Cosmic Collision, The Extraordinary Tale of Tulum's Cenotes

July 12, 2024
Today´s Paper

Cosmic Collision, The Extraordinary Tale of Tulum's Cenotes

Cosmic Collision, The Extraordinary Tale of Tulum’s Cenotes

65 million years ago, a colossal meteor impact in Yucatán caused dinosaur extinction. Chicxulub crater & sacred cenotes connect to Maya's ancient world.
Cosmic Collision, The Extraordinary Tale of Tulum's Cenotes

TULUM, México – In the vast annals of Earth’s history, a cataclysmic event unfolded 65 million years ago, leaving an indelible mark on our planet’s course. A colossal meteorite, measuring an astonishing 10 kilometers in diameter, collided with the northern reaches of the Yucatán Peninsula, altering the fate of life on Earth forever. Comparable in size to the mighty Mount Everest, this immense celestial body bore the power to extinguish the reign of the dinosaurs and mark the end of the Cretaceous era.

Evidence of this momentous occurrence surfaced during the mid-20th century, within the realms of Petróleos Mexicanos’ exploratory endeavors. Detecting an intriguing geophysical anomaly beneath the sea, researchers stumbled upon a semicircular structure spanning approximately 200 kilometers in diameter. Unraveling the aftermath of the meteorite’s descent, scientists discerned the unprecedented energy stored within its rapid velocity—soaring at a staggering 20 kilometers per second, equivalent to 20 times the speed of a bullet—manifesting as a release of 100 teratons of TNT, a force a billion times mightier than the bombs that shook Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Cosmic Collision, The Extraordinary Tale of Tulum's Cenotes

The impact was a harbinger of devastation, precipitating colossal waves towering over 150 meters that mercilessly engulfed coastlines. In the aftermath of the impact, torrential acid rains swept over the oceans, rendering them inhospitable to numerous organisms and ushering in widespread extinction.

Yet, the devastation did not conclude with the waves’ retreat. An even graver calamity loomed on the horizon. The impact propelled vast amounts of dust into the atmosphere, enveloping the Earth in darkness for months. As sunlight was blocked, temperatures plummeted, and photosynthesis faltered, causing vegetation to wither and succumb to famine, thereby plunging countless animals into starvation.

Cosmic Collision, The Extraordinary Tale of Tulum's Cenotes
The worst day on Earth: The day of the Chicxulub impact.

Termed the “nuclear winter,” this scenario was destined to be short-lived; if it had persisted, all life on Earth would have been obliterated. However, as the dust finally settled, a dramatic greenhouse effect took hold, reminiscent of the 21st-century phenomenon we have come to know all too well, exerting unwelcome consequences on our planet’s ecological equilibrium.

The colossal crater, christened Chicxulub, after the Yucatán settlement where it resides—a name derived from the Mayan term “Chac-xulub-chen,” signifying “the devil’s well”—stands as a lasting testament to this transformative event. The impact birthed a network of sinkholes known as cenotes, geological formations arising from the meteorite’s descent, situated almost at the Earth’s surface and younger than the crater itself.

Cosmic Collision, The Extraordinary Tale of Tulum's Cenotes

The Yucatán Peninsula’s terrain predominantly comprises limestone, and when the impact-formed caves dried up during the last ice age, rainwater percolated through, carrying minerals that fostered the formation of stalactites, stalagmites, and columns. However, the growth of these formations halted when the caves submerged due to rising sea levels during interglacial periods.

Cosmic Collision, The Extraordinary Tale of Tulum's Cenotes

The term “cenotes” derives from the Mayan word “dzonot,” meaning “cave with water” or “abyss.” To the Mayans, these sites were sacred, as they served as the sole sources of freshwater amid the dense jungle. The Yucatán Peninsula boasts an estimated 15,000 open and closed cenotes, establishing itself as one of Mexico’s most significant ecotourism attractions.

The Enigmatic Gateway to the Mayan Underworld

Cosmic Collision, The Extraordinary Tale of Tulum's Cenotes

Ancient Mayans revered cenotes as hallowed grounds, believing them to be gateways to the underworld—a realm known as Xibalbá. To this day, native farmers in the Yucatán Peninsula continue to implore Chaak, the rain god, for his precious gift while these cenotes offer invaluable insights to archaeologists into the sacred landscapes of their ancestral predecessors.

“D’zonot,” their name in Mayan, signifies “cavern with water,” and although cenotes served as the primary water source for Mayan communities, they were predominantly considered as portals to the underworld. For the Mayans, cenotes symbolized both life and death—without the life-giving water they provided, their communities could not survive. Nevertheless, being subterranean, they were associated with the entrance to Xibalbá, the realm of the deceased.

Cosmic Collision, The Extraordinary Tale of Tulum's Cenotes

The ancient Mayans believed that gods of water and rain inhabited these cenotes, and they rapidly evolved into symbols of power. Settlements situated near multiple cenotes were deemed more potent than those with scarce or none of these geological wonders, leading to a shift in the dynamics between neighboring communities. Additionally, sacrifices were conducted in certain cenotes, known as sacred cenotes, where people and valuable objects were offered as offerings to the gods. However, the water from these sacred cenotes was never used for sustenance.

Various types of cenotes abound, with the oldest being open cenotes, where the porous stone layer has weathered over extensive periods, forming an opening to the exterior. Semi-open cenotes are situated midway through this process, while underground or cavern cenotes are the youngest, more recently formed structures.

Cosmic Collision, The Extraordinary Tale of Tulum's Cenotes

The flora and fauna inhabiting these cenotes depend on several factors, including the proximity to the coast and the type of cenote. In open cenotes, fish species like guppy and catfish are often found, believed to have arrived through the effects of hurricanes. In contrast, closed or cavern cenotes are home to blind cavefish and Yucatan blind eels, aptly named for their capacity to thrive in darkness, although both species are endangered.

The surroundings of cenotes also teem with life. Iguanas, butterflies, and turtles find refuge in the vicinity of these formations, while the Toh birds are renowned as the “birds of the cenotes” in the region.

The Ageless Legends of Yucatán’s Cenotes

Cosmic Collision, The Extraordinary Tale of Tulum's Cenotes
Popol Vuh Myth: Maya Creation & Underworld Overcoming.

Estimates suggest that over 2,000 cenotes grace the state of Yucatán alone, with approximately 10,000 scattered across the entire southeastern region of Mexico. Serving as the primary source of freshwater for the Mayan people, it comes as no surprise that these captivating structures evolved into vital elements of their culture, spawning countless narratives steeped in cosmogony, legends, and stories handed down through generations.

  1. The Cenote of Sacrifices: Known as the Cenote of Chichén Itzá since the 16th century, this site witnessed a grim ritual where women were cast into its waters to beseech a bountiful year. Conducted at dawn, the women were retrieved at noon while being fumigated with copal; they recounted visions of men and women urging them to avert their gaze, predicting whether the upcoming year would be favorable or not. Failure to emerge from the waters signified the demon’s anger, prompting the hurling of immense stones into the cenote while fleeing in terror. Although this account lacks definitive evidence, it is not the sole legend surrounding this site. The Chilam Balam narrates the tale of Hunac Ceel, a man who willingly plunged into the Cenote of Sacrifices to pronounce prophecies and crown himself as the “king” of Chichén Itzá. The Cenote Sagrado of Chichén Itzá has yielded the remains of 42 individuals—men, women, and children—dating back centuries.
  2. The Aluxes: Present not only in Yucatán but across Mayan culture, the alux is a spirit of nature that purportedly inhabits jungles and cenotes. Resembling a mischievous gnome with the appearance of an elder, the stature of a child, and indigenous features, the alux is believed to be created by Mayan priests to protect specific locations. Crafted from virgin clay, an alux could pelt intruders with stones or create eerie sounds to frighten them, even inflicting physical discomfort. Known for its playful nature, the alux seeks attention but rarely reveals itself due to its swiftness.
  3. Connected Cenotes: According to Leyendas de Yucatán, another notable source, the tale revolves around Ah Kinxoc, the esteemed high priest of Chichén Itzá. His daughter, Oyamal, fell in love with two brothers named Ac and Cay, choosing Cay as her suitor. Ac, envious of his brother’s fortune, imprisoned Oyamal within the “cloister” of Chichén Itzá, while he confined Cay to the Kauá caves. To grasp the distance, a present-day drive from Chichén Itzá to Cenote Kaua would take approximately 20 minutes. Nonetheless, owing to the interconnectedness of the peninsula’s cenotes, the couple reunited and forever eluded Ac. Locals claim that in January nights, one can hear a voice exclaiming “Yacumá!,” signifying “I love you.”
  4. Rite of Love: As per Leyendas de Yucatán, if a Mayan woman’s affection remained unreciprocated, she would undertake a ritual at the well of her home. Purchasing a clay jug from Izamal, she would lean over the well and recount her sorrows within the jug’s mouth nine times. The belief held that, akin to water flowing underground everywhere, her words would reach her beloved, compelling him to “come to his senses.” However, the ritual would fail if the woman had previously wasted water or complained about it.
  5. Cenotes and Lightning: Another belief centered on the formation of cenotes through lightning strikes. A prime example is the legend of the Xlacah cenote in Dzibilchaltún, which purportedly emerged as divine punishment for a man who refused to share a piece of bread with his elderly, weary father. Struck by lightning within his home, the ground caved in, giving birth to the cenote.
Cosmic Collision, The Extraordinary Tale of Tulum's Cenotes

As you immerse yourself in the crystalline waters of a cenote during your next visit, let these stories imbue these awe-inspiring wonders with an even deeper sense of wonder and significance.

Get Tulum's Latest News Direct to Your Inbox

Maybe you will be interested