Cenotes: Mysterious Natural Wonders with a Mayan Connection

by Kristin Carleen Busse (Kristin)

When people think of Cancun, they think of the turquoise blue Caribbean Sea, white sand beaches and palm trees. However, the Cancun area is rich in other natural wonders, including cenotes. Many travelers to the Cancun area don’t know anything about cenotes and have never visited one.

A cenote is basically a sinkhole. Each one is unique, a wonder to be discovered. The Yucatan Peninsula, the region of Mexico where Cancun is located, is home to an estimated 7,000 cenotes.

The Yucatan Peninsula is primarily made up of porous limestone and for millions of years, rainfall slowly ate away at the limestone and formed a huge system of underground caves, caverns and rivers, most of which filled with water from rain or from the underground water table. Many feature huge stalactites and stalagmites.

A cenote is created when the roof of a water-filled cave collapses. The water found in a cenote may be fresh water, salt water, or both. Cenotes range from being open, like a lake, to almost completely closed.

Cenotes were very important to the ancient Mayan civilization as they were their main source of fresh water. The word “cenote” comes from the Mayan word “dzonot” or “ts’onot” which means sacred well. In addition, the Mayans considered cenotes to be portals to the underworld. Both artifacts and humans were sacrificed in Sacred Cenote (Cenote Sagrado) at the now archaeological site of Chichen Itza. Artifacts of gold, jade, pottery, and incense, as well as human remains with wounds consistent with human sacrifice were found in Cenote Sagrado.

There are many breathtaking natural sinkholes near Cancun and Playa del Carmen that are open to the public. Travelers can visit La Ruta de los Cenotes (Cenote Lane, if you will), located just south of Puerto Morelos, which is lined with dozens of cenotes where visitors can snorkel, swim and relax. There is nothing like a dip in a cool cenote on a steaming hot day.

Another option is Xenotes, a natural park run by Xperiencias Xcaret, where visitors can explore four different cenotes through kayaking, zip lining, snorkeling, rappelling or just relaxing and drifting in an inner tube.

For the skilled and adventurous scuba diver, cave diving is available in cenotes and the 95-mile labyrinth of underground rivers that connect them. However, this activity can be very dangerous, so it is important that both the guide and the divers have a lot of training and experience.

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