The Cenote Capital of Mexico Is Still Under-the-Radar

And it’s just around the corner from Cancún.

Strolling the beach in Puerto Morelos, a two-mile Caribbean coastal town in Yucatán, you can look north and see the towering hotels of Cancún. But that’s about the only sign you’re anywhere near a major tourist destination—and as soon as you tuck into a sandy beachside bar and kick back in a swing with a drink, you’ll completely forget they exist. 

Seafood joints and cafes line the main boulevards. You’ll hear English, Spanish, and a smattering of other European languages streaming out of spots like the vegan-friendly Cafe Layla and Spyder Café—conversations between expats who spend entire seasons in the village. All of them are here to enjoy Puerto Morelos’ warm breezes, low prices, and minimal crowds—the idyllic low-key hideaway, hidden in Cancún’s shadow.

“I came just for work and haven’t left,” says my server at Dona Triny’s, right off the town’s main square. He’d come from Mexico City for seasonal work and fell in love with the slow, coastal way of life. (The fact that his restaurant has some of the best food on the Yucatán didn’t hurt.) “It’s not Cancún. I feel like I can breathe here.”

Although the beaches are as breathtaking as anywhere else along the Riviera Maya, Puerto Morelos isn’t known for flashy tourist attractions. There’s the Faro Inclinado, a lighthouse knocked 15-20 degrees off-kilter by a hurricane, and Puerto Morelos Reef Park, part of the same Mesoamerican reef you’ll find in Cozumel and Roatán with a fraction of the crowds. 

But if you’re here to see some incredible cenotes—namely, those at La Ruta de Los Cenotes, the Yucatán Peninsula’s 20-mile natural wonderland of underground caves and massive swimming holes—jumping off from this still-unspoiled fishing village is the way to go. Here’s how to prepare to take the plunge.

M. Vinuesa/Shutterstock

Where to stay in Puerto Morelos, Mexico

Though the town of Puerto Morelos may be the stuff of your Andy-Dufresne-post-prison fantasies, its hotels can lean a little toward the rustic side. If you don’t mind hostels, you’ll have no problem staying in town; basic hotels like the Hotel Amar Inn and Hotel El Moro are relatively clean and comfortable, offering easy access to the beach and rates that won’t top $75 a night.

If you want the charm of Puerto Morelos but still prefer beach condo luxury at bedtime, the Grand Residences Riviera Cancún sits about a mile south of town. At this large-scale resort, you’ll get things like massive rooms, balcony jacuzzis overlooking the ocean, an epic infinity pool, and a beachfront cafe and gourmet restaurant—all the comforts of a Cancún tourist resort with a more refined crowd. Rooms start at about $200 a night in the off season.

woman swimming in cenote
Thomas Barwick/Stone/Getty Images

How to visit the Ruta de Cenotes

Puerto Morelos isn’t just good for chilling on the beach. It’s also the jumping off point for the Ruta de Cenotes. The 100-plus cenotes scattered throughout the area are all different. Some are sprawling, limestone, outdoor pools. Some are majestic blue underground caves with stalagmites that reach down into the water. Some offer both—plus food and beer. And many are full-fledged adventure parks, complete with ziplines, cliff jumping, and ATV rides.

Hitting three to five cenotes is probably the sweet spot—enough to see the variety, not enough to get cenoted out. But considering the volume, picking the best can be tricky, and even the tours offered from Puerto Morelos can leave the length of your visit at the mercy of the tour operator.

The best move is to hire a taxi driver for the day. This typically won’t cost you more than about $80, gives you complete control over your schedule, and gives you time to get buddy-buddy with the driver, who might pass along some local recommendations. But in case they don’t, here are five adventures that’ll give you a good idea of what the Ruta de Cenotes is all about.

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Kin Ha

Cost: Prices start at $15 for one cenote
If you only have time to visit one cenote park along the Ruta de Cenotes, head to Kin Ha. It’s got a whopping 12 cenotes to choose from—so many, they offer a shuttle service. The main attraction is the massive closed cenote just past the main entrance, where you can jump 15 feet down through tropical foliage into an underground river. After swimming beneath a ceiling of stalactites, you can relax on the cantina chairs topside with a cold beer and tacos.

Once you’ve gotten your subterranean fix, take the ten-minute van ride out to Kin Ha’s open cenote, which has multiple platforms from which you can jump into the welcoming emerald pool. Just make sure you want to stay for a while: there’s a 40-minute minimum for anyone who heads out there. And if you’re making a day of it, consider an ATV tour or horseback ride.

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cenote 7 bocas

Siete Bocas 

Entry fee: About $16, depending on the exchange rate
Don’t be alarmed if you hear a thud on your taxi’s hood when you pull up to Siete Bocas: that’s just the park’s resident monkey saying hello. He’s the official greeter of the small, 600-person village that sits just outside of this cenote, where your dip in the water will come with a nice dose of local culture, tacos, and tortas. The cenote is named for its seven distinct access points, which allow you to descend a ladder into the abyss—or jump right in. Inside, swim through crystal clear water, glide past rock formations, and bask in the light that pours in from above.

Boca del Puma

Entry fee: $16
Boca del Puma has both a closed and open cenote—a venerable twofer of cold water fun for a $16 admission. The open cenote, which sits relatively close to the entrance, is a swimming hole surrounded by limestone walls. It’s got a zipline over the top if you want to careen into the water and is pretty popular with local families. The closed cenote, about a ten minute walk through the jungle, is fairly small and the water is especially cold—but the swim through to look up a well is worth the shivers. You can also take ATV tours through the grounds, zipline through the trees, or ascend the site’s watchtower for a fantastic view of the Yucatán.

Cenotes Zapote-Ecopark

Cenotes Zapote

Cost: Starts at $40
This ecopark has got not one, not two, but four different cenotes for you to check out: two outdoor, two underground, all more than 10,000 years old. Although admittedly this is one of the pricier options on the list, it pays to be adventurous (and, well, you’ve got to pay to be adventurous): Along with taking a dip the old fashioned way, they’ve also got jumping platforms, ATV rides, a bike circuit, snorkeling, and zip lines that’ll take you careening over the water and through the jungle. Plus, a restaurant with free Wi-Fi!

Flickr/dolanh

Verde Lucero

Cost: $10
For a few hours of splashing into an open cenote—and a side of heckling from locals, uh, eager to watch tourists conquer their fear of heights—you’re not beating Verde Lucero. This large pool with a zipline running across is surrounded by limestone cliffs with jumping off points ranging from 6 to 20 feet. It’s an excellent way to add a little adrenaline to your day on the Ruta—just don’t take anything the photographer says too seriously. And when you jump, remember to close your legs.

Popol Vuh 

Cost: $5
The last cenote on the route, nothing quite tops Popul Vuh. Like anything remote and uncrowded, it’s not easy to get to: even once you’ve arrived at the end of the road, you’ll need to walk another mile or so through thick jungle to get to the cenote’s mouth. You won’t find electricity, WiFi, or much cell service in the area, and it’s unusual to find more than a handful of people sharing the big, open waters—making this a true escape.

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Matt Meltzer is a contributing writer for Thrillist. Follow him on Instagram @meltrez1.