Known to the Mayas as “dzonot,” cenotes are natural caverns filled with fresh water pools. These mysterious water sinkholes are common to Yucatan, Mexico, where permeable limestone bedrock allows rainwater to filter slowly through the ground, creating underground rivers and pools. Experts estimate that more than 7,000 cenotes have formed under the Yucatan Peninsula; the Mayans considered them to be sacred as, in the past, they were the only source for fresh water.
There are four different types of cenotes: those that are completely underground, those that are semi-underground, those at ground level, and those that are open wells. During a recent trip to Mexico, we visited two cenotes near the colonial city of Valladolid: Ik Kil, which is semi-underground, and Samulá, which fully is underground.
Both Ik Kil and Samulá are easily accessible, located halfway between the major cities of Mérida and Cancun. Ik Kil is near the ruins of Chichén Itzá, making it a practical place to visit before or after heading to the pyramids. Samulá is closest to the city of Valladolid; it’s just a 10 minute drive the historic center of the city. Both cenotes can be visited with a tour group or independently and are open daily. The entrance fee ranges from $60-70 pesos (roughly $6-7 USD) per person with a discounted rate for children.
Cenotes offer opportunities for swimming and snorkeling, although if you plan to do either, there are a few things to keep in mind. The water tends to be quite cool, so it’s best to visit during the warmer months (between April and October). The quietest time are early or late in the day, when tour groups have left and the crowds subsided. Lockers are often near the entrance of each denote facility and use them to store your valuables while you swim. Finally, most facilities also offer low-cost life jacket rentals should you need them.