The state of Yucatán, Mexico, is home to some of the most beautiful and intricate underwater caves and caverns. These are accessible through entry points or sinkholes known as cenotes (underwater caves). Cenotes (pronounced say-noh-tays) are actually a type of freshwater-filled limestone sinkhole. These natural wonders are known to connect with other underlying cave systems that can be explored for lengths of 100 kilometers or more.
There are over 3,000 cenotes (caves) in the Yucatán Peninsula, with only 1,400 of them having been studied and recorded. These cenotes are located between Cancun and Tulum and The Riviera Maya. The Riviera Maya has the world’s three longest-running underwater cave systems: Sistema Ox Bel Ha (270.2 km), Sistema Nohoch Nah Chich (67 km), and Sistema Dos Ojos (82.47 km).
Cenotes were once sacred places of the Mayans, as they were said to represent entrances to the underworld (known as Xibalba). Their natural beauty—best described as crystal clear turquoise waters with sunlight reflecting stalactites and stalagmites—are truly enigmatic works of art that scuba divers from all over the world can’t help but explore.
Listed below are five of the most notable cenotes of the Riviera Maya:
Cenote Chac Mool
About 22 kilometers south of Playa Del Carmen and across the Puerto Aventuras lies the Chac Mool Cenote. Chac Mool (which means the “Claw of the Jaguar”) has two entries, both leading to a relatively large cavern with a lot of natural light entering from the opening. This cavern leads to a Dome Room. Here, a portion of the ceiling has collapsed under an air dome where divers can surface to admire a huge number of beautiful stalactites and some fossils. Since the maximum depth is about 12 meters (36 feet), Chac Mool is the perfect spot for novice cavern divers.
A couple of hundred feet away from Cenote Chac Mool is another entrance to the Chac Mool system, called Cenote Kukulkan. During sunny days on the Kukulkan side, you can witness an amazing light show as sunlight reflections create rainbow colors that reach towards the ceiling.
Cenote Dos Ojos
This famous and popular cenote is situated one kilometer south of Xel-Ha and roughly 48 kilometers from Playa del Carmen. The name “Dos Ojos” means “two eyes,” and is derived from the two circular-shaped cenotes that are located very close to each other.
In the 1980s, the Dos Ojos and Nohoch Nah Chich cave systems were discovered through a competition involving two exploration teams that aimed to determine the longest running underwater cave system in the world.
Two dives are conducted in Dos Ojos. The first starts in the first eye (situated in the east) and progresses through a crystal clear freshwater cavern leading to the second eye (situated in the west). The second dive is a darker dive into a series of rooms and passages underneath an air-filled “bat cave,” which receives very little sunlight. This dive features passageways filled with beautiful and fragile speleothems.
With about 60 kilometers of explored length and connections to over 25 cenotes, Dos Ojos is one of the longest systems in the Yucatán Peninsula. It’s a great cenote for non-divers too, as you can snorkel through the shimmering caves.
Cenote Taj Mahal
About 29 kilometers south of Playa del Carmen are four interconnected cenotes with much to offer both cavern and cave divers. One of the most beautiful cenotes in The Riviera Maya, Cenote Taj Mahal boasts a cavern filled with light streaming through holes in the ceiling. As the fresh water creates a distinct layer over the salt water, haloclines appear in deeper areas and create an interesting mirror-like effect.
One of the most popular cenote sites in The Riviera Maya, Gran Cenote is part of Sistema Sac Actun. Ladder steps lead to a half moon shaped cenote decorated with small passages and openings. Explorers will enjoy a spectacular array of large stalagmites, stalactites, and columns by sticking their face into the water without having to dive in. Good buoyancy control is required if you are diving here as the walls are heavy with the formations. The maximum depth is said to be 21 meters (70 feet).