The Yucatan Peninsula is really a huge, porous limestone shelf. Its northern half has not a single above-ground river. However, there are rivers that run beneath the ground. When the limestone bedrock collapses above an underground source of water, it forms a cenote. You can think of a cenote as a special type of sinkhole that is characteristic of Mexico and Central America. Except, when I say sinkhole, I want you to get rid of all of the negative connotations that might be associated with that term, because the cenotes of Mexico are true beauties of nature. There are an estimated 6,000 cenotes in the Yucatán Peninsula area.
At a time when cenotes were the only source of fresh water, they were sacred places for the people who lived near them (namely, the Mayans). In fact, the Mayans believed that the cenotes represented an entrance to the underworld; they were used as a place for sacrificial offerings. Not all cenotes are underground, but the ones that are typically feature stunning stalagmites and stalactites. The water in a cenote typically stays around a pleasant 78 degrees Fahrenheit. Here are a few notable cenotes:
- Cenote Sagrado (“Sacred Cenote”). This cenote can be found on site at Chichen Itza. It is also known as the “Well of Sacrifice.” Archeologist Edward Herbert Thompson dredged this cenote between 1904 and 1910, recovering artifacts of gold, copper, and jade in addition to human remains with wounds consistent with human sacrifice! Unlike many other cenotes, this is not one you might swim in, but is historically extremely important.
- Cenote Ikil (“Sacred Blue Cenote”). This one is not far from the Cenote Sagrado, and is a popular destination for both swimming and diving. It is 196 feet wide and 130 feet deep, surrounded by small waterfalls and lush vegetation. After paying a park entrance fee, you can simple make your way down the large stone staircase that leads to the bottom of the cenote. Careful, it can be both crowded and wet (i.e. slippery).
- Cenote Dzitnup. This cenote is located less than five miles from Valladolid, Mexico. It is completely underground, but partially lit and swimmable. Poplar roots stretch all the way down to the water from the hole up above, making for a breathtaking scene.
- The Grand Cenote. Some cenotes, like this one, connect to a vast network of underground caves, which make them ideal destinations for snorkelers and scuba divers.
There are of course many more cenotes in the Yucatán peninsula that a worth a visit if you are in the area (or even if you aren’t).