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Morphology and history of the cenotes in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula

In this post we are going to talk about the cenotes, what are the cenotes how the Mexican cenotes originate, how many cenotes there are in the Yucatan peninsula, and why they were so important for the Mayan civilizations, and nowadays. 


We are setting off on a journey through time to understand the true value of these natural treasures in Mexico. 

After reading this step-by-step guide on the cenote world you will better understand why you need to include them in your trip to Mexico and make it extra special. 

cenote choj ja, cenotes mexico

WHAT DOES CENOTE MEANS?

The word cenote comes from the wrong Spanish pronunciation of the Yucatan Mayan word ts’ono’ot (dzonot) which means “well with water” 

The Spanish word CENOTE goes back to the time of the Spanish conquest.

When we talk about Cenotes in Mexico we refer to sinkholes that originate naturally from the collapse of the ground.  

The collapsing allows the water to filtrate underground into the water table. 

However, the natural formation of the cenotes is only possible because of the special composition of the soil in the Yucatan peninsula, which is mainly limestone. 

Let’s see how. 

Mexican cenote shaped like an heart surrounded by trees aerial view

THE SOIL OF THE YUCATAN PENINSULA: FEATURES

The soil of the Yucatan peninsula is made of limestone which is known by the Mayan as saskab meaning “white soil“.

The history of our planet says that millions of years ago the Yucatan peninsula was below sea level. That precisely means that the land that we are stepping on, was seabed back then. 

When it rains, the limestone grounds can barely retain the water which tends to filtrate through the rocks, creating a variety of karstic landscapes.  ​​


How does the karstic kandscape originate?

The water and the wind are the natural sculptures of the limestone. The physical and chemical action of the natural elements on the limestone creates spectacular karstic landscapes and shapes of all sorts. 

Cenotes are parts of those natural formations. 

Here below is a graphic of the different karstic landscapes.  

Karstic landscape graphic

Examples of Karstic landscapes 

The Limestone rock is perforated and eroded by wind and water which causes the rocks to 

be shaped into different forms in many different ways. 

Here are examples of Karstic rock formations. 

  • STALACTITES – vertical formations that grow from the roof towards the bottom thanks to the continuous dripping of the water filtering through the limestone. There are thousands of stalactites and stalagmites in the caves scattered around the Yucatan Peninsula both dry or with water. 
  • STALAGMITES – vertical formations that grow from the bottom to the roof also thanks to the water dripping, just like the stalactites.  When a stalactite and a stalagmite meet they form a column.
  • SIMA – huge vertical caves originating from the erosion by water and wind. An example in Mexico would be the Sima de las Cotorras in Chiapas, where it’s limestone rock as well. 
  • CANYONS – a deep and narrow valley with steep and rocky hillsides. A popular one is the Sumidero Canyon in Chiapas.
  • DOLINE – circular depressions in the ground provoked by the sinking of the surface caused by the collapse of an old cavity or the water infiltration through some  cracks.

Dolines/ Cenotes

Dolines are exactly the karstic landscape that we commonly know as cenotes in Mexico. The sinking or collapsing of the soil that gives room to the water in the water table is precisely the definition of  “cenote”.


Are cenotes only found in the Yucatan Peninsula?

Dolines originate in many different places on our planet. However only in Mexico they are called CENOTES, actually only in the Yucatan Peninsula 

Remember it comes from the Mayan word “DZONOT” which literally means “water well” 

HOW DO CENOTES ORIGINATES?

Over the different Ages of Ice, the Yucatan peninsula has been in and out of the water many times. 

In the latest Ice age, the Yucatan peninsula surface was almost completely submerged and for thousands of years, the ground on which we are now walking was a seabed. 

The ice age doesn’t mean that the entire planet’s surface is completely frozen. What happens is that the majority of the water of the earth is in the poles in the form of ice.

The more water/ice the pole accumulates the lower the sea level gets. 

earth during Ice Age satelite reproductio

At the end of the Pleistocene (the stage when the Homo Sapiens appears on earth), the sea level in the Yucatan peninsula was 120 mt lower than where it is now, since then the sea level kept progressively increasing. Presently we are almost at sea level in many places along the coast 

Caves sea level

For millions of years, wind and rainwater have been sculpting and perforating the subsoil of the Yucatan Peninsula. Underneath our feet, spectacular landscapes were formed. 

When the sea level went up again these incredible formations got completely flooded.

We went from dry caves to water-filled caves and that’s how the present CENOTES were formed.

Source

THE SPECTACULAR SUBSOIL OF THE YUCATAN PENINSULA

The fact that in the Yucatan Peninsula there are different levels of altitudes compared to the sea levels creates different kinds of formations such as dry caves, caverns, or cenotes. 

In this incredible peninsula, we have a huge variety of caverns and caves you will just get addicted to exploring around. 

And that’s what we are here for. 🙂 

The freshwater of the Yucatan peninsula is gathered in the water table in the subsoil. 

In the Yucatan peninsula, we don’t have rivers and almost all the freshwater is found underground. 

CENOTES SEA LEVEL
Graphic of the western side of the peninsula to the Caribbean coast. different formations of cenotes and caverns,subterranean connections and more. Source –  Reference González-González et al., (2008) y Blanchon & Shaw (1995).

THE ANILLO DE LOS CENOTES (CENOTE RING) AND THE YUCATAN PENINSULA

In Yucatan, you will find the so-called Cenote Ring ( “Anillo de los cenotes” in Spanish)

This ring originated from the impact of the meteorite of Chicxulub, a small town on the Yucatecan coast. 

To make it short, the huge collision of the meteorite caused disproportioned damages, fires, dust, death, and other brutal natural disasters.

For example, the impact created a huge layer of dust that covered the earth preventing the energy of the sun to get the plants and the surfaces of the earth. As a result, all the plants died. 

All the changes caused by the impact of the meteorite ultimately provoked changes in the natural life chain.

As a consequence, around 75% of the species living on Earth extinguished, among which the dinosaurs 

The Chixchulub meteorite marked the end of the age of Ice on the planet. 

But it also created what we know as the cenote ring (Anillo de Cenotes) of Yucatán. Many cenotes are grouped along this perimeter.

In fact along this area where the impact of the meteorite was stronger, the sediments below the surface get mixed with the one above which caused the formation of more cenotes compared to other surrounding areas.  

Therefore the meteorite of Chixchulub is not the main cause of the cenotes like many belief. 

cenote ring
Diameter of the meteorite in the impact zone

DIFFERENT TYPES OF CENOTES 

Cenotes are complex aquatic systems generated by the dissolution of carbonates and other minerals in the rock. Cenotes are more similar to rivers than lakes, because they are connected to each other by veins, that’s what they call them.

There are different types of cenotes with different formation mechanisms.

  1. Vertical – with vertical walls (Ex. Xcolac)
  2. Jug – in the shape of a pitcher (Ex. Ucil)
  3. Cave cenotes – (or closed)  shaped like a cave or a cavern (Ex. Chac Mool and Ckaak Tun)
  4. Coastal hot springs – also known as “ojos de agua” 
  5. Old cenotes those are cenotes that are now completely dry and they only collect water in the rainy season. 
Reference

HOW MANY CENOTES DO WE HAVE IN THE YUCATAN PENINSULA?

According to the last cenote census of the Yucatan State organized by SEDUMA ( SDS- Secretaria del Desarrollo Sustentable), they talk about 3000 cenotes. 

However, you need to add those from Quintana Roo and Campeche even if in Campeche there are very few cenotes. 

There are different opinions on the total number of cenotes in the entire Yucatan Peninsula and it’s really impossible to have an exact number. An estimate ranges between 5000 up to 8000

It’s a large margin but it’s really difficult to determine. 

We can offer another classification of the cenotes here below:


Cenotes suitable for tourism

These are the cenotes that have been cleaned up and adjusted to create easy access for the tourists to visit them. 

These cenotes can also be further classified according to the activities available. Some of them are like aquatic parks with zip lines and other facilities to entertain the visitors with playful activities.

Other cenotes are more suitable for divers for their shape and depth, others are more photogenic for their unique shape and environment while others are more suitable for swimming snorkeling, or jumping from platforms. 

In this blog, we talk about all these cenotes that you can visit and enjoy.  


Natural cenotes

These are cenotes that haven’t been manipulated by humans. They are just like they have been found. We are not talking about these ones in the blog. However, you are welcome to go explore.  Sometimes going on an adventure without any sort of guidance, makes the trip more magical. 

DIFFERENT USE OF THE CENOTES IN MEXICO

The cenotes have been used for different purposes over the years as listed here below.


Cenotes as freshwater wells

The Mexican cenotes have always been sources of water in this area of Mexico and therefore a very important asset for survival. 

Nowadays in many communities, the nearby cenotes are still used as wells to provide fresh water.

The ancient Mayan cities such as Chichen Itza, Ek Balam, Tulum, Mayapan, Xel Há o Yaxunah, have been built close to cenotes to be able to have fresh water available at a short distance.

In fact, human beings and freshwater have a very close relationship as we indeed need fresh water to survive. 


Ceremonial site 

The ancient Maya used the cenotes and caverns as sacred sites for their ritual and ceremonies. Nowadays some cenotes still maintain these traditions and many communities still consider cenotes as sacred places.


Recreational place

Cenotes have also been used as recreational areas since they are an economic source. For example, divers consider the cenotes one of the most incredible places to dive. And it’s not for everyone. the cenote underwater world is made of narrow caves and obscure areas, very different from the ocean and for many, much more exciting. 

Cenote Xtacumbilxunan, in Bolonchén. Lithograph Frederick Catherwood

THE MAYANS AND THEIR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE CENOTES

The Mayan beliefs, as narrated in their official book Popol Vuh, imply that you have three different worlds: the celestial, earthly, and underground.

The cenotes were considered the door to the underground world, the so-called underworld

This underworld is called metnal in Yucatan language, olontic in tzotzil, or  xibalbá in quiché, being this last one the most used word to express this concept. 

This underworld is a place of death and life. The Mayan civilizations used to do ceremonies in the cenotes and they are still doing them. 

The Xibalbá evokes that something inside dies and something new is born. It’s a space where you are allowed to grow your state of conscience overcoming your own self. The cenotes are ultimately sacred places where the Mayan Gods dwell.

Ceremony in San Juan de Dios, Quintana Roo.

HOW TO PRESERVE THE CENOTES

Cenotes are now considered an entertainment place and amazing attractions for visitors from all over the world.

Although they are a good source of income for the local communities that own and manage the cenotes, the increasing number of visitors is having a negative impact on the natural environment. 

Therefore there are some rules to follow in other to help preserve this precious gift from nature. 

Also, although some cenotes don’t have written rules we suggest you keep them in mind and follow them regardless. 

  • Don’t be loud
  • Don’t trash
  • Don’t use any kinds of cream, spray, or protectors on your skin as it would contaminate the environment (even the so called “eco-friendly” products) 
  • Always take a shower before entering in a cenote
  • Don’t hang on to the stalagtites or stalagmites or any roots 
  • Just don’t do any foolishness that can damage the environment 

If we appreciate the environment we will learn to respect it. 


Read about some of the amazing Yucatan cenotes