Haven’t heard of cenotes? Neither had I but they are gorgeous, and there are plenty to go around, around 7.000 in the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. Cenotes are essentially sinkholes or underground caves that are formed when limestone burdocks collapse, leaving a hole in the earth filled with groundwater. The word cenote was used by the Yucatec Maya who used some of the cenotes for sacrificial purposes. According to our guide, captured warriors from other tribes were sacrificed in the pyramids of Chichen Itza and their hearts eaten to increase the captures’ own strength, but women, children, animals and objects were sacrificed in the Cenote sagrado or the Sacred Cenote (located at the archaeological site of Chichen Itza) to Chaac, the Maya civilization rain god. The women and children sacrificed were adorned with heavy jewelry and then thrown in the cenote. Remains removed from the Cenote sagrado show wounds consistent with human sacrifice. The water in the cenotes was also considered sacred by the Mayans, its water often used by priests in rituals in temples.
In Mayan worship there were thought to be three entryways to Xibalba, the underworld, one of them being through cenotes. The other two entry ways were through caves or through competition in the Mayan Mesoamerican ballgame (in Chichen Itza you can explore an ancient ballcourt, a long narrow alley with slanted side-walls). They Mayans believed they could communicate with and appease Chaac and their ancestors through sacrifices into the cenote, but Chaac was belived to live at the bottom of Cenote sagrado. Now the cenotes serve as attractions to tourists and locals alike.
In the last two days we have visited two wonderful cenotes, first the Ik Kil cenote and then the Cenote Azul.
Taking a swim in the beautiful, turquoise water of Ik Kil is a unique experience and very refreshing on a hot day. My son, who shares my interest and enjoyment in swimming and water, was quite concerned swimming above skeletons of people sacrificed in the cenote. After I had assured him that most likely human sacrifices didn’t take place in this particular cenote he felt more at ease.
The Ik Kil Cenote is about 26 metres below ground level with steep cliffs all around. It is around 60 metres in diameter and about 40 metres deep. There are vines which reach from the opening all the way down to the water and small waterfalls that adorn the sides of the cenote and contribute further to the beauty of the place. Don’t be alarmed to see small, black catfish that swim with you in the cenote.
The Ik Kil cenote is quite touristy with plenty of people swimming and jumping from different heights of the walkway that has been built into the cenote. However, due to its popularity there are good facilities around, clean changing rooms, a restaurant, a store and cottages for rent.
The Cenote Azul is an open cenote that takes it name from the deep blue colour of its water. It is less touristy than the Ik Kil cenote which makes it perfect for a calm, relaxing swim in nature. It’s water is very clear and if you like snorkeling this is the right spot to do so, so bring along your snorkling gear. You can witness the roots of trees that grow into the water and the fish swimming around. The cenote is very deep all around, at least 9.000 meters according to our guide. There is a restaurant built just next to the cenote, a truly beautiful location but unfortunately we can’t recommend the food served there nor the facilities. A cold drink while enjoying the tranquility of nature is well worth it though.
You don’t have to be a great swimmer to swim in a cenote, the more visited cenotes offer life vests and robes to hang on to for those insecure in their swimming abilities.