Cenote: Portal to the Underworld

Unique geology in Southern Mexico generated a feature important to the people who first lived there. In Maya cosmology, fresh water limestone reservoirs and caves in the Yucatan Peninsula were called cenotes. They were portals to the underworld. In the Yucatec Maya language they are called, D’zonot. Many of these pristine aquifers are hallowed to this day, especially at Chichen Itzá where people of Maya descent continue to give ritual offerings. As receptacles of water, cenotes were also the realm of Chaac, god of water and rain. Offerings for him were cast into their depths.

Cenote: Portal al inframundo

Geología poco común en el sur de México generó un rasgo importante para las primeras personas que vivieron allí. En la cosmología maya, los cenotes eran portales al inframundo. En el idioma Maya yucateca, se llaman D’zonot. Hasta hoy en día muchos de los acuíferos son sagrados, particularmente el que se localiza cerca de Chichen Itzá donde los descendientes maya continuan a dar ofrendas rituales. Como recipientes de agua, los cenotes eran también el reino de Chaac, dios maya de agua y lluvia. Soltaron ofrendas a Chaac en sus profundidades.

Cenote Visitor Photo: Rebecca Cuningham

Fresh water divers and archeologists Guillermo de Anda and Ana Celis, along with photographer Karla Ortega and their team have worked to map the extensive cenote complex, although it is painstaking and dangerous to do so. The project is named Gran Acuífero Maya (Great Maya Aquifer).

Arqueólogos, expertos del buceo en agua dulce, Guillermos de Andar, Ana Celis, y fotógrafa Karla Ortega, junto con su equipo trabajaban para crear mapas de los túneles subacuáticos, aunque fue difícil y peligroso hacerlo. El projecto se llama Gran Acuífero Maya.

State of Quintana Roo, Mexico Image: Hpav7

In 2018, the researchers found the connection between two long expanses of limestone caves. Sac Actún (white cave), now the name for both sections united, extends to an impressive total of 347km (216 mi) through 220 cenotes. This is the largest underwater archeological site in the world. The submerged artifacts are well preserved from 10 to 12,000 years ago up to Colonial times; jade offerings, pottery, human and animal bones. There are bones from extinct creatures in the Americas: elephants, giant sloths, and tigers. The location of one end of the network of caves is near Tulum in the Riviera Maya, in Quintana Roo.

En 2018, los investigadores encontraron la conexión entre dos sistemas largos de cuevas de caliza. Sac Actún (cueva blanca) ahora es el nombre para las dos secciones unificadas, extiende a una extensión impresionante de 347K por 220 cenotes. Este es el sitio arquelógico bajo agua más grande del mundo. Los artefactos sumergidos están bien preservados, desde hace 10 a 12 mil años a la época colonial; ofrendas de jade, cerámica, huesos de animales y humanos. Hay huesos de animales que ya eran extinctos en las Américas como elefantes, perezosos gigantes y tigres. La ubicación de un lado del complejo de cuevas es cerca de Tulum en la Riviera Maya, en Quintana Roo.

Cenotes in Quintana Roo Map: Kambesis & Coke (2016)

Now Mexico is working to protect these culturally, archeologically and environmentally important sites from looting, pollution and excess tourism. I wish them great success.

Ahora Mexico trabaja por proteger estos sitios que son a la vez culturales, arqueológicos y parte del ambiente natural del saqueo, contaminación y turismo excesivo. Los deseo mucho éxito.

¡Olé! –Rebecca

Sacred Cenote Photo: Rebecca Cuningham
Rebecca Cuningham

38 thoughts on “Cenote: Portal to the Underworld

  1. More new-to-me knowledge. How fascinating. This is an area which could well be twinned with parts of my own county of North Yorkshire, as we too are riddled in many areas with limestone caves and underground waterways. There’s plenty of evidence of early animal life, rather less of human habitation, but it’s all interesting stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. They’re well explored, and as I mentioned, evidence of animal life is there in abundance (hippos anyone?), though human activity is less developed. These caves tend to be narrow and extremely prone to flooding. No community would set up permanently in them.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve heard of these cenotes from those who’ve gone to Chichen Itza, Tulum, and in general the Yucatan part of Mexico. They look absolutely gorgeous, and it’s great that there’s an active community working to preserve such sacred places. I hope to return to Mexico (especially that part of the country) to check them out someday!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s true. I noticed recent archeologists downplaying that. Perhaps because people obsess about it, as if our modern societies are not violent and do not sacrifice young people with less cause and honor today.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Recent archeologists? Jesus. As if ancient cultures were not as blood-thirsty as modern ones. I took a summer course in Yucatan when I was in Grad school. I may have told you already. The entire Anthropology department was there. No holds barred. Facts are fact.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. No public TV here… Sigh.
        The last video store? Still up and fighting?
        I see you are like us. (No more video here thought.)
        And another problem I have is that the catalogue to buy or rent on-line is maybe a third or less than in the US. Copyrights and piracy issues… Aggravating.

        Liked by 1 person

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