Are Cenotes Safe? Swimming in cenotes is a highlight of any trip to Southern Mexico.
Cenotes are freshwater sinkholes that were created when the Chicxulub meteor smashed into the Earth’s surface 65 million years ago. The meteor hit just off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in the Northern Yucatan.
(Yep it’s that same famous meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs!)
The meteor weakened the earth’s surface and in doing so, it created cenotes. It is estimated that there are more than 7,000 cenotes in the Yucatan today.
There are those that are Instagram famous such as Cenote Suytan. But there are also tons of lesser-known cenotes that tourists aren’t even aware of and which you can visit and have entirely to yourself.
Some cenotes are open lagoons whereas others are closed and set inside caves. It is normal to feel a bit nervous about going to cenotes, especially if you are claustrophobic or you are not a strong swimmer.
After all, we don’t really have anything similar in other parts of the world. So are cenotes safe?
Generally speaking, yes they are. However, you should still follow the same common sense precautions that you would when approaching any body of water or traveling overseas.
This article on safety in cenotes has been written by a British Travel Writer based in the Yucatan capital of Merida. It discusses everything that you need to know before going cenote-hopping and dispels common myths about safety in cenotes.
Are Cenotes Safe?
Cenotes are safe as long as you take precautions for your personal safety when you visit – just as you would when heading to a swimming pool or the beach.
The nice thing about visiting cenotes is that you don’t have to worry about the hazards that you face in the ocean or the sea. For instance, no current that can sweep you away, no sharks and dangerous jellyfish, etc.
Cenote safety at a glance
A few useful pointers to ensure your safety in cenotes are detailed below:
- Use reef-safe sunscreen so you don’t harm the unique ecosystem of the cenote
- Dont take any valuables, expensive cameras, jewelry, etc as some cenotes don’t have lockers
- Read up on the specific cenote you are going to before you visit
- Use a life vest
- Pack flip-flops, crocs, or water shoes
- Pack a small daypack with plenty of bottled water, a towel, and a change of clothes
Consider visiting off-the-beaten-path cenotes
Have you ever noticed how wherever in the world you travel, people tend to stick to the same few places? There are over 7,000 cenotes in the Yucatan peninsula and yet it seems as though everybody wants to go and take a photo in the same insta-famous place!
Cenotes like Cenote Calavera, Aldea Zama, and Kaan Lum near Tulum, as well as Hubiku Cenote and Cenote Suytan near Cancun, are pretty. However, the experience of visiting just isn’t the same anymore because these places are so crowded with people.
Cancun, Tulum, and the Riviera Maya are such popular tourist destinations that it is unlikely that any cenote or attraction in the area remains off the beaten path for long. Overtourism also means that the water is more polluted in these cenotes.
If you embark on a Yucatan road trip, you will see cenotes marked all over the map. Be open-minded about stopping and exploring the random cenotes that you encounter.
Some are literally just holes in the ground in the middle of nowhere with a ladder leading down. Cool, huh?
Kikil is a massively underrated lagoon that you will find en route to Rio Lagartos, the pink lakes, and El Cuyo. Meanwhile, the Homun cenotes are part of an anillo de los cenotes (ring of cenotes).
There are more than 20 cenotes in the town here! Better yet, you can hire a local guide for 200 pesos (circa $10.80).
Just tell your guide the kind of places you like and they will tailor-make a tour accordingly. Some of the Homun cenotes have handprints on the wall from the Ancient Maya.
Are cenotes safe if you cannot swim?
Yes! There are plenty of cenotes that you can still enjoy even if you don’t swim. You are given life jackets at most of them.
In Homun, cenote cholul is a gorgeous cavernous cenote that is divided into two separate pools. You can wade into the water which gets increasingly deeper or you can just hang out on the central platform and dip your legs in.
Cenote Hool Kosom has a large wooden platform that you can hang out on if you can’t swim. (and the cenote is in a really cool cavern with holes in the ceiling where you can look out to the sky).
Meanwhile, cenote Bal Mil is a cool place to hang out period. This giant cave is a natural beauty in itself.
Dramatic stalagmites and stalactites hang from the ceiling and there are areas where you can stand or sit in shallow water. If you are heading to the Riviera Maya and you cannot swim, add the beautiful Kaan Luum lagoon, Dos Ojos, and Yal Ku lagoon to your radar.
Are there creatures in cenotes?
With more than 7,000 cenotes in the Yucatan peninsula, it makes sense that different creatures can be found in different ones! Most cenotes that are frequented by tourists don’t really have many animal/marine inhabitants.
Some cenotes are home to small fish and you may see colorful Yucatan birds flying around inside the caves and surrounding trees. For the most part, you will never encounter anything menacing in cenotes.
Finding creatures in cenotes is the exception, not the rule. The adorable Meso-American slider turtle has been seen hanging out in cenote Kukulkan and blue crabs have been spotted in the caves of Chikin Ha near Puerto Aventuras.
Do crocodiles swim in cenotes?
Typically no. It is absolutely not common to encounter crocodiles in cenotes.
Rest assured, you will never be swimming somewhere and encounter a giant hungry croc bobbing along toward you. If somewhere has a resident croc, you will know about it in advance.
For example, Casa Cenote in Tulum is home to a small swamp crocodile named Panchito. (If you Google him, you will find footage and social media posts of him swimming alongside tourists!)
He can often be seen lounging on his favorite rock and is considered harmless and friendly. But seeing crocs definitely isn’t the norm.
Sometimes safety standards aren’t up to scratch in Mexico
One thing to be mindful of is the fact that safety standards can leave a lot to be desired in Mexico. For instance, some of the cenotes are literally just holes in the ground that you need to climb down rickety wooden ladders to get to.
The ladders may sway when you stand on them, platforms can be rotten and rusty and there may be splinters, nails, and other small hazards. Be mindful of where you go and make sure that you have shoes on when climbing ladders, walking on platforms, etc.
Is the water in a cenote drinkable?
You absolutely should not drink the water in cenotes. Centuries ago, cenotes were used as water sources by the ancient Maya as well as for spiritual reasons.
However sadly over time, the water in many cenotes has become polluted. You definitely don’t want to drink the water or even swallow a gulp of it in a cenote in the Riviera Maya.
Just imagine, hundreds or possibly thousands of people are passing through some of these cenotes each week. Their dirty feet sploshing through the water.
And how can you be sure of their hygiene standards? While the water in cenotes should *technically* be clean and clear, e.coli has been reported in some Riviera Maya cenotes in the past.
So too has high levels of plastic and rubber pollution due to human activity.
Should I wear water shoes in a cenote?
Water shoes are not essential but they can come in handy if you are visiting a lot of cenotes. In some cenotes, there are large rocks under the surface of the water which have become mossy and slippery to stand on.
Water shoes can make wading through the water more comfortable. However, there are also plenty of cenotes that are just as easy to enter barefoot.
So unless you travel a lot to destinations with rocky beaches or you plan on visiting a ton of cenotes, this may be an unnecessary expense.
Diving in cenotes
You do not need any specific type of cave diving certificate to go diving in cenotes. However, you do of course need to be a certified diver.
You won’t typically dive down to depths of more than 50-60m at maximum. If you go diving at Cenote El Pit, for example, you may dive to a depth of 32-40m.
Cenote diving can be a little daunting as it entails diving into dimly lit areas. Think carefully about whether this is something you feel comfortable doing.
If you are not a super-experienced diver, you may want to consider doing a diving tour with an experienced local guide. Lots of reputable dive companies operate around Cancun, Tulum, and the wider Riviera Maya area.
Know your limits when visiting cenotes
Some cenotes can offer more of an adventure and a physical challenge which can be great if that is what you are looking for. For instance, Grutas Tzabnah near the town of Tecoh just south of Merida is a series of 13 caves and cenotes that you need to swim through narrow tunnels to get to.
To get from one to the next you need to climb up rope ladders, clamber through narrow spaces, etc. Helmets and torches are provided.
That is perhaps a claustrophobe’s nightmare and an adventurer’s dream! Be careful not to put yourself in a position where you will feel physically exhausted, panicked, or uncomfortable.
It is especially important to be careful in cenotes that require you to swim underwater for a few minutes to reach the next room. If there are a lot of other tourists in the cenote, it can be stressful if you decide you want to turn around and go back.
Respect the rules of the cenotes you visit
As mindful travelers, it is important that we take care of cenotes so that people can continue to enjoy them for years to come. You should make sure not to wear sunscreen unless it is marked as reef safe.
Remove any body lotion or any makeup before going into the cenote.
A lot of cenotes will have showers outside them. You will often be requested to shower before entering.
However, if you are not, it is always polite to do so.
Don’t take any food or drinks into the cenote or drop any litter inside. Protecting the cenotes from harm and pollution will mean that the water remains safe for the next set of travelers.
Dont take any valuables with you
Some cenotes, particularly popular ones that can be done as day trips from Merida or that are located in Cancun in Tulum have lockers. However many other cenotes do not.
You will usually have to take your bag in with you and just leave it on a rock, a platform, etc. While you can keep an eye on your bag while you are swimming, it will be a stressful experience if you are constantly looking over at it because you have an expensive camera inside.
Not limited to someone running off with your backpack, you don’t really want people to be splashing water all over your valuables. Leave any expensive items or electronics at home.
Are Cenotes Safe? FAQs
Are you still concerned about whether cenotes are safe or not? The answers to some frequently asked questions on the topic are detailed below.
Hopefully, you’ll find the information that you’re looking for that. If not, please do not hesitate to reach out to me.
How deep do the cenotes go?
Mexican cenotes are of various depths. Some are relatively shallow pools of water.
On average, cenotes are between 8 and 14 ft deep. However, some exceed that by a long way.
Cenote El Pit is the deepest in Quintana Roo. It is a whopping 391 feet deep.
Cenote Sabak Há in Sacalum is the deepest in the wider Yucatan peninsula.
The deepest known cenote in Mexico, however, is actually Zacaton, in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas.
This is one of only a handful of cenotes found outside the Yucatan peninsula. It is more than 282 feet deep and nobody has ever reached the bottom.
Are there sharks in cenotes in Mexico?
No. There are no sharks in any of the cenotes in Mexico.
Are cenotes sinkholes?
Yes. Cenotes are natural sinkholes filled with water.
They take their name from the Mayan word ‘tz’onot’ and were formed when the Chicxulub meteor hit the area and caused weaknesses in the earth’s crust.
Is it safe to swim in the cenotes in Cancun?
It is safe to swim in the cenotes in Cancun and across Mexico in general. Just make sure that you follow any local rules and instructions and use your common sense.
Are cenotes polluted?
Cenotes should, in theory, be clean sources of fresh water. However sadly, many are now polluted on account of the sheer amount of humans that use them for recreational purposes.
This is especially true of the popular cenotes close to Cancun, Tulum, and Playa del Carmen.
If you travel off the beaten path, you may find a lot of less frequented cenotes. However since locals too love to go and swim in them, you can never really be sure of their hygiene standards
Are cenotes safe? Final thoughts
So are cenotes safe? Cenotes are generally a wonderful place to swim and relax.
It would be a shame to visit the Yucatan and not visit at least one or two, even if you aren’t a strong swimmer! If you are planning a trip to Southern Mexico for the first time, you may also enjoy this post on safety in the Yucatan or this article on the best time to visit the Yucatan.
Safe travels and enjoy Mexico!
Buen viaje! Melissa xo