Tourists travel to the Yucatan for the two «star attractions» — the beaches and the ruins. However, they often miss the geologic wonder of
the freshwater springs of the Yucatan, the cenotes. “Cenote” is a modification of the Maya word “Dzonot”, which means, hole in the ground or well.
As is the nature of peninsulas the Yucatan is surrounded on three sides by large bodies of water yet on the peninsula itself there are no lakes, nor rivers. Instead there are the cenotes (also known as sinkholes or natural wells) which are surface connections to subterranean water bodies.
Cenote water is most often very clear, as the water comes from rain water filtrating slowly through the ground, and as a result contains very little suspended particulate matter.
The Yucatan is «pock-marked» with many cenotes. At last count there were 6000, with only 2400 studies and registered.
The cenote is actually a collapsed part of a cave that fills with water—often pure crystal clear water. What makes the cenotes so fascinating is that no two are alike. A person by the name of F.G. Hall proposed the first cenote classification:
2. With vertical walls
This list gives you an idea as to the uniqueness of the cenotes. It would make for a great holiday to the Yucatan to just visit as many cenotes as possible in your two or three weeks time.
Some cenotes are like small lakes as is the one to be found at the Dzibilchaltun ruin. Some require that you climb down a steep ladder, as Dante descending into the underworld. Some have passages where one can swim underground and come out in another spring or, even more exciting, they’ll have a fresh water tunnel that empties into the Caribbean where you see wildlife adapted to the unique water type. Yal-ku and Xel-ha («shell-hah») are two huge lagoons where the spring water blends into the salt.
Many cenotes are found in caves where you can swim without diving equipment as they have air in them. Here you will see the ancient stalactites and stalagmites formed when the cave was dry. There is an unearthly beauty to the light, the fish, and the huge cave entrances. If you dive with a reputable guide, they can show you ancient Mayan glyphs, pots and even a human skull or two!
Getting to the cenotes can be adventurous fun. To visit a series of three cenotes, you hop on a tiny railroad car, and a man with a small horse, pulls you through the jungle on abandoned hacienda train tracks to the various springs. Others require a hike. Some, you can park right near them. Some are on private land. Usually there will be a man working for the owner at the gate, taking some pesos to let you in! At these private cenotes you often have them to yourself.
Some have ropes where the adventurous can swing out yards above the water and drop in with a giant splash. Some change with the seasons, for example there is what is called the Car Wash Cenote. In the warmer months it turns a bit «green» with algae.
During my stay on the Yucatan I have made it a point to visit some of the more interesting cenotes.
On an incredibly hot day-trip to the Dzibilchaltun (tzee-BEEL-chal-toon) ruins
the Xlacah (ISH-lah-cah) cenote, located on the site, made for a refreshing swim. This cenote is one that looks like a lake however, one end of the cenote is very shallow, while the other is over 140 feet deep and continues on into a tunnel.
The Cenotes at Cuzama are the ones that I mentioned previously as being accessed with the aid of an antique wooden buggy type of cart called a ‘truck’ pulled by a horse. This is the fun mode of transportation used on the increasingly popular «Chunkanán» or «Cuzamá cenote trip.» Traveling through the lush (or bone dry, depending on the time of year) sisal plantations of the Yucatán, with three wonderful refreshing cenotes as the goal of the trip, this day trip is something truly unique.
The cenotes that we visited in the village of Tecoh are not for the faint of heart. The cave system is named, Tzabnah (ZOB-na), a Mayan word that means «The King’s Palace». There are stalactites, stalagmites, columns, deep crevices and thirteen cenotes within the caves. Stalactites meet stalagmites to form natural columns.
On the route within the caves, there is a huge chamber known as the «Cathedral Cupula» that oddly enough resembles the Cathedral of Mérida. Part of the trip through the caves requires a crawl of 20 meters through a very narrow passage. Legend has it that a Mayan prince and the princess that had been kidnapped escaped to these caves and, not surprising, were lost. Needless to say, you do not access this cavern without a guide.
I won’t go into all the details of all the cenotes I visited as I want to leave some for you to discover on your own when you visit this fascinating area of Mexico. Don’t forget your snorkel and mask.