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. Continue reading

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