Thursday, October 11, 2012

For Cruisers: The Scoop on the Cenotes

One of the most requested destinations for cruisers coming in on the Carnival ships to Progreso each Monday and Wednesday - after the Mayan ruins of course - is a cenote.

For those of you not familiar with a cenote, it is an opening in the ground through which you can access the Yucatan's water table. The water is crystal clear, thanks to the fact that all the cenotes are part of a vast underground river which is interconnected, either through actual dive-able caverns and passages or simply small cracks through which the water circulates. This is why the cenotes are so sparkling clean; if the water wasn't circulating these pools of water would be green, slimy and full of frogs. This sounds disgusting, rather like the term 'sink hole' used on other websites when describing in English what a cenote is.

Let's just call them cenotes, shall we? The word comes from the Mayan "dzonot" or "ts'onot" depending on which spelling method you use (the Mayans didn't use our dictionary so there is some dispute over the correct spelling of Mayan words)

Which cenote to visit? There are literally thousands of cenotes of all shapes and sizes on the Yucatan peninsula. Really. Here are three options for you to consider, along with their advantages and disadvantages, to help you decide which cenote is right for you. Sounds like a commercial for pain killers: "Ask your travel professional if cenotes are right for you!"


This is the cenote at Dzibilchaltun, during our dry season and before the tourists arrive.
Note the clear blue color!

There is a cenote at Dzibilchaltun, but it is not the cave like cenote you are searching for; rather, it is almost like a swimming pool, complete with a shallow end and a deep (a very deep) end. There are also water lillies growing in it. Small, harmless, black fish will exfoliate your skin for free. This is a very expensive treatment in Asia so take advantage of it while you are here.


  • close to Progreso, only a 30 minute drive to get there
  • ruins on site so you can combine a taste of Mayan culture and a refreshing swim
  • relatively easy access to the water ie. no stairs, no ladders, no ropes to swing down on
  • free exfoliation
  • very photogenic


  • close to Progreso, which means every Tom, Dick and Harry from the ship may well be here with you
  • ruins on site which means you pay to play, probably a little more than at a site where it is just the cenote
  • not a cave so not as spectacular as some of the others
  • did I mention it would be crowded


This is cenote number two on the Chunkanan tour. Getting in is easy - just
jump in from this platform, getting out is a little more tricky!
These are three cenotes also known as the Cuzama cenotes. First a little history and local gossip. A few years ago, the tiny village of Chunkanan, a former henequen (sisal) plantation town, came up with the idea of exploiting the cenotes they had in their back yards and created the horse-drawn tour that everyone reads about and loves. The mayor of nearby Cuzama, envious of all the vehicles and tourists passing through his town but not stopping on their way to Chunkanan, realized that the cenotes were on public land and so he could also exploit them, and created his own access point to the cenotes, using the same narrow-gauge rail system to move visitors in and out of the jungle. Which is fine. Except he went a step further and placed a stop sign on the highway to Chunkanan and a red-flag-waving man to stop vehicles. Of course the vehicles did stop and visitors were told that the official entrance to the cenotes was this one and that the Chunkanan entry point was closed, thereby killing the business for the folks at Chunkanan who were wondering what the heck happened. After some conflict, a few fistfights and an uneasy truce, the two access points remain and you can see the red flag waving man stopping cars, and just beyond him, the fellows from Chunkanan waving you on.


  • A great experience, with the horse drawn rail platform known as a "truck" pulling you along the 9 kilometers of track
  • three beautiful, spectacular, cenotes to swim in 
  • exceedingly photogenic
  • probably the highlight of your cruise for sheer WOW factor
  • a chance to observe local politics close up and personal
  • far less chance of running into fellow cruisers at this location

  • 90 minute drive from Progreso (and a 90 minute drive back)
  • usually only two of the three cenotes can be visited due to time constraints
  • increasingly crowded as more and more people come to the cenotes (July, August, December and Easter are horrific)
  • the first two cenotes now feature stairs to a platform below. From there access to the water at the first cenote is easy enough, but the second one requires a little dexterity with foot placement on rocks while holding a rope. The third cenote features a vertical ladder attached to the wall of a 1 meter diameter hole straight down.
  • delays due to traffic - the horse-drawn platforms use only one track so incoming and outgoing platforms have to respect certain right of way rules that can make coming back from the cenotes a time-consuming experience as the incoming "trucks" have the right of way. 

Chunkanan is ideal if you have no mobility issues, want an experience that you will talk about for years and can get off the ship nice and early.

San Ignacio 

Another cenote that has come up recently in travel brochures and online is San Ignacio. It is a pretty cenote that also has an onsite restaurant and gift shop. One of the more "civilized" cenotes in that besides the restaurant and gift shop, it also has lighting down below as there is no natural lighting coming in from overhead. They also have a website:


  • very civilized cenote experience
  • the possibility of having a nice lunch there as well as shopping for a souvenir or two
  • only 60 minutes from Progreso so closer than Chunkanan

  • the cenote is very small so if there are more than 5 people there at a time, it will feel crowded
  • it is about a 60 minute drive from Progreso so further than Dzibilchaltun
  • not much else to do in the area

Other options

There are, as mentioned previously, thousands of cenotes in the Yucatan. If you want to organize something off the beaten track (literally) and explore the magical Yucatan jungle, please send us an email and we will prepare a customized, personal cenote experience that will make your trip unforgettable.

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