This article has been updated on September 12, 2021.
This post is yet another part of Quaint Planet‘s series about the Mexican part of the Yucatán peninsula. While the other texts in the series elaborate on the peninsula’s interesting towns and Mayan ruins, as well as about general tourism tips, such as safety, transport, social life, culture and so on, in this particular article, we’re going to explore the natural attractions in Yucatán.
Specifically, we’ll talk about the peninsula’s protected areas, the spectacular limestone sinkholes (cenotes) as well as Yucatán‘s islands. And while we’re at it, we’ll also mention popular adventure parks or tours you could consider checking out during your visit to this amazing and attraction-rich region.
The word cenote comes from the Mayan word that simply translates as “well”. In practical terms, we’re talking about rather spectacular sinkholes of various depths (up to 100 m) that are filled with fresh water. In Yucatán, there are about 6 thousand cenotes, many of which are interconnected by one of the largest underground cave systems in the world. Some cenotes are open, some are underground caves and some are semi-open.
In the past, cenotes were literally used as wells for supplying freshwater or for sacred rituals conducted by the ancient Mayans to keep the underworld Xibalba, to which the cenotes were portals, sweet. However, today they mostly serve the function of natural wildlife sanctuaries and/or tourist attractions. Given the high volume of cenotes in the region, it’s rather hard to choose which ones to visit. Let’s look at your options, from the geographical point of view then.
Tip: the links highlighted in red are Google Maps locations to give you an idea about WHERE we're talking about. If you save the locations you're interested in into: "want to go", once in place, it was easier to find those places.
FYI, rather than describing all cenotes, I’m about to mention, I’ll just list the best cenotes to check out nearby major tourist destinations in the region (excl. Cancún), together with the Google Map links, where you can look at the photos as well as visitors’ reviews. I’ll also upload few links to get more details and travel tips about cenotes so you get more info about those cenotes that catch your eye.
If you are based in Tulum, you’re lucky to be nearby the largest known cave system on the planet Sac Actun, which you can access for 450 pesos (€20) that gets you a guide, snorkelling equipment and a life jacket. An additional 200 pesos would also get you a waterproof flashlight, which is a good idea to make some great pics. Obviously, you won’t explore the whole system (see the picture below) but the few slightly shivery hours you spend down there are well worth it.
Except for Sac Actun, around Tulum, you can also opt for visiting individual cenotes, such as Gran Cenote (300 MXN/€13), Cenote Carwash (50 for a swim or 200 MXN for scuba diving), Cenote Cristal (70 MXN/€3) and Cenote Dos Ojos (350 MXN/€15). For an even less crowded experience, look into Cenotes Yaxmuul, Cenote Choo-ha (100 MXN/€4,50) and Calavera Cenote, AKA The Temple of Doom (50 pesos). Learn about more cenotes nearby Tulum here, on the informative Cenote Finder website.
In case you were staying in Valladolid, perhaps the most popular cenote nearby is the sacred and extraordinary Ik Kil Cenote, which you can enter for 150 MXN (€6,50). Your other options are Cenote Oxmán (150 MXN), Cenote Suytun (120 MXN), or the two neighbouring cenotes Xkeken and Samula, AKA cenote Dzintup (125 MXN), all of which should be reachable even by foot or on a rented pushbike. Then there’s also one right in town, Cenote Zaci, which is also very stunning and cheap to enter (30,- MXN/€1.45). Cenote Finder website’s recommended cenotes nearby Valladolid are here.
If you were staying in Mérida the nearest popular cenotes would be Santa Barbara, Los Tres Cenotes de Cuzama, Cenote Yax Bacaltun or Cenote Kankirixche. Learn about more cenotes nearby Mérida here, on Cenote Finder website. When it comes to Playa del Carmen, consider checking out Cenote Azul, Cenote Zapote, Cenote Lu’um, Cenote Siete Bocas or the open cenote Las Mojarras. And here‘s the Cenote Finder website’s take on cenotes nearby Playa del Carmen.
Honestly, there are so many cenotes that this list can go on and on. There’s also an equal number of articles listing “the ultimately best cenotes to visit”, mmost of which are rather informative. In case you wanted an additional opinion to the above list or to the tips listed on the Cenote Finder website, here is one of them, by Diana Spechler for The National Geographic Magazine.
Every each of these “best cenotes” listing articles, however, have one thing in common, which is a confirmation that these sinkholes in Yucatán are all generally rather mindblowing, each in their own way. So whatever you do, please do not miss out on visiting at least a few of them because they are a real treat, a lifetime memory of something amazing 😉 Otherwise, cenotes wouldn’t be among the highlights of many people’s trips across the whole of Latin America 😉
Please note that cenotes are usually reachable by colectivos, tours, rented vehicles or taxis. The receptionist at your hotel should be able to point you in the right direction when it comes to transport and if you’re lucky, he or she might even point you to one of the less known cenotes in the area. In case you grew very keen on cenotes, you might even opt for a cenote tour…
In case you were looking to get some Caribbean island vibe nearby Yucatán, you’ve few options to pick from. The largest, as well as the most visited island in the region, is Isla Cozumel. The 48 km (30 mi) long and 16 km (9.9 mi) wide island, with a total area of 478 km2 (185 sq mi) is located only about 16km (10 miles) from Playa del Carmen.
Most of the island’s infrastructure is concentrated around the town of San Miguel (pop just under 100k), while most of the island is covered with mangrove forest which is home to quite a few endemic animal species. That’s not to mention more than a thousand marine species that found a home in the second largest coral reef in the world, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, which obviously makes the island to be a favourite spot for divers.
Another popular island choice for visitors, especially for honeymoon couples is Isla Mujeres that’s 13 km away from Cancún. Isla Mujeres is a smaller and more expensive and more built-in island if compared to Cozumel.
Both of these islands come with the cliché-perfect Caribbean beaches and crystal clear water, well-functioning services, and even a few Mayan ruins to explore. However, to be perfectly honest with you, unless you’re a diver or a snorkelling enthusiast or a honeymoon couple or unless you’re into very touristy places, there are other options you should consider around Yucatán.
For instance, in case you were aiming at something more special and less busy, located no further than 3hrs from Cancún, there’s Isla Holbox, a car-free island with far less infrastructure and nearly untouched shorelines and with a few hotels only. Accessed from the town of Chiquila, Holbox is a 42 km long and 2 km wide island, separated from the mainland by the shallow lagoon with rich birdlife.
Except for the tranquillity, great seafood cuisine, cool vibe with a certain artistic feel and amazing Caribbean settings, among the major magnets for tourists is the possibility of swimming with the impressive whale shark (June to September). Read more about the Isla Holbox here in Lane Nieset‘s piece for National Geographic, in case you were interested.
As for other Yucatán islands, there are still few more options, although they are more or less for a day trip kind of activity. Among the most interesting day-trip island options is to check out the protected and biodiversity-rich Isla Contoy that only allows 200 guests per day for about $100-150 USD per trip.
You could also arrange a private trip to check out the small reef El Arrecife Alacranes that consists of five islands, with nearly zero tourism infrastructure about 130 km (80 miles) north of the peninsula or the three tiny keys Cayos Arcas southwest of there.
Except for the amazing cenotes and picturesque Caribbean islands, the peninsula also boasts of large biodiversity that mostly lives in a staggering 69 700 km2 (26 900 sq mi) of the rain forest, which is, in comparison, just a few square miles short of the Republic of Ireland’s territory.
Naturally, there are therefore numerous protected areas, among which arguably the most popular is Sian Ka’an. This 2797 km2 (1,080 sq mi) nature reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site offers wildlife sightings, walkways, Mayan ruins Muyil and scenic guided boat tours. Here‘s its UNESCO page and here you can find about the tours in Sian Ka’an, in case you were interested.
Another option to explore Yucatán wild nature is off the beaten path-ish village of Rio Lagartos nearby El Cuyo and the stunning Las Coloradas lagoon with pink flamingos and other, apparently extraordinary birdwatching opportunities. In fact, the lagoon has been designated as an internationally recognized Important Bird Area, while UNESCO designated the area as Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve. Check out its UNESCO page or this article about the reserve in The Yucatan Times.
An alternative to Ría Lagartos is to visit yet another UNESCO biosphere Celestum nearby Mérida. Expect a great diversity of environments and various ecosystems, such as coastal dunes, mangroves, lagoons, shallow marine platforms, marshes and low rainforests. For more information about Celestum Biosphere, please check out its UNESCO page or click here for an article about the reserve in The Yucatan Times.
If you’d like to head off the shore and deeper inside the jungle and explore the largest tropical forest reserve in Mexico, this time also combined with Mayan ruins, then you should look into Calakmul Biosphere nearby Campeche. For more information about Calakmul Biosphere, please click here for its UNESCO page or check out this article in The Yucatan Times. All three reserves are best to be explored with certified tour companies, available in their respective regions.
Adventure tours and parks
Nearly every area with well-developed tourism infrastructure also comes with some adventure parks and tours and Yucatán is no exception. Among the most interesting, unique and raved-about adventure tours, you could book in the area is Rio Secreto (website) nearby Playa del Carmen, where you can for about $80,-USD hike and swim through a route of about 1 km in the underground cave.
If you were fond of adventure tours and your budget allowed you to, then there are also fauna-rich and more touristy adventure/natural aquarium parks with “their own” coastal Mayan ruins, dolphin shows and things like that: Xcaret (website) and Xel Ha (website), which would cost you $110, respectively $117,-USD. And if you are a zip line fan with a decent bank account to spend another $130,-USD+, then look into Xplor Adventure Park (website) which recently also added the underground caves tours to its menu.
Sort of conclusion
Although most people visit the Yucatán peninsula for its beaches, which they often combine with some of the peninsula’s Mayan ruins and perhaps also with some local culture, however, when it comes to the natural attractions in the Yucatán, there are still quite a few natural wonders to admire around here.
After all, the peninsula is home to the largest protected area in Mexico, which naturally comes with rich biodiversity, which can play a big role in the vacation-picking process, especially if you are a birdwatcher. In addition to that, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System also makes the region rather special for divers and marine life enthusiasts.
Other than that, the whole region is rather flat so we’re not talking about a region that can compete with Patagonia, when it comes to natural spectacles unless we count the amazing and sparsely populated jungle which definitely has its perks, in spite of the hot and humid weather conditions.
To sum things up, I’d say that if you are looking for diverse holidays where you can mix beach with culture, archaeological sites and great nature, in a safe region with rich history and amazing local culture as well as a very yummy cuisine, not to mention the friendly locals and great tourism infrastructure, this could be a perfect place for your next vacation 😉
- Cenotes: spectacular limestone sinkholes. To get more tips as well as details about pretty much any notable cenote in the peninsula, click here to visit the informative Cenote Finder website
- Islands: Isla Mujeres or a bit cheaper, larger and perhaps more diverse Isla Conzumel. Both rather touristy. More remote with the untouched vibe is the car-free Isla Holbox. Read more about the Isla Holbox here in Lane Nieset‘s piece for National Geographic, in case you were interested
- Sian Ka’an Lagoon and Muyil: wildlife, Mayan ruins, boat tours, close to Tulum. Find the UNESCO info page here and the reserve’s website with info and tour options here
- Rio Lagartos and Las Colorados: birdwatching, pink lagoon, pink flamingos, close to El Tuyo. Check out its UNESCO page or this article about the reserve in The Yucatan Times
- Ria Celestún Biosphere Reserve: dunes, mangroves, lagoons, marshes, rainforest, wildlife, close to Mérida. Check out its UNESCO page or this post in The Yucatan Times
- Calakmul biosphere: Lush jungle with Mayan ruins. The largest rainforest reserve in Mexico, close to Campeche. Check out its UNESCO page or this article in The Yucatan Times
- Adventure Parks and tours: raved about and unique swimming in an underground cave is be Rio Secreto (website). More touristic, more expensive but fauna rich and full day water parks are Xcaret (website) and Xel Ha (website). For zipline fans, there’s Xplor (website)
Featured image by Andrea Schaffer from Wunderstock