The 120-mile slice of Caribbean coastline that stretches from Cancun down to Tulum, finally ending in the Punta Allen peninsula, is a region riddled with natural treasures and endless opportunities for exploration, discovery and adventure.
Formed from the remnants of ancient cities and a confluence of complex history, the Riviera Maya – which stretches from city to seashore to deep jungle – is a vast, multicultural playground. However, on the floors of the most hidden of forests and beyond the most epic of ruins lie secrets still waiting to be discovered.
What is a “cenote”
Millions of years ago, the Yucatan Peninsula was simply a giant reef set under several feet of ocean water. During the last Ice Age however, the ocean level dropped exposing the reef to the surface. And as a result, the coral died, and the jungle grew over. When the Ice Age eventually came to a close, many of the caverns collapsed, the planet warmed up, the glaciers receded, and the caves flooded as sea levels rose.
Today, beneath the wild flora’s thick foliage and lush forestry, the bedrock has become pocketed with thousands of sinkholes, formed from the slow geological evolution of limestone battered through the centuries by the constant presence of running water. The Yucatan Peninsula is known to have the world’s most widespread range of these underwater sinkholes and caves, with the total number discovered thus far reaching almost 6,000. Some of them are open like a lake, while others are completely closed with only small openings in the rock that hint at their existence.
Most cenotes feature freshwater that has been meticulously filtered by the earth, making it so clear and pure that you can see straight through to small fish frolicking in the plant life deep below.
Inside, geological formations such as stalactites, which hang like icicles from the cave’s ceiling, and stalagmites, which extend upwards from the cavern floor, join to create columns, and are a spectacular sight to see in person. These stalactites and stalagmites number in the millions and range in size from that of a pencil to a big tree.
Cenotes were really important to the ancient Maya
The survival of the Mayan civilization depended on cenotes. So much so that their city states, conquests, rebellions and commercial activities revolved around these wells of water. Their home, the Yucatan Peninsula, presented a unique ecological challenge for them: no rivers or major lakes existed on the surface – and fresh water could only be found in the extensive underground flooded cave systems, only accessible through cenotes that sporadically pierced the landscape’s surface.
For this reason the Mayans revered cenotes as they were their primary water source. The name “cenote” literally means “sacred well” in the Mayan language as the cenotes became an integral part of regional cosmology. The entrances to these underground systems were considered portals to the Underworld and were often used as sacrificial or ceremonial centers where rituals included offerings such as jewelry, pottery, clothing, and sculptures.
Today it can still be seen why cenotes held the Mayans in awe. Swimming in these pristine waters feels like stepping into prehistory, where one can be surrounded by giant tropical trees and vines that form wild cathedral-like walls, shafts of sunlight that pierce through rocky overhangs, and thousands of fantastical, white geological formations that surrounds you at every turn.
How to Explore Cenotes
A combination of geologic events and climatic change has led to the development of these unique ecosystems. And today, there are a variety of ways to explore the best cenotes in Riviera Maya, with each one providing a different insight, experience and overall appreciation.
At these hidden locales, you can splash or swim in the crisp mineral-rich waters. Providing prolific relief from the scorching Mexican sun.
Cenote snorkeling is a profoundly unique experience. These caverns are windows to the world’s largest underground river system, with pristine water clarity and visibility making for the perfect experience to explore labyrinth-like subterranean passageways that can’t be found anywhere else on the planet.
Cenote diving is a must-do for anyone interested in visiting. It is arguably the best way to explore every inch of these caves, which range from jumbo-jet-sized rooms to narrow slits that divers must blindly squeeze through.
Luckily, many cenotes have been made traversable to the average human. As walking paths have become the norm, allowing for easier exploration. This way you can get to see the cenotes by yourself or take part in a guided tour.
Combined with ziplines, rappelling gives you the chance to let your adrenaline soar and open your senses to the natural diversity of Mexico’s beauty.
We must protect them
Despite their resilience throughout the millennia cenotes are also incredibly fragile ecosystems. Stalactites and stalagmites have borne witness to the passage of eons of calcium-laden waters migrating through the stone and now act as a barometer of the aquatic health of the region. And unfortunately, the story they tell isn’t good.
Burgeoning hotel and population growth in the Yucatan Peninsula is placing enormous pressure on a water system that for centuries sustained the ancient Mayan civilization. Pollution from untreated water and uncontrolled waste disposal, over usage due to unregulated tourist activities, and subsistence farming all impact severely on the health of the aquifers.
Current conservation strategies in the Yucatan are struggling to include cultural values in groundwater and biodiversity conservation efforts. Strict regulation and a unified, long-term approach is still lacking. However, more and more sites are now being protected by INAH, the Mexican government’s archaeological and historical protection organization.