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Orange Media Network



Celebrating Identity: “The Sacred Cenotes of the Maya” by Tess Ellis

The Sacred Cenotes of the Maya: A Passageway to the Underworld

In the thick, blooming jungle of the Yucatán peninsula, I stood looking up at El Castillo, Chichen Itza’s main Maya ruin. I would say it was breathtaking, but the truth is, the word “breathtaking” would be a poor attempt at describing the feeling that filled me when looking up this ancient castle. After staring at its wonderfully detailed top temple for much longer than my neck could take, I began to explore the rest of Chichen Itza’s grounds. The next thing on my mind was the cenote I saw on my paper map, about a mile from the main ruins. I made my way through the thick jungles, following centuries-old stone paths. Finally, I reached a clearing in the jungle. Although I was completely surrounded by beauty, nothing could have prepared me for it. I had seen dozens of cenotes of every different shape and size, depth, and color, but somehow, this cenote felt different.

Cenotes are natural mangrove sinkholes that are created by rainfall that slowly dissolves the calcium carbonate in limestone. The Yucatán Peninsula boasts the biggest network of mangrove sinkholes in the world. Over 2000 are scattered across the 165,000 square km of Yucatecan limestone. (Adame et al., 2021) Locally, these sinkholes are known as cenotes. Some of the cenotes I visited while living in the South of Mexico were well-known by tourists, others sat untouched on private lands. One of my favorites had its walls filled with tiny swallow nests. The mother swallows would come swooping down into the cenote to grab a beak full of fresh water for the chicks in their nests. There were hundreds of them singing and flying about, unbothered by the humans swimming below them. As I dove down, holding my breath, I opened my eyes under the clear water and looked up at the swooping swallows, the lily pads on the surface of the water, and the green jungle beyond. Needless to say, there’s something magical about cenotes, something otherworldly.

As I walked up to the clearing in Chichen Itza’s jungle, I saw a historical plaque with the name “Cenote Sagrado”, or in English, “Sacred Cenote”. Before I read the rest of the plaque’s text, I walked closer to the sinkhole ahead. I peered over its edge and my eyes met with its lime-green water. It was unlike any cenote I had seen. I was used to crystal clear blue. At its edge stood the ruins of what is believed to be a temazcal, a traditional Maya steam bath. Next to the ruins, a platform hung over the cenote. I wondered what these ruins meant to the civilization that ruled here over 1500 years ago, wondered if they also used to bask in it and use it for their own entertainment.

I became fascinated with each piece of information I could lay my hands on and began by learning more about the Maya and their history. Maya territory stretches through Yucatán, Chiapas, Tabasco, Belize, and Guatemala. Being near the ocean, they ate oysters, clams, fish, and turtles. They also ate Iguanas and fruit native to their area. The Maya experienced a great cultural upsurge in the year 150-300 AD. They developed a written language, designed palaces, and reached a level of artistic and intellectual heights that stood out in the New World of their time. They partook in complex trade systems and commerce, producing salt, honey, copal incense, dried fish, and cacao. The Maya built Chichen Itza in the early 400s AD, and it quickly became known as the land of the Maya. (Crist, 1980)

The Maya had complex religious beliefs, their main focus, however, was animism, the attribution of soul to natural phenomena, inanimate objects, and plants. They believed everything in the world contained sacredness or k’uh. The Mayan creation myth came from the books of Chilam Balam and the Popol Vuh; scripture-like texts which are believed to be written by the highland Maya of Guatemala. The god of sky and wind, Huracán, was deemed the creator of existence. Apart from Huracán, the Maya had many gods, each with diverse, fluid personalities. Most of their gods had animal-like features, while some resembled Maya deities. Among their main gods were Kisim, the god of death, Chak, the god of rain, and K’inich Ajaw, the god of the sun.

The Maya conducted various types of religious rituals. Bloodletting was one of the main rituals and was constrained to the royal line. They believed their gods demanded blood because the gods gave their own blood for the creation of humans. Royals would spend days undergoing purification rituals in order to be pure enough for Bloodletting. Although blood would be taken from multiple parts of the body, royal women would draw blood from their tongues with a thorned rope and scatter it on Maya icons. Dance rituals featuring colorful costumes would be conducted to communicate with the gods and welcome the god’s spirits. Lastly, the most well-known religious ritual in is human sacrifice. Human sacrifice played a major role in Maya war strategies, which were interconnected with religious beliefs. War priests or shamans, nacom, were responsible for war strategies and would take in war prisoners for sacrificial rituals. These sacrifices were made to keep the gods satisfied and ensure their military’s safety. One of the main rituals consisted of throwing people into cenotes as an offering to the gods. (Gomez, 2022)

Cenotes were considered passageways to the underworld, transitional spaces that sat on the boundary between the land of the living and the land of the dead, Xibalba, in Maya mythology. (Cartwright, 2023) Due to the steam that would rise from the natural sinkholes, the Maya also believed that clouds and rain came from the underworld. They would throw their subjects into the cenotes alive, or would throw the remaining victims into its waters. Human remains are still being discovered in the Sacred Cenote, along with a collection of other sacrificial treasures. (Maya Religion, Gods, Cosmos and Religious Rituals, 2022) It is important for me to mention that not all cenotes were used for sacrificial rituals, as many served as places of rest and relaxation (comparable to modern-day spas), bathing, and entertainment. In the last few decades, over 200 individuals have been found in the Sacred Cenote. Due to the preservation of the remains in the waters of the cenote, their cause of death could be studied in detail, offering us a deeper understanding of Maya religious ceremonies. Apart from human sacrifice, the Maya would throw precious stones, textiles, pottery, weapons, and gold, the gifts for their gods sinking down to what the Maya believed to be the land of the dead. (Miller, 2019)

Apart from religious importance, cenotes also played a major role in supplying the ever-growing Maya civilization with fresh water throughout the year, despite southern Mexico’s harsh dry season. Cenotes played a major role in determining the location of new settlements as they supplied them with fresh drinking water while others depended solely on rainwater cisterns, a challenging feat for growing populations. Lack of access to water is considered one of the potential causes of the decline of power among other native groups. Proximity to cenotes was essential for political and social standing, and responsible for the growth of the Maya. Lastly, the cenotes played a role in allowing the Maya to leave a bit of their legacy behind. During the Spanish conquest of the Yucatán Peninsula, the Spanish destroyed Maya manuscripts and artifacts. They saw the Maya as “pagans who needed to be forcefully converted to Catholicism.” The cenotes both held the gifts the Maya had imparted to their gods and were used as hiding places for objects that were forbidden by the Catholic priests. They kept their treasures safe, only to be discovered in pristine condition centuries later. (Munro & De Lourdes Melo Zurita, 2011)

Once the Spanish had fully conquered the Yucatán Peninsula, all aspects of living were severely impacted for the Maya people. The Spanish became the ruling elite, forcing their beliefs on the Maya and destroying their temples and religious items. The Maya civilization, as we know it historically, declined with the spreading of foreign diseases brought to Mexico by the Spanish. Cenotes reflect their reluctance and probable desperation of being forced away from their beliefs. (Spanish Conquest, Sam Noble Museum, 2018) They offered a safe place for the Maya to hold on to pieces of their heritage, of their life, and unknowingly, they left a part of their history for future generations to behold.

Cenotes still play a small role in some modern Maya ceremonies. Although most have been heavily influenced by Catholic practices, they still share small similarities to ancient Maya rituals, such as the burning of Copal incense. Mexico is now a primarily Catholic country, so these rituals are beginning to become so rare that they have essentially disappeared. (Russell, 2016) Although currently, cenotes may not play a major role in Maya religious practices, they remain a fundamental part of Yucatecan history and culture. Cenotes are still a main source of fresh water and are sometimes the cause of land-related ownership disputes due to their allure and profitability. Considering this, we might say that the ownership and the proximity of cenotes remain a symbol of luxury.

In 2019, the Yucatán Peninsula received over 3.2 million visitors. (Yucatán Magazine, 2020) Yucatán holds 5 UNESCO sites, bringing people from around the world to see the ruins of Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Calakmul, the architecture of colonial Campeche, and the clear waters of Sian Ka’an; 120,000 hectares of marine area biosphere reserve. (Together, 2022) Although currently unrecognized by UNESCO, cenotes also play a major role in Yucatán’s global popularity. From the moment I saw my first cenote, I knew I wanted to live as close to them as I possibly could. Diving into its fresh water is not the only thing cenotes have to offer. The jungles that surround cenotes thrive and are home to native animals, such as Margay Jaguars, Black Howler Monkeys, and Yucatán Spider Monkeys. One of my visits to a cenote resulted in a baby Spider Monkey landing on my head, swiftly stealing the chicken taco from my hand, and running away like a happy child to its mother. Undoubtedly, cenotes deserve to be at the top of everyone’s bucket list.

Yucatán’s current population of 2 million relies socioeconomically on groundwater, but like all natural resources, the growth in population has caused the cenotes to reach their extreme. The main causes are industry and agriculture, closely followed by the construction of roads and buildings. Increasing temperatures in the last few decades have also caused rainfall to be unpredictable and unusual. The poor management of laws and regulations has caused cenotes to become less culturally important on a national scale. One of the tactics being used to fight this decline in cenote conservation is educating communities about the historical importance of cenotes and how to manage them in an environmentally-friendly way. Most of these efforts are by non-governmental organizations and environmentalists, proving further the lack of support on a national level for cenote conservation. (UNESCO, 2023)

After living in the Yucatán and Quintana Roo for over three years, cenotes slowly became a fundamental part of my life. A 15-minute drive from my house would take me to Ruta de los Cenotes, a collection of 60 cenotes in close proximity. Some of the best memories of my life were made splashing into their waters, their platform sometimes towering over 20–30 feet and reaching depths of 391 feet. Many are home to freshwater fish such as Cave Blind Fish, Mojarra Maya, and even turtles. Some have underground rivers that lead to more caves, reachable only by swimming under what look like underwater cliffs of limestone, holding your breath to finally pop out after what seems like an eternity; finding a completely new ecosystem in the ballroom-like cave. In many ways, cenotes still represent a passage to a world far gone, a glimpse into history. I pray that they remain, in all their splendor, protected and loved, just as the Maya protected and loved them before us, and hope that by sharing my heartfelt admiration, others may also be inspired to see the Sacred Cenotes of the Maya, passages to the underworld.


Sources Cited

Adame, M. F., Santini, N. S., Torres-Talamante, O., & Rogers, K. (2021). Mangrove sinkholes (cenotes ) of the Yucatán Peninsula, a global hotspot of carbon sequestration. Biology Letters, 17(5).
Crist, R. E., & Paganini, L. A. (1980). The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization. The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 39(1), 23–30.
Gomez, M. C. (2022). Maya Religion. World History Encyclopedia.
Cartwright, M. (2023). Xibalba. World History Encyclopedia.
Maya Religion, Gods, Cosmos and religious rituals. (2022, November 6). Maya Archaeologist -Dr Diane Davies.
Miller, C. (2019b, August 9). Skulls Analyzed From The Maya Sacred Cenote Show That Human Sacrifices Were Sourced From Far And Wide Across Mexico. Forbes.
cred-cenote-show-that-human-sacrifices-were-sourced-from-far-and-wide-across-mexico -in-1000-ad/?sh=73764b2e8b71
Munro, P. W., & De Lourdes Melo Zurita, M. (2011b). The Role of Cenotes in the Social History of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Environment and History, 17(4), 583–612.×13150366551616
Spanish Conquest – Sam Noble Museum. (2018, June 27). Sam Noble Museum.
Russell, B. (2016c). All the Gods of the World: Modern Maya Ritual in Yucatán, Mexico. Ethnoarchaeology.
Yucatán ranks high in tourist growth, 2019 numbers indicate. Yucatán Magazine. (2020)
Together. (2022). Yucatán Peninsula: UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Beyond the Ordinary. ‘Little has been done to recognize ancient Mayan practices in groundwater management.’
UNESCO. (2023).


See the post ‘Celebrating Identity: “Dia De Muertos” by Tess Ellis’ for Tess’ full interview!

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About the Contributor
Selene Lawrence
Selene Lawrence, Student Correspondent
Selene Lawrence (she/they) is PRISM’s student correspondent and online editorial assistant. She is an author, poet, musician, and visual and textile artist. Selene is pursuing a major of her own design: Traditional, Folkloric, and Popular Cultural Studies for Mass Media Communications with a writing minor.

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