Gran Cenote, Tulum

The Gran Cenote, Tulum is an awesome underwater cave where you can snorkel with turtles. I’d never heard of cenotes until I visited Tulum. And I’d never snorkeled before either. So this place was novel for multiple reasons.

My husband and I were at our hostel and looking for something to do. It had been raining a lot all day so we weren’t sure if the cenotes were a good thing to do in the rain, but the other travelers assured us it would be fun. So we grabbed a taxi and headed out.

You pay a fee to enter and then you can rent lifejackets, snorkel gear and then you go down a set of wooden stairs into the cenote.

The Nitty Gritty

Best time of dayDaytime definitely, a bright day is nice so that you can get some light down in the cenote.
What to expectNo need to bring anything, it costs 150 pesos ($7 USD) to enter and you can rent the snorkel gear and life jackets.

There's wooden stairs and a deck to walk around on so you can keep your flip flops and stuff up there. There's also lockers to stash some stuff while you go snorkeling.

It can get crowded with tourists but we got lucky and it was empty!
Specialty gear
You definitely should bring an underwater camera - you could get great shots of the turtles.
[easyazon_image align='left' height='110' identifier='B01M14ATO0' locale='US' src='' tag='sidecarphoto-20' width=''][easyazon_link identifier='B01M14ATO0' locale='US' tag='sidecarphoto-20']GoPro Hero 5 Waterproof Action Camera[/easyazon_link]
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Useful AccessoriesA polarizer will bring out the greens in the foliage and also help cut through reflections in the water.
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You will want to wipe humidity off the lens at some point.
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Gran Cenote

The Gran Cenote is an opening into a network of underwater caves called Sac Actun. We didn’t know this at the time but the Sac Actun system of caves is really incredible.

It’s really beautiful to snorkel in, and many people also go full on scuba diving in the cenotes. We saw some of them as we snorkeled.

This map shows just the part of it that includes the Gran Cenote.

Gran Cenote Map

But the whole cave system is almost 200mi long, which makes it the second longest in the world.

In 2014, in a deep pit within Sac Actun called Hoyo Negro, explorers found the oldest, most complete human skeleton in the New World.

If that weren’t enough, they also found a mastodon, saber-toothed cats and giant ground sloths – all of which are extinct.

How awesomely Indiana Jones is that!

Lucky Break

So normally pouring rain on your vacation isn’t considered good luck. But because of the rain, the cenote was very empty when we got there, and the rain had just stopped.

From reviews, we’d heard it’s usually pretty crowded but there were just 2-3 other people and we had the place almost to ourselves for a bit.

The Gran Cenote is surrounded by beautiful greenery and a few steles (or stone plaques).

Gran Cenote Photography

1/400s ƒ/5.6 @ ISO 400
Focal Length
Date & Time
September 26, 2015, 12:13 pm

The surroundings aren’t large enough to spend a lot of time on so we headed straight to the cenote itself, which is down some wooden stairs.

Sac Actun Photography

1/100s ƒ/5.6 @ ISO 400
Focal Length
Date & Time
September 26, 2015, 11:51 am

To capture the really beautiful greens, it can help to have a [easyazon_link identifier=”B001G7PMFY” locale=”US” tag=”sidecarphoto-20″]polarizer[/easyazon_link]. The polarizer will cut reflections from the leaves giving you a lot more green to work with.

I like to use this [easyazon_link identifier=”B001G7PMFY” locale=”US” tag=”sidecarphoto-20″]Hoya HD circular polarizer[/easyazon_link] as it doesn’t reduce the light by too many stops.

Clear Waters

The first thing you notice is how clear the water is. Remember, it had been raining just a little bit earlier in the day but the water was still crystal-clear.

See below where the last set of stairs descends into the water? You can see where the post appears to bend – that’s where the water starts, but you can barely tell!

Gran Cenote Tulum

1/13s ƒ/5.6 @ ISO 400
Focal Length
Date & Time
September 26, 2015, 11:55 am

The water was not deep here but at some points, it was deep enough that some people had scuba tanks and flashlights.

Just a word to non-swimmers out there. I don’t swim well and had a life jacket on. I still had an amazing time and didn’t want to get out of the water.

So if you can’t swim well, just be sure to get a life jacket and you should be okay.

Underwater Shooting

If I had known earlier we were going to do this, I would definitely have bought a [easyazon_link identifier=”B01M14ATO0″ locale=”US” tag=”sidecarphoto-20″]GoPro[/easyazon_link] to get some photos underwater.

In fact, I really regret not having an underwater camera of some sort, so I’m letting you know you should definitely consider getting one.

After returning I did some research and found there aren’t a ton of options that don’t break the bank. Here are the two main options :

  • [easyazon_link identifier=”B01M14ATO0″ locale=”US” tag=”sidecarphoto-20″]GoPro Hero 5[/easyazon_link] – Great for underwater video and decent for stills.
  • [easyazon_link identifier=”B00UKV5D4C” locale=”US” tag=”sidecarphoto-20″]Olympus TG-4 Waterproof[/easyazon_link] – Tough, durable, waterproof point-and-shoot.

The reason an underwater camera would have been awesome is mostly for these guys!

Turtle at Gran Cenote Tulum - Re

1/160s ƒ/5.6 @ ISO 800
Focal Length
Date & Time
September 26, 2015, 11:36 am

There are lots of turtles in this cenote and it was so visually exciting to see their bright yellow bellies in the water. They were so close, I had to be careful to swim away to avoid bumping into them!

If you take photos of them above water, remember to zoom in. It’s hard to see them against the rocks and you want to make them stand out in your photo.

You can also try to narrow your depth of field to make them stand out a bit from the background.

Yellows and Blues

While I was there, I also noticed some colorful little yellow birds in the trees and took this shot.

Bird in Tulum Gran Cenote

1/100s ƒ/5.6 @ ISO 400
Focal Length
Date & Time
September 26, 2015, 11:47 am

I find when shooting birds it’s good to isolate them from the background. So I will move around a bit until the colors of the subject contrast with the background.

That makes the bird pop nicely against the green. You can see some yellowish leaves in the background and if the bird were set against them, he would not stand out as much.

Another beautiful color to watch for is the blue-green of the water.

Blue waters of Gran Cenote

1/80s ƒ/5.6 @ ISO 800
Focal Length
Date & Time
September 26, 2015, 11:41 am

You can see how empty it was when we went! Actually I’ll let you in on a little secret, there was one tiny person in the cave in this shot but it was easy to spot-clone him out in Lightroom.

Here’s one of my feet and the beautiful patterns in the water.

Gran Cenote Photography Guide

1/20s ƒ/4.5 @ ISO 400
Focal Length
Date & Time
September 26, 2015, 10:52 am

First Time Snorkeling

This was my first time snorkeling and I was amazed by how much I could see underwater. It was an intense and memorable experience. I wish I’d checked out all the other great spots for snorkeling in Tulum!

After this experience, I bought a [easyazon_link identifier=”B01M14ATO0″ locale=”US” tag=”sidecarphoto-20″]GoPro[/easyazon_link] so I would be better prepared the next time I have an opportunity like this. Do check out the recommended gear so you can be prepared before you go.

If you are in Tulum, this is definitely a must-see spot to visit. If you do visit, I’d love to see your photos so please do come back and share!

This post has affiliate links. If you use the link, you don’t pay anything extra but Sidecar Photo gets money for another glass of wine!




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Shimona Carvalho
Photographer, Engineer, Traveler who wants to help you take incredible photographs on your next trip.