The History and Mystery of the Cenote

There are over 6000 cenotes in the Yucatán Peninsula

One of the most unique experiences one can enjoy in Mexico, and particularly in the Yucatan, is to swim in one of the region’s many cenotes. A cenote (pronounced say-NO-tay) is a natural pit, or sinkhole, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath. While there are some of these natural wonders in other countries including Australia and Cuba, “cenote” is a term only used in Mexico, originating from the Mayan word “dzonot,” which means abyss. For the Maya, the cenotes were considered sacred sources of life because they were the only source of water in the jungle.

Although there are over 6000 cenotes in the Yucatán Peninsula alone, a higher-density circular alignment of cenotes overlies the measured rim of the Chicxulub Crater, formed by the impact of a meteor that impacted the area 65 million years ago.

Cenotes may be fully collapsed creating an open water pool, or partially collapsed with some portion of a rock overhanging above the water. The stereotypical cenotes often resemble small circular ponds, measuring some tens of meters in diameter with sheer drops at the edges. Most cenotes, however, require some degree of stooping or crawling to access the water.

Cenotes are as refreshing as they are mystical. Cenote water is often very clear, as the water comes from rain water filtering slowly through the ground, and therefore contain very little suspended particulate matter. This is why they are so popular as swimming holes and are very popular with divers.
But cenotes are believed to have spiritual powers as well. The Maya considered cenotes to be an entrance to their “underworld” or “Xibalba” where their gods live and their spirits reside after death; and they were connected to the goddess Ixchel and the moon.  The blessing of cenote water during full moon ceremonies or in anticipation of a wedding are still practiced to this day by many Maya X-men, of female senior Maya healers.

In addition there have been many interesting archaeological finds in or near cenotes in recent years, including 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 10,000 years ago, which makes it one of the oldest human skeleton found in the Americas.

Some sites are now protected by INAH, the Mexican government’s archaeological and historical protection organization. Whenever visiting a cenote, it is essential to be conscious of the fragile rock formations, the biodiversity and the history, and maintain respect as a visitor to a sacred place.


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