The Cenotes of the Yucatán

The Yucatán Peninsula is the area of Central America that juts out into the water like a big fat thumb, separating the Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Mexico (most of it’s in Mexico, but it also includes parts of northern Belize and northern Guatemala).  The Belizean and Guatemalan parts are mostly low-lying jungle; and the Mexican part is equally flat, equally hot, and comprised mainly of limestone.  This soft rock is so porous that the abundant rainwater drains straight through it, and as a consequence there are no surface rivers in this part of the country.  But what there are plenty of is sinkholes, known locally as cenotes (from a Maya word dzonot, meaning sacred well).  The Peninsula is pockmarked with thousands of them, and they range in size and shape – while some are open water pools at the bottom of circular limestone holes, most are mainly or completely underground, accessed by small holes in the ground or twisting cave passages.  In this flat landscape, the only thing that rises above the forest and the plains are the giant temple-pyramids built by the ancient Maya, and it was probably the numerous cenotes and their fresh water that allowed the Maya cities to survive and grow.

The ancient Maya thought that the cenotes (along with caves, caverns, and anything else that lead underground) were entrances to the underworld, and used to throw sacrificial victims into them to propitiate their various gods (the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá was dredged in the early 20th century, and found to be full of the skeletons of people ‘obliged’ to take an eternal swim to appease the rain god Chaac).  But for me (uninterested as I am in killing the locals to change the weather), the cenotes are the perfect way (sometimes the only way) to escape the oppressive heat of the Mexican summer.  And there are plenty to choose from, all over Quintana Roo and Yucatán states.

Two well-known (and well-touristed) cenotes near the Caribbean beach resort of Tulum are the Gran Cenote and Cenote Dos Ojos.  Despite an excessive amount of decking in the Gran Cenote (there’s more wood than water), and the usual hawkers and peddlers at Dos Ojos, they’re both great places for a cooling swim – like all cenotes, the water is refreshingly cool (about 25°C), and incredibly clear (the limestone filters the water as it slowly drains through the ground).  Many cenotes are the openings to underground caves, and both Gran and Dos Ojos cenotes lead to vast flooded cave systems that join together to form over 300km of underground (and mostly underwater) passages, making it one of the longest caves in the world (containing one of the world’s longest underground rivers).

With bats hanging from the rocky ceiling and swallows flying in and out of their nests, plus small turtles and fish in the blue water, these cenotes are much more than just holes in the ground full of water.  And all the snorkellers and divers (particularly at Dos Ojos) show that there’s clearly more to explore than by just swimming.

A few miles outside the city of Valladolid is the tiny village of Dzitnup, home to two lovely (and large) cenotes, more atmospheric and less touristed than the ones near the coast – Xkeken and Samula.  With the cave lit by a shafts of sunlight coming from an opening in the ceiling (technically, the ground above), a shoal of black fish swimming through the crystal-clear water, and limestone rock formations overhanging the pool, Xkeken is an atmospheric place for a swim.  Samula is even bigger and more photogenic – like Xkeken, a tunnel leads underground to a huge vaulted cave, the water glowing from sunlight streaming through a hole in the ceiling.  But Samula also has the enormous root system of a tree stretching down 20 metres or more through the hole and into the water below.

Another clutch of cenotes are in the small village of Chunkanán, a few miles outside the town of Cuzamá, which is about an hour south-east of the Yucatán’s capital Mérida.  After catching a collectivo (shared van) from Mérida to Cuzamá, a motorcycle taxi takes me to the village and the cenotes.  But unlike most other motorbike taxis, where you’re on the back, or in some kind of seated contraption behind the driver, these vehicles have the open passenger compartment in front of the driver – so you get to face death head-on, as the driver bounces down the country lanes and over some enormous speed-bumps (Mexico must have the biggest ones in the world, some of them are like low brick walls across the road).  Fortunately, the streets are quiet, but I still hold on to the sides, just in case the driver brakes suddenly, and I’m thrown out the front onto the road and then run over by my own taxi.

The three cenotes are on the grounds of an old henequen hacienda.  Henequen is a spiky cactus native to southern Mexico, similar to the ones that produce tequila and mezcal.  Except this species is harvested for its leaves (rather than its hearts, as with the boozy ones) – they yield the fibre sisal, which for many years was used to make almost all the world’s rope and twine (and almost all the sisal came from the Yucatán).  As a result, thanks to the ‘green gold’, the Yucatán became the richest part of Mexico, and in the late 19th century Mérida was home to more millionaires than any city in the world (the lavish buildings on Mérida’s European-looking boulevard Paseo de Montejo are a baroque testament to how much money was around back then).  And the henequen plantation owners made vast fortunes and built their enormous haciendas.  But the invention of synthetic fibres finished off the henequen industry, and the haciendas were mostly abandoned and fell into disrepair (with some being bought and turned into luxury hotels).

To get to the cenotes you have to take a tour – a small group of men is already waiting at the entrance to the village, and for a few hundred pesos, one of them takes me around in a horse-drawn railway cart.  The carts were previously used to transport people and goods around the hacienda on a small-gauge rail line, and now they transport tourists to the cenotes.  It’s low-tech, environmentally-friendly, and quite charming – except for the horse-flies.  They’re everywhere, biting me painfully on any exposed part and seemingly undeterred by all attempts to swat them away.  Occasionally, you meet another cart coming the opposite way, and one of you has to get out and let your driver physically haul the cart off the rails, let the other one pass, and then haul it back on again.  Except that no one wants to be the one to give way, because that means standing on the side of the railway line fighting off the aggressive aerial pests.  Happily, the flies aren’t in the cenotes.

The first cenote is ok – it’s a large cave but a small pool, and the water’s black, but it’s still clean and cool.  The second cenote is much better – another large cave containing a deep, cerulean pool with a wooden platform for jumping or diving in, and plenty of space to swim.  And the last cenote is the best of the lot – whereas the other two are caverns with large openings and plenty of sunlight, this is literally a small hole in the ground.  An opening not much bigger than me leads straight down.  I have to leave my bag outside, as I won’t fit in with it on my back.  And then I go down a slippery metal ladder into what feels like the bowels of the Earth, to find a small pool that appears to be bottomless.  The clear water and strong lighting means I can see metres down into the water as it slowly fades to black.  And then, after a quick dip, it’s back up the muddy ladder to sunlight and solid ground.

The Chunkanán cenotes are part of a semi-circular line of hundreds of cenotes that stretches across the north coast of the Yucatán.  If this line were extended into the Gulf of Mexico to form a complete circle, it would match the outline of a huge crater that’s been detected under the land (and the sea) – a crater that’s generally accepted as being the one formed by the asteroid strike that finished off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.  The presence of so many cenotes in such an unusual arrangement (and the absence of cenotes inside the circle) were two of the many pieces of evidence that convinced scientists that there was a massive hole in the ground that was made at the same time as the dinos disappeared.  If only Bruce Willis was around back then…

Even though swimming and snorkelling are perfectly acceptable cenote activities, to really explore these environments, the only way is to dive into them.  In Tulum (which probably has more cenotes in the surrounding area than any other town), there are a host of dive shops offering cenote dives (it’s probably the only beach resort in the Caribbean where no one wants to dive in the sea).  After being lucky enough to find a dive shop where I’m the only tourist (except for three young, attractive Mexican ladies who are doing their divemaster course, and who their instructor waggishly calls his “mermaids”), we agree to dive in cenotes Calavera and Angelita.

Getting prepped for a cenote dive is a different experience to doing it for an ocean dive.  For a start, you do it in the middle of the forest, getting suited up and then walking with all your heavy cumbersome gear through the jungle, as opposed to getting ready on a boat and then just plopping into the surrounding water.  And as we’ll be diving in a relatively chilly environment, we’re especially well-dressed today – no thin shorty wetsuit like I’m used to, but a thick full-length one.  Plus boots and a tight-fitting hood that even I have trouble stretching over my pea-sized noggin.  Being almost entirely encased in rubber and walking in the tropical heat carrying scuba gear works up quite a sweat…

Cenote Calavera is unassuming from the outside – a round hole in the ground about 10 metres across and 3 metres deep.  But after jumping in (and I mean jumping, you have to step off the ledge and drop through those 3 metres) and going down, the cenote expands into an enormous underwater cave that’s over 100 metres across.  There are several separate openings that we go into to follow underground rivers, ones that eventually lead to the sea several miles away.  The seawater doesn’t mix with the freshwater, and a halocline forms at the point where the two waters meet, the freshwater ‘floating’ on top of the seawater.  In the freshwater part, the water’s as crystal-clear as always, but move through the halocline and the seawater obscures everything in a hallucinogenic blur.  Light from the entrance illuminates the white cave walls and its rock formations.  And our torches help me to see where the heck everyone else is in the trippy halocline.

And there’s an even more ethereal experience to be had at Cenote Angelita.  Like Calavera, it’s simple-looking – a large round lake in the forest, surrounded by overhanging trees.  And after stepping in, I can see through the clear water to a muddy-looking bottom with a small mound of earth in the middle (these are called talus cones, and are lumps of accumulated debris that’s fallen off the sides of the cenote or into the water from above).  Except this talus cone isn’t small – it’s much bigger than I realise.  And that’s because the bulk of it lies beneath what I think is the muddy bottom of the cenote.  Because the bottom isn’t the bottom at all – it’s a layer of hydrogen sulfide gas that looks as opaque and as solid as the ground.  I’ve already been told about this by the divemaster, so I know what to expect.  But I still get a jolt of surprise watching him and the other divers sinking slowly through what I thought was solid.  And then I go through, and the clear water becomes foggy, as we pass through the gas layer and into the seawater below.

From above, the gas cloud may have looked like mud, obscuring the water beneath it.  But from below, with the sunlight filtering through, it gives everything a greenish hue and a sulfurous smell.  The rest of the talus cone is below us, and comprised of not only dirt and rocks, but the remains of fallen trees (it’s the slow decomposing of this organic matter that produces the hydrogen sulfide, and that’s also why the gas smells like rotten eggs).  Branches poke out of the foggy water in every direction, making it feel like swimming through a misty forest at dusk.  There can’t be many places in the world where you can scuba dive through clouds and see trees, and it makes for a unique and surreal experience.

The Maya settled around cenotes, as they were a source of fresh water in dry times; and they revered them as portals to the underworld.  And after splashing around in just a few of them, I can see why these beautiful spots captivated them.

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