Destinations Mexico North America

Valladolid: Swimming in cenotes

Richly pink orchid petals fell from a tree overhead, decorating the surface of the water and attracting dragonflies that hummed close to my head. High above, a flock of swallows flew in synchronised circles beneath the cavern roof. Catfish and schools of smaller fish pecked around my feet at algae on the nearby rocks.

It was just me and Mother Nature.

Cenote Zaci

Cenote Zaci is in the centre of Valladolid

Valladolid is located in an area particularly blessed with cenotes, though when I first arrived this meant very little since I had no idea what a cenote was.

But you cannot go to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and not discover this quirky, gothic natural phenomenon. There are said to be some 10,000 cenotes in this region.

Essentially, cenotes are sinkholes.

On the Yucatan Peninsula, the land is flat and porous, so when it rains, underground water channels link up to form large subterranean water deposits. Sometimes the roofs of these caves crumble in, creating a natural opening.

The Mayans used cenotes (which they called dzonot, a word the Spanish adopted) for religious and day-to-day purposes (to obtain fresh drinking water).

Valladolid is unique in that it has a cenote in the centre of town, only two blocks from the main plaza.

In the muggy heat in the afternoon, its location is a god-send. I went to Cenote Zaci for the first time after a tiring trip to Chichen Itza, and was taken by surprise.

Having known nothing about cenotes, I didn’t really know what to expect. I bought the 15 peso ticket at the entrance and then descended down slippery steps, through a tunnel, and into the cavern. What I saw took my breath away.

Cenote Zaci has a diametre of about 45m. It is a cave with a semi-domed jagged roof that rises some 30m from the water’s surface.

As I walked the perimetre of the cave, I noticed the water looked fresh and turquoise where the sun touched its surface, but an ominously murky black where it was under cover of the dome. The depth of the water varied between 25m and 100m.

Only a few locals were dive-bombing into the water and they left soon after with some reassurance that the water was not ‘fria pero fresca‘, not cold but fresh. I entered the waters with a very ungraceful bomb myself, startling the sluggish catfish and schools of fish around me. But after the shockwaves depleted and a stillness returned, so did the marine life, the dragonflies and the swallows. I had never felt more in sync with nature.

The follow day, thus tempted, I hired a bicycle and cycled the half hour to a well-known cenote nearby, called Xkeken near the sleepy town of Dzitnup. Xkeken was quite different to Zaci, having only a small hole in its roof to allow natural sunlight to peep through. As a result, eery artificial lights illuminated the cave and underwater an electric purple.


Cenote Xkeken has little natural light.

Here, the stalactites almost touched the water, joined by the roots of trees breaking through the rock and ambitiously reaching for sustenance.

In the peaceful solitude I had before the local families and pasty European tourists arrived, I could hear the faint raucous cry of bats from the nooks in the overhead rocks, while daring teensy fish nipped at my feet. It was quite the effort to leave.

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