Samuel Turner

On the Yucatan Peninsula in modern day Mexico lie some six thousand cenotes – sunken waterholes used by the ancient pre-Hispanic peoples hundreds of years ago. They were used for a plethora of activities, the most logical being for fresh drinking water and the more macabre alternative was ritual sacrificing to their gods. But if the dinosaur-destroying meteorite that led our monolithic friends to extinction sixty-six million years ago never crashed into our planet, we never would have had these beautiful natural wonders.

Bear with me. In a very strange and admittedly slightly ludicrous association on my behalf, without the mass extinction of the dinosaurs we never would have had these amazing natural water holes. How you may ask? Well the Chicxulub crater off the coast of Mexico is highly regarded by scientists as the crater formed from the meteorite impact that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Along the rim of this crater is the highest density of cenotes ever documented, which happens to cut right through the jutting Yucatan and be available for all of us to adventure into.  So ipso facto – no dinosaur-ending meteorite, no awesome cenotes.


But what exactly is a cenote? Well there’s nothing quite like it. It is basically an opening to a subterrean water body that flows through to other cenotes. There are several different types and variants throughout Mexico that offer everything from huge swimming pools to incredible diving opportunities and even fish spas that eat the dead skin from your body.

Given the harsh landscape of Mexico, fresh drinking water wasn’t exactly easy to come across. The cenotes were a God-send in the eyes of the Maya, who had been using them for over a thousand years. The rain would slowly filter down through the limestone bedrock and collect in these underground caves for the people to access when necessary. However, it wasn’t all beautiful swimming and plentiful water. In the times of drought, the Maya often used ritual human sacrifice to appease their gods.

The Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza for example (a pilgrimage site for Mayans) contained the remains of several humans of various ages as well as other material sacrifices such as jade, gold and pottery. Mayans only had a few specific places for these sacrifices due to either their beliefs in certain cenotes reaching their particular gods, the cleanliness of drinking water or a combination of both.  Nowadays the Sacred Cenote is closed to visitors, but there are hundreds of other opportunities to climb into a cenote around the Yucatan. My two absolute favourites can be found in Tulum and Valladolid.

Sacred Cenote, Tulum

This was one of my favourites in particular due to its isolation. After a sixteen kilometre bicycle ride into the jungle from the heart of Tulum, I was left in awe at the grandeur of this ‘semi-open’ cenote. It was just me and my tour guide and as I waded in the cool, refreshing water he pointed out the small fish that gorge on dead skin. Ecstatic to have a visitor, they greeted me with gusto and tiny nibbles. Engulfed in the jungle and hidden away from the city, my guide informed me that cenotes like this are found quite frequently and if you are Mexican you are entitled to keep it.

Sacred Cenote

Hacienda San Lorenzo Oxman, Valladolid

This particular cenote in Valladolid was absolutely breathtaking and a lot less crowded than the Zaci Cenote in the centre of town. After several flights of stairs down into the earth, you’ll be blown away at the sheer size of this natural phenomenon. The owners added a rope swing which allows you to fly high in the air and into the huge abyss of water underneath. The water is clear, refreshing and clean and you can see a lot of fish darting around you as you either leisurely swim or take the plunge off the rope. This type of cenote was entirely open and is the more typical and popular variant. Cylindrical and deep, this style of cenote was the type that was used for human sacrifice.

Sinkholes in Mexico

The cenotes of Mexico seem like something from another planet. Ironically if we never had the asteroid from outer space, we never would have been able to experience these incredibly beautiful, historical and exciting feats of nature. If you’re ever in Mexico, it is a must see attraction and will give you a nice relaxing break from the hustle and bustle of city life. Just make sure to avoid the sacrificial priests...

Don’t forget!

  • If you’re taking a GoPro make sure you have a floating grip. Some cenotes go down for hundreds of metres and you’ll have no chance of getting it back. 
  • Take some photos underneath the water and look at them later – you’ll be surprised at the clarity 
  • Relax and let your worries float away with the mystical waters so cherished by the Maya 


Samuel Turner is an Australian journalist with a passion for adventure, travel and food. Follow him on Instagram @turnernator and Facebook Samuel Turner

The views, opinions and positions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and are meant as travel inspiration only. They do not reflect the opinions of Cover-More Insurance. You should always read the PDS available from your travel insurance provider to understand the limits, exclusions and conditions of your policy and to ensure any activities you undertake are covered by your policy.