Some interesting facts about the History of the Cenotes
origin of the word “cenote” is the Mayan word “dzonot” which means “hole with water” and there we start with the very unique History of the Cenotes
Approximately 65 million years ago, the Yucatan Peninsula didn’t exist – it used to be a beautiful coral reef below the ocean’s surface. Stony coral polyps secrete skeletons of calcium carbonate, creating layers that form reefs and can result in massive reef structures. This is how underwater landscapes such as barrier reefs, fringing reefs or atolls are created.
Over a long period of time, a 1-mile thick limestone slab was formed by the reef. When the meteorite “Chicxulub” with a diameter 118 miles hit Mexico between the Gulf of Mexico and Merida, it shifted the plates of Central America. That was when the Yucatan Peninsula and parts of the Bahamas loomed out of the water for the first time.
Ice ages and more were important for the History of the Cenotes
Various ice ages caused the sea level to rise and sink repeatedly. Each time the peninsula loomed out of the water, it was exposed to rain combined with atmospheric carbon dioxide. When acid rain meets limestone, a chemical reaction transforms rain into carbonic acid.
The acid slowly “melted” the limestone and dissolved the softest rocks first. As water always flows to the lowest point – the sea, tunnels up to 600 miles long were formed here in Mexico. In times when the water level was low and the caves almost dry, the remaining carbonic acid continued to dissolve the calcium carbonate.
The drops hung off the ceiling for about 10-15 minutes as they were formed like tiny straws. When more calcium carbonate was released, it blocked the straws and transformed them into stalactites. Through the remaining mineral that dropped on the ground, stalagmites were formed. Stalactites grow only about 0,4 inches every 1000 years. Thats probably the most interesting fact about the Genesis of the Cenotes.
The History of the cenotes continues
The sea level rose again radically and flooded the Yucatan Peninsula several times so it eventually was covered by corals and limestone once again. About 18.000 years ago, the sea leveled off and the caves filled with rainwater. Rainwater takes 3-4 days to filter through the limestone resulting in visibility of more than 100 meters. Sections of the ceilings collapsed as the jungle got heavier with growth over the years.
The capillary effect of salt water running inland provides us with a natural phenomenon we call a “halocline“. It is a surreal vision where salt water is separated from fresh water because of different temperatures and density. When you’re diving in the fresh water looking down on the salt water, it is as if you are looking at a slightly reflective surface. Sometimes you might almost forget you’re underwater.
The Maya and the mythology of the cenotes
There are no lakes or rivers in the Yucatan so the cenotes were of great importance for the Maya. They believed the cenotes were the home of the god Chac Mool who watched over Xibalba, the place of fear. According to legend, Chac Mool was reborn as a jaguar at dusk and spread fear among the people. To appease him, the Maya made many offerings – from pots and jade up to living sacrifices.
Another god was Kukulkaan who was responsible for the fertility of the land. By the peak of Chichen Itza’s development, the Maya had cleared so much jungle that the ecosystem was out of balance. They blamed Kukulkaan for it. The imbalance resulted in a long period of drought after which the Maya only cultivated monocultures. The long drought was the beginning of the end of the Mayan civilization.
The so-called Alux, the spirits of light, served the Mayan gods and goddesses. According to legend, they swept through the cenotes at 5 PM daily and turned off all lights. Since most cenotes are still privately owned by devout Mayan families, most of them still close at 4:59 in the afternoon.
The cenotes and the surrounding jungle are home to numerous species of plants and animals. Magical and extraordinarily beautiful wildlife are found both in and out of the water. Since all inhabitants of the jungle need access to the cenotes – the only fresh water sources in the area, we need to preserve their pristine and natural state.
We stay true to the divers’ motto: “leave only bubbles” and we treat the mysterious sacred sites of the Maya with great respect.