Beautiful but full of mystery and magic at the same time, cenotes or sinkholes are the prettiest jewels of the Yucatan Peninsula. Sheltered by the jungle, swimming in a Mexican cenote is an adventure that you can’t miss during your vacation in Cancun, the Riviera Maya or Tulum.
You may wonder what is a cenote and why are they so magical and mysterious. Here we’ll tell you.
WHAT ARE CENOTE?
These Mexican cenotes (sinkholes) owe their name to the Mayans, who baptized with the word Dz'onot, which means 'cavern with water', and from that its current name was derived, cenotes.
TYPES OF CENOTESCenotes (Mayan sinkholes), like people, have different ages. It doesn’t matter if you are in Cancun, Tulum, Playa del Carmen or Yucatan, you’ll never find two the same, even if they are the same age! Cenotes by their age are classified as:
- How do sinkholes form? Their creation goes back millions of years ago, during the last Ice Age. The water level dropped and left the reef barrier exposed, which with the passing of time turned to fertile soil allowing vegetation to grow which will later become tropical jungle.
- When the first raining mixed with the carbon dioxide of the atmosphere, it made the limestone erode.
- This way, wells or sinkholes were formed, which in time turned into much bigger passages and tunnels, creating an oasis maya of huge underground river systems, cenotes and caverns.
- Ancient Mayans had a strong connection with cenotes, since they were they water source, and were also considered the entrance to the underworld.
- Jade, copper, gold and even clothing have been found inside, as offerings to the gods.
- For the Mayans, the duality mountain and water spring had to be represented in their settlement, reason why pyramids exist, as a recreation of the sacred mountain.
FORMATION OF THE CENOTESHow do sinkholes form? The vast majority of cenotes are located along the Yucatan Peninsula and extend to Belize and Guatemala. These areas have a very porous and soft limestone soil, which when collapsed by the action of rain and the current of the underground rivers, gives rise to the formation of the cenotes. But leaving us more to the history of the formation of the cenotes, this goes back to 66 million years ago, with the impact of the great meteorite in Chicxulub in the Yucatan Peninsula. This impact created deep underground depressions that were flooded, giving rise to their birth, as it also changed forever the flow of water, especially under the earth. In the Riviera Maya a very curious phenomenon occurs, because here the sea water enters the continent by the force of the tide through the limestone rock; when encountering the fresh water of the underground rivers, it gives rise to the halocline. This dissolves the rock more quickly causing internal collapses but from bottom to top, leading to the formation of large flooded chambers, allowing interconnection with other systems farther away, as in the case of Cenote Dos Ojos and Sac Actun with over 353 km, which makes it the longest submerged cavern in the world.
FLORA AND FAUNA OF THE CENOTESThe flora and fauna of a cenote (Mexico sinkhole), is as unique as the cenotes themselves, since they contain plants and species that give their surroundings the landscape of a true oasis in the middle of the Mayan jungle. Let's start with the fish that are most observed in the cenotes: the guppy and the catfish, you'll be surprised how they got there! It is believed that hurricanes, common in this area, could transport guppies, including some females with eggs, to the waters of some cenotes, allowing for population of the species. The arrival of the catfish is also surprising, since it is considered that they come from the sea, through the underground currents that connect with some cenotes. Some varieties of marine crustaceans it is believed also enter this way. Of the species that only live in these ecosystems, those that live in the darkness of the cavern cenotes are impressive, since they do not need sight to move around. Species like the Mexican blind brotula fish or the blind swamp eel are both in danger of extinction. Other specimens that have their home in the surroundings of the cenotes are turtles, iguanas, frogs and butterflies. Also nesting in their walls are swallows and motmots, better known as 'bird of the cenotes'. The motmot is distinguished by having a long tail in the shape of a pendulum, and by the color of its plumage of green and blue tones. The Mayans believed that if you wanted to see one, you had to follow its song. Regarding the flora of the cenotes, they vary depending on their proximity or distance from the coast. For example, the coastal cenotes are surrounded by mangroves, palms and ferns, while others they are surrounded by guayas, coconut palms, and cocoa and chewing gum trees. It is very common to see in the cavern cenotes, the long roots of these trees integrated into the landscape of stalactites and stalagmites, which descend from the roof of the vault to reach the water, as you can see in the blue cenote Luu'm of the Xenotes Tour of Grupo Xcaret. Plants that grow in the cavities of the walls of the cenotes stand out, mainly ferns, mosses and climbing plants. In those with high vertical walls, these plants become true hanging gardens whose branches of all shades of green, fall like waterfalls into the water, as you can admire in our cenotes Ii'k and Ha' with the Xenotes Tour. Among the aquatic flora of the cenotes, the most important are those of microscopic size, such as chlorophyll microalgae, phytoplankton or benthos, which we can’t see at first sight. In addition to serving as food for some species, they also have a decisive influence on the coloration of water, ranging from green, blue or brown. The lilies that float on the surface in turn create another landscape worthy of admiration underwater.
IMPORTANCE OF THE CENOTES IN MAYAN CULTUREThe Mexican cenotes for the Mayan culture since the pre-Hispanic Era have been a symbol of duality, since they represented life and death. As we mentioned before, since the Yucatan Peninsula has very porous limestone soil, the existence of lakes or lagoons has been almost impossible in this area, therefore the source of water has been the cenotes. That is why the ancient Mayan cities settled nearby, and the control of cenotes strengthened the power of the rulers and their large Mayan cities. They also believed that the rain gods lived in the cenotes, that is why with archaeological diving several ritual elements have been found in various flooded caves in the area. Just as they were a symbol of life, the cenotes for the Maya also represented the gateway to the world of the dead, Xibalbá. This world was visualized beyond the underground water and the caverns were the beginning of this road, in the same way various ritual ceremonies were performed. The first official record of these ceremonies is in the Popol Vuh. The Aluxes, caretakers of the jungle and cenotes, deserve a very important mention. Even these days, rituals and offerings learned from Mayan ancestors are being dedicated to them, for the care of the crops, to be able to build on certain lands, and to request their permission before entering a cenote.
CENOTES IN PRESENT DAYThe cenotes in the present day are still around, and are more important than ever. These silent witnesses of the past now speak to us through discoveries made inside, with invaluable information about the development of the planet, our species, and even unknown data of the Mayan culture. Get to know how they are impacting our present: Cenotes as a source of water As mentioned in previous sections, due to the limestone soil of the Yucatan Peninsula, the existence of lakes or lagoons is almost impossible. The source of water in this area comes precisely from these natural pools, in particular for the Mayan populations that inhabit the peninsula.
Exploration sitesAccessing a Mexican cenote is an adventure without equal. Many of them are hidden in the jungle and are accessible only by small holes or openings. Occasionally, the water level may be several meters below the surface, as is the case around Chichén Itzá or at the Lu'um blue cenote in the Xenotes Tour. Of the Mexican cenotes that are located in the Yucatan Peninsula, many of them are part of networks of underground rivers of great beauty and extension, such as cenote Dos Ojos, Sac Actún, or Ox Bel Há. They are a fundamental piece of the Mayan cosmogony, considering the cenotes as the gateway to Xibalbá, the underworld. They have been a source of enormous importance to study the characteristics of the ancient Mayans, revealing secrets about their practices, offerings, and relationship with their gods. Archaeologists and divers from all over the world have descended for years to their depths, finding many invaluable pieces, such as vessels and ornaments of jade and gold, giving birth to archaeological diving. They have also found skeletons of ancient settlers or even animals that inhabited the Earth thousands of years ago, such as the giant sloth found near Puerto Morelos, Quintana Roo.
Let’s take care of the cenotesIn addition to being a source of water for numerous communities, they are recreational sites that are becoming popular for their unique beauty. Whether along the Route of the Cenotes, Yucatan or the Mayan Riviera, when you visit them you must keep them clean and respect their environment. At the entrance to the vast majority of the Mexican cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula you will find certain basic rules to keep these places in optimum condition. It is essential to rinse yourself before swimming, to use a bathing suit, to avoid the use of sunscreens, sun lotions and make-up, not to touch the vegetation, nor the stalactites and stalagmites that you could find. Helping the conservation of your ecosystem is everyone's task, always take away any garbage, use sunscreen, suntan lotion and insect repellents friendly to the environment, and follow all the provided recommendations.