Cenotes of the Riviera Maya
Almost synonymous with “Mexico”, cenotes are as much of an attraction as the local beaches. They are associated primarily with the Yucatán Peninsula since the region — and cenotes — are made up of porous limestone.
For millions of years, rainfalls slowly ate away at the limestone, eventually collapsing the tops of caves and caverns. It is from this natural collapsing that cenotes were formed. After their collapse, many filled with water, either from rain or from the underground water table and thus, a cenote was born. There are an estimated 7,000 cenotes along the Yucatán Peninsula.
Cenote is derived from the Maya word dzonot meaning well. These wells held great spiritual significance for the Maya people in that they believed them to be portholes to the underground world. They believed life originated in the water and regenerated there. The cenotes were considered sacred places, powerful and symbolic, and represented the gateway to the spiritual underworld, to the afterlife, a place of rebirth. Archaeological research has found evidence of religious ceremonies that took place around cenotes.
While there are some grand cenotes at ground level used as open water pools, many of the region’s cenotes are small, sheltered sites that lack surface exposure. To access them, one must walk down into the cave system usually via a set of wooden or rock stairs.
Once inside, it’s easy to see that cenote water is very clear. That’s because cenotes are filled with water that has slowly been naturally filtered through the limestone and thus, contain very little suspended particulate matter.
This has made them particularly attractive to swimmers and divers alike. Cave divers arrive from around the world to explore and document these wondrous flooded cave systems, some of which have been recorded to stretch 100 kms or more.
The Yucatán Peninsula is home to, Sac Actun (White Cave), the longest cave system in the world. This underground river system wanders for 153 kms (95 miles) through a maze of underground limestone caves. British diver, Stephen Bogaerts and his colleague, Robbie Schmittner, spent four years exploring the caverns with specialized underwater scooters and gas cylinders.
As with most everything in nature, cenotes are a part of a larger system that, at some point, connects to the sea, creating a natural combination of fresh rainwater with salty sea water. Due to the uniqueness of each cenote, some have their own endemic species of fish found only in that cenote system. When you combine the history and ecology of each cenote, it’s easy to understand how each has its own power to transform your visit into a once-in-a-lifetime experience.