For the ancient Mayan of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, finding natural wells for fresh drinking water was difficult. Fortunately, they discovered unique sources of fresh water called cenotes (“dzonot” or “ts’onot” in Mayan, meaning “cavity containing life-giving water”), which they believed were sacred wells or gifts from the gods.
Today it’s understood that cenotes evolved from forces of nature. Rainwater would filter through permeable limestone bedrock forming ponds and rivers below ground. The underground roofs eventually collapsed from erosion, exposing beautiful pools of clear, fresh water. The normally aquamarine colored water reaches typical depths of 16 to 20 feet (5 to 15 meters) and is a pleasant 77° Fahrenheit (25° Celsius), ideal for swimming, snorkeling, diving, or just sightseeing.
Cenotes, natural wells, or sinkholes are extraordinary natural wonders which have become popular tourist attractions. Although many remain unexplored, it is estimated that there are as many as 30,000 cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula, a region that includes the Mexican states of Yucatan, Campeche, and Quintana Roo (home to Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and the Riviera Maya).
Research shows that while many cenotes formed during the Ice Age when extreme changes in ocean levels contributed to the formation of caves and caverns, others may have been created by the Chicxulub meteorite impact in the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago − the same meteorite responsible for causing the extinction of dinosaurs.
Once part of this network of underground rivers and caves, cenotes contain fascinating formations, such as stalactites, stalagmites, and columns, with crystal clear blue water. Four different types of cenotes exist, ones that are: (1) completely below ground, (2) partially below ground, (3) at ground level, or (4) open but below ground level. No matter what type of cenote it is, each one is distinctively captivating.
Water was so highly revered by the Maya due to its life-sustaining powers that one of their most honored gods was Chac (“Chaac” or “Chaahk”), god of thunder, lightening, and rain. Although at home in the sky, the Maya believed Chac would visit cenotes, which became sacred sites for performing spiritual rituals, offerings, and sacrifices. Other cenotes were used for drinking, watering crops, and domestic tasks, such as collecting materials for arrows, ceramics, and construction.
A similar Mayan ritual involving cenotes had to do with the transition from life to death. For the Maya, death was seen as a state of existence that precedes life, not as an end to life. Death and life were merely doorways to the next plane of existence. As sacred sites, cenotes and caves were considered by the Maya to be a connection to the gods and a gateway to the underworld, Xibalba (or land of the dead). Offerings and sacrifices were made at cenotes to appease the gods of death and disease and persuade them not to render disorder and destruction on earth.
Among others, the following cenotes are open for tours: the Gran Cenote and Cenote Dos Ojos in Quintana Roo; Cenote Sagrado at the Chichen Itza Mayan archaeological site in Yucatan; Yokdzonot cenote and ecological park west of Chichen Itza in the Mayan village of Yokdzonot; Cenote Xtacunbilxunan in Campeche; and those along La Ruta de los Cenotes (The Cenotes Route) near Puerto Morelos in the Riviera Maya. Guests of Hacienda Tres Ríos Resort can visit the 10 fascinating cenotes on site at Tres Ríos Nature Park.
Don’t miss these magnificant underwater caves, make sure you ask the concierge about touring the cenotes.