From the top of Cenote Samula at Dzitnup I peered into the abyss. Only five or six rough hand-hewn steps were visible before the cave’s gloomy interior swallowed the ancient staircase. Digging my fingertips into sweating limestone walls I descended gingerly, concentrating on keeping my footing on the slick, uneven stones. At the bottom of the stairs, where sunlight could penetrate no further, I groped my way to a viewing platform carved into the rock and blinked, allowing my eyes to adjust to the semi-darkness.
Like an exotic dancer, the cenote revealed itself in stages. A narrow column of liquid white light poured through a small hole in the roof, illuminating massive tree roots that spilled over the edge. Frantically searching for water, the sinuous limbs tumbled into the crystal-clear pool at the bottom. Colors gradually emerged in the semi-darkness: black streaks and white guano painted patterns on the ocher and red stone walls, complementing the turquoise blue water cupped in the bottom of this perfectly circular cavern.
I had expected Cenote Samula to be crowded – these naturally occurring sinkholes are among the more popular tourist attractions around Valladolid – but to my delight it was deserted. Closing my eyes, I tuned into its cathedral energy. Water droplets plunked from sweating rocks into the pool and bats swooped back and forth through the sunbeam, emitting their high-pitched warning. Whispers echoed in the cavern; a giggle punctuated the silence. Had other tourists arrived so stealthily that I had not heard them descend via the stone steps? I opened my eyes and found myself still alone. Three times the laughter mocked me until, unsettled, I climbed back up and crossed the road to visit Samula’s sister sinkhole, Cenote Xkeken, another cavern with exquisite blue water framed by massive curtain stalactites.
Back at the top of the cenote, I stepped to the edge of the hole, peered back down into the darkness one last time and cocked my ear toward the depths, listening. A young Mayan man stood nearby, watching me intently.
“Have you ever been here at night?” I asked him.
“Many times,” he replied.”
“You hear the two girls, don’t you? They are the spirits of the cenote. They laugh and play and guard the site at night after everyone else has left.”
Cenotes are fascinating, not only for their spiritual significance among the Mayans, but also from a geological standpoint. The Yucatan Peninsula was a giant underwater reef until the last ice age, when the ocean level dropped and exposed a mile-thick limestone platform created by the reef. The coral died, topsoil accreted, and jungle grew up; in time, rain filtered through the soil and carved tunnels through the limestone, creating a giant network of caves. As the ice age waned, glacial melt raised the ocean to today’s level, partially submerging the Yucatan’s extensive network of caves. Some of the limestone ceilings of these caves eventually collapsed, creating sinkholes, or cenotes, that exposed the caverns below.
Today, estimates of the number of cenotes in the Yucatan range from 7,000 to 30,000; indeed many have yet to be discovered. They were historically the only source of water for the Mayan civilization and most of the astonishing Mayan cultural centers, such as Chichen Itza and Tulum, were built around major cenotes. The gentleman who had joined me at the rim explained that Mayans believe cenotes are an entrance to the underworld, where their gods live and spirits, both good and bad, reside after death. But he insisted that as long as visitors enter a cenote with respect and a good heart, they will be protected from harm. He also suggested that it’s a good idea to bring an offering to appease the spirits, even if it’s just a flower. I liked that idea. I’m sure the girls would have appreciated flowers for their hair.