It's a hot day in Mexico's Riviera Maya and I'm sticky with sweat in our air conditioning-free car, en route from our beach house in Tulum to the Gran Cenote, a cave-like swimming hole our trusty Lonely Planet guidebook assures us is worth the effort and entry fee. It's my first time in the region, and I've already fallen head over heels: No mere seaside destination with nothing to do but sip sweet cocktails and lounge in the sun, Mexico's Caribbean coast has plenty to offer the restless traveller, with ruins, reefs, activities and wildlife to keep your attention – and yes, a pretty pale-gold beach, too.
We park, pay up and walk in, changing into swimsuits in the washrooms near the entrance before making our way to the staircase down to the water. As we descend, the air grows cooler, and we see it – clear blue water ringed with limestone walls and criss-crossed with a wooden dock. It's my first glimpse of a cenote, and I'm entranced.
Cenote (pronounced say-NO-tay) is a Mayan word, and the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico's southeastern tip is one of the finest places in the world to see and experience this exquisite geological formation. The ancient Mayans saw cenotes as sacred gateways to the underworld, besides being an important primary source of potable water, and it's not unknown to find remains of human sacrifices hidden in their depths.
A cenote is a natural pit or sinkhole, formed when the region's limestone bedrock collapses into the fresh groundwater below. As such, they're the tip of the iceberg: What you see on the surface is just a fraction of what goes on underneath, where complex cave systems covering up to hundreds of kilometres (some of the longest in the world) twist and turn beneath the ground, filled with chilly fresh water that's beautifully clear, thanks to having been filtered through the rock above.
The combination of deep caves and clear water makes these formations a bucket list destination for divers, but even swimmers and snorkelers on the surface will find plenty to explore, with each cenote offering its own particular version of underground magic: Pick from overhanging ceilings, stalactites and stalagmites, underwater columns, turtles and colourful fish, varying shades of blue and green water with sunlight streaming through, and bats and swallows flying overhead. There are so many to be discovered, both on the main roads and off the beaten path, some easily accessible with parking lot, staircase and dock, others hidden away with nothing but a ladder to get you to the water.
Back at Gran Cenote, I slide on my mask and snorkel and slip into the water. The fresh, cool water is a shock, but refreshing. I gently paddle face down around the pool, gazing at what lies beneath – until at one point, what lies beneath is a group of divers surfacing from the caves below, an otherworldly scene that fits this place. On the other side of the cave, there's an overhanging roof with just enough space to snorkel under, and we pop up on the other side at a secondary entrance with a tiny shore and ladder to the top. I'm shivering, but I head back in for some fun with the waterproof camera before we head back to the beach. This clear pool with its natural light makes for some pretty scenes, and there's so much more to see.
IF YOU GO
What: The Yucatan is dotted with cenotes of all sizes, from tiny crevices to local swimming holes to massive cave systems. The most well known and visited include Gran Cenote and Dos Ojos near Tulum, X'keken Cenote near Valladolid, and Ik-kil near Chichen Itza.
Where: Across Mexico's Yucatan peninsula.
How to get there: Fly direct to Cancun from major Canadian cities. Gran Cenote is near Tulum, on the highway toward Coba, about two hours south of Cancun. Alternatively, visit cenotes via the city of Merida.
How to see it: Many bus tours from major resorts stop at cenotes as part of a Coba or Chichen Itza tour, or you can book a private guide. Divers will want to sign up for an organized tour with a company that has expertise in cave diving.
Good to know: Arrive early – think 8 a.m. – for the most peaceful experience at these busy attractions. Help protect the fragile ecosystem by skipping sunscreen and wearing a shirt instead – or go bare, as most cenotes are deep enough to be out of the harsh sun.