Cenotes in Yucatan
A simple internet search for “cenote” provides pictures of many seemingly magical turquoise paradises – like the photo below, taken at Yukzonodot cenote by us in 2013. But the cenotes of the Yucatan peninsula are more complex than that. There are many different types. On multiple trips to Merída in 2013, my family and I visited, swam and climbed through many different ones.
Note: This post has been mostly written for a decade, like several others that describe areas visited in Yucatan. They were originally targeted at being part of an extended app for app stores like many we had previously published. Motivated by some recent conversations and remembrances about these areas, we’ve dusted them off to share with family and friends.
Given the number of visitors to the Mayan ruin of Chichen Itza, most folks initial view of a cenote is the “Sacred Cenote” one finds when you hike down the path away from El Castillo (the large temple at Chichen Itza), past the many local vendors. The Sacred Cenote has been cleared but is still overgrown; and it is so deep that it is hard to get a sense of what it must have been like, and what it was used for by the Mayans.
The obvious usage of the cenotes was for fresh water. Yucatan is a hot and dry place; it surely was during the time of the Mayans and during the time of our visits! There are no above ground rivers in the Yucatan; all run underground. This makes the cenotes necessary for life, and no doubt some magical properties were attributed to them…for where did the fresh water come from when needed if not by magic
John L. Stephens (author of several travel guides in the 1800s, including Incidents of Travel in Yucatan) and Frederick Catherwood (artist, among other skill sets) visited several cenotes during their travels in the Yucatan. There description of the Cenote at Chichen Itza follows:
On our journey from Peto, the particulars of which I was obliged to omit, we had entered a region where the sources of the supply of water again formed a new and distinctive feature in the face of the country, wilder, and, at first sight, perhaps creating at stronger feeling of admiration and wonder than even the extraordinary cuevas, aguadas, and senotes we had formerly encountered. These, too, are called senotes, but they differ materially from those before presented, being immense circular holes, from sixty to two hundred feet in diameter, with broken, rocky, perpendicular sides from fifty to one hundred feet deep, and having at the bottom a great body of water, of an unknown depth, always about the same level, supposed to be supplied by subterranean rivers. We had seen ranchos of Indians established near these senotes, with a railing on one side, over which Indian women were drawing up water in little bark buckets; probably the two great senotes at this place were the inducements to the foundation of the ancient city.
The engraving that follows represents this senote among the ruins of Chichen. Though wild enough in its appearance, it had less of that extraordinary regularity than the others we had seen. Those were all circular, and it was impossible to get access to the water except by means of a rope. This wae oblong, about three hundred and fifty feet in length and one hundred and fifty wide. The sides were between sixty and seventy feet high, and perpendicular, except in one place, which was broken so as to form a steep, winding descent to the water.
Our first cenote: Yokdzonot near Chichen Itza
Like most adventures, seeing photos is not as impactful as being there. After a hot and sweaty day at Chichen Itza on our first visit to Yucatan, we drove back toward Mérida on the local road (we’d driven to Chichen Itza on the highway). This is the long way back, as it has many towns/villages to drive through, all of which seem to have speed bumps…and by each speed bump is usually a vendor, knowing that the driver must slow down so they can notice the vendor’s fine wares for sale.
We spied a small, handmade sign pointing us to our destination – the Yokdzonot cenote. Its parking lot was empty. We worried briefly that it was closed, or that we’d again missed a turn. But there was an entrance hut, where we paid a small sum and were informed everyone needed a life preserver. Apparently this cenote is quite deep. We changed and started down a wooden staircase, new in appearance, with a guide/lifeguard who looked younger than the woodwork.
The first view of this cenote from above was extraordinary. Given the remote location and emptiness, we weren’t quite sure what to expect, my wife determining that I had led her astray yet again. But the water was turquoise, tranquil, with the roots of the surrounding trees reaching down all along the sides.
We were the only two people in the water, the serenity and isolation spoiling any other cenote experience we could have. While our lifeguard napped on the well-placed wooden deck, we explored every “corner” of the circular pool. I have no idea how deep it is (I dove under and failed to touch bottom) and was told that scuba divers occasionally visited this particular cenote.
Origin of Cenotes
There are many articles and speculations about why Cenotes exist in the Yucatan. One explanation is that the underground rivers weaken the upper limestone layers over time, causing them to collapse at various spots on the Yucatan peninsula. The timing of this force of nature, to coincide or more likely cause the Mayan civilizations that flourished and depended on the Cenotes for water and survival is extraordinary.
Another very interesting set of data discussed an asteroid which hit this area long ago. Its impact caused what is called the Chicxulub crater. If you look at a map that shows the location of the Cenotes, they make an interesting half-circle around Merida. The theory is that the impact of this asteroid weakened the structure of the mantle enabling or causing its collapse at several areas, making the cenotes possible.
The next two cenotes we experienced were underground – cave cenotes where the structure had not fully collapsed (as in Yokdzonot) but could be reached through some opening. We visited these on our next visit to Yucatan where our kids accompanied us.
The first and most extraordinary of these was X’Kekén, which is a large underground Cenote close to Valladolid, east of Chichen Itza. It is in a complex with a sister cenote, Saamal. Climbing down a lamp lit passageway using slippery steps, you emerge into a very large cave, lit by similar lamps but with a single small hole in the roof. On our visit, there were lots of people on the side, but few in the water. We quickly dove in to explore, the cold water only a momentary deterrent. As with Yokdzonot, this cenote was quite deep; we had no life jackets here (they were available for a fee, but we chose to swim; they were required at Yokdzonot) and trying to touch the bottom in the dark is a bit intimidating.
As with the other cenotes, the roots of the surrounding trees relentlessly seek and find the only water available. This provides a common magical element to every cenote we visited, as these roots are old and thick, sometimes reaching down more than thirty feet to enter the water.
As my wife rested on the side, she discovered another attraction of the Cenote: a free foot spa from the small fish. The fist would crowd around your feet in the shallow water and nip at them, removing the dead skin free of charge. The underwater video shows them in action.
The other underground cenote was on our way back from crawling around in muddy caves. Cenote San Ignacio is off the Merída-Campeche highway. We drove through the city three times looking for signs before we finally found it (it is west of downtown, surrounded by houses). The entrance to the cenote is down through a steep stairway (much steeper than X’Kekén). Cenote San Ignacio is small, and we must have caught it at rush hour. It was very cramped quarters, with all of the side areas for getting into the cenote occupied. We did not tarry long here.
Above Ground Cenotes
We went way off the normal path to visit the next two Cenotes near San Antonio Mulix. These are well off the road between Merída and Muna (and further on, Uxmal), about 50 km outside of Merída. The roads to get there are one car wide in some areas, and though there is only one direction to go, many times we assumed we were lost. Random signs show you that you are still on the right path. Finally we came to a palapa, where we purchased tickets for both the Dzombakal and Xbatun cenotes. Driving further, we presented tickets to a gent sleeping at a cattle gate, and were passed through. Another mile or so, and the trail branched: Dzombakal to the right, Xbatun to the left.
Dzombakal is a complete above ground cenote, which denotes it as old; the underground cenotes are younger, as their roofs have not collapsed, then the cylindrical ones, then the ones that seem to be above ground. This cenote was wilder than the others as well, with lilly pad- looking vegetation and a sort of beach slopping to it. It did have the advantage of having cliffs on one side, which made for a good junior cliff diving training area for the locals.
Xbatun was a partially underground cenote with a stairwell down to the entrance. The photo above shows how the cenote opens up under a lot of rock (I hope it is a lot of rock as folks walk and ride over that area!). The photo below that shows how deep it is.
At Xbatun, Dzombakal and San Ignacio, there was quite a local atmosphere: many families, some, as you can see in the photos, bringing pool toys to the cenotes. Most of the cenotes we went to were locally run and operated. I’m uncertain how much of the revenue goes back into the local community, but given their enthusiasm for cleaning out and operating the cenotes, I certainly hope it stays local.
There are many more cenotes than the ones described here throughout the Yucatan peninsula.