Mas cenotes por favor: Calavera, Grand Cenote, and Dos Ojos

Word on the street was that the cenotes around Tulum were awesome. They are each unique to visit with quite different personalities. I never tire of exploring the next cenote.

Down we go… come on in, the water’s fine!

Calavera (aka “The Temple of Doom!”)
A short 3km bike ride west of Tulum Pueblo towards Coba, Calavera was the cheapest (50 pesos, including snorkel) and least touristed cenote we visited. Just a sign off the highway and a hole in someone’s backyard, it is a swimming hole through and through. Named the Spanish word for “skull” and nicknamed the Temple of Doom, the entrance is a large mouth with two small eye openings leading into cool and crystal blue water.

A ten foot drop from the top, we plunged in–me on the count of 3 like we planned, Emily on about 7. 😉 I quickly ditched my leaky snorkel; there was less to see underwater than above. Floating on my back, the ripples of light on the ceiling of the cave were calming and beautiful. Sunshine poured in the mouth and eyes of the skull. The light from one eye reflected off the surface and illuminated the home of two bats in the ceiling nuzzling with each other and fitfully trying to get some sleep.

The water was teaming with small fish. We were warned they bite and it was true: one nibbled my backside with a pinch (what can I say, it must have good taste!). A young Wisconsin man kindly took my picture while I swung on a rope in the water. He said I “glowed like an angel”.

Light from an eye reveals the fish below.

Grand Cenote
Another 1.5km past Calavera is one of the most popular Tulum cenote destinations, aptly named Grand Cenote. It was 120 pesos ($10USD) to enter and another 70 for snokel rental (not necessary). Starving, we stopped at the cafeteria just inside the gate and had two surprisingly awesome tortas mixta with chicken, ham, and melty cheese.

Far more built up with a full boardwalk, restaurant, changing rooms, guided tours, and filled with tourists, I still thought Grand Cenote was picturesque. Mostly open to the sun above, it was bright and cheerful. Like a relaxed tube ride in a water park, the water meanders in two circles linked by a large cave with a cathedral ceiling and sandy bottom. As the flow wrapped all around you, it is difficult to capture in photos. A family of tortugas sunbathed on a log, the smallest baby riding his father’s shell. In the cave, bats fly close to the water and swallow nests can be spotted as well tucked into the ceiling. I loved the ambiance of this place and was sorely disappointed that this was the one day I left my book at home. It would have been so nice to stay and soak up the atmosphere.

I continue to be amazed at just how *blue* the water is in virtually all cenotes.
The cavern between the two pools, larger than it looks and an excellent place for dodging bats and herding fish.
Source: Google Images
The turtles’ favorite spot. Source: Google Images

Dos Ojos
On day two we took a 25 peso ($2USD) colectivo 21km north of Tulum to Dos Ojos. I had heard miraculous raves about this place from fellow travelers; one diver said he had a religious-like experience there. The most pricey of the three, general admission was 150 pesos ($12USD) and snorkels were 50 pesos extra, unless you did a crazy expensive snorkel tour for triple the price of admission. We’ll do it ourselves, thankyouverymuch. West from the highway ticket booth, we walked and hitched the second half of a 3km dusty road to the cenote entrance proper.

Dos Ojos’ true beauty is beneath the surface, so a snorkel or goggles is essential here. Meaning “two eyes”, this cenote is two above ground pools connected by extensive underwater passageways. More small fish were everywhere, especially when swimmers had something to feed then. I was shocked to reach out and actually touch a fish, instead of it evading my advances.

Divers swarm this cenote. They are EVERYWHERE waiting to get into the water. But it is remarkably quiet inside as they slip below and disappear. Snorkelers can access less than half of the cenote (see the map below), but it is possible to watch the divers go further. Their lights illuminate stalagmites, crevasses, and watery mystery.

I have always understood the appeal of diving, but never felt compelled to do it myself. Something about being so far underwater and what if something goes wrong. This was the first time I saw divers in action and thought “man, I so wish I was diving with them right now”. I really wanted to follow them into the dark depths; maybe cave diving is my thing. I could not take my eyes off of how they moved and where they were going. I could have watched them swim away all day. Suddenly a diving course feels like something to consider as I approach Belize (or elsewhere?).

Again, another place to bring a book and just hang after a swim. There are extensive hammocks and relaxation areas. I took no pictures at Dos Ojos; all of these are borrowed from other travelers, but capture what I feel was the essence:

Light blue is the snorkel area, dark blue is for divers only. So much more to see! Sources: Google Images

Cenotes: Highlights below ground

Cenotes are my first unexpected favorite of the trip. Everyone at the hostels talked about them–“make sure you swim in a cenote!”–so of course I was going to, but didn’t know quite what to expect. For those unfamiliar, cenotes are giant sink holes characteristic of the Yucatan that expose reservoirs of fresh ground water and make for excellent swimming holes. The ancient Mayans used them as natural wells, sometimes considering them sacred and using them in religious rites.

I joined up with a friendly Canadian brother-sister duo who were just finishing a one-month sibling trip after not seeing each other for two years. They were lovely company and made me feel like part of the family. In fact, I got mistaken for their sister multiple times! It made me wish my sisters were out here with me–another time surely. We rented three junky old beach cruiser bikes from the hostel and headed out of town. A blissfully overcast day, we broke away from the city streets quickly. No suburbs to speak of, just tall grasses and scattered trash along the 3km road south.

San Lorenzo from above, 100ft drop to the water.
The official entrance.
After my swim, looking across to John and Anna on the far side.

First, we visited cenote San Lorenzo. Newly discovered only a couple of years ago, next from a brand spanking new hacienda was a big hole in the ground 300ft deep (2/3 filled with water) that turned out to be a ton of fun. We plunged into the cenote in style via the rope swing. John and Anna led the way, with me in last and barely managing to stay untangled of the rope on my descent. The water was cool and beautiful. We may have had the cenote all to ourselves, but we weren’t alone. Miniature catfish dotted the water, a carrion bird nested under the top edge, and tiny bats flitted above as we swam behind the coverage of stalagmites on the far side. Luckily no creature from the depths (I pictured the giant space slug the Millennium Falcon accidentally hides in… “This is no cave!”) decided to join us!

Riding en route to our second cenote, Xkeken, the warm rain smattered my face and I felt happy to be there at that moment. We ate a delicious carne asada taco lunch with all the fixins on the side of the road, befriending the family who ran the restaurant and learning about a unique white-headed fish inside from our young waiter. Xkeken was completely different; I wasn’t expecting them to have such different personalities. Xkeken was an enclosed cavern with cool, shallow water and lit with rotating purple, red, and pink lights. We plunged into the fresh clear water, tracked down the white-headed fish, and enjoyed basking in the other-worldliness of it all.

Good advice anytime. Down we go.
In the bowels of Xkeken. Source: Google Images

The Yucatan is peppered with cenotes, so I know many more are in my future. I hear especially gushing reviews about those near Tulum. Can’t wait to get my snorkel gear and go!