What Is A Cenote?
Cenote: Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula is low and relatively flat with no surface rivers or streams. However, below the ground run the two longest underground water systems in the world (Sac Actun 353 km and Ox Bel Ha 270 km) which have directed the distribution of human settlement on the peninsula for the last 13,000 years…the world of the cenotes and underground rivers.
A cenote is a deep, water-filled sinkhole in limestone that is created when the roof of an underground cavern collapses. This creates a natural pool that is then filled by rain and water flowing from underground rivers. The word cenote comes from the Mayan word dzonot, which means “well.” Some cenotes are vertical, water-filled shafts, while others are caves that contain pools and underwater passageways in their interior. Cenotes tend to have very clear, cool, freshwater.
At these hidden locations, you can swim in crisp mineral-rich waters in magical caves or under a jungle-framed sky and feel lost in another time.
Cenotes are natural swimming holes formed by the collapse of porous limestone bedrock, which reveals a secret subterranean world of groundwater pools. The Mayans revered cenotes because they were a source of water in dry times; indeed, the name cenote means ‘sacred well’.
Mayans settled villages around these spiritual wells and believed that they were a portal to speak with the gods. Today you can still see why cenotes held the Mayans in awe. Swimming in the pristine waters feels like stepping into prehistory, where giant tropical trees and vines form wild cathedral walls leading up to shafts of sunlight.
Most cave cenotes have fresh water that has been meticulously filtered by the earth, making them so clear and pure that you can see straight through to small fish frolicking amidst the plant life below. Underwater photographers will be thrilled with the clear waters, which allow for aquatic-playground shots in high-definition clarity. Meanwhile, open-air cenotes also have clear water, but often are home to additional vitamin- and mineral-rich algae that nourish and protect your skin if you take a dip.
Cenotes are prevalent in the Yucatan Peninsula where the ground is primarily made up of limestone, and there are thousands of cenotes and underground rivers there; they are the area’s main source of water. These sinkholes played an important role in Mayan cosmogony, and nowadays are a big draw for tourists who come to swim and dive and explore these refreshing natural swimming holes.
Significance of Cenotes
Cenotes were ritually significant to the ancient Maya because they were considered passages to the underworld. Many cenotes, including the Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza and the cenote at Dzibilchaltún, were used for sacrificial purposes: human and animal skeletons, as well as sacrificial objects of gold, jade, pottery, and incense, have been dredged from them.
Cenote Swimming and Diving
On a hot day in the Yucatan, there’s nothing better than taking a refreshing dip in a cenote. Some of them are easy to access, with steps leading down to the water, and others are a bit more tricky, with ladders. In either case, take care when descending to a cenote because the steps can be slippery. Since the water filling the cenotes is rainwater that has filtered through the ground, it usually has few suspended particles, so the water is extremely clear, making for excellent visibility. They’re a delight to snorkel or dive in.
If you visit the Yucatan Peninsula, you may have the opportunity to be blessed by a Maya shaman before entering the cenote. This is a way of showing respect for the significance of the cenotes to the Mayan culture. The shaman or healer will burn some incense and say a few words in Mayan, to bless you and cleanse you of any negative energy before entering the cenote. That will take care of your spiritual cleanliness, but it’s also a good idea to keep in mind what you’re bringing into the cenote on your body – try to eschew chemical sunscreens and insect repellent as it may contaminate the water and it’s not favorable to the natural life of the cenote.
Cenote Ik Kil
With its convenient location on the road between Tulum and Cobá archaeological sites, the Gran Cenote makes for a perfect stop between hot walks around the ancient Maya ruins. Known as Sac Aktun in Mayan, this cenote has crystal-clear water with a depth of around thirty feet. There are accessible caverns (which are a little deeper) that are home to small fish and some fascinating formations. The cenote is surrounded by jungle and gardens.
The Gran Cenote attracts both snorkelers and divers, who come to explore the caverns or just cool off in the beautiful crystal-clear water. A shallow, sandy-bottomed snorkeling area near the stairs leading down to the cenote is the perfect spot for beginners to explore the underwater world, while more experienced swimmers and divers venture into the large cave, which is hung with stalactites.
Dos Ojos (meaning “two eyes” in Spanish) is the world’s third-largest underwater cave system, and a must-see for divers and snorkelers wanting to explore this fascinating world. It also contains the deepest passage in the state of Quintana Roo, an almost 400-foot deep hollow called “The Cenote Pit.” The name Dos Ojos refers to the two neighboring cenotes connected by a large cavern, said to resemble a pair of eyes marking the entrance to the underworld.
There is a safe, family-friendly part of the cenote that is perfect for snorkeling, with access in and out of the water from large wooden decks. Cavern diving is the most popular activity here though: the cave system is so vast and the underwater sights so extraordinary that many divers make this their must-do stop in the region. Along with incredible stalactite and stalagmite formations, you’ll see bats (there’s an actual bat cave), small fish and a type of freshwater shrimp in the beautifully clear freshwater.
A “cenote” (pronounced say-NO-tay) is a natural sinkhole created where a cave ceiling has collapsed, a window to this spectacular world. Cenotes were the only source of water in the jungle for the Mayan civilization and are considered sacred by the Mayan people. The Mayan considered cenotes to be an entrance to their “underworld” or “Xibalba” where their gods live and their spirits reside after death.
The word cenote is derived from the Mayan word “D’zonot” and refers to any subterranean chamber that contains permanent water. While some cenotes are vertical, water-filled shafts, others are caves that contain pools and underwater passageways in their interior.
A combination of geologic events and climatic change has led to the development of these unique ecosystems. Millions of years ago, the Yucatan peninsula was a giant reef set under several feet of ocean water. During the last ice age, the ocean level dropped (water levels were approximately 300 feet lower than their present-day levels), exposing the reef to the surface. The coral died, and the jungle grew over the mile-thick limestone platform created by the coral reef. Fossils found far inland are proof of this and are commonly seen during a cenote dive.
Massive cave systems were formed by the gradual dissolving of the highly porous coral limestone. These caves are called “solution” caves because they were formed by the slightly acidic rainfall dissolving the alkaline limestone. Inside the caves, the geological formations such as stalactites, which hang like icicles from the cave’s ceiling, and stalagmites, which extend upwards from the cavern floor, which often join to create columns, are a spectacular sight to see. These stalactites and stalagmites number in the millions and range in size from that of a pencil to the size of a big tree.
Many of the caverns eventually collapsed and when the Ice Age came to a close 18,000 years ago, the climate of the planet warmed up, the glaciers receded, and the caves flooded as sea levels rose. Scientists have varying views on how fast water levels rose, but most agree that the water reached its current level around 1,000 years ago. Carbon dating of artifacts found in some area caves shows them to have been visited by humans over 13,000 years ago.
Among the interesting archaeological finds in recent years are ancient fossilized remains of camels, giant jaguars, mammoths, sloths, and horses. To date, four human skeletons have been found. Tests on charcoal found beside one female skeleton would place it at least 13,600 years ago, which makes it one of the oldest human skeleton found in the Americas. Most of these have been found by cave divers exploring underwater cave systems and some sites are now protected by INAH, the Mexican government’s archaeological and historical protection organization.
What is a cenote in Mexico?
CENOTES OF MEXICO’S YUCATAN PENINSULA. A “cenote” (pronounced say-NO-tay) is a natural sinkhole created where a cave ceiling has collapsed, a window to this spectacular world. Cenotes were the only source of water in the jungle for the Mayan civilization and are considered sacred by the Mayan people.
Are cenotes fresh or saltwater?
Cenotes are filled with both fresh and saltwater because when the limestone collapses and sinks, it creates a massive reservoir where the newly exposed fresh groundwater meets the salt water that’s seeping in from the ocean via an underground channel.
Is Cenote water clean?
Since the water filling the cenotes is rainwater that has filtered through the ground, it usually has few suspended particles, so the water is extremely clear, making for excellent visibility.