The importance of cenotes in the Mayan civilization, on tourism and climate change

Written by Solo Caribe

The Mayan civilization never vanished. While many cities were abandoned around over a thousand years ago, others grew.

The Mayans built on such a huge scale that even today their temples, houses, and palaces still dominate the landscape in Guatemala, Honduras, Belize and Mexico. Their culture is alive! Still today we listen to the indigenous people of the Mayan countries talking in Maya. Still today they eat the same food as centuries ago.

There are two great Mayan eras: the pre-classic period (1800 b.c. to a.d. 250) and the classic period (ad 250-900), called “The Golden Era.”

The Mexican Caribbean, and the Yucatan Peninsula as a whole, has always been the perfect place to vacation and meet with our family members who live outside of the United States. Our encounters are not only to be together, but to learn about the Mayan culture as well. We have been lucky enough to be invited on a press trip to Belize as well, where we visited some Mayan edification and floated in a cenote too.


“The Mayan civilization is the longest lived and most widely spread out of all the cultures of America,” wrote Timothy Laughton in his book “The Maya, life, myth, and art.”

“Cenotes are sinkholes in the earth that connect with a vast underground river system that runs from the north of the Yucatan Peninsula to the south, emptying into the Caribbean,” explained our photographer Bill Milligan, who has been completely seduced by the Mayan culture since his youth.

Cenote ( /sɨˈnoʊtiː/ or /sɛˈnoʊteɪ/) means “water well.” They are the result of the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes ground water underneath (Wikipedia).

The Mayan have something different than other Indian cultures: The Xibalba. The place of fright is represented by the underworld. This unknown world lies in the cenotes.

Before entering a cenote, a shaman has to perform a special blessing on you while burning copal incense and asking the Mayan gods to protect you on your journey into the cenote.


How to access to a cenote?
You can access them by car, walking, swimming, floating, kayaking, via a zip line, or just descending into a hole.

My best experience in a cenote:
The best experience for me has been in Río Secreto, when I turned off the light and stayed silent in the middle of a huge cenote… then I heard the sound of the drops falling, and the murmur of the cenote itself.

How else can you experience a cenote?
If you’re open to new experiences and you’re contemplating marriage, there are certain sacred areas where a shaman and his entourage will perform a Mayan ceremony.

But what does this has to do with climate change?
When you tour a cenote you will see various textures between the water and the cave walls. Those lines, colors, contrasts, cracks, gaps and fractures in the walls are paleoclimate registrations.


Real treasures are hidden in the water. Mysteries are veiled in the stalagmites and other formations that have formed over thousands of years of water dropping down and slowly forming these wonders.

As we know, the first creatures that inhabited the earth were born in the sea when the entire Yucatan Peninsula was covered by water. Then dinosaurs came and a meteorite crashed into the earth.

It was the end of an era and the beginning of another… the Yucatan Peninsula, once completely covered, emerged from the sea. So those systems of semi-flooded caves and caverns are now a library of climate information.

The reconstruction of climate change that has occurred in the past is being unveiled with certain scientific procedures. As we read in the book “Mi nombre es Río Secreto'” it has something to do with the amount of rain measured from the isotopic composition of oxygen from calcium carbonate.

In other words, stalagmites in the cenotes are formed from precipitated calcium carbonate deposits.


Studying them gives us information of past climate changes. Using stalagmites, the study of past climates is possible visiting the cenotes today.

For example, we can compare the rising temperature changes by way of the emission of greenhouse gases with what happened before the glacial era. Specialists from all over the world are currently studying these phenomena in the cenotes.

There are important responses about climate change ingrained in the beautiful cenotes. They produce so much amazement in the lucky ones that have swam in its waters and walked through their passages, but also are key to what future generations are going to experience with climate change.

Unfortunately, as the majority of the natural wonders of the world, the cenotes are in great danger. The massive tourism is causing the contamination of its waters, and the use of non- biodegradable sunblock creams is one of the factors that contaminates the cenote’s system. Some of them had to be closed by the authorities because the quality of the water degenerated. It is very costly to restore them.

We want to recognize the efforts of Xel-Ha in particular and Xcaret Group in general on this matter. They prohibit the use chemical sunblock cream, and instead they give for free a biodegradable pouch of sunblock to each one of the visitors. In the other hand, Río Secreto makes sure that all the visitors shower before entering in the cenotes.

Showering before entering in a cenote and to use only biodegradable products are basic measures that a conscious visitor can take to help to maintain the sustainability of the cenotes today.


By Yndiana Montes
Pictures: Raul Sojo Montes & Bill Milligan


Laughton, T. (1993) The Maya, Life, Myth, and Art. New York. Barnes & Noble.

Cobar, D. Mi Nombre es Río Secreto. Editorial Punto y Aparte, México.

About the author

Solo Caribe

During the past 22 years Yndiana Montes has worked in numerous activities, including participation in trade fairs, conferences, media and regional tourism companies in order to make known to all of South America and Brazil, natural beauty and good practices the different actors in the Caribbean tourism industry. Sustainability actions of governments, communities, institutions and organizations are outlined here in, a media outlet serving the tourism industry, which for many years has been a pioneer in spreading throughout Latin America, Brazil and the Caribbean Likewise, the positive actions that take place in the region and promote sustainable development practices.