Natural wells have always been associated with life-sustaining water but not quite as much as the cenotes of the ancient Maya in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. Access to fresh water was hard to find. Since the land is permeable limestone bedrock, water cannot collect on the surface but instead sinks deep into the ground forming underground rivers. Eventually, the slightly acidic water beneath the surface erodes the limestone, collapsing the roofs, and exposes beautiful pools of fresh blue water called cenotes,* which are ideal for swimming, snorkeling, and diving today. ………………………………………………..
Cenotes, or sinkholes, are extraordinary natural marvels and tourist attractions. Having their own distinct characteristics, most include a variety of awe-inspiring geological formations, such as stalactites, stalagmites, and columns. Every cenote is one of four basic types:
(1) exposed open wells below ground level, and wells that are
(2) completely underground,
(3) partly underground, and
(4) level with the ground.
The fresh, typically aquamarine-colored water reaches depths of about 16 to 20 feet (5 to 15 meters) and is a temperate 77 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius).
Water was exalted by the Maya. In fact, they believed cenotes were sacred wells: gifts from Mayan gods. Whereas many cenotes were used for drinking, watering crops, and domestic tasks − such as collecting materials for arrows, ceramics, and construction − others were used for spiritual rituals involving offerings and sacrifices to the gods, especially to Chac, one of their most honored gods. Chac (also “Chaac” or “Chaahk”), god of thunder, lightening, and life-giving rain, was thought to visit the cenotes and caves when not at home in the sky.
Death and Life Death was revered by the Maya. They believed death merged with life, since a man was originally dead before being born. Death was conceived as a gateway to life and life as a gateway to death, as exhibited in the Mayan Day of the Dead celebration called Hanal Pixan. Since cenotes and underground caves were the Maya’s link to their gods, this is where they made offerings and sacrifices to appease them and influence them not to exert disorder and destruction on earth. Cenotes and caves were also considered doorways to Xibalba (the underworld or land of the dead), meaning “place of fear or phantoms,” where the souls of the dead entered and the gods of death and disease resided.
Riviera Maya Cenotes
History reveals that while many cenotes formed during the last Ice Age when dramatic changes in sea levels contributed to the development of caves and caverns, others may have been created by the Chicxulub meteorite impact in the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago.
Approximately 30,000 identified cenotes − only some of which have been explored − are said to exist in this region, which consists of the Mexican states of Campeche, Yucatan, and Quintana Roo, where Cancun and the Riviera Maya are located. Cenotes that are accessible to tourists can be found at various locations throughout the region, such as the Gran Cenote and Cenote Dos Ojos in Quintana Roo; Cenote Sagrado at the Chichen Itza Mayan archaeological site in Yucatan; Cenote Xtacunbilxunan in Campeche; and many along The Cenotes Route (La Ruta de los Cenotes) near Puerto Morelos in the Riviera Maya.
Of course, there are also the 10 spectacular cenotes in Tres Ríos Nature Park.
Have you visited a cenote? Tell us what you think!
* The Spanish word “cenote” evolved from the Mayan word, “ts’onot” or “dzonot,” and has been interpreted to mean “cavity containing life-giving water.”