If you’ve been to Cancun, Playa del Carmen or anywhere in the Yucatan, you’ve probably heard of a cenote. If you haven’t, let me enlighten you. They are limestone sinkholes filled with fresh water and there are thousands of them dotting the peninsula. Most of them are connected by underwater channels, making them part of the biggest underground river system in the world.
And to those clever Mayans, these cenotes were considered sacred. They offered water during dry times and because of their seemingly endless depths, they were thought to be the gateways to the underworld.
Not to mention, most of them are stunning!
Now, I’d love to tell you that few people know about the beauty of these natural wonders, but that would be a lie. When we got to Merida, Carlos told us that there were many cenotes to visit, but some were “virgin” but many, sadly, were “man-molested.”
HA! This very literal translation made me laugh, but after spending a couple of weeks visiting 7 different cenotes, I definitely understood what he meant. Some of these gorgeous spots were un-spoilt, the water perfectly blue with very few people around to notice their serenity.
A good example of virgin cenotes were the 3 I visited in Cuzamá on a day trip from Merida with a small group of buddies. These spots are reached only by taking a bus to this village and then hopping into small horse-drawn rail carts that take you to the cenotes. The first two we visited were really small, one of them only accessible by climbing down a steep ladder.
The water inside was cold and since these cenotes weren’t as open to the sky above, we were shivering. We weren’t sure what to think after seeing these two tiny ones, but the third cenote we visited absolutely blew our minds!
Our guide told us it was called “Cenote Azul” (blue cenote) but after some hardcore Google-ing, that doesn’t appear to be true. In fact, I can find very little info on this gorgeous place anywhere! But I guess that explains why there weren’t any other people there besides my small group that day. And that’s totally alright with me.
One side of this cenote was open to the sky, allowing sunlight in to magnify the deep blue of the water, but it curved back into a cave as well and the water reached over 100 feet deep. We dove in, we floated, we watched bats fly around the interior of the cave. We marveled in the depth and clarity of the water. It was pure heaven.
But sadly, Carlos was right – not all cenotes remain this serene and “virgin”. Some of the others I visited on other days were over-developed and chock full of tourists from all-inclusive resorts and cruise ships. These people, armed with matching life jackets, were marched by the dozen into and out of the cenotes, crowding up the entrances taking selfies, being led like children by staff members who reminded them every 10 seconds to watch their step on the slippery rocks.
Now, I don’t necessarily have an issue with people who frequent resorts or cruise ships. I’ve done both in the past, I’ll hesitantly confess. My problem is the hand-holding by the staff members and the massive numbers that they bring in to the cenotes. Of course the people are required to wear life jackets – these are groups of over 50 with only one guide to watch them. They can’t keep track of everyone and don’t want to get sued.
But it’s also not just the staff, it’s sometimes the tourists themselves. Annoyed that their guide isn’t speaking in perfect English, complaining about the tourists from countries other than their own, so concerned with getting the perfect photo in their $200 sunglasses to put on Facebook that they don’t stop for a second to even look around and appreciate where they are. And don’t even get me started on the yard-long selfie sticks.
A perfect example was Cenote Ik-Kil, the place nearly every package tour group to Chichen Itza visits after the ruins. When we rocked up to this cenote, I was upset to see it had an accompanying entrance fee, modern changing rooms, lockers, restaurants and a gift shop. I peered down inside the open roof to see dozens of tourists taking selfies on a concrete platform with safety signs surrounding them.
Is that really adventure? Cramming into a tiny cenote along with 50 other people in life jackets who are all trying to take the perfect selfie at the same time?
But on the other hand, if this is the only way these people will travel and see the world, then at least they’re giving it a go. So many people, especially in the states, don’t bother leaving their town for anywhere other than Disneyworld and therefore have very limited world views, seeing nothing other than what exists in their tiny bubble.
Coincidently, once we took the stairs down into Cenote Ik-Kil, it wasn’t quite so bad facing the other direction from the concrete platform. It seemed the package tourists were more interested in taking selfies on the edge than actually swimming in this pretty natural pool. I took turns leaping off the 25-foot ledge and floated on my back, admiring the clouds through the hole in the cenote’s ceiling. With your ears in the water, you can’t hear the tourists screaming.
The last two cenotes I visited were Chikin-Ha and Rainbow Cenote, near Tulum, where I was eager to try cavern diving for the first time. Along with my guide Misael, I suited up and we entered Chikin-Ha. After descending, I sank promptly to the bottom – I’ve never gone diving in freshwater before and my buoyancy was waaaaay off!
Once I figured my shit out, we ventured into the underwater caverns, which were mostly pitch black and required a dive torch. It was the most otherworldly atmosphere I’ve ever been in! The water was so clear with no fish that floating through the rock formations in the darkness felt like being in outer space. Even in two wetsuits, I was fighting off chills, but what an epic experience!
During the first dive, we surfaced for a few minutes in Rainbow Cenote, which is connected to Chikin-Ha only via underwater channels and is closed off from visitors. It was so quiet, so serene, I couldn’t help but think of how much it differed from the madness of Cenote Ik-Kil.
Enjoying the silence for a few minutes, it occurred to me that this is the closest thing to sacred that these cenotes probably get nowadays.
I wonder how long it will stay this way.