Cenotes And The Maya: When Sinkholes Become Sacred

The Yucatan peninsula lies on limestone bedrock. Water erodes passageways through limestone in a sporadic sort of way in this area. Andrew Kinkella, a Maya archaeologist, describes what happens as a “Swiss-cheese effect underground.” Some of these eroded passageways have ceilings that eventually collapse after enough of the limestone beneath has been etched away. From land-view, they’re sinkholes. If the hole reaches below the water table, a cenote is created.

The sun was beginning its afternoon descent just ahead of me where the horizon meets the long stretch of road. Since I’d decided to take the free roads from Cancun to Merida instead of the more time efficient toll highway, I still had a few hours to go before I’d get to my hotel in Merida at the pace I was going. And still, I wanted to stop at a cenote somewhere along the way. I’d read about three cenotes in the town of Valladolid, which I would be passing through soon. Although I’d intended to go to the most famous of the three, Dzitnup, the signs for Suytun caught my eye as I passed them and I turned the car around a half-mile or so down the road to explore.

A long dirt road guided me into an empty dirt parking lot; it was empty if you don’t count the scores of peacocks that were grazing the premises. The glow of the late-day sun bounced off of their slick turquoise and purple feathers. When I exited the car, they followed me around. I took photos of the birds and, accustomed to the act, they seemed to pose for me each time my camera focused in to capture them. Finally, I walked up to the counter, which was a mix of a Guadalupe shrine and concession stand, and inquired about the entry fee. Less than $5 USD later, my husband and I were walking yet another dirt path toward the cenote.

%Gallery-174276%We came upon a structure that looked like a large well. The blackness within the rock’s hole was impermeable, but I knew from my research that crisp, teal water was below. Just beyond the stone encasement was a staircase. It was a steep and long staircase and at its end, there was only darkness. I stepped carefully down the stairs and with each step, the light left. When the stairs ended and I turned the corner, I was overcome with that feeling that so often overcomes me when I am underground: humility. Humbled by nature’s intricate and secret architecture, I stood still at the mouth of the cenote. A cavernous room stood before me, alight only with the few sunbeams that made it through a small hole in the cave’s ceiling and a handful of man-made lights. Sea-greens and golden yellow hues colored the cave walls and a stone pier protruded out into a body of perfectly clear, blue water. We were alone and so I began to sing, humbled by nature’s unmatchable reverb. I entered the chilly water feeling more peaceful than I remember ever feeling in recent history, perplexed by the groups of black fish that scurried away at each movement or sound. I stood there in that beautiful water and took it all in. I understood in an instant why these places, cenotes, were such an important part of ancient Maya culture.

As one of the only sources of fresh water in this region, the Maya saw the region’s cenotes as sacred. Revered as one of the three entryways to the underworld, the ancient Maya would visit cenotes to communicate with the gods and ancestors. Offerings were thrown into these waters and sometimes the sacrifices given to these waters were human – several human skulls have been uncovered at the Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza. Chac, Chac Chel and The Water Lily Serpent were the three main Maya gods associated with cenotes and water. Clean water is necessary for life and for the ancient Maya, its scarcity and necessity deemed cenotes holy.

Cenotes are still an important part of life for the modern Maya and all other residents of the Yucatan. Rivers in the Yucatan run underground and they cut through these caverns and fill cenotes with one of life’s most precious commodities. I’ve heard there are somewhere around 30,000 or so estimated cenotes in the Yucatan and only around half of them have been explored. Although I wasn’t the first to explore Cenote Suytun that afternoon, the quiet of the empty cavern gave me a glimpse into the standstill awe that the ancient Maya must have felt when they first discovered these otherworldly places.

Read more about the Yucatan and the Maya in my series, “Life At The End Of The World: Destination Yucatan.”