A ‘hole’ world of surprises
Deep in south Mexico lies a network of natural wonders waiting to be stumbled across by the unsuspecting visitor, writes Yvonne van Dongen.
Sinkholes never looked so good. Filled with deep blue water, fringed with tropical foliage and draped in curtains of long ropey roots, the sinkhole practically screams ‘‘jump’’. Below, fish flick silvery tails and above, swallows zig-zag across the open bowl of the sky. There are no submerged cars, remains of a house or pooling of muddy sludge in sight. Some sinkhole. Neither the word nor the explanation that this is actually a collapsed limestone pit does the miraculous structure justice.
That is probably why no one calls them that in Mexico. Here they are cenotes (pronounced ‘‘sayno-tay’’), a word derived from Mayan, referring to any location with accessible groundwater.
If I’d done any research before I got there I might have known that there are 6000 dotted around the Yucatan peninsula. I might even have made an effort to tour the Route of the Cenotes, where I could sample more than 57 cenotes.
But since I did my usual thing of arriving blind and just asking around as if guidebooks and apps hadn’t been invented, I was a little slow to catch on to these glorious natural wonders.
It’s easy to criticise my approach as sloppy (don’t worry, many have), but I’d argue that apart from natural laziness, it’s a way of travelling that means you’re bound to be surprised. Anyway cenotes were the best surprise ever, and after discovering one I made sure to seek out a few more.
It isn’t just that the air is so weighed down with heat and moisture in this southern part of Mexico that your melting self longs to plunge into cool clear water. Nor is it the added extras of crisscrossing swallows, the occasional toucan, maybe a bat, a turtle, raccoons or coatis – not even those features are the cenotes’ biggest drawcard (although they’re a close second).
Honestly, it’s something else that pulls you down the rickety, wooden, slippery rock steps, something spooky and magical, like somehow you’re descending into the underworld, the way you have to stoop low, in places almost crawl, until you reach the bottom of this secretive blue-green world where the small circle of sky looks a very long way away.
Humans have been going there for nearly 10,000 years, and no wonder – cenotes offer delicious clear filtered rain water, though a few are mixed with saltwater. Cenotes were the only source of water for the Mayans in this jungle-clad part of the world and they did indeed think of them as the entrance to the underworld, home to gods and their spirits after death.
It wasn’t like this though. Not with entrance charges, lifejackets, changing sheds and restaurants and, in the worst cenote site I visited, with music, shops and outdoor showers where I wouldn’t have been surprised if they’d added a waterslide to the experience. No, it wasn’t like that.
That is why you want to avoid Ik-Kil, the most famous cenote of all and easily the most disappointing, near the most famous and most disappointing World Heritage site in Mexico – Chichen Itza. Although to be fair, it’s tremendous if you like neglected, crowded, jungle-draped ruins filled with hawkers and stalls selling tourist tat.
Fortunately not far away is Yokdzonot, set in an eco-park and tended by Mayan women.
This is where I slipped into the blue-green water and swam to where stalactites drip from the craggy overhang (common to partially collapsed cenotes), looking out for swallows tucked away in one of the many hundreds of nests glued to the rock face.
I could have sought out cenotes to abseil down or cenotes to dive in, especially those linked to
The Yokdzonot sinkhole in Mexico’s Yucatan region is filled with deep blue water fringed with tropical foliage and draped in curtains of long ropey roots.
A pack of raccoons add to the attractions at the El Corchito Ecological Reserve in Yucatan.