Gran Cenote: Tulum’s Most Otherworldly Swimming Experience

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Imagine, on a steamy day in the Yucatán peninsula, diving into a massive underground cavern full of impossibly clear turquoise water, with lush jungle spilling into the mouth of the cave overhead. Sounds like something out of a dream? At Gran Cenote, right outside of Tulum, you can enjoy just that, in addition to its stunning underwater formations, abundant wildlife, and more.

So pack up your swimsuit and don’t forget a towel- here’s everything you need to know about visiting the Gran Cenote.

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What’s a cenote?

If you’re visiting the Yucatán, you’ve probably seen about a gazillion signs for cenotes- but what are they exactly? A cenote is basically a sinkhole that’s formed when limestone bedrock collapses and exposes an underground river or cavern of water below.

Given the Yucatán peninsula’s unique geological makeup, the region is full of ‘em- over 7,000, in fact! While cenotes are found in countries throughout the world, like Australia and Zimbabwe, the Yucatán is unique in its sheer volume of them- nowhere else in the world can you find anywhere close to this number of cenotes!

Woman sitting on a rock wall, overlooking Gran Cenote

Cenotes were integral to the ancient Mayans’ way of life- not only were they a source of freshwater, but they also had a spiritual importance, as they were believed to be the entrance to the afterlife. Now, there are hundreds of cenotes that visitors and locals enjoy, from commercialized sites that are popular with tourists to really off-the-beaten path locations in Yucatanians’ backyard.

Gran Cenote is definitely more of the former, providing amenities like showers and flush toilets, and are an excellent introduction to exploring these incredible underground caverns.

How to get to Gran Cenote

One of the best things about Gran Cenote is its location, right outside of Tulum, a charming beach town known for its glitzy resorts and boho hippie vibes. If you have a rental car, you can make the ten-minute drive from the city and park in its lot, or alternatively, take a taxi (it should cost between 70 to 100 pesos- always remember to agree on the price before you get in the cab!).

Another option is to take a 30-40 minute bike ride there from town. Many of the hotels and hostels rent out bikes for free or for extremely affordable prices- and nothing is more refreshing than jumping in the cool water after working up a sweat. Finally, if you’re nervous about getting there yourself, you can always go on a group tour, like this one, which stops at Gran Cenote as well as two others!

Scooter in front of cabanas in Tulum, Mexico

How much does Gran Cenote cost?

Unlike some less popular cenotes, Gran Cenote is definitely on the pricier side- 500 pesos (or $25 USD) per person, which includes a snorkeling set and life jacket rental.

To provide some context as to how Gran Cenote stacks up against your alternative options around Tulum, admission to other cenotes generally costs, on average, about 180-250 pesos, with several options nearby that are significantly cheaper, like Cenote Carwash (about $50 pesos per person) or Cenote Zacil Ha (about $80 pesos per person).

However, given Gran Cenote’s accessibility, amenities, and picturesqueness, it’s, in my opinion, one of the best cenotes near Tulum and worth the higher price tag (unless, of course, you’re on a shoestring budget!). And, since it’s cash only, remember to bring your pesos!

Woman floating in Gran Cenote

What to expect when visiting Gran Cenote

Once you pay your admission price, you’ll enter into the cenote’s grounds, which will include a lush garden with several hammocks spread about, outdoor showers, and bathroom facilities where you can change into your swimsuit.

Before getting into the cenote, you’ll need to shower off in (freezing!) water. This is to remove any type of sunscreen, bug spray, or natural oils on your body that may disturb the cenote’s fragile ecosystem- so please remember not to slather on any of that stuff (or other lotions or sprays) before heading here! Make sure your hair is thoroughly wet- I was actually sent back to the showers by the staff because I didn’t look soaked enough!

Water in Gran Cenote in Tulum, Mexico

Once you’re good and showered off, you can enter the cenote two different ways along the same boardwalk- a stairway that leads to the main platform for the larger pool area where you can rent snorkels, lockers to store your valuables, and life vests.

If you walk a bit further down, there’s alternatively stairs to another platform for a smaller cenote, which, despite the fact that it’s connected to the main cenote via a cave-like tunnel, usually is quite a bit more peaceful than the main pool. In fact, if you head to this side of the cenote first thing in the morning, you’re likely to get it all to yourself!

Woman snorkeling in a cenote

Both pools have stunningly clear, turquoise water but each have unique characteristics. The main pool is an absolutely breathtaking underwater world of enormous stalagmites and stalactites, some which seemingly span the depth of the entire pool (9 meters or 30 feet deep).

I’d highly recommend snorkeling around here- given the narrow opening of the cenote, the light shines through the underwater formations at unique angles, creating really cool light beams. Plus there’s all sorts of neat underwater creatures- primarily lots of adorable turtles, fish, and blue crabs- to observe here (friendly reminder to touch with our eyes only!). 

Turtle swimming in Gran Cenote

From this pool, you can swim through the tunnel to the other cenote. Make sure to stop under the tunnel and look up- this cave is the home to hundreds of adorable bats, chirping, flying, and hanging overhead (don’t worry- bats are our friends, not foes!).

There’s also a section of this tunnel that’s roped off to allow the turtles and other wildlife a safe and quiet habitat. Once you get to the other side of the tunnel, the smaller cenote is much shallower, perfect for walking around and simply relaxing in the cool, clear water.

Cave-like tunnel in Gran Cenote

Once you’re done enjoying the cenote, you’re welcome to hang out on the manicured lawn as long as you like and soak up the sun (so long as you’re not getting back in the cenote, slather on that sunscreen– your skin will thank me later!).

Unlike other cenotes in the area, there’s no food or drinks sold onsite. So if you’re interested in hanging out at the cenote as an all-day adventure, I’d recommend bringing your own or alternatively, there’s usually some small food stands located right outside the gate to pick something up.

Best time to visit Gran Cenote

The most popular time to visit Tulum is from November through April, when the temperature is hot, but manageable and there’s less of a chance of rain. While this is the best time to enjoy the Yucatán from a weather perspective, it’s also by far the most crowded period- so visiting Gran Cenote may not be quite the relaxing experience you hoped for.

If you visit May through October, you’re more likely to experience intense humidity and more frequent thunderstorms- but you’re more likely to get Tulum’s attractions all to yourself!

Palm tree on beach in Tulum

Tips for visiting Gran Cenote

  • Come wearing your swimsuit. While there’s private bathroom stalls with flush toilets, there’s no other formal changing area with benches or hooks- so changing isn’t the most convenient. Instead, wear your swimsuit under your clothes- you’ll be able to get into the cenote that much faster!
  • Come early or late to avoid the crowds. One of the reasons I think Gran Cenote is so awesome is its proximity to Tulum- and it turns out, so do lots of other visitors to the region. While the cenote is open 8 AM to 4:45 PM everyday (with the last entry allowed at 4:15 pm), I’d highly recommend visiting when the cenote first opens at 8 AM or after 3:30 PM.

    Outside of those windows, the cenote is absolutely packed with tour buses and other visitors. Plus, to be honest, the staff here has been known to be kind of slow and, at times, even rude- so it behooves you to visit when you don’t have to wait in line and compete with other visitors for their attention.
Woman floating in Gran Cenote
  • Tripods are not allowed. To discourage people from having full-blown social media photo shoots, tripods are not allowed in the facility- and will be held by the entrance station until you leave. I’ve even heard of staff being grumpy towards people who bring in DSLR cameras.

    Given that cell phone cameras are so good nowadays, I might recommend leaving your fancy camera at home to keep peace with the staff- and bring along your boo or your bestie to get some great photos of you!
  • If photos are a priority, come on an overcast day. To be honest, getting good photos of the Gran Cenote is kind of challenging- with the dappled light from the plantlife hanging over the cenote and the glare on the water, nailing the lighting is pretty tough. You’ll probably have an easier time getting decent photos on an overcast day, when the lighting is not so harsh.
Woman climbing ladder into Gran Cenote

What to pack for Gran Cenote

You’ve got cash money in your wallet and your sense of adventure is primed and ready to go. What else do you need to visit the Gran Cenote?

  • A towel: Towels are not provided or even available for rent here. I’d recommend including quick dry towels on your Mexico packing list– they’re super lightweight and take up basically no room in your luggage and come in handy when hotels or AirBnBs are skimpy with towels.
  • GoPro: Between the stellar rock formations and the adorable wildlife, I’m kicking myself that I didn’t include a way to record the Gran Cenote’s incredible underwater world. Don’t make the same mistake as me- bring along a GoPro!
Woman snorkeling in Gran Cenote
  • Water: As mentioned above, no drinks are sold onsite- which is not the most convenient in the hot and humid jungle of Tulum (especially if you’re bicycling here). Justin and I take these giant Nalgene bottles with us wherever we travel to cut down on individual bottles that need to be thrown away and to save money on buying bottled water.

    While the water in Tulum isn’t safe to drink straight out of the tap, lots of hotels and hostels provide safe, filtered water. Even if your accommodations don’t provide that, I’d recommend buying a giant jug of water at the beginning of your trip to fill up your Nalgene- it will be kinder to the planet and on your wallet!

Enjoy the Gran Cenote- it (and its underwater world) is so beautiful! Did I forget any tips about visiting? Let me know your recommendations in the comments below.

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