I have had many people ask me, “What is it about the Yucatán that you love so much?” While I could rattle on for hours about the beaches, the culture, the people, the wild and aquatic life, one of the truly unique highlights of a visit to the Mexican Caribbean are the cenotes. In the Yucatán alone there are over 6,000 of these beauties. So, what are they exactly?
Cenotes (say-NOH-tay) are, in their simplest terms, limestone sinkholes or natural pits, but I assure you they are so much more than that. These beautiful limestone creations are filled with crystal clear water, fed by rainwater and deep underground rivers. The water is always crisp, calm and cool, which feels wonderful on the hot (and sometimes humid) days in the Riviera Maya. There are three main types of cenotes and they all hold their own special beauty.
Perhaps the most common type you will see are the semi-open cenotes. Erosion has worn away the limestone and exposed a portion of water below. One of my favorite cenotes, is a small little gem called Cenote Azul, it is an excellent example of a semi-open cenote. You can experience both the open water, and the small cave under the ridge. The best part of this beautiful little cenotes is being able to climb a path along the rock and jumping off into the aqua waters below.
A second type is an open cenote, which is very much like lakes we are familiar with here in the Midwest. The MAJOR difference being I will get in these.... I am only half kidding. The biggest difference is that open cenotes still have the calm, cool, and CLEAR water. They vary in size from very small to quite large and are always surrounded by lush tropical vegetation.The final type of cenote, the Cave Cenote, is not for the faint of heart, you often have to enter these by repelling down, or using a ladder, though you can find some that are accessible via stairs. These closed or cave cenotes have no exposed water above the ground. With little to no natural light they have often been artificially lit to provide you a spectacular other worldly experience. The low light makes the water a range from emerald green to an intense blue, that only makes its clarity seem more magical.
All of these gorgeous natural swimming, diving, and snorkeling pools played an important role in the history of the Yucatán peninsula. Some of the first inhabitants of the area were the Ancient Maya people, who were known for their deep understanding of astronomical events, and sophisticated calendar. The cenotes provided them with fresh water, but they also believed them to be sacred places, and perhaps even the gateway to the underworld. Their God of Rain Chaak was thought to reside there, and cenotes near their temples were used for ritual sacrifice during droughts.
Do not let the history dissuade you! You will not find more refreshing, or more beautiful water anywhere. I would highly recommend having snorkel gear and an underwater camera at hand when you visit. Cenote waters are so clear you will be able to capture every detail of your swim! Next time you travel to the Riviera Maya, make sure to set up a cenote tour (or two!).