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Cenote Sac Actun; Explore Part of the World’s Longest Underground River

Cenote Sac Actun (from the Spanish and Yucatec Maya meaning “White Cave”) is an amazing underground river that is only surpassed by Rio Secreto for a river cave experience for the casual tourist. Located conveniently in Riviera Maya, it is a must see if you can do so.

Sac Actun cenote is part of the much larger Sistema Sac Actun (White Cave System) which is a mostly underwater cave system that totals 319 km (nearly 200 miles) of discovered passages, making it the second longest discovered cave system in the world (after Mammoth Cave). The water in Sac Actun, like in most cenotes, is constantly refreshed by fresh water moving from the Yucatan inland to the ocean. At Cenote Sac Actun, a couple sink holes provide convenient access for a wonderful cave tour.

We drove up to the spot located down a dirt road a few miles further inland than Cenote Dos Ojos. We found a guide waiting and arranged for the tour with him. A few other guests showed up over the next few minutes to bring our little group of about 10. One of the groups had a guide who brought them here in his car. He spoke with the guide and told him that his group only had time for one cenote, and he believed that if you can only see one, that Sac Actun was the best choice. He may be right.

I do not understand how the best cenote in the area is so little visited when others just a few miles closer to the main road are many times busier. No doubt this improves the experience for those of us who make the trip, so make sure you add yourself to the list before more learn of this amazing spot.

Sac Actun, Riviera Maya, Mexico
Pet Cemetery Cenote

Pet Cemetery

From the parking area, it is a short walk to the first cenote that provided access. Called Pet Cemetery, we were shown some prehistoric bones under water that gave the place its name. We first journey in one direction in the cave that appeared at the end of the boardwalk, wading in waist-deep water. The ground is not muddy and the walk is easy and fun, although the coolness of the water takes a bit of getting used to. The cave soon opens up into a larger room where a hole in the ceiling served as a reminder to us about the oddity of the geology of the area – throughout the Yucatan, the very ground we walked on might contain an underground limestone passage – dry, fully or partially filled with water.

The natural sky-light allows a focused bit of sunlight to penetrate the dark cavern, turning the water a light blue that reminds us of how clear this water is. A couple of small plants have managed to grow up on the little island of rocks below the light and vine tendrils reach down to tap the life-giving water along the edge of the hole.

We pose for pictures and then, doubling back, we return to Cenote Pet Cemetery and continue on in a more cave like passage on the far side. Soon, the water grows deeper and we are bobbing along like corks supported by our life jackets. Stalactites cover the walls, often dropping into the water. We move amongst them and I’m surprised how close we are allowed to get.

Into the Dark

Cenote Sac Actun’s passages are lit at intervals by basic artificial lighting as we use our arms to propel ourselves slowly along the watery passage, not wanting to miss any of it. Using the snorkel gear, we go face down when we take the notion and study the sunken stalagmites, columns and other formations below water in the dim light. After moving along in this manner for a while, we eventually came out in a larger passage complete with an opening in the high ceiling accessible by a set of installed stairs. I feared that our tour was already at an end, but we went around the stairs and deeper into the cave.

The ceiling closes down on us, and we find ourselves having to watch our way regularly to avoid bumping our heads on the stalactites growing increasingly dense. No artificial lighting exists here at all, and soon the only light we have is the single flashlight carried by our guide. When asked, he says that he has only ran out of batteries once and then chuckled privately at the memory without offering us any consolidation as to what happened or if we might not repeat that experience. I wonder for the first time why I left our own waterproof flashlights in the car.

Bobbing along, cenote Sac Actun makes a couple of turns and the ceiling gets down to the point where even in the center of the room it feels like too little space above us. We could each easily reach up and grasp the smooth stalactites above our heads, but each is well behaved knowing the damage to ancient formations such an act could cause. The guide stops in a small room that barely fits us all and lets us sit there for a minute. It appears to be the crescendo of the tour. The room is covered in stalactites in a density that belies belief. No portion of the room is devoid of them, and all are barely above our heads. The lone light creates shadows about the place and shoots long tendrils of shadow and light into the two narrow passages of water and stone that lead off to either side. We grin to one another and in hushed tones revel at the wonder of it.

Who Turned Out the Lights?

Soon, the guide decides that he must adhere to the long tradition of shutting off his single light and we are all plunged into complete darkness. If you have never been on a cave tour, you cannot know how deep this darkness is, for we never encounter complete darkness in our normal lives. Even on moonless nights, the stars and reflected sunlight from the upper atmosphere provide a modicum of light. But here, the darkness is absolute and it seems to take on a palpable form of its own. I can sense the others around me trying as I am to not drift to one side or another knowing that in the darkness are pointy rocks that now seem more like spears than welcoming natural wonders and none want to have their heads pierced by them.

The guide’s flashlight works as he switches it back on and visibility is returned to us. He now leads us back toward the last set of stairs that we saw and we climb out, our adventure in cenote Sac Actun complete.

If you’d like to learn how to bob along in Cenote Sac Actun yourself, go here.

To see a gallery of pictures from our journey, click here.

Return to my ranked list of cenotes.

Cenote Sac Actun – How to See for Yourself

Cenote Sac Actun is a wonderful cave-like cenote that can be easily experienced – on your own or via a tour/guide. It is well worth the time and money and sits second on my list of favorite cenotes.

It is conveniently located in Riviera Maya along highway 307 just 24 km north of Tulum and 53 km south of Playa del Carmen. Watch for the road to the west just south of Parque Zel-Ha and along the same dirt road as Dos Ojos which makes for a great one-two cenote trip. There is a sign just past the stop for Dos Ojos that indicates you are heading in the right direction. It is 2 km from Dos Ojos to Sac Actun (there is a 90° turn to the left and then it is just a bit further. We easily did it in a regular compact car, but take your time. If you took a taxi to Dos Ojos, the walk is level and the road broad enough to give you a shoulder to walk on (the traffic is not that busy).

Google maps 2017

Once you arrive, there will be guides there you can hire for the trip (I don’t think going alone is allowed). The cost was about 350 pesos and I don’t think there is a break for children. It is worth the cost. Cheap snorkel gear is provided and a nice life vest, but bring your own if you have it. Flippers are not useful. The tour groups were kept small for the ones I saw.

The walk to and from the tour is on even ground and is only a few hundred yards total. There is a steep ladder that you have to descend to enter the cave at Pet Cemetery Cenote and a set of broader steps to climb out of when done. Probably only a few dozen steps in total. You will need to walk in the water (the bottom is not muddy) and swim along (in a life vest, which is required) for portions of the trip when the water gets too deep. The total distance might be one kilometer. Your arms might get a little tired of propelling yourself along, but for portions of it you can go vertical with the the snorkel and use your legs. The trip is not rushed.

Cenote Sac Actun is a natural cave experience. Very little has been done to improve it beyond the steps and rudimentary lighting, but that is a good thing. If you are afraid of water or too claustrophobic, you might not like this trip. You are never crawling or squeezing through any passages, but the ceiling does come down low a few times. Not head gear is provided so watch your head.

There are many cenotes in this area – Sac Actun and Dos Ojos are the highlights for me, but taking a day or three to see several of them would be great fun. By all means, rent a car to save some money and do it at your own pace. If you are uncomfortable with that, there are tours and guides that are happy to take you wherever you want to go.

If I could only do one cenote in the Tulum area, Sac Actun would be it. The experience is very natural and a great break from the more touristy spots that dominate Riviera Maya. Kids of all ages who are comfortable in water will have a blast.

 

To read about the experience of swimming through Sac Actun, go here.

To see a gallery of pictures from our journey, click here.

Return to my ranked list of cenotes.

 

Cenote Dos Ojos – The Ayes have It! See if for Yourself!

When I was a child I loved caves. I only got to tour a couple during my whole childhood, but that experience and books I read stirred my imagination. I once got my hands on an old roll of wallpaper that was about 20’ long. Unrolling it from the far end of my living room, down the hall and into the kitchen, I drew a side view of a cave all along it, complete with pits, stalactites, stalagmites and a few monsters to make it interesting. Then I journeyed into the cave in my imagination and overcame these obstacles. I have maintained my love of caves ever since.

Finding out that there were caves in the Mexican Yucatan that could be swam in and snorkeled, I knew that I had to experience these firsthand. Dos Ojos is one of these caves, known locally as cenotes. Dos Ojos is a great location for cave diving, but I am not a diver. Still, this place was a memorable experience.

As the name implies, there are two cenotes here, and we headed first for the larger one, Ojo Oeste (West Eye). Like many cenotes, the water is in a crescent shape, the center of the cave having collapsed long ago and is now dry ground. But along the crescent is crystal-clear aqua water under an overhang and passages lead back into the limestone.  Various groups of divers or snorkelers cluster about, usually led by a guide, but we are here on our own and taking the first platform we come to, we get our snorkel gear on. The water is refreshingly cool as we plunge off of the steps into the water.

Turning to the right, we slide past a stalactite that drops from the ceiling into the water and we venture into Baticueva – the Bat Cave. It is a smallish room with low ceilings, and we move slowly to avoid bumping into any of the formations or knocking our head. In places, we had to be careful to not hit the ceiling if we took our head out of the water for a look around. The darkness was not complete, but it nearly was, especially underwater, where only our waterproof flashlights pushed back against the darkness and any perceived dangers our imagination might place back there.

But the only things in the water are the swimmers and a few tiny fish – mollies, guppies and Tetra that I remembered from my childhood aquarium. We move slowly out of the Bat Cave into the larger area but still hug the wall where the formations are more interesting. Stalactites hang from the ceiling, sometimes plunging into the water. Below, stalagmites poke up from the ground below, betraying that the cave wasn’t always so inundated with water. Occasionally another pair of snorkelers ventured into our area, but we waited and they moved on, leaving us mostly alone in our private world of wonder.

To the right, a submerged passage appears leading off deeper into the cave. We stop there for a moment and watch a few divers swim languorously in the the depths. Their flashlights light their way and reflect off of the bubbles floating from their respirators. The passages are wide and deep, and for the first time I seriously reconsidered whether I should take up diving to be able to swim through those cave passages. We watch them for a few minutes, fascinated by the otherworldly experience.

We continue along and reach a narrow spot with a low roof that leads us to one final area. Here, the orientation has changed enough that the morning sun is now plunging into the water, creating hypnotic beams of light that pierce the water and make undulations of light against the walls and uneven floor. We stop in that spot and bask in the view for a time, enjoying the play of light and the myriad azure shades it creates.

We left the cenote and went to the second eye, Ojo Este (East Eye), a smaller body of water that connected via underwater tunnels back to the first. Divers moved between the two cenotes in a short distance while we had to walk a few hundred yards.

We’ll always remember the sight of the divers moving through the cave tunnels and the wonder of swimming in a cave filled with refreshingly clear water dotted with stalactites.

To see how to take a dip in Cenote Dos Ojos yourself, click here.

You can see a gallery of our own trip to Cenote Dos Ojos here.

Return to my ranked list of cenotes.

Cenote Dos Ojos – How to Visit for Yourself

Cenote Dos Ojos (Two Eyes) is a great cenote located in Riviera Maya of Mexico. It is a wonderful spot for divers to try cave diving in a pretty safe manner (with proper training/equipment), but is also great to snorkel or just swim around. There are two cenotes connected via submerged passages which give it the name Two Eyes.Cenote Dos Ojos

Ojo Oeste (West Eye) is the larger area as far as snorkeling goes and contains the cave area called Baticueva (Bat Cave). Ojo Este (East Eye) is smaller but still worth your time. If you only have time to snorkel one side, take Ojo Oeste.

Cenote Dos Ojos is located 50 km south of Playa del Carmen and 22km north of Tulum. It is easily reached via hwy 307. Watch for the turn to the west just south of Parque Xel-Ha.

Map to Cenote Dos Ojos
Google Maps 2017

We didn’t hire a guide and just got in at our leisure. There are guides there and prices are probably reasonable, but I did not inquire. It will cost you about 200 pesos to just snorkel – bring your own snorkel gear and float if you have it. Flippers are not needed as the water is very calm and you’ll likely want to move slowly. A waterproof flashlight is helpful but not required.  If you have a wetsuit, you’ll want to wear it, but we didn’t have one and wasn’t uncomfortable after an initial cold shock.

Cenote Dos OjosThe park is fixed up nicely with showers and well cleared paths. To get in the water requires navigating a few steps into the water with a bit of difficulty getting on/off the last step which might be a challenge if you have mobility issues.

You can read about the Cenote Dos Ojos experience here.

A gallery of pictures from our trip to Cenote Dos Ojos located here.

Return to my ranked list of cenotes.

Ponderosa Cenote – Find your Own Eden (Jardin Del Eden)

Ponderosa Cenote is also known as Jardin Del Eden Cenote, and either name is apt. It is the largest open cenote I have visited. You can clearly see where the old roof used to be along the cliff edges of the cenote – now collapsed into the water where great slabs of stone lay about in confused profusion.

After centuries of such exposure, the rocks are now all covered in a mossy green, making the otherwise clear water appear green. Wild ferns grow along the edges as scraggly jungle trees ring the entire place as if seeking to wall it off from the rest of the world.Ponderosa Cenote - Jardin Del Eden in Mexico

But the world knows about it, although not too many. On the day of our visit, there were perhaps twenty souls who were either enjoying it from the edge, swimming on the water’s surface, or sending their breaths to the surface from their scuba gear below. Submerged caves lead from this large, open pool to other smaller pools in the jungle nearby.

The relative silence is shattered suddenly as a fearless individual leaps from the platform on the jutting cliff and plunges into the cool water twenty feet below. Ripples spread out across the water’s surface for a moment before the glassy surface returns. From above, you can see straight to the bottom, where a trio of divers swims languorously along the bottom.

Working our way around the lake on a rough trail to the nice platform across from the cliff, we stop on the platform and get our snorkel gear together. A few ladies sit in plastic chairs speaking Spanish to one another in what sounds to my ears like a hurried pace. We make our way to the bottom of the stairs and put our flippers on before dropping into the water awkwardly. The water’s chill takes our breath away momentarily, but we stretch out and begin our circle the cenote. From below, the world is split into blue and green. The water is clearer than it appeared above, and appears azure where unimpeded. Where mossy rocks are visible, they are a lively green where small, energetic fish dart about.

Ponderosa Cenote - Jardin Del Eden in MexicoWe head to the water’s edge and swim up close to the grasses there. I sit still for several minutes, just taking in the play of tiny fish busy with fishy things as I watch them from a few inches away. It is like pressing my face up against an aquarium, except that I am also immersed in the water and feel more in touch with them than I ever would have with a pane of glass between us. Moving slowly, I ease along, the scene being repeated as I go, tiny fish barely paying me any mind.

The grassy edge gives way to sheer rocks and I drift out into the deeper center of the lake. Here, the cenote bottom is the attraction as I imagine what the cave that this once was must have looked like. Moss covers the uneven rocky surface as my fish friends feed in the crevices. Off to my right, a pair of divers are working their way into the cave passages below the cliff’s edge.Ponderosa Cenote - Jardin Del Eden in Mexico

We continue like this until our noses are waterlogged for rocks in shallow water. Pulling off our flippers, we let our toes rub up against the carpet-like moss for a bit as we rest our pinched faces before finally heading for the stairs back up to the platform above.

As we dripped off on the platform, we listen to two local Mexican girls share a conversation in English with a pair of German boys. Taking turns, they share their life story a bit as each is clearly interested in the other’s life experience. We listen in for a while but do not participate as the younger folks are intent on one another. Dry now, we walk off, energized and feeling more exuberant from the benevolent waters, thankful for what this fountain of youth has given us.

If you would like to learn how to visit this eden yourself, click here.

To see a small gallery of pictures from our visit, click here.

Return to my ranked list of cenotes.

Cenote Ponderosa (Jardin Del Eden) – Tips on How to See It

A sprawling swimming hole, Ponderosa Cenote (Also called Jardin Del Eden) is a good place for snorkeling or taking a swim. Known more for a great place for cave diving, we came only to snorkel. It costs around 100 pesos each for entrance fees.Cenote Ponderosa (Jardin Del Eden), Mexico

The main snorkel area is large, with a few rocks creating nice places to sit in the sun partially submerged. The water is deep in general, so plan on treading water a lot if you do not bring a float (recommended). The cool water is refreshing. There is a nice platform that gives a nice view of the place and provides access to the water itself, although the daring take a high leap from the cliffs that line the opposite side (which is also a good vantage point). Be careful – the jump is high and divers and snorkelers are about.

For most, I would recommend entering the water via the platform. When you arrive head to your right where a cliff offers a birds-eye view of the large cenote. You’ll see the platform across from you. It can be reached by walking around the cenote via paths that are reasonably cleared but do feature a few rough steps. The stairs that lead down from the platform to the water stop a little short and the last step can be awkward. Take care if you walk on the submerged rocks as they can be slippery.Cenote Ponderosa (Jardin Del Eden), Mexico

The water is not quite as clear here as some other cenotes, but it is still an enjoyable snorkel. The best place to see the small, colorful fish that inhabit the waters here is along the shore where they flit in and out of the grassy edges. All the rocks and stumps in the water are moss covered, making for a nice contrast with the deep, cobalt waters.

To reach Ponderosa (Jardin Del Eden) Cenote, travel south from Playa del Carmen for 25 km or north from Tulum for 41 km.

Watch for a sign off of the main highway. Just south of the turnoff for this cenote is another turnoff for Cenote Azul. You can also try public transportation at a cost of about 30 pesos. Just ask the driver to stop at the cenotes near Barcelo resort. The walk back from the stop will take about 8 minutes to Ponderosa, less than that to Cenote Azul.

Map to Cenote Azul
google maps 2017

You will also be able to find tour groups that will arrange for a trip to this cluster of cenotes if you wish. If you are staying at the hotels near here, including Barcelo Maya and Hotel Catalonia, then it will be within walking distance if desired (figure 15 minutes).

To learn about nearby Cenote Azul, click here.

To read about what you will experience at Cenote Ponderosa (Jardin Del Eden), click here.

To see a gallery of pictures from our visit to Cenote Ponderosa, click here.

Return to my ranked list of cenotes.

 

Cenote Azul is a Great Natural Swimming Hole

Nature makes very few really great swimming holes. Usually the water is dirty with silt or plant life and features a bottom either too muddy or too rocky. But Cenotes often break this typical mold with regular inflows of fresh water, granting a fresh environment free of sediment and offering the clear, sparkling water we can’t resist plunging into.

Cenote Azul is a great example of this. As the name implies, the water is a rich azure color, inviting in its purity and clarity. You can look right to the bottom even in areas over ten feet deep. Small, fresh water fish dart about in good numbers, making the place feel more like an open aquarium than a lake. Clusters of black catfish school close enough to temp a child to try to grasp them, but they avoid the attempt with ease.

The water varies in depth throughout the cenote, which being quite large, affords numerous alcoves where folks congregate. Smaller children scamper about the shallower water on rock ledges, watched carefully by nearby parents. Snorkelers ply the edges of the cenote, basking over the colorful fish that generally ignore them. The deeper water allows for leaping from a mini-cliff that conveniently juts out over the deep water, permitting the energetic or adventurous to leap the fifteen feet into the clear water to the cheers of those watching.

The whole experience is reminiscent of old-time community swimming holes with a tire swing, but here the guests create a transient community that is no less meaningful as everyone enjoys each other enjoying the cenote while we share a bit of time together.  The abundance of rocky ledges, some above water or just below, offer many options to wile away an hour or three. The water is refreshingly cool, granting a needed respite from the heat of the tropical sun bearing down from above. Everyone alternates between the coolness of the water and the ready warmth of the sun.

There is a second, much-less visited cenote at the same location within a short walk. Ask about that when you buy your ticket. Also, located just a bit north of the Cenote Azul turnoff is another road that leads to Cenote Eden (also called Ponderosa Cenote) which you can read about here

Located along the Mexican Riviera Maya, Cenote Azul is located about half-way between Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Spending an hour or half of a day here will provide a nice compliment to the nearby ocean and you’re sure to remember it fondly.

To find out how to take a dip in Cenote Azul yourself here.

To see a gallery of pictures from our visit to Cenote Azul, click here.

Return to my ranked list of cenotes.