Over 6,000 cenotes are part of the landscape of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Often also called sinkholes or swimming holes, these underground limestone caverns and caves are filled with water. They were created by natural forces when sections of the limestone bedrock collapsed to expose the groundwater below. These sinkhole openings let light in and visitors come here to explore the underground cave systems. Many of these cenotes are less than an hour away from Cancun or Cozumel, and can be visited enroute to some of the most famous Maya ruins, Mexico’s popular travel hotspots.

 

The Mayans referred to these cave systems as tz’onot (abyss) from which the modern word cenote is derived. Popular legend states that the Maya used these underground spaces for special rituals and ceremonies, and possibly points of entry into the otherworld.

I visited a dozen different cenotes, diving deep into the tunnels and caves to survey their fascinating depths. This involved cavern and cave scuba diving with a specialist, and often carrying torches and lights to illuminate the darkness below. Cavern diving is different from cave diving. In the former your path is illuminated by natural light, while a cave dive could lead you into the depths where no natural light penetrates at all.

Even those who don’t dive can enjoy the lucent beauty of the cenotes as shafts of light pass through the transparent blue waters. Those who do dive can experience stalactites, stalagmites, pillars, unique underwater vegetation and mangroves, freshwater and saltwater separated by turgid haze. The cenotes are truly a world of their own.

At the Taj Mahal cenote, beams of sunlight shine through the crystal clear water, revealing fish and organic debris. Divers can also see plenty of fossil shells, stalactites, and stalagmites. Under the first layer of fresh water is a halocline layer, under which is a layer of saltwater.

Angelita Cenote is one of the Yucatan’s deepest, but it doesn’t have branching tunnels or caves. It started off as a vertical pond of freshwater until we reached this layer of hydrogen sulphide at a depth of about 30 metres. Crossing this layer of cloud we descended into the layer of saltwater and complete and utter darkness—scary but also exhilarating.

Angelita Cenote is one of the Yucatan’s deepest, but it doesn’t have branching tunnels or caves. It started off as a vertical pond of freshwater until we reached this layer of hydrogen sulphide at a depth of about 30 metres. Crossing this layer of cloud we descended into the layer of saltwater and complete and utter darkness—scary but also exhilarating.

Dos Ojos (two eyes) is a stunning cenote with fantastic stalactite and stalagmite formations, a bat cave, small fish, and a type of freshwater shrimp in the beautifully clear fresh water. Further into its depths I set up halogen lights in the dark cave to photograph the beauty of the columns.

Dos Ojos (two eyes) is a stunning cenote with fantastic stalactite and stalagmite formations, a bat cave, small fish, and a type of freshwater shrimp in the beautifully clear fresh water. Further into its depths I set up halogen lights in the dark cave to photograph the beauty of the columns.

The underwater world of the Dos Ojos Cenote is a mesmerising labyrinth of caves and tunnels, running some 60 kilometres, and encompassing over 25 cenotes. Its various chambers and formations are seemingly endless and I dived for over four hours. Some chambers here are half air and half water, others are circular, still others are winding tunnels—all with amazingly embellished limestone columns, stalactites, and stalagmites. Signs are posted underwater beyond which divers aren’t permitted unless they have specific cave training.

Chikin Ha Cenote is very popular among travellers. It has more than 10 kilometres of underwater passages. Divers can swim among splendid fields of lily pads and colourful fish, while on shore colourful birds like the blue-crowned motmot can be spotted.

Chikin Ha Cenote is very popular among travellers. It has more than 10 kilometres of underwater passages. Divers can swim among splendid fields of lily pads and colourful fish, while on shore colourful birds like the blue-crowned motmot can be spotted.

Surrounded by rhizophora, or true mangroves, whose web of roots can be seen deep in the water, the Casa Cenote is one of Mexico’s most stunning sinkholes. Besides fantastic opportunities for snorkelling and scuba diving, visitors can go stand-up paddleboarding through the mangroves where they may come upon colourful birds and a variety of fish including barracudas and schools of tarpons. Lucky visitors could encounter a cormorant holding its breath as it dives underwater to catch its dinner.

Narrow passages lead to caves and caverns in Casa Cenote. This cenote connects a very long underwater cave system, called Nohoch Na Chich, to the Caribbean Sea. Wherever there are surface openings, light streams in through the clear turquoise waters highlighting rock formations and small schools of fresh and seawater fish.

Narrow passages lead to caves and caverns in Casa Cenote. This cenote connects a very long underwater cave system, called Nohoch Na Chich, to the Caribbean Sea. Wherever there are surface openings, light streams in through the clear turquoise waters highlighting rock formations and small schools of fresh and seawater fish.

Because the main opening is a large open pond with easy access, the Carwash Cenote, also called Aktun Ha, was once a stop where tourist taxi drivers washed their cars. As I descended beneath the surface, I saw a layer of algae, lots of plants including lily pads and submerged trees, and small fish; and then, this brilliantly colourful Mesoamerican slider turtle. Mosses and algae fill a large part of this cenote and underneath the cloudy green is another stunning world. I swam through tunnels which led me to underground caves, one with brown columns.

Narrow beams of light can be seen coming through the various entrances of the El Pit Cenote. The small entrance belies the size of the large cylindrical cavern we entered, which led further to many passages and caves. Ten metres down, an overhang with beautiful stalactites came into sight, and then, the hydrogen sulphide cloud, a mix in a turgid blur, followed by saltwater.

Narrow beams of light can be seen coming through the various entrances of the El Pit Cenote. The small entrance belies the size of the large cylindrical cavern we entered, which led further to many passages and caves. Ten metres down, an overhang with beautiful stalactites came into sight, and then, the hydrogen sulphide cloud, a mix in a turgid blur, followed by saltwater.

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