Sometimes popular tourist destinations are overrated, at other times they are hugely popular and yet still underappreciated. Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula is perhaps one such example of the latter. The Yucatan Peninsula is a tropical wonderland of tropical beaches, rich rainforests, scores of ancient Mayan ruins (plus many equally fascinating Mayan ritual caves that were their passageways to the mythical underworld), and the Cenotes. Cenotes are large underground chambers or caves filled with water. They are natural sinkholes where the cave ceiling has collapsed.

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About Cenotes

The word "Cenote" is pronounced "seh-no-tay" and is from Spanish which is in turn from the Yucatec Mayan word "Ts'onot" or "D'zonot".

Cenotes have a life where they start as underground caverns filled with water, then there is the stage of a collapsed roof exposing the cavern water within, and then gradually filling in of the Cenote with erosion and material. The most common types are Cave, Semi-Open and Open Cenotes.

Related: Which Pyramids In Mexico To Visit Based On Where You're Staying

One of the special attributes of the Yucatan peninsula is that it is little more than a giant stretch of limestone. And limestone is the perfect rock for cave formation. The Yucatan is home to some of the world's largest cave systems (caves are considered the least explored part of the earth). In its geologic past, the Yucatan was a massive, gigantic, and positively huge reef many millions of years ago. The sea level dropped and the peninsula emerged. Today it is peppered with caves and sinkholes (aka cenotes).

Some of these cave systems are reported to have been explored for over 900 miles, many of these cave systems are filled with water.

  • Number Of Cenotes: Perhaps Over 7,000, 2,200 Of Which Have Been So Far Documented
  • Cenote Hotspot: The Ring Of Cenotes Near Merida Has At Least 900 Cenotes
  • World Record: Sistema Sac Actun - Longest Cave Around 350 Km or 155 Miles Long

Cenotes And The Dino Killing Asteroid

While that may seem a little ridiculous. But the Cenotes are believed to be related to that fateful asteroid that struck the planet some 66 million years ago ending the Cretaceous Period and the long reign of the dinosaurs together with three-quarters of life on earth. This giant asteroid was around 6.2 miles in diameter and spewed an incredible amount of material into the atmosphere and released energy equivalent to around 100 trillion tons of TNT.

The asteroid is believed to have struck right here just off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. After 66 million years of sediment, the crater is no longer visible but there are still the tell-tale signs of its impact. The crater is called Chicxulub Crater

The force of this impact altered the limestone sediments in this region and made them more susceptible to erosion. Consequently, the cenote ring today follows the rim of the Chicxulub Crater. So while tourists can no longer see the crater after 66 million years of sediment, they can enjoy the Cenotes forming at its rim and marking the rim of the invisible crater.

Cultural Significance Of The Cenotes

As to be expected, Cenotes are significant to the lives and culture of the Mayan people. They functioned for practical uses like being a reliable water source. In addition, they were considered entrances to the mythical underworld and land of the gods. The mythical Mayan netherworld is called "Xibalba". Many of the Mayan settlements are built on top of cenotes - including one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World - Chichen Itza.

Related: 25 Unimaginable Things About The Maya Civilization We're Still Discovering

Today these Cenotes are some of the best archeological sites for learning about the Mayans. Sometimes new discoveries are made and many artifacts are found like; human skeletons (Mayans also practiced human sacrifice), gold, incense, pottery, figurines, and more. While many of the human remains in the caves may be just people buried there awaiting the afterlife and show no signs of sacrifice, while others certainly were sacrificed. One discovery confirmed the local legend of the Cult of the Cenote where victims were sacrificed to the rain god Chaac and then ritualistically cast into the cenote.

  • Sacrifice: There Are Some Human Sacrifices Found In The Cenotes

Today tourists can visit and bathe in many of these stunning geological formations all around the Peninsula.

  • Karst: Karsts Are Similar Formations In Other Countries Like Cuba And Australia

Diving At The Cenotes

One of the main attractions for adventurous travelers is diving in the Cenotes. There are various organizations that organize diving excursions. These dives are now carefully regulated to both ensure the safety of the divers and to protect the fragile ecosystem within these caves. Diving in Cenotes can be divided into cento cavern diving and cenote cave diving. Cenote cave diving required special equipment and can only be done by trained divers.

The Yucatan is so much more than the ruins and beaches on the surface!

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