There’s hardly a better way to spend a hot day than swimming in a cenote on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.
The cool, fresh, 75-degree cenote water is delightful now, when temperatures are in the 80s, and even better when spring and summer days reach 100 or more.
With 6,000 of these freshwater-filled sinkholes on the Yucatan peninsula, you’ll find one to suit every age and expertise in the water. Many are within an hour’s drive of Merida, where I spent a week in November.
According to Mayan mythology, the complex system of underground rivers was formed millions of years ago when an asteroid they call Chicxulub hit the earth to form the Gulf of Mexico. Cenotes resulted when the heavy root systems of trees on the surface broke through to create sinkholes to the underground waters.
The complex river system is not yet fully understood or explored, but those interested in the science behind it can learn more with a visit to a webpage from Northwestern University: bit.ly/nw-cenotes.
It’s possible to both dive and swim in cenotes, with a wide variety of types near Merida. Some are easy to reach down wide staircases cut into the surrounding limestone, while others are accessed by boats or horsedrawn carts. Wilder cenotes can be reached by rappelling or diving into them and should be explored only by an accomplished swimmer accompanied by a guide.
Xlacah is on a Maya archeological site, while Dzul-Ha can be visited as part of a tour to Hacienda Sotutua de Peon, one of the restored haciendas established in the 1600s by the Spanish conquerors of the area.
Many of the cenotes are operated much as water parks, with hot showers, locker rooms, snorkel rentals, ziplines and restaurants on the grounds for visitors.
Multilingual interpretation of Mayan lore and history is part of the experience. Believed to be entries to the underworld — as well as reliable sources of water, especially important during times of drought — cenotes were and are sacred to the Mayan people. Sunscreen and insect repellent are prohibited to preserve the pristine water and the creatures living in it. Expect stalactites and stalagmites when you visit cenotes, as they are part of a system of caverns.
The Mayans are alive, well, and very much a part of life in and around Merida, which is Yucatan’s capital and largest city with a population of close to 1 million. Visit Merida’s centrally-located Catedral de San Ildefonso and find Mayan glyphs etched on the building’s stones. That’s because the stones came from early Mayan structures already in place when Francisco de Montejo founded Merida in 1542.
Today’s Mayan speakers number about half of Yucatan’s population, although most live in communities of thatched huts and, like the Amish, preserve and cherish their own culture without wishing to share it.
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