What is a cenote?
The cenotes of Yucatan are deep natural well scattered around the Yucatan Peninsula.
According to the latest data available, there must be around 6.000 in total.
The Cenotes constitute one of the most important natural and touristic resources of the entire region, besides being of historical importance.
They were, in fact, the main source of water and religious place for the Mayans who called them ts´onot which means ” hole in the earth”.
They originate in the limestone grounds that favors river formations underneath the entire territory.
Those rivers eventually meet huge cavities where they form crystalline water lakes.
According to their depth and characteristics, we have different kinds of cenotes as we will see later on in this section.
Some of them have been discovered accidentally by locals in their own garden or land. While in the ancient Mayan times they were used for water provisions and religious ceremonies, nowadays, with the development of tourism, the cenotes have been turned into tourist attractions. Convenient entrance with changing rooms and bathrooms have been built to facilitate the access and allow anyone to enter and enjoy this extraordinary manifestation of nature power, still in the most organic way possible, trying at the same time to preserve the environment.
To enter and swim in the cenote, the owners would charge a little money, which barely covers maintenance expenses. You will see the difference in cost between the cenotes of the Riviera Maya, more touristic and easier to access, and the ones situated more inland, scattered around the Yucatan Peninsula, which are less visited.
This is one of the reasons why I recommend to venture out, far from the more populated region, and seek out for more unexplored ones. Not much for the costs, but because they are usually less contaminated and more natural as the human civilization ( or uncivilization ) have barely put its hands on.
Geology of the Cenotes and the Yucatan Peninsula
We need to know about the Yucatan Peninsula bedrock in order to understand how the cenote had been formed.
The entire Yucatan territory is flat and low with an exception of the soft elevation of the Puuc Hills in the south-west of Yucatan close to the border with the State of Campeche.
Its bedrock is pure limestone and therefore honeycombed with caves and sinkholes, which are called cenotes (pronounce seh-NO-tehs).
The fact that territory is so full of holes made it impossible for rivers to form, but favors subterranean rivers, instead, which eventually would end up in a hole forming big or small subterranean lakes, the cenotes.
The entire process is nowadays not very clear yet but it’s certain that a huge impact in the Cenotes formation is due to a huge asteroid that hit the earth about 65.000 years ago in what is now occupied by the Yucatan State, more precisely in the town called Chicxulub, on the coast north of Merida. It is in fact called Chicxulub crater. I was in Chicxulub for a month on a house sitting assignment but, as expected, there was no evidence of the crater, is now covered by 65 million years of sediment, much of which now has solidified to limestone.
Besides its impact on the formation of the cenotes, the Chicxulub crater also raised the interest of scientists for its possible role in the vast extinction of species that took place 65 million years ago. Much has been written about it and you can check out this article for further reading.
The area that is now called “Anillo (ring) de los cenotes” runs in fact along where the majority of the cenotes are, around the fortunate towns of Homun and Cuzamà.
But what’s the formation process of a cenote?
The limestone rocks allow the rainwater to filtrate through the cracks in the soil, favoring the erosion of rocks and, during centuries, allowing caves and water deposits to keep forming until the roof collapses as well. That’s briefly the formation process of a cenote.
Types of cenotes
There are 3 types of cenotes according to their structures and layout:
- Open – Where you can see the sky as there is no ceiling, it’s completely open although it’s depth can vary – Examples are: cenote of Eden or cenote Cristalino in the Riviera Maya or Lucero Verde in Puerto Morelos or Miguel Colorado in Campeche or 3 Ochos in Homun among others.
- Semi-open – Where one side is open while the other has a ceiling with stalactites and stalagmites formation. This is normally not very deep as you can see the sky on one side while the other is covered.
- Cave cenotes – Those are my favorite as they evoke mystery and myths. You will have to descend through a hole which is usually made easy by man-built stairs and you will feel like completely in the belly of mother earth, surrounded by rock formations, sometimes with rock paintings and fossils. The water is usually more transparent and clean because it’s protected. Consider that I am usually claustrophobic, so for me to say that it means that’s really a magic place. Example of cave cenotes are Bal-min, Hol-cosom and many more in Homun or the ones around Coba
The cenotes in the Mayan civilizations
Visiting the cenotes
Nowadays the cenotes are for sure one of the most impressive natural attraction for many visitors from all over the world. You don’t need to be a good swimmer or a diver to enjoy it. You can just float and enjoy the cool reinvigorating waters or if you are really scared of water you can just admire it.
I believe you cannot leave Mexico without seeing a cenote. I will write more where my favorite cenotes are and how to visit them in details, so stay tuned for this.
What to bring when you visit a cenote
- swimsuit and a towel
- a repellent (better if ecological)
- sunscreen that you should wear only after swimming in the cenote
- If you want to bring your mask in some cenotes it will turn out useful.
- Dress light but I would recommend comfortable closed shoes to protect you from insects. They are not dangerous but certainly annoying.
Diving in a cenote
If you are a diver I am sure it must be an amazing experience which I haven’t have the courage to try probably because I am not a very good diver and I am a little claustrophobic. But if you love the adventure and like to try a different diving experience you should try.
What do you need to know before diving in a cenote?
- Certificate Level needed: To dive in the Cenotes you only need a level 1 Open Water or equivalent.
- Cenote diving also requires a good level of buoyancy.
- Water temperature is about 24° Celsius, a full wetsuit is highly recommended.
- Make sure your dive computer has backlit illumination so you can read important dive info easily.
- Don’t forget your camera as Cenote diving can give you amazing scenes for your pictures.
- Make sure you pack a powerful dive light that brings out all the splendor of the cenote
- If you don’t have the equipment, I am sure the diving companies will have them available to rent.
- Regarding point 7, make sure you choose a good dive shop with updated equipment in good condition. Unfortunately not many have them. Playa del Carmen and Tulum are the main hub, closer to the most beautiful cenotes to dive. Do your search and check the reviews before booking.
Cenotes’ rules of common sense
As in every natural place I always like to recommend to follow some commonsense rules in order to preserve the environment which I am sure you know already but a gentle reminder is never in excess.
- don’t wear any sunscreen or repellent before bathing in the cenotes
- don’t leave anything that doesn’t belong to the place
- don’t hang on to stalactites or stalagmites or trees roots
- don’t do anything that can damage the environment
I hope this article was useful, but please shoot me an email should you have any further question!
I am presently working on other posts on many cenotes in the area to explain how to visit them and what to see. So stay tuned should you wish to know. 🙂
Happy cenote hopping!