Whispers of Guardian Spirits Echo Through Sacred Cenotes of the Yucatan

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.

Samula at Dzitnup, is one of several spectacular cenotes near Valladolid, in the north central Yucatan Peninsula
Samula at Dzitnup, is one of several spectacular cenotes near Valladolid, in the north central Yucatan Peninsula

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.”

“What happens?”

“You hear the two girls, don’t you? They are the spirits of the cenotes. 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.

Can’t view the above slide show of sacred cenotes in the Yucatan of Mexico? Click here.

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.

Whispers of Guardian Spirits Echo Through Sacred Cenotes of the Yucatan

17 thoughts on “Whispers of Guardian Spirits Echo Through Sacred Cenotes of the Yucatan”

  1. A wonderfully well written article about the incredibly mysterious cenotes of Yucatan.  However, articles like this seem to tear the scab off a newly made wound.  Hundreds of cenotes in Yucatan are being used as garbage dumps.  Nearly all of them are severely contaminated with everything from e. coli to motor oil.  Many tourists have no clue as to the dangers that exist in even entering into a cenote.  For more information please read this article http://www.theyucatantimes.com/2011/07/serious-health-risks-found-in-yucatan%E2%80%99s-famed-cenotes/ 

    I hope that the painting “Reflections” helps to illustrate the hopes that those of us who are aware of the problem hope to accomplish.

    “Reflections is to illustrate the pristine beauty of these waters before
    man used their unthinking ways of polluting them, it is not too late to
    set a goal to bring that back, using gratitude, hope, and dreams, in
    order to restore its crystalline value.”

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  5. It looks like a facinating place to visit, at once beauiful, mysterious and eerie – especially the laughter of the spirits

  6. Wonderful post! This made me think of a novel I just finished, Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver. Half the book takes place in Mexico, and caves play a significant role in the book. Highly recommended!

  7. Wow! I feel both educated and inspired after reading this blog post. I’ve only been to one cenote, and I lost my crucifix necklace in the water; it will make an interesting artifact for scientists to find centuries from now – a Christian symbol in sacred Mayan waters.

  8. A pleasure to read, Barbara. I’ll be visiting my first Mexican cenote this weekend. Although, I’m sure that my experience will be a bit more touristy than your lovely adventure.

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    • HI Linda, Donna, Shannon, and Marina: Thanks so much and very glad you enjoyed my post. I had goosebumps when it happened and couldn’t wait to share it with all my readers. I have a few more articles about Mexico before I head for Asia…..


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