The Cenotes of Riviera Maya, Mexico

Yucatán Travel Insider Guides
by Juliane Huang May 7, 2010
ziplining in Riviera Maya

All photos by Dave Shultz

Contributing Editor Juliane Huang discovers why she never wants to leave Mexico. And it doesn’t involve spring break.

“DID YOU DRINK A LOT of tequila last night?” The man checking my harness asks. I’m about to zipline into a cave cenote and I’m giddy with anticipation.

“The mosquitoes here,” he continues, “they love the tequila.” I’m spotted like a leopard and doing my best impersonation of a person who doesn’t want to rub her entire body with a cactus.

I’m on a press trip and it’s my first time in Riviera Maya. I’m falling fast for this coastal town.

Also, I did drink a lot of tequila last night.

swimming in a cenote
What Are Cenotes?

Scattered all over the Yucatan Peninsula, the cenotes are underground, fresh water pools formed by the complete or partial collapse of cave roofs. Many tap into larger cave and river systems that go on for miles, some not yet fully mapped.

The Mayans used to believe cenotes were gateways into the afterlife and made offerings and performed rituals in these natural structures. Remnants of the ancient Mayan presence can be found in and around many cenotes. Our guide led us to one pool in which the base stones of an ancient Mayan steam house once stood. A cave painting decorated the wall to our right and bats nestled in the ceilings ahead. It was beautiful.

Here in the Riviera Maya, Mexican land owners are opening up their properties to the public and allowing visitors entrance to the cenotes. Aware of the potentially harmful impact from sharing this natural inheritance with so many people, property owners only permit the use of biodegradable sunscreen and eco-friendly bug spray in an effort to keep this type of natural tourism sustainable.

When I was there, the cenotes still appeared pristine, the walls and the water not yet looking weathered by human traffic.

Where to Find Them

Many places that have cenotes also offer a range of companion activities. At Hidden Worlds, our group sky-cycled through the Mayan jungle to a large cenote where we donned life vests and went snorkeling in the cave’s river. The cool, underground water served as a welcome contrast to the hot sun and pointy jungle leaves.

taking instructions

At ATV Explorer Jungle Tours, we rode through the vegetation to swim a small cenote before heading back on the dusty road.

Some of the more expansive cave networks have been developed into giant adventure parks like Xplor, where visitors can participate in a variety of activities, though the half-hour underground river swim was easily my personal highlight. Floating on my back, I watched knobby and pointy stalactite formations gradually scroll down my line of sight as I slowly kicked my feet.

A quick click-through of the Riviera Maya tourism website pulls up plenty of places and services involving cenotes, though I tend to find the volume of such a list overwhelming. Xel-ha, Xcaret, and Xplor are the big-name, big-property adventure parks in the area anyhow and to be honest, it’s hard for me to say whether I liked those or the smaller operations better.

kayaking around

There are thousands of cenotes dotted all over the Yucatan. My recommendation would be to see at least one big adventure park and one smaller one, as they each have their merits. Xplor, while very “packaged” in feeling, is never intensely crowded — they limit the number of people in the park to 1500 throughout the year. My river swim there was mostly isolated, with only the occasional meeting of another swimmer.

Essentially, wherever the cenotes are is where I want to be, and lucky for me, they are all over Riviera Maya.

Community Connection

You can read more about Riviera Maya on associate editor Candice Walsh’s MatadorTravel blog, in which she describes cenotes as “cool and creepy and exciting all at the same time.”

We’ve also listed Riviera Maya as a Top 10 Dive Destination.

Discover Matador

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