In the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, visitors enjoy cenotes for their exceptional natural beauty and mystery. So what are cenotes in Mexico exactly?
Many of the best cenotes in Mexico are in popular vacation destinations like Cancun, Tulum, and the Riviera Maya.
Learn more about cenotes in Mexico here:
What Are Cenotes In Mexico?
If you’re wondering what are cenotes in Mexico, the answer is simple: they are sinkholes or natural deep wells fed with rainwater and underground river currents. Cenotes earned their name from the Mayans’ word “Dz’onot,” which translates to “cavern of water.” Eventually, the name evolved to cenotes.
Cenotes or sinkholes exist all over the globe, but the flatness of the Yucatan Peninsula and the limestone soil makes them naturally occurring in Mexico. The cenotes serve as fractures that allow rainwater to feed the underground rivers.
Because cenotes change continuously, the estimated number of cenotes is over 7,000. But only 2,200 have been mapped. The 900 sinkholes in the Ring of Cenotes near Merida draw a steady stream of visitors.
In Riviera Maya, the Sistema Sac Actun is one of the longest underground caves with more than 220 cenotes. This system has been a haven for humans for over 9,000 years, as researchers have found human and animal bones within the caves.
Why Cenotes Are Historically Important
In the Mayan culture, cenotes delivered fresh water to the people of the pre-Hispanic era. The Yucatan Peninsula has porous limestone, making it difficult for lakes and above-ground water formations. Ancient Mayan cities settled near cenotes because they were the homes of the rain gods. The cenotes represented life and a connection to the dead.
The duality of the cenotes became a center of ancient Mayan ceremonies, as they believed the underground water caverns helped people survive and brought them to the world of the dead. Cenotes continue to be important to the Mayans, so visitors must get permission from the caretakers to enter cenotes.
Because of the significance of cenotes to the Mayan people, they build their temples and villages atop them. For example, the Mayans built Chichen Itza above cenotes that the early people thought brought them closer to the underworld known as Xibalba and Chaac, the god of rain and thunder.
Archeologists found human and animal remains in the cenotes below Chichen Itza, showing that the early Mayans used the sinkholes as ritual and burial sites. Archaeologists also found offerings to the gods in pottery, jade, and precious metals.
Why Are There Cenotes in Mexico?
Cenotes form in Mexico due to the porous limestone and the plethora of underground rivers. This soft soil collapses after hard rains, especially if the limestone is above an underground river. Cenotes also exist thanks to the Chicxulub meteorite that struck the Yucatan Peninsula 66 million years ago.
When the meteorite struck, it changed the limestone and made it susceptible to erosion. The weakened limestone created a Ring of Cenotes around the edge of the Yucatan Peninsula. If you visit Merida in the middle of the Ring of Cenotes, you can book tours and swim in the sinkholes.
When the meteorite hit the land, the water flow changed under the earth, thus creating underground depressions that eventually turned into cenotes. This phenomenon is unique to the Riviera Maya area, as the salty seawater moves through the limestone rock, where both meet in the underground rivers filled with fresh water.
The Yucatan limestone dissolves and collapses where freshwater and saltwater meet. When the limestone collapses, cenotes appear. In some situations, the cenotes connect to other cave systems.
Some sinkholes happened thanks to the last ice age. As water levels dropped, ocean reefs appeared. The reefs turned into soil that created the tropical jungles in the Yucatan and around Central America.
Where rain mixed with carbon dioxide, the limestone reefs and soil eroded, forming the sinkholes. The collapsed sinkholes are connected through the underground river system.
Types of Cenotes
Every cenote is different, even if they are similar in age. Geologists classify sinkholes and cenotes as caverns, semi-open, open, and ancient.
The cavern cenotes still have water within a covered cave, so the Mayans used them for ceremonies. Some cavern cenotes have small holes in the roofs, letting a bit of sunlight enter. The cavern water can be a range of colors, from rich emerald green to bold blue, but visitors can only see the colors if sunlight enters the cavern. Adventurers can rappel into a cavern cenote to enjoy the warm, clear water.
The semi-open cenotes are older but have not yet been completely exposed to the sun. They might still have some cavernous qualities. Semi-open cenotes often connect to other cenotes and have crystal-clear water allowing visitors to see the plants and animals in the freshwater. Adventurers can kayak in semi-open cenotes in Cancun and the Riviera Maya.
Open cenotes can be millions of years old. As the cavern ages, the roof collapses, exposing the clear water to the sunlight. They usually have tall walls covered with colorful flora. Visitors are sure to see birds and insects, like butterflies, enjoying the safety and moisture in the cenote. Tourists can zipline through open cenotes.
The ancient cenotes are the oldest and have completely exposed water with little to no remnants of the cavern roof remaining. They look like lagoons rather than open sinkholes. The Mayans appreciated the ancient cenotes for the abundant freshwater they supplied. If you’re wondering if you can swim in cenotes in Mexico, you can, especially in the ancient ones.
What To Bring to a Cenote When You Visit
People often wonder, can you swim in cenotes in Mexico? The short answer is, yes! But if you visit a cenote, it is important to be prepared. Many have fragile ecosystems, and not all of them have visitors’ centers with rentals or guest facilities. A few essential items to have with you are:
- Water gear
- Biodegradable snacks
Because many cenotes are open to direct sunlight, you’ll want to have biodegradable sunscreen that will not wash off in the cenote if you decide to swim or snorkel.
The flora and fauna in a cenote are beautiful and worthy of photographing. You’ll want a camera that can take pictures underwater. You won’t want to miss out on the breathtaking scenery, both above and on the water – as your photos will be perfect for Instagram!
Because you can swim, snorkel, kayak, and enjoy water adventures in a cenote, you’ll get wet. Visitors enjoy having quick-drying microfiber towels so that they don’t have to ride back to their resorts feeling damp after an afternoon in a cenote.
You’ll also want to bring your water gear, especially snorkels and masks, water shoes, and floatation devices. Some cenotes are primitive, so you cannot rent equipment. Having your own makes the trip more enjoyable. Even if you can swim, wearing a life vest in the cenote lets you relax and enjoy the scenery.
If you spend the day at a cenote, you’ll also want to bring biodegradable snacks. You should never leave any food packaging behind, as plastics and papers can wreak havoc on fragile ecosystems.
Conclusion – What Are Cenotes In Mexico?
When visiting the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, it is worthwhile to book an adventure by visiting a cenote or several of them. If you did not know the answer before, what are cenotes in Mexico? You are now well-versed on the topic.
This unique geographic feature offers warm water, cool scenery, and Mayan history in a way that cannot be experienced elsewhere around the world. Be respectful of the fragile and ancient ecosystems while you enjoy the adventures they offer.