If you’re planning a trip to the Yucatán, Quintana-Roo or Campeche states (making up the Yucatán Peninsula, the south-eastern tip of Mexico) then you may have read something about the region’s natural wonders – the cenotes – and wondered if they’re accessible for families with children.
But what exactly is a cenote? Pronounced ”se-note-ay”, the word is derived from dzonot, Mayan for “sacred well.”
A cenote is a sinkhole resulting from a collapse of the limestone bedrock that has exposed the groundwater underneath. The Yucatán peninsula is covered in them – there are thought to be as many as 6,000 cenotes, though only about half have been explored. The Mayans used cenotes as a source of fresh water, building their ancient cities around them. They considered the cenotes to be ‘sacred wells’ doubling as a water source and an entrance to the Underworld.
Every cenote is different, so don’t assume that if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Some are open to the skies and have incredible hanging tree roots reaching down to the water below, whilst others are entirely covered, cave-like. Some have crystal blue waters, while others are tea-colored.
During my time in the Yucatán, some tourists I met told me they prefer not to visit cenotes, stating that anything sacred shouldn’t be profaned as a tourist attraction. I don’t agree. Plenty of local communities, such as the Yokdzonot community, are reclaiming their cenotes and opening them up as cooperative ventures; this brings employment and cash flow back into their area. Why wouldn’t we support this?
It can be difficult to decide if visiting cenotes is suitable for your family. Guidebooks don’t tend to spend much time describing cenotes and because they vary so wildly, it’s worth the research. A stroll past tour agencies in any tourist area will leave you with the impression that cenotes are an experience only for advanced swimmers and people looking for extreme adventure, but this really isn’t the whole story. Sure, some cenotes require diving ability, and others call for cave exploration with snorkel gear but others are eminently accessible, no matter how small your children are. Ask around, talk to people -locals, tour guides, anyone you meet! The most important question to ask before visiting any cenote is: how do we get in the water? If the answer is that you take a rope ladder or even a knotted rope down a deep hole until you hit the water, perhaps it isn’t the cenote for a family with toddlers or little kids. If, on the other hand, you hear of easy access staircases and good diving/jumping platforms, seize that opportunity!
Most sites that you’re likely to visit with kids will have life jackets for rent, but do check first if you need and don’t have your own. I can’t stress enough that a rubber ring or arm bands simply won’t do; some of these cenotes are very deep and kids have been known to slip out of rubber rings. Even many adults choose to use a life jacket in the cenotes for an extra feeling of security when swimming in extremely deep water.
Five Child-accessible Cenotes on the Yucatan Peninsula
Gran Cenote, Just Outside of Tulum
Situated on the road to Coba, just outside of Tulum, this is an easily accessible cenote in every sense: taxis and collectivos will take you there and pick you up again later. It costs 120 pesos (approximately 6 USD /4.50GBP) per person to enter the site (don’t leave anything outside the site because there is no re-entry). There are good changing areas and showers in some lovely gardens, and a cafe on site too. Once changed and showered, take your belongings and head down the stairs to the lockers and snorkel/life vest rental area (available with a small fee). Entry into the water is from a wooden platform with steps into the water.
For the more nervous cenote explorer, this is a perfect starting point. The water is shallow in some places and there are ropes in the water to hold on to if you wish to explore without taking yourself too far from safety. There is even a small open-ended cave leading to a further pool area. There are plenty of opportunities for small kids to practice their jumps into the water. Kids will enjoy the terrapins swimming around in their own little cenote area too.
There are actually three cenotes a short drive from the ruins here but Choo-Ha is probably the most child-friendly. These cenotes (like so many) don’t appear in the mainstream guide books but tour groups and individual families definitely visit them. For a post-ruin swim with kids, Choo-Ha is a great option. It costs 55 pesos (just over 2.50 USD) per person (more to hire a life jacket).
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There are no lockers available, so either you take your bags down with you or leave them in the car. After changing and showering (water shoes are recommended if you have them) and then descend a spiral staircase. At the bottom of the staircase is a floating wooden platform where you can leave your bags and any children who aren’t feeling quite brave enough for the water. This cenote, unlike the Tulum Gran Cenote, is entirely underground, lending itself to an entirely different experience. The water is a beautiful, vibrant blue and fish potter around you as you swim. There are ropes available to help the less confident explore this amazing caved pool. The water is about ten meters deep (or so I was told when I asked the attendant) and crystal clear.
Yokdzonot, Near Chichén Itzá
After a long, hot exploration of Chichén Itzá, Yokdzonot makes for a great cenote option. It’s a community cooperative just 11 miles18km from the famous Mayan ruin. The majority of Chichén Itzá visitors seem to head along to Ik-Kil cenote to cool down as it’s less than 2 miles away rather than 11 miles, but I highly recommend sticking it out. Entry is 20 pesos (1 USD) and lifejackets are available for adults and kids.
Yokdzonot was opened after 60 local women got together and decided to clean up the village’s cenote and open it to the public. Every day for two years, the story goes, the women would finish their household work at 2pm and head up to clean their cenote. There is a cheap restaurant on site, which provides delicious local food. There is also a small playground next to the restaurant, providing kids and parents with a short break from each other. There are changing rooms and showers, but again no lockers so take only what you truly need with you. Water shoes are recommended as there are a lot of steps down to the water from the restaurant area.
The cenote itself is around 80m deep and magnificently beautiful. The water may not be crystal blue but the experience of swimming in a huge open hole with trees and vines all around makes up for that. There are wooden platforms on which you can leave your belongings while swimming. Entry into the water here is up the pool-style steps from the wooden platform, maybe five feet one and a half metres above the water. For very small children or those who aren’t yet initiated into the wonder of cenote-swimming, this may not be a good starting point given the depth of the water and the entry options–but even very small kids who are confident in cenotes will enjoy this marvelous location.
People visit Bacalar for its incredible lagoon, reputed to be seven shades of blue which, according to the guides, are due to the depth of the cenotes in the lagoon. As part of a guided boat tour around the lagoon (well worth it – the lagoon is enormous and incredibly beautiful; be sure to visit the Pirates’ canal), you can visit a cenote that is nearly 300 feet deep at one edge of the lagoon. Entry into the water here is either from your boat or, if you ask your guide, they can pull up alongside a small wooden jetty that you can jump off from. Do note that there are no steps into the water here.
Dzibilchaltun Archaeological Site
There is a small cenote on the site of Dzibilchaltun, not far from Merida. This is a very small and child-friendly cenote that never gets too deep. It is entirely open to the surroundings and is pleasantly alive with small fish. There are no changing rooms, no showers, and no lockers. It’s very much open to the wild here! Change on the rocks around the water and jump straight in! Make a quick detour here to cool off whilst visiting a fascinating Mayan ruin. Do note that though there is a restaurant on site, the food is very expensive as the clientele is largely visitors from cruise ships.
There are thousands of cenotes across the Yucatán peninsula and hundreds of them are open to the public; some extremely tourist and others hidden away and barely known about. It’s always worth asking around: people in Valladolid will know of different cenotes compared to people living in Merida or Celestun.
Recommended items: life jackets for all, water shoes, snorkel and mask, underwater camera.
Note: Local doctors do say that it is easy to get ear infections from cenote waters so if you’re prone to them, wear ear plugs.