Diving into the spellbinding Mayan Underworld inside Tulum
As soon as the tip of your foot crosses the sheet of water, you enter the realm of Xibalbá, the Mayan underworld, warns the local guide of a cenote in the Mexican Yucatán.
It is almost impossible not to let yourself be influenced by the atmosphere and the stories you have read and heard in the previous days when it comes to swimming in a cenote. The mind tries to remember that it is a mere geographical accident, the work of time and the wear and tear of the rock. Of subway rivers that have been exposed when a part of the vault of the grotto has collapsed leaving an eye of water in sight. But the vision is more powerful than the coldness of the data.
Generally, the waters of a cenote are accessed by going down a gallery stairway where the light filters through the vines that hang, ghostly, along the edges of the hollow. The sun’s rays, in the central hours of the day, send mystical beams that highlight the jade of the liquid. Upon entering the water, one remembers that underneath there is a vertical tube up to a hundred meters deep that connects with the other cenotes of Yucatan.
A 65-million-year-old aquatic system
The history of the water system that gave rise to the cenotes of southeastern Mexico is long and fascinating. Sixty-five million years ago, the meteorite that, according to some experts, triggered the extinction of the dinosaurs fell to Earth. The impact was such that it raised the earth’s surface and formed the great plain that today is the Yucatan Peninsula – a particular geographic space whose subsoil has an extensive network of caverns and subway rivers that, like veins made of water, irrigate this vast territory and are the source of life for the creatures that inhabit it – the majestic Maya jungle.
This immense group of cavities, connected to each other for more than a thousand kilometers, is in fact one of the largest aquatic systems on the planet, a treasure chest of natural and cultural treasures that has nourished our present since ancient times. Because of its vastness, this system has not yet been fully explored, but today it is part of our imagination and has been since ancient times.
It is estimated that there are at least 10,000 interconnected cenotes throughout the peninsula. Each one has given explorers and scientists a piece of history. There, among stalactites, caves and waters of unimaginable colors, traces have been found of the ancient inhabitants of that region, of the flora and fauna that existed there thousands of years ago, of the importance of the corals and, of course, of all that was once the great Maya civilization.
The great beauty of the cenotes
According to several geological studies, the Yucatan Peninsula was once sunken into the sea. When the ocean retreated, the limestone soil filtered rainwater into the subsoil, which generated the emergence of subway rivers.
Like all geographic formations, cenotes are divided into categories according to their age. The open ones are the oldest and are surrounded by privileged vegetation. On the other hand, the cavern cenotes are the newest, and, to reach them, it is often necessary to enter caves and more pronounced sinkholes.
The Mayas and their “water caverns”
The aquatic world, for the Maya culture, is one of its possible archaeologies, a time machine that allows us to understand a part of their ritual life, their symbolic universe and their cosmogonic system, which include some of the most deeply rooted beliefs for the ancient Maya. The word “cenote” comes from the Maya word ts’ono’ot, which can be translated as “cavern with water”.
In their sacred quality, cenotes reveal to us in their depths the original cosmovision, an amazing narrative in which stones and lakes had and gave life. The ancient peoples of the Mexican southeast considered these caves to be sacred, to the point that, whenever they encountered them on the road, they would settle in their surroundings and respectfully ask permission to enter. These basins, almost magical, gave them water (life), allowed them to cultivate and provided them with a way to get in touch with their deities.
For the ancient Maya, the cenotes were sanctuaries and so they filled them with mortuary offerings and legends. In recent years, ornaments, bones and figures have been found in these sites, indicating the importance they had and the role they played for this culture. In a more anthropological sense, these pools of water were synonymous with life to the point that, in some regions, the stalactites and their infinite drops were considered to be like breasts suckling the Earth. From this perspective, cenotes were a hymn to the origin of life.
For the ancient Maya, cenotes were also a portal to submerge into the underworld (known in Maya as Xibalbá), where all the gods lived; there they could also meet the aluxes, small beings, equivalent to a gnome or goblin, in charge of guarding the transparent water and the exuberance of the Maya jungle.
The cenotes as a social engine
Despite the importance of cenotes in Mexico’s past, irresponsible tourism and the overexploitation of the land surrounding these bodies of water have generated a great crisis for all the inhabitants of the jungle. Since a few decades ago, unfortunately, things have changed and many inhabitants of the peninsula have been forced to open their cenotes in order to survive. Although some have been catalogued as protected natural areas, there are still many companies in the region that exploit the resources that surround them and not only contaminate their waters, but also take away the livelihood of the people living in the region.
This reality has been a driving force for the creation of various civil associations, which, through the organization and valuable efforts of hundreds of people, have achieved resounding victories: for example, shutting down the large-scale pig farms that do so much damage to the land. Thanks to their work, organized and carried out by entire villages, they have achieved the implementation of sustainable spaces that protect, at the same time, the natural environment and the culture of the Mayan peoples of today.
Swimming in the cenotes is a joyful experience in a scorching climate
The Mayas built their towns and cities -and erected their most magnificent palaces and pyramids- always near cenotes, since they were the well with which they supplied water to the population. And, perhaps because of their dreamlike aspect, they gave them a supernatural character. Under the water there is not exactly a hell, but the underworld of sickness and death ruled by Xibalbá.
In some cenotes, the ancient Maya performed human sacrifices. At the bottom of them, archaeologists have found skeletons of children, generally under 11 years old, who had been skinned and later burned. In some of the caverns there are even petroglyphs marked on the walls below the water level.
And, despite all this cultural background, the cenotes are one of the most popular places for travelers to visit in the extreme south of Mexico. It is a joyful experience in a scorching climate. Entering a cold water and a transparency that seems impossible. The younger the cenote, the purer the water. As it advances through the centuries, the demineral deposits turn the water into a cloudy emerald color.
There are cenotes still undeveloped, wild in the thick of the Yucatan jungle
There are hundreds of cenotes in Yucatan, many of them open to the public experience. Most of them propose safety measures, such as forcing swimmers to wear life jackets and equip the swimming area with ropes to hold on to in case they feel the current is dragging strongly or, simply, so that they do not cross to the points where the depth is -literally- abysmal.
Because of their relationship with the classic Mayan world, some of the most popular cenotes are close to the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico, such as Chichen Itza. In the ruins themselves is the Sacred Cenote that the city’s builders used for their water supply and rituals. But only three kilometers away, tourists can enjoy the Ik-kil cavern, a place created by a Hollywood screenwriter.
There are even cenotes in the urban center of some cities, as in the case of Zaci in Valladolid; and others still unconditioned, wild in the thickness of the Yucatecan jungle. But dozens of them are ready to receive visitors, like the Gran Cenote of Tulum, where you can visit part of the caverns while diving; or the recently opened to the public X-Batun and Dzonbakal. Even those that have a Mayan museum inside, such as Dzibilchaltún. In any case, an experience that can only be lived in Yucatan.
Access the updated Cenotes map
As the popularity of Tulum continues to grow as a tourist destination, it is essential to have an updated map of the cenotes’ locations. We understand that exploring the cenotes is one of the most sought-after experiences in Tulum, and we want to ensure that visitors have access to the most accurate information.
Therefore, we have collaborated with local experts and organizations to create a detailed and up-to-date map of the cenotes in Tulum. This map provides information on the cenotes’ locations, entry fees, opening hours, and other relevant details.
We believe that this map will be a valuable resource for travelers planning their Tulum itinerary. Not only will it help them navigate to the best cenotes, but it will also assist them in making informed decisions about which cenotes to visit based on their preferences and budgets.
We are proud to present this updated map of the cenotes in Tulum, and we hope that it will enhance your Tulum experience. Please feel free to share this resource with others who are planning to visit Tulum.