Out Of The Archives:
Cenotes: Sacred Sites or Swimming Holes?

Previously published in 2005.

My bicycle seat was set a little too low and my legs wouldn’t straighten out completely when I pedaled, giving one the impression that I was just borrowing some kid’s bike for an errand. This seven kilometer ride was no errand though, as I was on my way, under a 95 degree sun at 10:30AM, to the Yucatecan version of the local swimming hole. The slightly paved bike path followed the road that led out of Valladolid to two of the town’s cenotes, Cenote Dzitnup and Cenote Samulá. The road next to me was incredibly flat, made even seemingly more so by the many little mounds on the bike path that I had to climb up and down as I went along.

At about the third kilometer I stopped for a swig of water from a bottle that, when I started out on this ride, was cool and refreshing, but, sadly, was now quite warm. As I stood straddling the bike, I looked at the landscape around me, sparse vegetation growing out of the dust. Not my idea of what a jungle should look like. I then began to wonder what had gotten into me when I rented this bike.

After about forty-five minutes and more than a few sensations along the way that I just might collapse while I was pedaling, I arrived at the entrance to Dzitnup. Walking down the cool stairs that were cut out of the limestone, and out of the intense heat, my brain felt like it might return to normal, someday. At the moment though, I could only think of reaching shade and coolness.

The cenotes of the Yucatan are underground limestone caverns that are fed either by underground rivers or via rainwater during the rainy season, or both. Each one that exists underground is uniquely different, although the common characteristics seem to be clean, clear, water with an incredible blue tint to it, as well as deep entryways via steep stairs or ladders, and stalactite formations and/or tree roots reaching for a drink from the ceiling.

The name cenote comes from the Maya word ts’onot which means sinkhole. The ancient Maya considered them to be the entrance into the spiritual underworld. They were also considered to be sacred because they were the only real source of water on the peninsula.

The cenote at Chichen-Itza is probably the most famous because of its usage as a place of sacred sacrificial offerings, including the legends of virgin sacrifices and the many offerings of personal items such as jade beads, balls of copal resin, carvings of snake heads and rattles, sandals, and things made from gold and copper that were found when its bottom was explored several times between 1892 and 1968.

Many people believe that all the cenotes were used this way, but that was not the case. There are too many of them for every one to be used as a sacrificial lake. There are over 3000 cenotes in the area and only 1400 have actually been studied and registered.

Reaching into the water of Dzitnup, my fingers cooled off. It was decided then and there in my head that the bike was going into the back of a taxi for the trip back to town. But not before I was talked into buying postcards from the young girls working at the top of the stairs, or before I visited Cenote Samulá across the road.

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