Cenotes – A Whole Other World Beneath The Yucatan Peninsula
The Yucatán Peninsula’s beauty spreads over a region enveloped by lush, tropical jungle and bordered by the Caribbean Sea with its awe-inspiring shades of turquoise, aqua and deep blue. Hundreds of thousands of visitors arrive each year to embrace the exquisite, natural splendor in the glorious Mayan Riviera. Yet so much more enchanting wonder still lies beneath the surface of this area, waiting to be explored.
An estimated 10,000 cenotes, or open, access points to the world’s largest submerged cave system speckle the Yucatán Peninsula. These surface connections to the slow-flowing, subterranean river system were created naturally millions of years ago. Originally, this peninsula was amidst a giant reef system. However, during the Stone Age, when ocean levels decreased, parts of the reef were left exposed and the coral was not able to survive. As a result, a massive shelf of limestone, formed by the corals’ skeletons, emerged. Due its porous nature, slightly acidic rain waters seeped through the alkaline limestone rock and created the extensive underground waterway with its many caverns. After the final Ice Age, ocean water levels rose, saturating the subterranean cavities, collapsing some, resulting in sink holes known as cenotes. Some cenotes showcase fascinating cave formations boasting various sizes of icicle-shaped stalactites and stalagmites. Others are protected by the Mexican government and have become important archeological sites. While still others are considered to be sacred, and even haunted, by past and present Mayan civilization.
It was common for ancient Mayan cities to be built surrounding one or multiple cenotes as they were the residents’ primary source of fresh water. Sacred ceremonies often took place around these wells which were thought to be gateways to the underworld. Sacrificial offerings (some human), were presented to Chaac, for example, the god of rain, in times of drought. There is one famous cenote, Sac Uayum, 25 miles south of Mérida (the capital of the Mexican state of Yucatán) which legend has it, is guarded by a feathered serpent with a horse’s head, keeping fearful Mayan locals at a distance. Up to last year, marine archeologists had discovered 15 human skulls lying on this eerie cenote’s floor and more are believed to be buried within the sediment.
Some interesting archeological finds include fossilized remains of camels, giant jaguars and mammoths, fine jewelry, textiles, pottery, sculptures, as well as the oldest human remains ever found in the Americas, dating back to at least 10,000 years ago. These significant artifacts depict the innovativeness and immense richness of the ancient Maya culture. Cenotes have varying water depths ranging from a few meters to over 100 meters. The majority have cool, crystal clear waters with a stunning turquoise tone. The water itself has an upper layer of fresh water overlying a layer of salt water. As the rainwater filters down towards the cenote, it has a tendency to flow out horizontally along the water table to eventually reach the ocean.
To have the opportunity to swim, snorkel and dive within these natural wonders is an experience to truly appreciate forever. The refreshing translucent waters remain at a constant 25 degrees Celsius or 76 degrees Fahrenheit year round. Many of these magnificent swim holes have jumpable cliffs, averaging about 3 meters, which present opportune moments to face fears of heights!
In the following video, I am leaping off the ledge at Cenote Eden, located just 20 minutes south of Playa del Carmen. After I had silenced a few demons chattering back and forth in my head, I plummeted into the pristine waters. When I eventually bobbed to the surface, I heard my 8 year old, (who had just completed his 40th jump), call out “Can’t you just try it without screaming?!?”
Most of the dive shops in town offer day trips with transportation to the 100’s of nearby cenotes. However, you can also gain some valuable insight and directions by speaking to the friendly locals here in Playa!