If you’re vacationing in Cancun, on the Mayan Riviera, the Costa Maya, or elsewhere on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, coast or the majestic Maya archaeological ruins of the interior (highly recommended), you’ll stumble across – and hopefully not into – cenotes (“say-NO-tess,” from the Maya dzonot). These are good-size, sometimes enormous, sinkholes, often filled with water, and the limestone of the Yucatan peninsula is riddled with thousands of them. The first time I came across one was during a visit many years ago to perhaps Mexico’s most famous ruins of all, at Chichen Itza, a 2½ to 3-hour drive from Cancun. Called El Cenote Sagrado (meaning “sacred well”; pictured above), it lies in the scrubby jungle at the end of a dusty road extending some 900 feet north from Chichen’s main structure, the pyramid called El Castillo. It’s an impressive site – and thought to be the reason why the city was built here in the first place. Two hundred feet wide and with a 90-foot, vegetation-and-vine-draped drop to its murky waters, this cenote was used as a repository of offerings to the Maya chaacs (rain gods); all sorts of sacrificial artifacts have been found in its silty depths – as well as skeletons indicating human sacrifice. Each time I see it, I admit find it deliciously creepy.
Out on the coast, I actually got to fling my own body into a couple of cenotes (and as you see, I’m here to tell the tale). A half hour’s to an hour’s drive south of Playa del Carmen runs what some call "the cenote trail" but I am puckishly pleased to call “cenote alley” – a string of these babies turned into tourist attractions for swimming, snorkeling, and diving; some of them also have amenities like restaurants, shops, temascales (Maya sweat lodges), even rooms for overnighting. The best known are Dos Ojos (above right) and Hidden Worlds (featured in an IMAX film), and others include Casa Cenote, Tres Bocas, Cenote Azul, and El Jardin del Edén.
On one of my last trips down, my local pal Alberto took me to Cristalino (left), smaller, less touristy and more popular with locals because the admission fees are lower than many of the others. The water was incredibly clear and refreshing (in some there’s a fresh rainwater layer on top and a seawater layer deeper down, but here the cenote was shallower and seemingly all fresh water), and even for this jaded travel journalist it was way fun splashing around and exploring the various nooks and crannies in the company of Yucatecan families. Some of the bigger cenotes are quite deep and connect to underwater caves with fantastic stalagtites and stalagmites that make for a scuba diving wonderland (and if you can't scuba, you can snorkel and generally splash around).
Bottom line: when in the Yucatan, you can’t say no to cenotes.
images: Salhedine; Dos Ojos; Routard05