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Taking a dip in the sacred Maya pools

Juan Martinez
July 23, 2018

What the Maya used many centuries ago as a source of water and a site for sacrifices has over the years become a place of splendor and contemplation to visitors.

Mexiko – Cenotes
Image: DW/J. Martinez

Cancun is known mainly for its wild nightlife, gorgeous white, sandy beaches and water sports. However, the Maya civilization strongly influenced this area many centuries ago. The Yucatan peninsula is the best place to learn about their culture and traditions, and cenotes are the most adventurous and unusual way of delving into this cultural heritage.Cenotes are natural pits or sinkholes filled with groundwater that appeared after the collapse of one or more limestone caves. As water percolated into them for more than thousands of years, subterranean rivers and pools of turquoise water were created.

Mexiko – Cenotes
A view of the half-open cenote Zacil Ha at Kantun Chi EcoparkImage: DW/J. Martinez
Mexiko – Cenotes
Natural formations at Chikin Ha EcoparkImage: DW/J. Martinez

An underwater world yet to be fully discovered

The temperature decreased noticeably as I started descending towards the underground river at Kantun Chi Ecopark. From the impressions of other visitors and the park staff, I had very high expectations. Still, not even my wildest imaginings could come up with the mystical and astounding place I found.

Mexiko – Cenotes
Formations of stalactites create incredible landscapes in the underground cenote in Kantun ChiImage: DW/J. Martinez

Going down felt as if I were in an Indiana Jones movie. I had to be careful where to step, as there were puddles of rainwater all around the area, and my t-shirt began to get soaked. I could barely see what was in front of me and only after a couple of minutes of full darkness could I see the light at the end of the tunnel. For me and any other visitor this tour felt like exploring a new place for the first time.

Mexiko – Cenotes
There are guided walks through the caves of Kantun ChiImage: DW/J. Martinez

"Are you sure your camera is waterproof?" asked my tour guide Enrique while he was waiting for me on the floor of the cave. "We are going to move around the cave underwater." The underground cave at Kantun Chi was one of the most fascinating places I have ever been. I was stunned by the amount of diverse rock formations touching the crystal blue water of the river. The reflections of stalagmites and stalactites on the water made it feel like a surreal world created by an artist. In this case the artist was nature. 

The cave of Kantun Chi is not the only attraction in this ecological park. It has five other open and semi-open cenotes.

Not very far away from Kantun Chi (only 5 minutes by car or 30 minutes on foot), the three cenotes of Chikin Ha welcome dozens of tourists looking forward to either swimming in the refreshing blue waters of the cenotes or learning more about them during the Maya ceremonies performed for visitors. While Chikin Ha and Kantun Chi have a relatively high entrance fee (30-70 euros, depending on the kind of tour), other cenotes around the area have more affordable prices and offer the same kind of beauty.

Mexiko – Cenotes
The beautiful cenote of Oxman is located next to Valladolid and is far less overrun with tourists than the famous It Kil. Image: DW/J. Martinez

A connection to the underworld

The Route of the Cenotes can start from Cancun and go all the way down along the coast, as well  as towards Chichen Itza in central Yucatan. The Yucatan peninsula alone has around 7000 cenotes – and who knows how many are yet to be discovered!

These incredible natural formations were also sacred areas for the Maya civilization. The Maya used the ponds for animal and human sacrifices, as well as ceremonies about the cosmos and fertility. For many Maya, cenotes were a connection to the underworld and, with pools varying in size, nature and depth, they seem like the perfect backdrop for these kinds of beliefs. Cenotes were also a great source of water, as these pools offered clean water for the communities around them. Even the word cenote comes from ts'onot and refers to a location with access to water.With more than 50 cenotes to choose from, I had to plan a very meticulous itinerary of where to go and when. Although popular cenotes like the Gran Cenote and Dos Ojos Cenote are very beautiful and easily accessible to tour companies, I found them overwhelming and extremely crowded. Yucatan is a very popular destination in Mexico, if not the most popular, and with tour companies offering trips to these cenotes to every single visitor in the area, I found it hard to feel a personal connection to the location or find the peace and quiet I had expected from the pictures I had seen.

Mexiko – Cenotes
Visitors can swim in most cenotes on the Yucatan peninsulaImage: DW/J. Martinez

Visiting a cenote is a delightful way of connecting with nature and the Maya culture at the same time. It's a place to be still, sit down and observe the natural beauty around you. I can´t imagine finding that beauty in a place with hundreds of visitors around you.

Mexiko Yucatan Kukulkan Pyramide in Chichen Itza
Kukulcán pyramid in the ruined town of Chichén Itzá in the north of the Yucatán PeninsulaImage: picture-alliance/M. Mara

Exploring the peninsula

Renting a car gave me a huge advantage when visiting cenotes. Mexican highways are in very good shape and driving is not as difficult and chaotic as in other Central American countries. I was able to be the first in line when visiting a cenote or stay for a longer period of time if I particularly enjoyed one of them.

Mexiko – Cenotes
The cenote of Zaci in Valladolid is easy to reach by bicycle from the city center Image: DW/J. Martinez

Cenotes such as Zaci and Dzitnup are located around the city of Valladolid. These cenotes can be easily reached by bicycle, and with entrance prices ranging from 3-5 euros each, cycling around them is a great alternative for a day trip in Valladolid.

At the same time, cenotes such as Oxman and It Kil, which are listed as two of the most beautiful in the world, are far better visited with private transport or by car early in the morning to avoid the crowds.

Cenotes are home to legends and history. A big part of Maya cultural heritage comes from these beautiful pools and nowadays we are lucky enough to be able to swim and dive in them. My visit in Yucatan was everything I could have imagined and visiting the cenotes was by far the highlight of my trip.