How are Cenotes formed?
Before the Mayan Civilization in the southeast of Mexico, the region was a Great coral reef under the sea.
Can you imagine how it looked?
As The Earth evolved, the last Ice Age happened.
This event caused the sea levels to drop drastically, leaving the reef exposed.
With the lack of water, the reef eventually dried out, becoming part of the continent that would provide fertile soil for vegetation and where the Great Mayan jungle would grow.
As the reef was drying out, the rain started to descend, mixing with the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere forming carbonic acid that eroded the limestone.
It was those holes that, over time, became huge passages, tunnels, and caves, giving way to an immense system of underground rivers that travel through what we know now as the Yucatan peninsula.
Hundreds of years passed, and the water made its way through The Earth forming amazing landscapes of stalactites, stalagmites, fossils, and formations, creating what we know nowadays as Cenotes.
After the last ice age, at least 10,000 years ago during the Pleistocene Era, the melted water made the sea level rise and flood the cavern and cave system.
To this date, divers have explored very few of these underwater cave systems in the area.
While these expeditions were taking place, explorers found human remains from the last ice age as well as megafauna from that era like horses and giant armadillos.
Some of these formations, that extended above sea level, were partially flooded, limestone creating the roof, too thin to support the weight, collapsed and created natural pools that connected the underwater system to the exterior.
If you see it from above, the openings look like blue, turquoise eyes in the middle of the jungle.
Only a few of these majestic eyes can be discovered from above, although people and experts believe there are over 15 thousand cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula.
Out of these thousands of Cenotes, a small number in comparison are open to the public, and they offer us a unique opportunity to take this journey to the past and explore their infinite beauty while we scuba dive our way through their passages and cavern systems.
The meaning of Cenotes
The word cenotes or Xenotes comes from the Mayan word Dzonot, which means natural well. For the Mayans, these bodies of water were sacred as they were the only source of fresh water in the middle of the jungle and considered the natural passage to the underworld that the Mayans called Xibalba.
Types of cenotes
To this ancient civilization, Cenotes were symbols of mysticism, a connection to the underworld.
Not only was the importance of their mystical connection, but also the critical and most important source of water.
What in ancient times was synonymous with wealth, today is one of contemplation and beauty to visitors. Cenotes are the soul of the jungle.
There are four different types of cenotes: open, semi-open, cavern, or ancient.
Because of their age, these cenotes are usually open to the surface, more extensive in diameter, looking like lakes with high walls in the middle of the Mayan jungle. Wilderness grows not only around it but even flourishes in the middle of the water creating small patches that you can explore while swimming. Often, these cenotes are the habitat for an extensive and diverse flora and fauna such as fish, frogs, and birds, including the Toh bird, guide of the jungle explorers. These cenotes are also the ideal playground to enjoy and have fun, such as sliding down a zipline and doing amazing splash-landing.
The sun’s rays coming together with water provides the abundant wildlife of these open cenotes. The warm sunlight, the freshwater, and the activities in these cenotes create an ideal background to play and enjoy. They are characterized by its cylindrical shape, standing out for its spectacular flora that covers its high walls and rock formations. An example of this kind of cenote is the Sacred Cenote in Chichen Itza. These kinds of cenotes are idyllic to practice snorkeling or kayaking based on their extension.
These cenotes have the contrast of two things: one part of it is open, another runs beneath a surface which creates half a cavern where it is common to find birds’ nests on the natural holes of the stone. For those adventurous souls, these landscapes are perfect for base jumping, ziplining, or rappel, depending on the resources available.
Cavern or Closed Cenotes
The underground river runs below these cenotes, and thanks to the small leaks and water running on the surface into them, explorers were able to discover them. Closed cenotes are generally circular and enigmatic. To find them, it is usually necessary to walk through caves until you reach a vault-like cave where turquoise water springs from the bottom, forming a magical place beyond belief. Here, it is common to find bats hanging from the ceilings. In some of these cenotes, the top has small holes through which sunbeams penetrate the cave and create a unique spectacle of illumination.
Regardless of their shape or size, a visit to a cenote for scuba diving, snorkeling, or just as a day trip means not only connecting with nature but obtaining respect for its cultural and symbolic meaning. For the Mayans, cenotes were sacred, and they often offered tributes in gratitude for the abundance of water. The cenotes are life.
Respect their history, their heritage, and the cenote itself will restore the natural beauty, allowing us to find inside of ourselves the same magic it keeps.