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Mexico Guru

Holy Water - The Yucatán’s Sacred Sinkholes

The Yucatan peninsula’s unique composition of porous limestone blesses it with thousands of natural wells called sinkholes (“cenotes” in Spanish). Water seeping through crevices in the limestone shelf forms underground rivers; when the limestone strata shifts, a cenote is formed.

An essential, life-giving element, water is sacred to people linked to the land. As did the Zapotecs of Oaxaca, the Teotihuacanos, the Toltecs and other Classic-era Mesoamerican civilizations, the Maya dedicated special attention to the god of rain. According to the Maya, caves, caverns, and cenotes were conduits to the inframundo, the netherworld.

The flat, hot Yucatan Peninsula---despite being tropical and humid---has no surface rivers. Water flowing underground is accessed by sinkholes, which along with rainwater collected in cisterns provide the region’s only fresh water. Given the practical and religious significance of water, it’s not surprising that the Maya founded their cities and ceremonial centers near life-giving cenotes.

One of the Yucatan’s most famous archaeological sites today is Chichén Itzá, whose name means “at the mouth of the well of the Itza people.” Several cisterns on site provided water for drinking and cooking, but the large, milky green pool east of Chichén’s sacred ball court was used ceremonially. Divers have recovered dozens of skeletons from its depths, along with jewelry and other offerings. Like many cenotes, this circular sinkhole’s sides are straight and the water’s surface is several hundred feet below ground.

The limpid green sinkhole at the ruined city of Dzibalchatún looks like a pond and is easily accessible and open to visitors for swimming. There’s nothing better than a dip after a visit to this hot and rather treeless archaeological site halfway between Progreso and Mérida. Deeper underground, other sinkholes are accessible by ladders of rope or iron. Stone steps lead down to the massive Zací cenote at Valladolid and to the Ik Kil cenote near the village of Pisté and the ruins of Chichén Itzá. Both are breathtaking, their vertical limestone walls overhung with tropical vines.

Other cenotes are hidden from view within underground caves. A short drive outside Valladolid, a short flight of steps provides access to more intimate Cenote Dzinup. Light filters through a chink in the top of the cave, illuminating the gray-green pool where swimmers cool off during the midday heat, avoiding the eerie brush of slow-moving fish.

Of the thousands of sinkholes found throughout the Yucatan, some are well-kept secrets while others are increasingly promoted in travel guides and through tour operators. Larger cenotes such as Dos Ojos, in Hidden Worlds Cenote Park, are connected with swimmable underground rivers and are increasingly popular with divers.

April 2008