Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula is home to some of the world’s most beautiful and famous cenotes. But what are they and how did they come to be in the first place?
So first of all, what on earth is a cenote? I mean, chances are if you clicked this post, you’ve at least heard of them. Basically, they’re naturally formed sinkholes full of groundwater. That’s the most appealing description, I know, but honestly, they’re beautiful! You can find them in various countries, mainly in North America, though they’re usually just called sinkholes outside of Mexico. But the vast majority, and the most famous ones, are specifically in the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico.
Now as with most natural features, we have to go way, way, way back in history – I’m talking millions of years! The Yucatán peninsula was once underwater, a coral reef beneath the ocean. But as sea levels dropped during the last Ice Age, the reef rose above the surface and the coral died, leaving behind a bed of limestone.
Then came rainfall, and the important thing about this, is that is was slightly acidic. And what does acid do? It corrodes, especially something alkaline, like limestone. Over millions of years, the rain seeped into the earth and gradually hollowed out caves underground. Then, as the Ice Age ended and ocean levels rose again, the caves were flooded, both with seawater from below, and groundwater seeping in – thus, cenotes! In some, you can dive down to the halocline, the point where the two waters meet, with the freshwater floating above the salt. Many cenotes are connected to each other and the ocean, by networks of underground waterways.
Cenotes can be underground or open to the sky. The latter is formed when the roof of the cave collapses under its own weight. These end up looking like gorgeous lagoons. But the underground cenotes are equally impressive, with stalactites and stalagmites grow from the ceiling and floor!
So, cenotes had existed for thousands of years before humans ever came along. The first people to encounter them, and who named them ‘cenote’, were the Maya, the indigenous people of Mesoamerica (modern day south Mexico and much of Central America). Early settlers can be dated back to 7000BC or so, but the Classic Maya Period, when they reached their apex, was 250-950AD. They had their own belief system, with various gods to worship. Largely this was done at their temples, built within their cities, such as Chichén Itzá and Tulum.
But the cenotes also became part of their rituals. First of all, they were a valuable resource. There are no major rivers in the Yucatán peninsula, only those underground, so the cenotes provided the only fresh water supply in the middle of the jungle. Handy! And the Maya believed the water was provided by the rain god, Chaac, who lived in the otherworld. The cenotes were a portal to this world, and therefore, a means of communicating with Chaac – and, of course, keeping him happy so there was always enough water!
And how do you keep a god happy, according to the Maya? Sacrifices. Archaeologists have found evidence of all sorts of things thrown into cenotes as offerings, from jewellery, pots, and sculptures… to human sacrifices, as suggested by skeletons found deep below! Yikes! There are over 2,600 cenotes in the region, so they used different ones for drinking and sacrificing – good idea!
Other mythologies say that the Maya believed the cenotes were the entrance to the underworld, Xibalba, ruled by the death gods. The name means ‘place of fear’. After death, the Maya would have to outwit the gods there, in order to escape this realm. So the cenotes were sacred places, to be respected and worshipped.
The Maya Empire collapsed sometime around 900AD – historians still aren’t entirely sure why! Those that survived abandoned their larger cities, such as Tikal, their capital in Guatemala. They moved to smaller, more rural locations instead, and actually, the Yucatán region flourished at this time. So the cenotes were still a part of their lifestyle for centuries. Until the Spanish arrived.
The conquistadors came to Central America in the 16th century to colonise the region. Yucatán actually held out for a long time, before eventually accepting defeat late into the 17th century. As with most colonisers around the world, the conquistadors suppressed the local culture, treating the Maya very badly, and stopping many of their traditions. No longer were they able to worship their gods, including through the cenotes. Stopping human sacrifices was probably not the worst idea, but overall, colonisation eliminated much of Maya culture – though luckily, some survived, and there is still a native Maya population living in Central America today!
The Spanish knew of the cenotes, discovering many during their travels, and continued to use them as a valuable freshwater supply. But most of the history of the colonial era centres around the towns built then, not the jungle and the natural features of the land.
Preservation & the Present
Today, cenotes are becoming an increasingly popular tourist attraction for visitors to the Yucatán peninsula. I mean, who can blame us for wanting to see these gorgeous lagoons, or explore the hidden underground systems? But like most natural wonders, the biggest threat to them is humans.
Many are now managed by local Maya communities. They own their own land to try to protect their culture from the government. By opening cenotes to visitors, they make a living from the tourism, charging entry fees. Some even run restaurants and amenities next to them. However, increasing tourism brings a greater risk of damage and pollution. And there could be a cultural effect, if the Maya start to see them as more profitable, rather than as sacred sites.
Luckily, many cenotes are hard to access, in remote, rural areas and remain untouched. And there are likely many more underground networks that still haven’t been discovered. But, we must be careful. If we want to keep them beautiful, we have to work to preserve them. The Ring of Cenotes (approx. 900), formed where an asteroid hit Earth millennia ago, enjoys UNESCO World Heritage status. But there are over a thousand more cenotes that aren’t protected at all. They need both cultural and environmental preservation. These are stunning natural wonders and sacred sites, and we don’t want to lose them.
The open cenotes are often the most photographed, with their tropical blue waters, and there’s plenty to pick from! Ik Kil is one of the most popular since it’s on route to Chichén Itzá. It’s a deep drop from above to a circular pool, with vines hanging down the sides. Also if you’re headed to Chichén Itzá, there you can see the Sacred Cenote within the temple complex. This is where archaeologists have found all sorts of sacrifices thrown in the water, including human remains! Visitors can look down on it, but not swim or get too close.
If you want something a little less crowded, try the cenotes in the Tulum area. Here, you can visit Cenote Azul, Cenote Cristalino, and Jardín del Eden, all within just a few minutes of each other. They all have beautifully clear water, so you can snorkel or dive in them. Or, just relax in the waters, or maybe take a dive from the cliff top! Jardín del Eden even has the little fish who nibble at your feet, so you can enjoy this spa treatment for free! Cristalino has a half cave as well, so you can explore some darker waters there!
Cenote Zací is one of the easiest to access if you’re in the town of Valladolid, as it’s actually just beside the central plaza – the only in-town cenote in Mexico! It’s a short walk to get there, and there’s a path around it, so you can explore all angles from land as well as water. It’s on the smaller side, but a little more off-the-beaten track than some others.
Underground & Part Open Cenotes
The biggest and most famous cenote in Mexico is probably Dos Ojos, near Tulum. It is named for its two pools (‘two eyes’), one with blue water and the other dark. However, it is actually part of a larger network of caves (83km) and the deepest part – El Pit – is 120m deep! Mostly it’s underground, inside caves, where divers go exploring. But the blue pool is an open area where the natural light comes in, perfect for snorkelling!
Nearby, is Sistema Sac Actún (also known as Gran Cenote), which actually connects to Dos Ojos. The whole thing is the longest underwater cave system in the world, totalling 346km! Much of Sac Actún is underground, and you can explore it by snorkelling or diving, taking in the stalactite formations and the bats living there. There is an open air garden inside as well though, with a white sand beach and tropical plants.
While those are the most popular, there are other underground cenotes to choose from as well. Near the village of Cuzamá are three to explore, with the help of a local guide from the village on a horse-drawn cart. Two of these are only accessible by a ladder, while the third has stairs! One has tree roots growing down into the cavern, for some added photographic appeal. They have lights provided inside, but all are deep underground, in stalactite lined caves. Near Valladolid, try Xkeken and Samulá by the village of Dzitnup. Both are almost entirely underground except for a small opening where the lights comes in at midday, making it the most popular time to visit. You can still stay and swim longer after as well, looking up at the stalactites and tree roots!
As every cenote is individually managed by the landowners, entry fees and opening times will vary for them all. Fees can range from 10-100 pesos. To reach them, you will need overground transport from your accommodation. You can arrange this yourself by taxi, or for the more popular cenotes, a colectivo (shared minivan). Most have parking available to drive yourself as well. Or, you can choose to book an organised day trip to one or more of them. Some cenotes have more facilities than others, or require a local guide, so it’s best to check what you need to bring, if there are lockers available, and if you should book before you show up!
Be respectful during your visit. Do not litter or leave anything behind, and do not take anything from any site. In the underground systems, take care to not touch the stalactites or stalagmites, as this stops them from growing further. You may also be asked to not wear sunscreen, or only use a biodegradable one, as it can damage the local wildlife in the water.
Have you been to any of the cenotes in Yucatán before? Leave a comment about your experiences!