Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Cenotes I have Known--Chichen Itza, Suytun, and Las Mojarras

Typical Cenote (Las Mojarras)

Millions of years ago the Yucatan peninsula was under the ocean. Over the eons seabed deposits turned into layers of limestone.  When the seas receded the land became a mostly flat rocky plain.  Limestone is porous and surface rainfall does not collect into surface rivers or streams. Instead the water filters down into the  the limestone  ultimately dissolving some of it to create large water filled sinkholes, caves, and even entire underground rivers. The roofs of some of these holes often collapse over time creating open pools while others  have only small surface openings and exist as water filled caves. The ancient Mayas used these features as a water source (there are literally no rivers or streams in the Yucatan) or for their religious rituals. They called them “dzonot.” The Spaniards translated it as “cenote” (pronounced seh-NO-tay). Over 1000 cenotes have been documented in the Yucatan and there may be as many as 4000 in existence. When used for religious purposes cenotes were often thought of as pathways to the underworld and its Gods. Today many of them are commercialized  and cater to swimming and diving enthusiasts as well as the general tourist.  "Cenote" was a word I had never heard of before our visit to Cancun and the Yucatan earlier this month.

Sacred Well at Chichen Itza
 We visited three Cenotes during our stay. The first was the great sacred well at the Chichen Itza complex, which is an open cenote.  Its roof has fallen in and it now looks like a deep circular pool surrounded by steep rock walls. I discussed it briefly in a previous blog post. The name Chichen Itza literally translates as “the mouth of the well of the Itza people.”    Divers have found various precious artifacts and human sacrificial remains in the depths of the Chichen Itza well.  It was apparently used primarily for religious purposes.   

On our way back from Chichen Itza we stopped at the Cenote Suytun, which had a ranch like atmosphere with various fowl wandering about and a horse corral out back.

There was an inviting snack bar and a place to change into swimming togs. Cenote Suytun is more of a cave than the open well at Chichen Itza. There is a small outside opening at the very top of the cave which the owner has strategically put a wall around to keep folks from tumbling through and some 60 feet to the water level. It was originally explored from that opening by having someone lowered with a rope.Today you enter the space down a steep set of stairs dug into the rock.

Once inside you are perched on a ledge about 1/3 of the way down. From there you can view the magnificent stalagtites in the ceiling as well as the entire pool.

 Additional stairs then bring you down to some seating tiers near the shore and a nicely built platform juts out into the pool proper. Many cenotes do not have shallow areas; they just drop off to depths of 80 feet or more. Suytun has an extensive shallow area allows you to dip your toes even if you don’t wish to take a full plunge.
If you do, according to some of the younger members of our party, it was pretty pretty cold but you got used to it quickly.


The following day on our trip to the countryside we stopped mid-afternoon for a native Mayan lunch at the Cenote Las Mojarras. It is over 2 km off the main road and down a pot-holed dirt track through the jungle that would certainly have turned me back had I been driving. When we finally reached the parking area, there was only one other vehicle there and they left shortly—perhaps wanting to get out before the road became totally impassible. But what we found was entirely delightful.

Cenote Las Mojarras

Las Mojarras is an open cenote like the Chichen Itza well. There are some diving platforms and a zip line contraption that can carry you out on the water where you can drop yourself off and swim back to a ladder on shore. There is a lovely path that goes around the pool and many of the trees and bushes are labeled. In one section along the shore path hammocks beckon you to take a rest and at the far side there is a bit of a shallow section that sports a lovely collection of lily pads.

Close up of the lily pads

There are also rest-rooms and a large palapa with a concrete floor. This is where we took our traditional Mayan lunch. Our trusty guide first made us some fresh quaccamole.

 while an assistant manned the grill cooking chicken wings, flank steak, potatoes, and of course rice and beans.

It was a delicious meal and well worth waiting for.

 Dinner was well shaken down by the road from hell on our way back to the main highway, but then there was  a thankfully smooth trip back to our hotel in Cancun. 

A final entry on the miraculous hotels of Cancun will be forthcoming in a few days.

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