- By Brandon Cole, Storee.se
- Published: 00:01 March 1, 2012
- Image Credit: Brandon Cole/Storee.se
- The ancient Maya believed the openings served as portals to Xibalba, the Mayan underworld.
Diving the Maya Underworld
Volume 57 Number 3, May/June 2004
by Kristin M. Romey
Archaeologist Guillermo de Anda inspects a stone block carved with a Maya glyph amid the rubble of the cenote's debris pile, which was formed by the initial collapse of the sinkhole. Ceramic vessels and animal and human remains are also frequently found inside cenotes, and archaeologists examine their context to determine whether the Maya used the sites for domestic or ritual purposes. (Melisa French) [LARGER IMAGE]
Deep in the interior of Mexico's Yucatán State, where Maya is still spoken in thatched-hut villages and you can find crocodiles in your cenotes, I spent a week accompanying de Anda as he continued his daunting exploration of the state's 2,500-odd cenotes. The professor, a 46-year-old father of two and a garrulous fireplug of a man with a salt-and-pepper beard, currently teaches underwater archaeology at the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán in the picturesque city of Merída, but he once ran the most successful dive shop in the neighboring state of Quintana Roo. It was in cenotes there that he first discovered the allure of the underwater world of the Maya. He shuttered the shop and entered the staid halls of academe when Francisco Fernandez Repetto, director of the university's anthropology department, asked him to establish an underwater archaeology research center, the first of its kind in Latin America, at Merída. "It's so important that people realize some cenotes are archaeological sites with unspoiled access to a whole new wealth of information on the Maya. The artifacts in these particular sites need to be protected," says de Anda. "They are not just places to go swimming or scuba diving."
"Memo" de Anda (Melisa French) [LARGER IMAGE]
The natural wonders of the Yucatan Peninsula are countless, but some of the most unique to the area are the cenotes. Cenotes are created by an underground river system and are fresh water sink holes that the Maya considered to be sacred. In addition they were an incredibly important resource as a fresh water source, and the Mayans also believed they were the entrance to the underworld. Cenote, (say-NOH-tay) called dzonot (ZO-note) by the ancient Maya were defined by the Motul dictionary, a dictionary of Mayan hieroglyphics, as "abysmal and deep" or "hole filled with water".
Millions of years ago, the Yucatan Peninsula was covered by the ocean. Some 15,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age, the sea level descended approximately 250 feet.
For thousands of years, the porous land surface, formed by fossilized coral and limestone, has filtered rainwater, which dissolved parts of the subsoil. This process created a system formed by flooded underground rivers and caves. This phenomenon is truly unique, and makes up the largest network of caverns in the world.
Cenotes are formed when the roof of a cavern collapses due to erosion. The level of the water also contributes to the creation of cenotes: if it is too low, it does not provide enough support, which causes the roof to weaken and cave in.
The depth of each cenote depends of the amount of natural debris that has accumulated through erosion in addition to the remains of the roof that collapsed. The water that gathers in these amazing natural wonders is a crystal clear turquoise color with a very pleasant temperature of 78°.
The stalactites and stalagmites that form inside the cenotes are true natural works of art. In many, holes in the ceiling allow the sunlight to filter into the cenotes, giving the scene a magical feeling. The cenotes of the Yucatan Peninsula are a true natural gift that should be seen by all, but keep in mind that they should be protected so that they are here for generations to come. You can do your part in local conservation by not using any lotions, sunscreens, perfumes, or repellents prior to swimming in a cenote. Many cenotes provide showers that you can use to rinse off before going in.
There are four different types of cenotes - those that are completely underground, those that are semi-underground, those that are at land level like a lake or pond, and those that are open wells. Some of them are accessible for swimming and cave diving, some of them are not accessible at all, and some are actually dry cave systems that can be explored.
Sizes and shapes of the cenotes differ according to their location. Some cenotes have been found to hold quantities of ancient offerings and jewelry, apparently thrown in the depths by the Mayas who once inhabited the area.
Currently, an estimated six thousand cenotes have been found in the Mexican states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo. In the Riviera Maya, many cenotes have become famous, for their individual features offer different types of amusement for their visitors.
And remember..."take only memories and pictures leave only bubbles"
In most cases, cenotes offer basic facilities such as bathrooms, dressing rooms and parking. Entrance can run anywhere from free to 100.00 pesos depending on where you go.
· Dos Ojos
· Yax Mul
Heading south from Cancun on 307 just south of Puerto Morelos you will see a huge arch on your right hand side. There will be signs for various cenotes, and if you are a freshwater lover this is truly heaven on earth. With over 100 cenotes scattered over the next 19 kilometers west bound there are many fun adventures to be had. There are multiple spots along the way that have signs posted out front, and you can certainly venture out on your own and find some incredible cenotes. However, if you travel the 19 kilometers to Tres Bocas, you will surely enjoy the experience. Tres Bocas, meaning three mouths, is a ranch that has (you guessed it) 3 different cenotes. The first is located about 10 minutes on foot from where you are able to park. It is a great spot, with a shaded palapa area, an amazingly clean (and beautifully tiled) composting toilet, and a screened in palapa for camping overnight. There is also a Temazcal located on the property that is available for you to use. There are 2 other cenotes on the property, however, they are a bit of a hike in, and make SURE you have a competent guide with you. You may want to seriously consider a local Mayan guide rather then someone from Tijuana, no offense Lalo! If you want to hear more funny details about the debacle I had when I got lost please click here . Tres Bocas is well worth the haul, and it is very rarely crowded so you get the place to yourselves.
Entrance is 90 pesos per person, and onsite camping is available for a nominal fee.
Located just past Puerto Aventuras Cenote Cristalino is located on the right hand side heading South on 307. Known as a local hangout, you can bring in a cooler, and blanket and just chill out for the afternoon. There is a great jump off point, a cave to explore, and a bathroom facility by the entrance.
Entrance is only 30 pesos for adults and 15 pesos for children. On Sundays it overflows with locals trying to beat the heat and enjoy their only day off. So if you are opposed to crowds we suggest you try going during the week.
Located just south of Cenote Cristalino, Cenote Azul is a smaller cenote compared to other ones in the area. They do cut off entrance once the area gets to full. The grounds are well maintained, there is a fun jump off point, and a wooden lounging deck that juts over the cenote. Cat fish are in abundance so if you have a mask it is fun to check out. There is a snack shack and bathroom facilities at the entrance as well as snorkel equipment rentals.
Entrance is 45 pesos, and it does tend to get very busy on Sundays.
Located just South of Cenote Azul, El Jardin del Eden, or Ponderosa as the cave divers call it, is a fun spot to check out. It is a main entrance point into the underground cave system so you will see many divers as well as diving instruction happening here. There is a high jump off point that is a must do, and if you are feeling really brave you can climb a tree for more height. They do not allow coolers in here at all, but we always bring one in our van, and when we get hungry or thirsty we take a break from swimming to enjoy refreshments or a snack in the car. Due to the open nature of the cenote it can tend to get a bit of algae in the warmer months of summer.
There is a changing area and bathroom facility on site and entrance is 60 pesos per person.
Located just south of Akumal is, Chemuyil , a small Mayan village home to many locals who work in Akumal and the surrounding areas. If you take a right off of the highway you can wind your way through town, and there will be signs for Cenote Xunaan-Ha It is a small cenote off the beaten path tucked away in the lush jungle landscape. You can swim, float, or snorkel, in the cenote. Don't forget to bring your mask; there are bountiful fish to follow, and an occasional freshwater turtle that will come out of hiding to tease you! Watch out for mosquitoes! Use of repellents is prohibited unless they are biodegradable (but none is best). If you stay in the sun, or the water, they don't tend to bother you. No bathroom facilities are available.
Entrance is 30 pesos for adults and 15 pesos for children.
Dos Ojos, meaning "two eyes," has become a world famous dive spot for obvious reasons. Divers and snorkelers alike flock to this natural wonder to experience this expansive cavern, which is considered to be one of the longest, and most decorated, underwater cave systems in the world. Enter through one of the two separate pools, which look like two large eyes, and explore an intricate, and surprisingly clear, maze of caves and decorations. Decorations is the term used to describe stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, and rim pools which Dos Ojos has an incredible abundance. Entrance is 100 pesos per person, and there are full bathroom facilities, snacks, and souvenirs available.
Right next door to Dos Ojos is Hidden Worlds . This spot has become world renowned after being featured in the IMAX film, "Amazing Caves" and for the thriller movie "The Cave".
Cenote Yax Mul (As of April 2007, this cenote was closed to the public. Sadly it was purchased by a large tour operator and it appears the public closure is permanent) :
Cenote Yax Mul is one of the most spectacular cenotes I have yet to visit. It is pretty far off track so either hire a guide or make sure you know where to go. The turn off is marked, but it can be missed if you are not not paying attention.The entrance is located south of Dos Ojos and Hidden Worlds on you right hand side. Take a right off of the highway and someone will greet you to take your entrance fees. The last time we were there they had the cutest baby monkey! Once you park it is a short walk into the jungle, and then you will come upon a set of wooden stairs that allows you to descend into one of the most amazingly decorated cenotes you have ever seen. They have it lit throughout with a generator (don't worry the generator is located outside of the cave and unobtrusive), and the guide will make sure to light copal to ward of bugs and mosquitoes. Changing facilities and bathrooms are available.
It is well worth the 80 pesos to check out this cenote.
Located 20 miles south of Puerto Aventuras, and just north of Tulum, there is Cenote Manatee often referred to as Casa Cenote. The cenote is located in a residential area called Tankha. There are signs for Casa Cenote on the highway that will direct you to the left hand turn off. Once you drive through the residential area of Tankha you will come upon an open lagoon on your left (Casa Cenote). Entrance to the Cenote is free, but if you want to park in the lot directly across from it there is a small fee. There is a great restaurant on the beach side which has great BBQ on Sundays. Right off the beach from the restaurant is great snorkeling with huge parrot fish, and massive schools of a variety of different fish.
The Cenote is a large open lagoon that has a strong current. If you swim up the canal a bit you can float down as you snorkel and check out the freshwater fish and deep waters below. This cenote is used frequently by cave dive instructors to do skill drills and training. The freashwater flows under the road and when on the beach side you can experience the freshwater bubbling up into the sea which makes for fun currents, and a great variety of fish.
There are full restaurant and bathrooms facilities
Located just outside of Tulum Gran Cenote lives up to its name, it is both amazing and grand! To find it take a right off of Highway 307 when you get to the second traffic light in Tulum. You want to head towards the Coba ruins, and go about 3 kilometers where you will see a sign for Gran Cenote on your right. Pull into the parking area, and there will be a gate where you can pay your entrance fee. You will walk on a short, well-maintained path until you get to the stairs that bring you down into the cenote. There are wooden decks and ladders to allow easy access to various points of the cenote.
This is a hugely popular spot for cave divers so you are more then likely to see a diver or 5. My favorite thing to do is to track them with my snorkeling mask as they glide across the bottomless abyss with their dive lights. They light up the caves below that would go other wise unnoticed by the oblivious snorkeler.
This is by far in my top choices of cenotes in the area for pure natural beauty. A must see in my book. Bathroom and changing facilities are on site as well as snorkeling equipment and life vests that you are able to rent.
Outside food and beverages are strictly prohibited, and entrance fees are 80 pesos per person.