The Yucatán peninsular is mainly formed of carbonate and soluble rock, mostly limestone; and it is this geological make up that allows the cenotes to form. With only a small amount of soil on the surface to retain it, rain water filters down through the rock and, through the progression of time, forms underground rivers. As these rivers flow they erode the soluble rocks around them, carving out tunnels and underground caverns. Eventually, without enough support beneath them, the roofs of these caverns will collapse, exposing the ground water beneath. Cenote is the Spanish equivalent of the Mayan word “dzontot”, meaning “well”. These wells were the only source of fresh water for the Mayan people occupying the Yucatán, so it is easy to see why may of their sites are built around, or within close proximity of, these natural structures. There are estimated to be around 7,000 cenotes in the Yucatán, many of which still remain undiscovered.
Some cenotes appear like ponds on the surface, whilst others can look like ponds that lie tens of feet below the surface, and have sheer walls; appearing much like a well. Other, older cenotes, may again lie tens of feet below the surface and have caverns or overhangs around or above them. Cenotes themselves can lead to vast underground caves, many yet to be mapped; indeed the second largest cave in the world is Sistema Sac Actun and lies in the Municipality of Tulum, inside the Riviera Maya. The two longest underwater cave systems in the world, both constantly being increased in length as they are explored, are located in the state of Quintana Roo.
Their significance in Maya culture
Not only were cenotes the Maya’s sole source of fresh water but they also had religious connotations. In Maya mythology there were three entryways into Xibalbá, the underworld, and one of these was believed to be at the bottom of cenotes. a variety of sacrifices were offered into them, including human; this has been found to be most prevalent at the Sacred Cenote by Chichen Itza. Water from this cenote was thought to be holy and collected by priests and used during rituals at temples.
The Maya also believed they could communicate with the Gods by offering sacrifices and gifts into cenotes. The rain god Chac was thought to live at the bottom of cenotes and this was depicted in murals and artwork. The Water Lilly Serpent has also been depicted in these artworks and it was believed that the presence of lilies in a cenote denoted that the water was pure.
What to do at cenotes
Cenotes are the perfect location for snorkelling and scuba diving. The filtration of the water through the bedrock into these underground rivers leaves them almost entirely free of floating particles; resulting in crystal clear waters and visibility up to a spectacular 200ft (60meters). Besides awe inspiring underwater landscapes and a variety of aquatic plant life, there are also a quantity of fish that inhabit these subterranean worlds including, but not limited to: tetras, catfish and wild mollies.
Not a fan of snorkelling or scuba diving? This certainly does not mean that you shouldn’t visit a cenote. Not only are they naturally beautiful wonders but cenotes are natures very own naturally formed swimming pools. Here, shaded by the surrounding jungle you can find spots to sunbath and then cool off inside the water, which year round stays at a blissful 24°C (75°F). You may also see some jungle wildlife swing by whilst you are relaxing here in these jungle oases.