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Dive in to the Yucatán Peninsula’s otherworldly cenotes

Cenote Zaci in Valladolid, Mexico is a natural sinkhole, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath. Photo by Nailotl/Stock.Adobe.Com

A  single shaft of light cut through the jungle and illuminated a patch of water before me. I set down my sandals and dove in. The water was clear, cool, and refreshing. I could see fish below me, and much deeper down—perhaps 60 feet—the bottom of this mystical pool, named Chukum-Ha.

Thousands of freshwater sinkholes called cenotes dot Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. They were created some 66 million years ago when a massive, miles-wide asteroid crashed into the area. The cataclysmic event is thought to have eventually wiped out the dinosaurs, but it also sent a lot of freshwater underground—so instead of ponds and rivers, the Yucatán Peninsula today has caverns and hidden pools. Some, like Chukum-Ha, became exposed when the ground covering them collapsed.

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Cenotes for the modern world

Cenote Ik Kil

Cenote Ik Kil, near Chichén Itzá. Photo by Arthur/

To the Mayan people, these cenotes were sacred places associated with legends of gods and the underworld—spots where sacrifices took place and priests sought answers. While some cenotes are hidden on private land or still undiscovered, others are visitor attractions with snack bars and snorkel rentals. Many have become famous selfie spots. Some deep-water cenotes have diving platforms, rope swings, or even zip lines.

Swimming in a cenote can make for a memorable excursion from Cancún or the Riviera Maya, or from Mérida, the Yucatán’s capital. Three cenotes lie in a rain forest outside the town of Cuzamá, about 30 miles from Mérida. Visitors ride a horse-drawn cart to get to them. To reach one of the cenotes, they must climb down a 50-foot ladder. The Zazil Tunich cenote near the town of Valladolid and the Río Secreto near Playa del Carmen in the Riviera Maya are eerie, watery underworlds of stalagmites and stalactites. The Zací cenote in Valladolid even has a restaurant.

Whichever cenote you choose, you’ll never forget immersing yourself in one of these ancient, sacred sanctuaries.

Tim Leffel is the author of A Better Life for Half the Price. He lives in Guanajuato, Mexico.

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Cenote suggestions

If you have a rental car, you can visit on your own, but you might consider a tour company. Some tours combine cenote stops with visits to archaeological sites. Xcanché cenote, for example, is about 2 miles from Ek Balam, and Yokdzonot cenote is about 12 miles from Chichén Itzá. Avoid wearing sunscreen and bug repellent that are not organic; chemical formulas are prohibited.

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Flying to Mexico? Try this border bridge

By Brad Wrght

If you’re flying to anywhere in Mexico, your best bet for finding a flight might be from Mexico. The Cross Border Xpress (CBX) terminal in the Otay Mesa area of San Diego connects travelers directly to Tijuana International Airport, which now offers nonstop flights to 39 destinations in Mexico, including Puerto Vallarta, Cancún, and Los Cabos, and less-visited beach beauties like Puerto Escondido, Huatulco, and Loreto. Passengers park at the CBX terminal and need a ticket ($37.95–$49.95) to cross the border via the 390-foot pedestrian bridge that links the terminal to the airport. Robust competition from low-cost carriers in Tijuana, combined with lower taxes on flights within Mexico, typically means huge savings on airfare compared with flights from Southern California. My wife and I saved more than $300 collectively on our round-trip flights to La Paz last year. We also appreciated being able to go through customs and immigration in Tijuana, so that within minutes of landing in La Paz we were in a taxi and fully in vacation mode.

If you go

For the latest Mexico safety information, visit the U.S. State Department's website or contact your travel advisor. At press time, the U.S. State Department urged travelers to exercise “increased caution” in Baja California Sur, Mexico City, Oaxaca, Nayarit, and Quintana Roo, where Cancún and Playa del Carmen are located and to “reconsider travel” to Jalisco state but noted no additional restrictions for its U.S. government employees in Puerto Vallarta’s tourist areas (including neighboring Riviera Nayarit). 

Ask your hotel’s concierge about local safety precautions. “We can tell you, ‘Yes, that place is okay, or no, that’s not good,’ ” says Arturo Sanchez, concierge at Andaz Mexico City Condesa. Avoid hailing taxis on the street. Instead, book all ground transportation through your hotel, Sanchez says. And exercise greater caution at night, especially outside tourist zones.

Want to visit one of the Yucatán’s intriguing cenotes? Pleasant Activities offers a tour from the Riviera Maya to the ancient city of Chichen Itza, as well as to a cenote where visitors can take the plunge.

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