground sinkholes filled with swimmable fresh water. Explore these secret aquatic worlds, which are accessed through caves, from the town of Merida. Here’s how.
What is a Cenote?
Cenotes are natural underground swimming holes that are formed as sinkholes when porous limestone bedrock collapses. These deep pools of fresh groundwater have been filtered by the surrounding soil, leaving them so crystal clear that tiny fish and plants are often visible dozens of feet below. Cenotes were revered in the ancient Maya culture because they were a source of fresh drinking water—the word cenote means “sacred well” in the Mayan language. Swimming in a cenote is a wonderful way to cool off from the oppressive jungle heat; snorkeling, scuba diving, and rafting through the underground caves are popular activities too.
Top Cenotes Near Merida
- Ik-Kil, one of the area’s most popular cenotes, is just two miles (three kilometers) from the UNESCO-listed Maya ruins of Chichen Itza. With hanging vines and waterfalls surrounding an iridescent swimming hole that’s more than 130 feet (40 meters) deep, it’s easy to see why the blue waters of this picturesque natural phenomenon—known as the Sacred Blue Cenote—are visited so often.
- Though Cenote Dos Ojos is most often accessed via the Maya ruins of Tulum, the world-famous scuba diving spot can also be visited from Merida. Certified divers will enjoy exploring more than 1,640 feet (500 meters) of underwater caves here—and might recognize the area from the 2001 IMAX film Journey into Amazing Caves.
- Cuzama, about 45 minutes southeast of Merida by car, is a small town known for its large number of cenotes, each of which is accessed in different ways. Cuzama’s three main cenotes are Chelentun, Chacsinicche, and Bolonchojol—all recognizable by their incredibly clear waters and otherworldly stalagmite and stalactite formations.