The sun began its descent, informing us that it’s time to call it a day. We picked up our books and towels from the beach and headed towards the swimming pool bar for one last drink before making our way back to the hotel room. We sat on the swings replacing bar stools and waited for our order. I could feel the last rays of sunshine gently drying my wet bathing suit as I swung slowly back and forth.
“Hi!” said a man with a clearly American accent. His name was Dominic and he was a New Yorker of Italian origin. His girlfriend, Luz, soon joined the conversation. Although this Colombian woman didn’t initially say much, there was something interesting in her silence. Luz just radiated a certain kind of warmth. The special kind that only really good-natured, genuine people have. There was something very real and honest about both of them and I knew this was not the last conversation we were going to have with these two.
Next day, after an evening and an afternoon spent with our new friends, Luz mentioned that she heard about a nearby cenote and suggested that we visit it before dinner. She didn’t need to convince us – we grabbed our flip flops, Dom took the remaining bottle of champagne and speakers and we were ready to go.
Cenotes are one of Yucatan’s natural landmarks. These natural pools filled with crystal clear water are a result of collapsing of the porous limestone bedrock which reveals the groundwater captured underneath it. In a land surrounded by salted water with no overground lakes or rivers, life in the peninsula often centered around the cenotes, which provided access to freshwater supply. Many Maya villages and cities, like Chichen Itza, were formed in the vicinity of these reservoirs. The filtered ground and rain water not only sustained the lives of the local people, but was also believed to be a gateway to the afterlife.
The Maya believed cenotes to be the home of Chaac, God of Rain, as well as the entrance to the underworld. At times of drought a popular practice was to offer Chaac precious stones, wooden idols, textiles and human lives. The Sacred Cenote in Chichen Itza in particular was famous for its ritual sacrifices and archaeologists found a large deposit of human bones at its bottom. Many of the discovered remains have been dismembered, burnt by fire, and bear signs of violence suggesting that before the victims were thrown into the well, they were subject to various sacrificial rituals.
Luckily for the Maya people’s health, the ceremonial wells were mostly kept separate from the domestic ones used for bathing and as a source of drinking water. An interesting one is Ik Kil, a cenote situated 2.5 km east of Chichen Itza, which was most likely a bathing place of the city’s rulers . A long curved staircase carved in stone leads to this beautiful natural pool. The 40 meter deep well is surrounded by vertical cave walls and lit by the sunshine entering through the green opening 26 meters above. Although very popular with tourists and cave divers, the place is breathtaking and has a truly magical atmosphere.
The Casa Cenote, to which Luz was leading us through the beach was quite different. Our walk turned out to be longer than we initially expected, but with the setting sun and local fishermen waving at us with their smiley “hola“s, walking on the shore, listening to Radiohead coming from Dom’s speakers, we did not mind the delay.
After about a half an hour walk, we turned into a sandy alley situated between two guest houses. As we crossed a dusty road, we saw a little shabby gateway. We walked in and greeted three young men sitting outside a little hut. It was past 5 and the place was officially closed, but after a short conversation in Spanish and the entrance fee, Ernesto, Antonio and Armando lend us some snorkeling masks and we got into the water.
As I stepped onto the well, I began to move slowly down the stone shelves leading to the deeper part of the pool. The water was ice cold, offering a pleasant cool after the day’s heat. Through the clear surface we could see the little fish swimming underneath. The cenote was an open air one and surrounded by the vivid greenery of the mangrove forest. I lied on my back and looked up. Nothing but the sky and green tree tops. Except for the gentle song of a bird hiding in the branches, the place would have been enveloped in complete silence. Despite its depth, the clean water allowed us to admire the world underneath, uncovering the mysterious caves and mangrove roots suspended motionless in the water. I felt peaceful and enchanted with the magic of this place. I now understood why the Maya believed cenotes to be the gateway to the other world.