Imagine a cave that has an open roof and is full of water. The water is crystal clear and when the light hits it, the reflections bounce off the surface and make the cave’s walls sparkle.
The name for these types of special formations is cenotes.
Cenotes on the Yucatan Peninsula – a place of spirituality
The awe you experience from scrambling through a cave is magnified when you can swim through its beauty. And this, for me, is the difference between cave exploring and cenote swimming.
In a cenote, the water is so clear that even without a snorkel you can see the fish swimming around you and the stalactites reaching downwards into the water.
The Maya people believed cenotes were the entrance to the underworld, a place where rain gods lived. They saw cenotes as a place of great spiritual meaning – often they would use them for places to carry out rituals of worship.
And swimming in a cenote you can immediately feel how one could see them as a spiritual place.
Swimming in cenotes on the Yucatan Peninsula
Dave and I were fortunate to experience cenotes for the first time recently in one of the best spots in the world to see them – the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.
We were picked up from our glamourous hotel at 9am and whisked away for a day of cenotes exploring with Xenotes Oasis Maya.
I pictured us having to hike a little into the jungle and stumbling upon the cenote, before scrambling down to the bottom of the hole and then perhaps jumping into the water for the last few metres.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Xenotes Oasis Maya is very tourist-friendly
Xenotes Oasis Maya is perfectly set up to receive tourists. Each tour is guided and co-ordinated so that large groups don’t overcrowd the cenotes at any given time. You are ushered between the four cenotes and partake in a different activity at each one.
I suppose, in the touristy Yucatan Peninsula where in some parts you struggle to hear Spanish being spoken, this shouldn’t really have surprised me.
Instead of hacking our way through jungle and then scrambling into the centoes, we were driven to the four different locations via a minivan and then walked one minute along a paved path to the cenotes.
For me, part of the magic is lost doing it this way. I like to hike my way through jungle and then swim somewhere to cool off. But perhaps not all tourists are like this and the Xenotes Oasis Maya are catering to as many tourists as they can.
Rappelling down into the underworld
For our first activity we rappelled vertically down into the cenote, with all the safety gear and harnesses you’d expect from a top notch tour company.
Our guide said a few words of thanks to the Maya people before we made the descent. I couldn’t help thinking it was a little ironic. This was a sacred place for the Maya people and here we were rappelling into their sacred cenote.
The rappel was easy and only lasted a few seconds. Being inside the cenote was breathtaking – no matter how we got into it.
The hidden beauty of a cenote
Before we came inside, all we could see was a hole in the ground. It didn’t look like it was going to be much of an adventure. But once inside, it was a whole different world. The cavern was enormous and stalactites hung suspended above the bright blue water. Tree roots reached down through the earth above us, kissing the pool.
As we swam, our guide explained that scuba divers had been down deep into the cenote and although calm on the surface, underneath there’s a strong current. This pull is caused by underground rivers flowing beneath the cenote and connecting to other rivers flowing beneath the surface.
Researching later, I discover that’s not all scuba divers have found in the depths of a Yucatan cenote. National Geographic discovered piles of dead bones inside one earlier this year, dating from Mayan times, but they’re not sure how they died.
Acrobatics across the water
I could’ve swam in the cenote all day (this was before reading about the discovery of human bones inside cenotes) but it was on to the next one, climbing up the neat limestone steps to re-board the bus for our journey there.
The next cenote was huge and fully open to the sky. Kind of like a limestone dam. Once again, we had to get into the water by flying into the cenote. Dave grabbed the flying fox and zipped down the line, dropping with a splash into the middle of the pool.
I opted for the seat swing and halfway down threw my head back and hung upside down, the canvas seat supporting my legs, before tumbling into the water.
The next cenote was jam packed. I’m not sure whether Xenotes Oasis Maya got their timings off a little, but it was crowded. We climbed down some steps and were given a snorkel to jump off the jetty into this cenote. The top of the cenote was cupped around the edges and although it wasn’t a cavern like the first one, it did feel much more like a cave than the second dam-like one.
We snorkelled this cenote and saw catfish and other little critters swimming around. To leave the cenote we swam between gaps in the stalactites to the steps. We walked up through a neat man-made tunnel and into the open.
I had to wonder whether it was for health and safety reasons that the cenotes were so well paved around the edges. That, coupled with the number of people, certainly didn’t make the experience special, it rather made me feel as though I was trodding a path thousands of tourists had walked before me.
We had to wait in line and then we had the chance to kayak up a natural water filled mini-canyon. Dave dodged around other kayakers going the opposite direction, while I sat back and relaxed. Normally I would paddle but it was a short trip, and as one of our friends pointed out a two person kayak should be named ‘divorce-kayak’. I could certainly relate to that.
Dave paddled us around a small island and back to the beginning again where our guide was waiting for us.
We had a quick lunch of sandwiches and soup which we could choose to wash down with wine if we wanted. We all chose to.
Back on the bus, I was beginning to regret my two glasses of wine us we bounced up and down the dirt track. But the final cenote was beckoning.
Cliff jumping into a cenote
The final cenote was even more built up than the others, with a little bar area, picnic tables and a terrace overlooking the cenote.
The cenote was similar to the open-dam style, but joined on to another mini-canyon. This time we floated down the river along with the soft current.
The river ended at the base of a cliff around eight metres high and four of us decided to make the jump. As I walked up to the steps to the cliff I thought it’d be a piece of cake. Getting up there and looking down, all of a sudden it looked higher than I thought. I grabbed my friend Jennifer’s (from Viajando Y Aprendiendo) hand and tried to get her to jump with me.
“No way, no way! I’m not doing it!” she said. Everyone was trying to encourage us to jump, and seeing as Dave had done it just before me I could hardly say no. (Married rivalry and all that.)
Keeping my eyes squeezed tight so my contact lenses wouldn’t fall out, I stepped off the cliff.
Even though it was only a second until I hit the water, time seems to move slowly when you’re suspended in mid-air.
With a splash I was in.
I’d survived, contact lenses still in place.
Treading water, I called up to Jen, “Come on!”
After five minutes Jennifer finally made the jump. She was shaking afterwards and welcomed my hug as I tried to calm her nerves. “I’ve never done that before!” she said, exhilarated and almost shocked that she’d had the balls.
“You did great,” I said. And she did!
The experience of a well-known cenote route
That night back at the resort, the group of us were exhausted. It was an invigorating way to spend the day and I was glad we’d felt adventurous enough to do all the activities.
Twelve hours earlier I’d expecting to journey to a secluded spot in the jungle where we could swim and enjoy the scenery at our leisure. Instead, it was a tour where we were herded from one cenote to the other, paved paths to guide us, flushing toilets to use, picnic tables to eat on, rappelling ropes to slide down and cliffs to jump off to make our hearts pound.
And although it wasn’t really what I was expecting, I did enjoy myself. Although some of the magic was lost by the thousands of people who flock to the cenotes each year, they are still beautiful wonders of nature and should be respected.
Have you been to a cenote? Please let me know if you know of a good non-touristy one!
What you need to know:
Cost: A tour of Xenotes Oasis Maya costs around US$107 per person. You can get 15% off if you book 21 days in advance, and 10% off if you book 10-20 days in advance. You can book online.
How to get there: The tour bus will pick you up from your hotel at around 9am.
When to go: Xenotes Oasis Maya runs tours daily.
- It says on the website that the tour takes nine hours, but we left at 9am and returned at around 3:30pm. There were seven of us in the tour group.
- Alcohol isn’t included in the tour price, it’s an extra fee.
- If you have them, bring aqua socks.
- A change of clothes doesn’t hurt either (you’re given a towel).
- You also aren’t allowed to wear sunscreen or mosquito repellent, as it harms the ecosystem of the cenotes, and you’ll be made to take a shower before the first cenote to ensure you’re clean.
- A photographer will accompany you on the tour and you have the option to purchase the images at the end.
Experiences Xcaret hosted our visit to Xenotes Oasis Maya. As always our opinions are our own. All photography in this post was by Xenotes Oasis Maya.