Exploring Mexico's Cenotes
Updated: May 30, 2020
There are over 6,000 cenotes all over the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. These subterranean caves have created more than 1,000 kilometres of tunnels. Ancient Mayans believed they were sacred, and today it is still easy to see why.
Last year Daniel and I travelled to Mexico where we signed up for a cenote snorkel tour, and it turned out to be our favourite part of the entire trip. Some cenotes are tunnels that open up to cathedral-esque chambers, others plunge deep into the earth, creating a dark and seemingly never-ending abyss. These fascinating cave systems are both beautiful and ominous —they cannot help to spark your curiosity and imagination.
The Yucatan Peninsula is made out of limestone rock. There are cenotes in other parts of the world, but the conditions here allow for thousands of caves to form in one small area. Limestone is a soluble rock, so when it interacts with water, over thousands of years, it eventually dissolves. Because of the porous nature of limestone, the rock doesn’t allow for water to pool on its surface, creating rivers and lakes, instead, it collects underground. Sometimes the water pooling in the limestone will cause the rock to collapse, which can lead to the creation of caves, or cenotes.
As rain filters through the porous rock, it creates crystal clear water in the cenotes. The calcium from the rainwater collects overtime, creating stalactites and stalagmites that are now thousands of years old.
The ancient Mayans believed these caves were sacred. The word cenote is derived from the Mayan word ‘D’zonot’ or ‘Ts’onot’ meaning ‘well.’ They were a source of water in drought times. And because water doesn’t pool as frequently on the surface of the peninsula, Mayan villages, like Chichen Itza, were built near cenotes.
As a freshwater opening to an underground world, it is easy to understand why the Mayans believed cenotes to be a portal to the Netherworld (Xibalba). They were known to leave offerings including pottery, gold and very occasionally human sacrifices. Archaeologists have discovered human remains that are 9,000 years old as well as animal bones that date back to the ice age.
Cenotes can “grow” into vast, unground cave systems, and there are thousands of them all over the Yucatan Peninsula. The Grand Cenote near Tulum connects to the Sistema Sac Actun, which is the second-longest cave system in the world stretching over 335 kilometres.
When exploring this underground world, it is important to remember how ancient the tunnels actually are. With a group of tourist in lifejackets and fluorescent bikinis, it’s easy to forget the significance of the place. Stalactites and stalagmites annual growth is measured in millimetres, but a rogue flipper or a misplaced hand can easily chip off hundreds of years of their life. As these places are incredible destinations that you really should experience for yourself, but also leave intact for others.