06 Apr – Yucatan Cenotes
The Yucatan Peninsula is home to the worlds most impressive natural swimming holes called Cenotes (Say-No-tehs). This is a story of Adventure and Passion that started out private and intimate and has grown to something Awesome and Wonderful!
The facts… All Cenotes radiate from the center of what is known as the Chicxulub crater (Chik-shu-lube) caused by the impact of a huge meteor 65 million years ago. The first “Ring of Cenotes” is approximately 90 km from the center of the impact and there are subsequent ripples of Cenotes traveling from Chicxulub / Progreso and all the way to the Mayan Riviera and the Caribbean coast.
There are estimates that 6,000 to 12,000 Cenotes dot the landscape of the Yucatan, like Swiss cheese, most of which are on private land and/or hidden deep in the low lying jungle.
There are hundreds of accessible Cenotes in the Yucatan, many along the Mayan Riviera where there are plenty of opportunities for Scuba Diving, Snorkeling or just enjoying the tranquil nature of these geological wonders.
Our first experience with Cenotes was in Nov 2012, just before the Mayan calendar was about to expire and end the world was upon us… for us it was just the end of the world … as we knew it. With that very first scuba dive into a Cenote, something changed, we didn’t know it at the time …but our lives would never be the same again.
Over time this blog will recount that amazing Adventure and how YucatanCenote.com Eco Adventures was born from passion, but to start, we want to provide useful information for Families, Travelers, Vacationers and Adventurers alike.
There are NO surface rivers in the Yucatan, all the rivers are underground. Over time as the limestone erodes, the caves get bigger and eventually the ceiling caves-in, or a tree will break through looking for water. This sinkhole provides access to the underground river system from the outside world and is called a “Cenote”.
In Maya “Cenote” is pronounced “Dzonot”, meaning “cave flooded” and “sacred well”. The formation of Cenotes can take hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of years. Depending on the age of the Cenote, there are different classifications.
- Cavern Cenotes – underground with a hole in the ceiling.
- Open Cenotes – fully open and exposed with surrounding cliffs.
- Surface Cenotes – land level similar to a lake or pond.
- Cave Cenotes – completely underground without collapsed ceilings.
These Sacred Cenotes not only provided much-needed drinking water to the Ancient people, but they were revered for their spiritual significance.
Cenotes were considered a portal to the underworld and a vessel in which to communicate with the gods. Some Cenotes were used for sacrificial offerings or spiritual pilgrimage.
We like to call them the “Womb of Mother Nature “ and if the sun is shining just right you get… “Sapphires of the Jungle”.
Want to travel in time? Get lost in time by swimming in the sapphire magical waters of a Cenote surrounded by lush jungle. Leisurely float on your back and get lost in the history and mystery of stalactites, rock formations and the rainbow of colourful mineral deposits in the rocks, all created many thousands of years ago. Be mesmerized by huge tropical tree vines and natural cathedral ceilings and beams of sunlight penetrating into pristine underwater galleries.
There is truly something magical and special when you enter a Cenote, an experience not to be missed!
For years the Cenotes of the Yucatan were the domain of Scuba divers and Cave divers. The local families and their children would enjoy a refreshing afternoon on occasion, mostly on Sundays which is a traditional “day for the family” in Mexico.
Now with Government Eco-tourism initiatives the villages are able to build stairs to access the water level and facilities to attract much needed tourism dollars to these otherwise ignored remote locations. Even small group tours can make a big difference for everybody including the local Guide, the Moto Taxi drivers that take people for rides, the family that cooks authentic food for you, the boy who helps carry the gear down to the Cenote and the driver who always has a cold drink ready for you…everyone benefits by sharing these amazing natural wonders called Cenotes.
The most amazing and the most fun Cenotes are located in the first “Ring” near the capital city of the State of Yucatan…Merida (and accessible through shore excursions from the port of Progreso). The Cenotes in this area differ from those on the Riviera Maya and the Caribbean coast due to the water table being 40 – 70 feet below the surface compared to 10 – 30 feet along the Caribbean coast. This difference in height makes for many Cenotes with awesome cliff jumping opportunities from various levels and a few of the biggest Rope swings in the Yucatan. There are many popular Cenotes on the standard tourist trail (the beaten path), usually with facilities, some have restaurants and horse drawn rail cart tours to multiple Cenotes. There are even more Cenotes that are “off the beaten path” in remote jungle settings, these are the real natural beauties where you can enjoy Privacy with your friends and Family. YucatanCenote.com Eco-Adventures is a 5 star Adventure company that uses 15 – 20 different Cenotes (of all types) and will customize your Cenote Adventure depending on the age range of your group, physical limitations and of course your Wish list. (easy access, cliff jump, rope swing, toddlers etc.)
There is something for everyone to enjoy, whether it is just relaxing in the quiet tranquil crystal clear blue waters or Swinging from a 50 foot rope, jumping from whatever height you feel comfortable or going even deeper and Scuba diving. Cave diving is an extreme sport that requires more intense training than open Water Scuba but there is a whole different world underground and it is absolutely fascinating. Definitely worth taking a look, even with snorkeling gear you can see cave entrances, and stunning underwater galleries of rock formations.
Mayan Legend says the entrances to the Yucatan cenotes are guarded by the Toh Bird
The Keeper of the Cenote… the “Toh Bird” aka Turquoise-Browned Mot Mot lives in and around Cenotes. Having a very distinctive far-carrying call, similar to croaking, sometimes remote Cenotes are found merely by following the Toh’s cry. In addition to their unique call, the Toh’s tail features two distinctive featherless barbs ending in an array of colourful feathers at its tip. There are various Mayan legends explaining the origin of Toh’s tail feathers. . . here is but one…
The Toh bird was appointed by the Mayan gods to keep the evil spirits trapped in the underworld by guarding the entrance of the Cenote. One day, in the middle of the afternoon, the Toh decided to take a siesta (a Mexican tradition), and while it was asleep Evil tried to sneak out of the Cenote and in the process stepped on the Toh Bird’s tail, waking him as he past. But by then it was too late and the Evil was able to escape the underworld. That is why, it is said… that we have evil in the world today. As a consequence, the Mayan gods decreed that the Toh Bird should not be able to grow its tail feathers back. Even today Toh Birds are born with tail feathers and they eventually fall off permanently.
Recalling some of our early adventures hunting Yucatan cenotes
February 2014, early on in our Yucatan Adventure, we heard that there was a cave housing 13 Cenotes! Well, of course we HAD to visit and check it out !! As we were still very new to the Yucatan at that time, we did not have much of a grasp of the Spanish language. The guide at the caves only spoke Spanish and proceeded to explain what to expect in the caves, we nodded and smiled and said …Si Si Si . . as we really really wanted to see the cave and Cenotes within and we were prepared to agree with anything he said! We did understand from the guide that there may be some crawling and wading required. Bring it on we said…to ourselves! It was just us three on a two hour cave adventure….crouching, then crawling on our knees (with shorts….definitely not prepared) and then slithering on our stomachs through passageways and holes. At one point I had to take my helmet off and pitch it 10 feet in front of me , then slither to reach it…and pitch it again ! All the while muttering something about not wanting to die in a cave ! We are just not as flexible as we used to be….or as skinny as we were in our youth (speaking strictly for myself). There were a total of 13 Cenotes within this cave system ranging from small holes filled with water to a large cavern at the one hour point. When we reached the final Cenote (about 50 feet deep or so) we could see light coming from what looked like an exit but since our Spanish was “No bueno” we thought we had to walk the underwater tightrope across the water cavern while trying to balance ourselves on the rope. However Ruth had her bag because we thought this was the exit,….so she had to hold one arm up above the water holding the bag on her head and using only one arm to balance and….of course….lost her balance several times. When we finally reached the other side I looked up to see where the light was coming from and there was a shaft that went approx 70 feet to the surface, at which point I said, ooh Honey, you are not going to like this …the exit is straight up !! Thankfully…or not…our guide instructed us to return back across the Cenote so we could exit the cave the same way we came in….oooh crap ! With all the wading / swimming and slithering, our running shoes and clothes were soaked which resulted in slippery footing and muddy clothing from belly crawling. With the flashlight off it was pitch black ! You will definitely need a guide as there were a few holes which appeared to never end or had water “way down there” . This was definitely an adventure, if we had known what we were getting into we might not have done it! It was extremely exhausting but totally awesome and we were glad to have pushed our limits and overcome the challenges of the day ! This was just the beginning of an amazing Yucatan Adventure that has lasted more than 6 years now.
Note: We have now been in more than 250 Cenotes and this cave adventure was one of the most extreme so far.
Stay tuned for more interesting and exciting Adventures. Gracias!
About The Author
Chris is one of the founders of Yucatan Cenote Eco-Aventuras, where along with his wife Ruth, Roussel, a Mayan shaman and tour guide, and their team of local guides, have been exploring the Yucatan Peninsula since 2012. Click here to learn more about our eco-adventure company, or check out our excursions here.