Tulum is quite possibly the most addictive place I have ever visited. From Mayan Ruins and white sand beaches to copious amounts of cheap, glorious Mexican food, there are plenty of reasons to stay, but the biggest draw for most travellers are the Tulum cenotes.
These cenotes (pronounced: ‘se-no-tes’) are plenty in number; too many to see unless you stay for a couple of weeks (although I stayed for three and still didn’t manage to see them all) and all inter-connected via a maze of underground waterways. You really must visit at least two or three.
If time is short, you’ll probably want to experience the best cenotes in Tulum – but one person’s favourite cenote won’t necessarily be your favourite cenote, since they come in so many different shapes, sizes and ground levels.
Most of Tulum’s cenotes and cenotes near Tulum are both underground and open-air, catering for intrepid cave-explorers and more cautious sunbathers, but there are many others throughout the rest of the Quintana Roo province which are either one or the other. Here, in my order of preference, are all the cenotes I visited in Tulum and the surrounding area.
1. Tulum Cenotes: Cenote Jardín de Edén (Garden of Eden)
So good I went there twice. Surrounded by thick, green forest, this crystal clear cenote is around 50m in length and 20m deep at its deepest point. It has decked areas where you can sunbathe and jump from (7m height or 8 from the tree!), cave swim-throughs which only require you to hold your breath for about 10 seconds, a secret spot towards the back and even one or two resident turtles.
Go during the week as this cenote was much busier the second time when I visited at the weekend. But even with crowds, Garden of Eden is, for me, the best cenote in Tulum.
Facilities: Showers, bathrooms, shaded seating area, baggage storage at entrance.
Entrance Fee: $100 MXN
Take a colectivo bus going from Tulum to Playa del Carmen. It’s about halfway between the two towns and costs 30-35 pesos each way. If the driver looks are you blankly when you ask for ‘Jarden de Eden’, say ‘Ponderosa’ and he should know. The path to the cenote from the highway is about 1km.
2. Tulum Cenotes: Cenote Escondido (Hidden Cenote)
Twinned with the much less impressive Cenote Cristal, Cenote Escondido really is well hidden, or rather would be if it weren’t for the dirt road leading visitors there from the main highway. It’s off the cenote circuit – south rather than north of Tulum – so gets less visitors and, consequently, has remained gimmick-free.
Of all the cenotes I visited, Cenote Escondido had the clearest water – probably as there was hardly anyone there to disturb it – and would probably have been the most peaceful If it weren’t for its only other occupants that day – a loud, shameless and wasted group of Mexicans who insisted on polluting the air with heavy electronic music. Seriously.
But we probably just had bad luck. The snorkelling here was fantastic – possibly the best snorkeling in Tulum – and there was an awesome swim-through and a rope swing.
Facilities: A bathroom.
Entrance Fee: $120 MXN (entrance to Cenote Cristal included)
Head south from Tulum about 5km. You can rent bikes or take a colectivo taxi. Bikes tend to cost 50-80 pesos for the day, 60-100 for 24 hours, depending on which company you use. The fee for a colectivo shouldn’t be more than 25 pesos per person.
3. Tulum Cenotes: Cenote Tamcach-Ha
Cenote Tamcach-Ha is about 40m wide, 25m deep and completely underground (you have to walk down a spiral staircase). It’s dark at first, but as your eyes focus on the dome-shaped cavern for the first time, you know you’ve just stumbled on one of the coolest things you’ll ever see.
What’s more, there is a jump. Two jumps, in fact! One from 5m above the water and the other – if you’ve got the balls for it – from 10m. The key, I found, was to let a girl about half my age go before me, and then I really had no choice but to jump. The more you psyche yourself out, the less likely it is you’ll do it!
Facilities: Showers, a bathroom
Entrance Fee: $55 MXN
This is the furthest cenote from Tulum on the list, but if you are heading to the marvellous Coba ruins for the day then you should definitely make a stop on the way back. It’s best to take a taxi from Coba and pay him to wait while you enjoy the cenote. Later he’ll take you back to the ruins where you can jump on a bus. Or, if there are 4 or 5 of you, it is probably cheaper to hire a taxi for the day; for 900 pesos ($50), 4 of us got a round trip to Coba from Tulum, plus the cenote stop-off on the way back.
4. Tulum Cenotes: El Gran Cenote, Tulum
Despite its name, Gran Cenote is not the largest of the cenotes in Tulum. It’s big, but Dos Ojos is bigger and offers a bit more. However, there is more open water here and perhaps not quite as many tourists. As one of the most popular cenotes, though, there are still a fair few elbows to contend with when snorkelling around the island at its centre.
There are turtles (far more than in Jardín de Edén) and the underwater stalagmites look otherworldly when scuba divers below shine their torches at them. You can snorkel with them for as long as you can hold your breath, or until they disappear into the depths. If there aren’t any divers about then you can’t really see much, but the diving classes don’t stop until later in the afternoon.
Facilities: Snorkel Hire, lifejackets, showers, bathrooms, lockers.
Entrance Fee: $150 MXN
The best way to get to Gran Cenote is by bike (see typical rates above). It’s about 2km from Tulum, along the Coba/Valladolid highway. Look out for the sign on the right!
5. Tulum Cenotes: Cenote Carwash
The next one along from Gran Cenote going towards Coba, Cenote ‘Carwash’ is so-called because of taxi drivers who would often stop and wash their cars there after the cenote was discovered by American divers in the 1960s. The name stuck and now the cenote attracts not just taxi drivers but snorkelers in search of a quieter alternative and diving schools in the afternoon.
It is quite large, measuring about 70m in length and 20m in depth. There are two decked areas and yes, another jump, this one about 5 metres. The water is crystal clear and gets sunshine all day so very warm too.
Facilities: Snorkel Hire, a bathroom.
Entrance Fee: $50
Carwash is another 2km further than Gran Cenote so is also within cycling distance, though you could take a taxi for about 50 pesos. However, getting back would be a problem! It’s a much better idea to rent bikes so you can visit all the cenotes on this stretch in one day.
6. Tulum Cenotes: Cenote Dos Ojos
For the biggest and most expensive cenote in Tulum, I had expected better. Dos Ojos is divided into two parts – east eye and west eye – and is made for divers. The east provides a great view but for snorkelers there isn’t much else to get excited about. West eye is bigger, better and includes the famous bat cave – a diver’s paradise with endless tunnels and swim-throughs – but if you just want to snorkel, you’re better off somewhere else, as there is almost no open water and the cavernous areas get very crowded and cold!
Facilities: Snorkel Hire, lifejackets, showers, bathrooms, lockers, bar, restaurant
Entrance Fee: $200 MXN
Heading north from Tulum, you can either cycle (though it’s quite far and you’ll be on the side of a very busy road for much of the route) or take a colectivo for about 25 pesos per person. The path leading from the highway to Cenote Dos Ojos is about 2km, so you may want to stick out your thumb and hitch-hike this last leg!
7. Tulum Cenotes: Cenote Cristal
Don’t be fooled by the name, as the water of Cenote Cristal is by no means crystal-like. Instead, you get a thick, slimy cover of ‘mung’ floating on top, which gets stuck in your hair and goggles. It’s a shame. If it weren’t for the mung then this cenote would be beautiful. There are three decked areas where you can sunbathe and a raised platform from where you can jump (about 4m high). It’s about 18m deep with long swim-through tunnels for divers; one stretches all the way to its sister cenote – the much nicer Cenote Escondido – on the other side of the highway.
Entrance Fee: $120 MXN (entrance to Cenote Cristal included)
Head south from Tulum, for about 5km, and you’ll see the signs for both Cenote Cristal and Cenote Escondido, since they are directly opposite each other, and the entrance ticket gives you access to both. I’d recommend you visit both, since you have paid to after all, but Escondido is easily the better of the two.
Other Tulum Cenotes
There are several other cenotes in Tulum that I didn’t get chance to visit, including the highly rated Casa Cenote (north of Tulum) and Cenote Calavera (towards Coba), which is very popular with divers.
Whichever cenote you choose to visit, make sure you take a mask, snorkel, towel, camera and snacks!
Have you been to any cenotes in Tulum or cenotes near Tulum? Which was your favourite?
(Alll photos are my own unless otherwise stated. YouTube Credit: Andy Monroy)