with the Spirits
in the Yucatan's
-- Photos click open to
a larger view --
It's easy to see why the cenotes of the Yucatan Peninsula were
sacred to the ancient Mayans. First of all, these hidden limestone
wells were the Indians' only source of life-sustaining fresh water.
But they were also doorways to a mysterious inner world of breathtaking
What is puzzling is why tourists to Mexico's popular Caribbean
coast don't know more about them. Venturing out within two
hours of Cancun, it's possible to snorkel day after day in
captivating natural settings, yet never once set foot in salt
There are dozens of cenotes (pronounced say-NO-tays) in the
Yucatan, testaments to
the region's former life. Millions of years ago, this part
of the world was a vast coral reef. As the oceans withdrew,
mollusks here died and left a limestone shelf that now covers
the peninsula. Today, it's a porous land. Any rain that falls
drains away quickly through the limestone, leaving the northern
Yucatan dry, without a single river or lake.
Under the limestone shelf, however, it's a different story. In
the darkness below, rainwater filters into an extensive underground
river system that flows slowly to the sea.
Cenotes form when a portion of the earth's crust collapses. What's
left is an opening filled with crystal clear water, pure enough
to drink and plentiful enough to sustain a large community. All
of the famous Mayan archaeological sites are located where cenotes
exist. So important were they to the survival of the Mayans, that
they became hallowed places important in many religious rituals.
The small, inland city of Valladolid, about two hours drive-time
west of Cancun, is close to three of the more easily visited cenotes.
This peaceful colonial town boasts two of the oldest churches in
all of Mexico, but it is surprisingly lacking in tourists. The prices
here are much lower than in Cancun, the restaurants are more authentic,
and on the street corners, you can still hear natives speaking in
ancient Mayan dialects.
On the outskirts of town, about 3 km. away, is cenote "X'keken,"
also known by its Mayan name, Dzitnup. To see the cenote in its
most natural beauty, go early in the day, before the local kids
and tour busses arrive.
You enter the cenote with a steep, 56-step descent into the bowels
of the earth where the air is warm, humid and silent. There's a
stunning scene inside. A giant cave opens up some 50 feet over a
large, crystal-clear pool. Long, thick tree roots hang down like
ropes from the stone ceiling, straining toward the water.
At midday, the sun shines in through a small opening in the roof,
refracting in the water with an eerie, blue glow.
lights illuminate the walkway, and at the water's edge, stone
and cement ledges have been built for sitting and diving.
Although there is not enough light for good snorkeling, and
few fish to be seen, swimming in the deep, clear pool is a
wonderful experience. Floating in silence, gazing up through
the light to the trees and the deep blue sky, you can imagine
what ceremonies might have occurred in this cavern 1,000 years
Just 27 miles from Valladolid is Chichen Itza, one of the Mayan
world's most famous archaeological sites. Its fabled "Sacred
Cenote" lies at the end of a half-mile path leading north from
El Castillo, Chichen's grand pyramid. Swimming is not allowed here,
but the cenote is a fascinating sight, both because of its size,
and because of the mystery of its use during Mayan times.
The huge well is some 200 feet in diameter. Striated, white
limestone walls drop down from
the rim till they meet the green, brackish water 75 feet below.
Archaeologists believe that the cenote was a magnet for cult
activity from about 1000 until 1550 A.D., well after the city's
decline. Human sacrifices were offered here to the gods thought
to live in the underworld at the bottom of the cenote. In
modern times, divers have dredged the 30 foot deep well, pulling
out bones of more than 200 individuals, mostly children and
elderly males, along with priceless artifacts of gold, jade,
copper, flint and obsidian.
Peering down from the ridge at the top, it is clear why someone
tossed into the waters could not get out; the slippery, white walls
are nearly vertical to the bottom. Legend has it that victims were
dropped into the well in early morning. If anyone was able to swim
and survive until noontime, the Mayans fished them out and praised
them for the special knowledge they had gained from the spirits
For centuries, trees and shrubs have washed into the well making
it difficult, and dangerous, for divers to do further explorations.
Since the cenote is fed by a series of underground rivers, it is
also impossible to drain it. Undoubtedly, many more bones and artifacts
remain at the bottom.
Valladolid, you can find more cenotes on the Caribbean coast
between the resort towns of Playa del Carmen and the archaeological
ruins of Tulum, one-hour south. Off the road to the ruins
at Coba, about two miles outside the town of Tulum is "El
Gran Cenote," one of the most beautiful. Centuries of
growth have turned the collapsed center island into a lush
tropical garden of ferns, palms and sea grass. Water lilies,
with their delicate, white flowers in full bloom, form a blanket
over shallow water at one edge of the island. Further out,
the water drops deeper and sparkles in the sun like a turquoise
jewel. It's on private property, but if you pay the watchman
at the farmhouse 20 pesos ($3), he'll let you in.
Many of the other cenotes in this region are deep in the jungle
and difficult to get to, so it's easier and safer to visit them
with certified guides on an organized tour. Gordon "Buddy"
Quattlebaum runs one of the best tours at his Dos Ojos Dive Center,
located on Highway 307, 40 minutes south of Playa del Carmen. Buddy
offers both snorkeling and skin diving expeditions, and promises
"the best cave diving experience in the Yucatan, or your money
Originally from Miami, Buddy has been exploring cenotes here
for over six years, and is well known in international cave
diving circles. In 1996, he led an expedition of over 40 divers
from seven countries who charted the unexplored maze of underwater
caverns, tunnels and cenotes of the Ejido Systema Pat cave
system. Named after the Mayan-family
cooperative, the "Ejido" that owns the land, the
187,772 foot maze of interconnecting tunnels was established
as the world's longest underwater cave system in the Guinness
Book of Records. It beat the previous record of 168,400 held
by the Nohoch Nah Chich (Giant Birdhouse) system two miles
away, which was discovered by Cedam Dive Center's owner Mike
Madden in 1988.
Exploring the region a few years ago, I went along on Buddy's four-hour
"Jungle Snorkel Tour." It was led by Rosemary Redgen,
an Australian cave diving specialist, and a young Mexican named
Christos. We went to three separate caverns deep in the wilderness,
and, as the saying goes, "getting there was half the fun!"
Our group of six snorkelers and two guides climbed aboard a rickety
flat bed "jungle mobile," then headed for 2 ½ kilometers
down a rocky trail through the lush jungle. From the drop off point,
it was a 20-minute walk along a narrow footway, past wild pineapples,
bromeliads and many species of wild orchids. The jungle is a known
habitat for pumas, jaguars and spider monkeys, but the only animal
life we saw was a large iguana, sunning itself on a tree limb up
above. That was just as well. Rosemary told us about the unlucky
day she stepped in a nest of biting fire ants. She also declared
that since it was then January, she could let her guard down a bit,
because tarantula season was over.
first stop was "Tak Bi Ha," (The Place of Hidden
Waters), a private cenote owned by Christo's family. Like
X'keken in Valladolid, this cenote is entirely underground,
the interior lit by a portable generator. From outside, we
squeezed through a narrow stone opening, then down a handmade
ladder to the chamber below. It is a scene of ancient beauty,
in pristine condition, with hundreds of short stalactites
hanging from the roof. The glassy surface of the water curves
in a circle around a center island of stone, formed when the
inner layer of the roof collapsed centuries ago.
On Buddy's tours, non-swimmers are allowed to snorkel, but life
vests are mandatory for everyone, even though the water is fairly
shallow, with no current. The buoyant vests prevented us from carelessly
swimming below the water surface and getting caught under the overhanging
roof with no air to breathe.
Rosemary also warned us repeatedly against touching any of those
pointy drip stone formations that hung down off the ceiling like
the teeth of a giant shark.
"They are more delicate than they look," she said, "and
it takes 1,000 years for them to grow just one inch in length."
She also pointed out several fossils of brain coral, proof that
the land was once under the sea.
The water was pleasantly warm, about 78 degrees, with superb
visibility. As we snorkeled around the perimeter of the cave,
our guides used flashlights to illuminate the vast
underwater landscape that stretches out and down from the
sidewalls. Here the depths ranged from 10 - 30 feet, and we
saw many passageways that opened into astounding rooms, some
large enough to fit a truck.
Back above ground, we stopped at an authentic Mayan style home
built entirely from materials found in the jungle. Rosemary took
the opportunity to tell us a bit about the lifestyle of the area's
After a brief rest, we continued through the jungle to the "Caverna
de Murcielagos," (Bat Cave). Once again, we descended down
a ladder to a dark, humid interior.
After exploring the Bat Cave, we snorkeled single file through a
narrow passage that lead to a third cenote, "DosOjos"
(Two Eyes). This one is decorated with immense underwater columns,
and has a maximum depth of 26 feet, with visibility as far as 300
feet. Cave divers consider this one to be a "must see."
Dos Ojos is a bright, large cave with one wall collapsed
and open to the jungle and the sky.
Here the air was fresh, and even the softest sound was amplified
and enriched as it echoed off the shallow dome overhead. Sunlight
streamed in over the collapsed wall and bounced off the water,
dancing on the roof in a shimmering reflection. The beauty
of this cenote dazzled us all. Surely it was sights like this
that lead to the Mayan belief in spirits that lived in the
"It's pretty incredible, isn't it?" remarked Beth Sommers.
She and her husband were visiting the Yucatan from Seattle, and
one trip to this cenote was clearly not going to be enough. "You'd
have to come back a second time, just to take it all in," she
Joan and Brian Mellott from Colorado were even more enthusiastic.
Although they had visited the Yucatan before, they had never seen
the cenotes. "This is the most incredible thing. I've never
seen anything so pretty," she exclaimed. "Our daughter
goes cave exploring back home, and she would be in 7th heaven here!"
To snorkelers, divers and nature enthusiasts, the Yucatan
beckons with an enthralling, new experience.
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Lodging and transportation in Valliadolid and Tulum areas
E-mail to Phil Saviano