Exploring Cancun Cenotes with the Whole Family

Posted What to Do by Amy Whitley on February 4, 2015

Photo Courtesy of Amy Whitley

On our first family trip to the Mayan Riviera, we didn’t exactly ease into snorkeling: instead of wading in gingerly, we rappelled down from a narrow cave opening nearly 20 feet above. We landed in a vast chamber, bobbing in our life jackets as our headlamps took in the magical beauty of the cavern around us and our guides unhooked us from our harnesses. Immediately, we understood why Mayan culture has long held cenotes to be sacred.

No visit to Riviera Maya is complete without at least one visit to an authentic cenote, but doing so does take some planning. When viewed on a map, the cenote river system is a vast, interconnected network with hundreds of fingers spanning across the Yucatan Peninsula. Since most of it is underground, it can be hard to get a handle on where to go. Various areas require various skill levels and even certifications, and most entrances are on private land. However, exploring cenotes is more accessible than it appears. Here’s how to go about it.

Go with a guide or at a private eco park

Photo Courtesy of Amy Whitley

We went with Alltournative Tours to experience our first cenote, and highly recommend it. This tour company will pick you up at most area hotels, and take you to cenotes located on private land, or at small eco parks owned by Mayan landowners. It’s a great system: the Mayan natives retain their land, plus make an income while impacting the area only slightly. Alltournative took us to the Nohoch Nah Chilch cenote system just north of the Mayan ruins of Tulum, which sits on a tiny eco park comprised of showers, lockers, a zip-line course, and hammocks. We were given snorkel gear, and shown to the cave opening where we rappelled down with the help of the eco park team. With our guide pointing out geological features inside the cenote, we snorkeled through open-air chambers and tunnels. The water is cool, and naturally, you’re in shade, so it feels good to return to the Mexican sunshine. Afterward, we zip-lined into another cenote opening, and enjoyed an authentically cooked Mayan lunch.

Because we couldn’t get enough, we explored another cenote the next day, this time closer to the coastline where we could ride ATVs to two cenotes before ending up on the beach to snorkel in the ocean. We went with Punta Venado, located near Blue Venado Beach Club, and found these cenotes to be much more ‘lake-like,’ with surface level pools surrounded by stone.

Go on your own (do your research)

Photo Courtesy of Amy Whitley

Families who’d rather discover cenotes on their own have many public cenote options (just bring your own snorkel gear and cash for the entrance fees, which will be around 40 pesos). Some of these cenotes, such as Chac Mool, feature large caverns for swimming and are big enough to have restaurants and other services on site. Others, such as El Eden, have only bathrooms and are accessed by short hiking trails. Most are located not far off the main highway spanning the coastline, but some, such as Taj Mahal, are further afield (26 km from Playa del Carmen) and contain more risks. For instance, at this cenote, it’s necessary to swim 5 meters around an underground wall and tunnel to reach the open air caverns.

Go with a dive center

Families with older kids who are dive certified have options for more expansive exploration. Bear in mind that a standard open air dive certification is not enough when diving in some cenotes…you’ll need cave diving certification. For this reason, I recommend signing up for a dive tour at a local dive shop, who can tell you which cenotes are best for your experience and certification level. At very least, consult local experts before embarking on your own. Some dive centers also offer snorkeling tours, though we found more bang for our buck with tours like Alltournative that combine cenote snorkeling with other outdoor adventure.

Families with very young kids may want to introduce the concept of cenotes at a Riviera Maya eco park first; head to Xcaret to swim in natural cenotes improved upon by man with steps and plenty of assistance, but be advised…it will be a less natural experience.