Cenotes in Yucatan, a natural treasure

There are more than 6,000 cenotes in the Mexican peninsula of Yucatan, mere geographical features that were given a supernatural character.

Swimming in the Mayan underworld spell. Photo: Flickr
Swimming in the Mayan underworld spell. Photo: Flickr

As soon as the tip of your foot crosses the sheet of water, you enter the kingdom of Xibalbá, the Mayan underworld, warns the local guide of a cenote in the Mexican Yucatan.

Not to be suggested by the environment and the stories read and heard in the previous days is almost impossible when it comes to swimming in a cenote. The mind tries to remember that it is a mere geographical accident, the work of time and the wear and tear of the rock. Underground rivers have been exposed when a part of the vault of the grotto has collapsed leaving an eye of water visible. But the vision is more powerful than the coldness of the data.

In general, the waters of a cenote are accessed by going down the stairs in a gallery in which light filters through the ghostly lianas that hang along the edges of the hole. The rays of the sun, in the central hours of the day, send mystical beams that highlight the jade of the liquid. When getting into the water, one remembers that underneath there is a vertical tube up to a hundred meters deep that connects with the other cenotes of Yucatan.

Swimming in the cenotes is a joyful experience in a scorching climate.

The Mayas built their towns and cities - and built their most magnificent palaces and pyramids - always close to cenotes, as they were the well with which they fed the population with water. And, perhaps because of its oneiric aspect, they gave it a supernatural character. Underwater is not exactly hell, but the underworld of disease and death ruled by Xibalbá.

In some cenotes, the ancient Maya made human sacrifices. In the background, archaeologists have found skeletons of children, generally under the age of 11, who had been skinned and subsequently burned. In some of the caverns, there are even marked petroglyphs on the walls below water level.

And, despite all this cultural background, the cenotes are one of the quotes highlighted in red by travelers traveling through the far south of Mexico. It is a joyful experience in a scorching climate. Entering a cold water and a transparency that seems impossible. The younger the cenote, the purer the water. As the centuries go by, the mineral deposits turn the water into a cloudy emerald color.

There are still unconditioned cenotes, wild in the thickness of the yucatec jungle.

There are hundreds of cenotes in Yucatan, many of them open to the experience of the public. Most propose safety measures, such as forcing swimmers to wear life jackets and equipping the swimming area with ropes to hold on to in case the current drags hard or, simply, so that you don't cross to the points where the depth is -literal- abysmal.

Due to their relationship with the classic Mayan world, some of the most popular cenotes are attached to the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico, such as Chichen Itzá. In the ruins themselves is the Sacred Cenote that the city's builders used for their water supply and rituals. But only three kilometers away, tourists enjoy the Ik-kil cave, a place devised by a Hollywood scriptwriter.

There are even cenotes in the urban center of some cities, as in the case of the Zaci of Valladolid; and others still unconditioned, wild in the thickness of the Yucatan jungle. But dozens of them are ready to receive visitors, such as the Gran Cenote de Tulum, where you can visit part of the caverns diving, or the recently opened X-Batun and Dzonbakal. Even those who have a Mayan museum inside, such as Dzibilchaltún. In any case, an experience that can only be lived in Yucatan.

Recommended stories