7 Mexican Cenotes in Strange Places — From a Costco Parking Lot to a Historic Airbnb

Photo: Ernesto Ortega

The Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico is home to thousands of naturally formed fresh-water pools. "There are thousands of kilometers of caves in the area," says Emiliano Monroy Ríos, a hydrogeologist at Northwestern University, "some explored, many unknown. In places, the cave ceiling is so thin, it collapses and creates an opening to the surface. Then it becomes a sinkhole, or cenote."

The more swimmer-friendly cenotes are a godsend for locals during the famously hot Yucatan summers. The ancient Maya, who believed the cenotes were entrances to the Underworld, built their cities around them and used them as their water source. Even now, divers find jade beads and ceramics, relics of Maya life.

Today is the spring equinox, when travelers from all over the world descend on the Maya city Chichen Itza to watch the late-afternoon light change on the pyramid, creating a shadow shaped like a feathered serpent: the Maya god Kukulcan. One of the peninsula's most legendary cenotes, Cenote Sagrado, is situated in the ruins of Chichen Itza. Remains found on site indicate that the Maya performed human sacrifice there to curry favor with the rain god Chaac.

Not every cenote on the peninsula sits in the middle of one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Many are deep in the jungle, relatively untouched. But some are very much a part of modern life, in the most unlikely places.

01 of 07

In a Costco parking lot

Cenote outside costco
Diana Spechler

In the city of Merida, the capital of Yucatan, the cenote in the Costco parking lot was discovered during the warehouse store's construction. Buy your enormous rotisserie chicken and 30-pack of toilet paper and then check out the cenote before you hop back in the car. It's surrounded by a maintained garden and tastefully lit at night.

02 of 07

In a fancy wellness resort

Spa with cenote
Courtesy of Chablé Resort & Spa

The cenote at Chablé Resort & Spa, an old hacienda-turned-vacation paradise, sits right outside its spa and makes itself quite useful: If you book The Fountains Flow, one of several treatments that incorporates the sacred water, you'll first partake in a Maya-inspired welcome ritual on the banks of the cenote.

03 of 07

In a school

Diana Spechler

Lots of schools have a chlorinated pool for the swim team, but very few have their own cenote, as private school Instituto Bancario in Merida does. Allegedly the kids aren't allowed down there, but someone introduced six turtles to swim among the fish.

04 of 07

In an Airbnb that used to be a sugar cane plantation

Shane Wynn

It even had its own rum distillery at one point, but was abandoned after the Mexican revolution. Kind of cool that you can book a crash pad with a cenote in it. OK, it's hardly a crash pad: In addition to your private cenote, at this 19th-century estate in Espita, you'll also have a library and a citrus orchard.

05 of 07

In a church

Cenote in chapel
Diana Spechler

At the beautiful Chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Xcaret Park, walk down the sloping aisle to a giant Virgin Mary image carved into a tree trunk, presiding over the pews. Beneath her tangle of roots, the altar perches on a cenote. The chapel is a popular wedding venue. And if you stay at Hotel Xcaret Mexico, you'll get a free boat ride to the park, as well as free entry.

06 of 07

On a glamping site

Cenote at glamping site
Courtesy of Nativus Glamping Site

Tulum is as known for its natural beauty as it is for its chichi bohemian vibe. And what could unite the two better than glamping? Next time you're craving a white-sand beach getaway, forego the standard hotels and stay at Nativus Jungle Glamping. Sure, you'll sleep in a tent, but the tent is equipped with air conditioning, breakfast will be delivered straight to your door, and of course there's a gorgeous cenote to swim in.

07 of 07

In a pet cemetery

Ernesto Ortega

OK, it's not an actual pet cemetery, but this underground cenote is worthy of inclusion because it's widely known as one of the most beautiful and its story is fascinating: They call it Pet Cemetery because the people who discovered it found it teeming with skeletons of wild animals, including a camel species that has been extinct for thousands of years. If you're into scuba diving, strap on your tank and a headlamp and swim through the cavern among stalagmites and stalactites.

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