Approximately 65 million years ago, during the Cretaceous period, a large meteorite struck what is now the Yucatán Peninsula. This impact created a giant crater known as the Chicxulub Crater. The energy released by the impact caused the formation of mountains and fractures in the region.

The Yucatan Peninsula is primarily composed of sedimentary limestone rocks that formed in the seas that once covered this region during the Mesozoic era. These limestone rocks are highly soluble in water and play a fundamental role in the creation of cenotes.

Over time, rainwater and groundwater, loaded with carbon dioxide, have penetrated through fissures and cracks in the limestone rocks. Gradually, the water has dissolved the calcium content in these rocks, resulting in the formation of an extensive network of caves and underground passages, known as a karst system.

Over millennia, some of these caves and underground passages, shaped by the dissolution of limestone rocks, have collapsed, giving rise to surface openings that we know as cenotes.

Stalactites and stalagmites in the cenotes

The action of the weather and the passage of time

The underground caves were formed when sea levels were low. Rainwater, mixed with atmospheric carbon dioxide, creates carbonic acid. Since the Yucatan soil is composed of highly porous limestone, this acid seeped into the ground, dissolving the limestone, and over time, sculpting vast systems of tunnels and underground caves. The dissolved limestone dripping in the passages of dry caves, over thousands of years, has created an incredibly beautiful decoration of stalactites and stalagmites. It takes about 100 years for one inch of growth.

End of the ice age

After the last ice age about 8000 years ago, the sea level rose again and inundated cave systems. The caves with ceilings higher than sea level only partially flooded, creating an air space. Some of these cave ceilings became too thin and collapsed, forming a sinkhole and providing a natural entrance to the underground river system.

mayan cenotes

Importance of cenotes in Maya culture

Cenotes played a fundamental role in Maya culture and held great importance in various aspects of Maya life. Here are some of the main reasons why cenotes were significant in Maya culture:

Source of Potable Water

In a region where the availability of fresh water is limited, cenotes provided an essential source of potable water for Maya communities. The water from cenotes was clean and fresh, making it suitable for human consumption and crop irrigation.

Ceremonial and Religious Sites

The Maya regarded cenotes as sacred places and often used them in religious ceremonies. It is believed that they offered offerings and sacrifices in cenotes as part of their religious practices. Many cenotes have archaeological remains, such as ceremonial objects and human skeletons, attesting to their use in rituals.

Access to the Underworld

The Maya had a cosmology that included three realms: the sky, the Earth, and the underworld. Cenotes were considered entrances to the underworld and were often associated with water deities and communication with the spiritual world. Rituals and ceremonies that took place at cenotes may have been related to seeking spiritual guidance and protection.

Natural Resources

In addition to drinking water, cenotes also provided natural resources such as fish and seafood. Maya communities near cenotes relied on these resources for their livelihood.

Settlement Development

Many important Maya cities were established near cenotes, taking advantage of both their water supply and cultural significance. This facilitated the daily life of communities and the development of agriculture.

Geoglyphs and Navigation Systems

Some cenotes were used as landmarks in terrestrial navigation and as markers for important jungle paths. Geoglyphs and petroglyphs have also been found on the walls of some cenotes, often depicting human and animal figures, and may have had ritual or cultural significance.

Cenotes Today

Since the 1980s, hundreds of these cenotes have been explored and mapped by cave divers: today, exploration and penetration are still ongoing. In 2022, almost 1680 km have been discovered.

The three longest underwater cave systems in the world are located in the Riviera Maya:

  1. Sac Actun System 233 miles (228 cenotes)
  2. Ox Bel Ha System 210 miles (152 cenotes)
  3. K’oox Baal System 64 miles (57 cenotes)

List of Flooded Caves by Length in Quintana Roo, Mexico

Despite the large number of cenotes, only a few offer cave areas large enough for diving. A cavern is defined as the area of a cave within the natural light zone and no more than 60 m (200 feet) from the surface.

In summary, Mexican cenotes represent a fascinating convergence of the unique geological history of the Yucatán Peninsula and the profound cultural importance they held for the Maya. These underground water bodies continue to be valuable treasures that connect ancestral past with the natural beauty of the region.

Share this content: