“ABYSMAL AND DEEP“ – A translation of the Mayan word “dzonot,” which was changed to “cenote” in the 16th century when the Spanish conquistadors discovered the strange and magical sinkholes, of which there are an estimated 6,000 on the Yucatán peninsula.
In January, 2012, I had the opportunity to travel to the Yucatán peninsula to attend and present research findings at the annual Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers. After 3 days of attending engaging presentations and workshops highlighting social and natural science from across Central and South America, I spent my final day in the Yucatán visiting Cuzama, a small, Mayan town home to a number of stunning cenotes. I toured 3 cenotes and as someone deeply interested in both the natural, geomorphological processes that create different forms of water occurrence (in this case deep sinkholes filled with freshwater) and the storied myths that accompany these unique places.
This left me wondering about cenotes….
Water availability on the Yucatán peninsula is extremely interesting; the Yucatán peninsula is porous limestone and there are no visible rivers! Because the peninsula is limestone it is water soluble and thus caves form where freshwater collects. Freshwater then collects in these sinkholes, creating cenotes.
Although cenotes are formed through a natural process of the dissolution of limestone (as I briefly describe above), the story of where cenotes are located and why is a slightly more complicated story. A high density of cenotes exist in one portion of the Yucatán peninsula which is the rim of the Chicxulub Crater. In fact, the crater was discovered due to the high density circular alignment of the cenotes! The Chicxulub Crater has since been extensively mapped and has been dated; scientists believe the crater is 65 million years old and is the result of a meteorite impact. Not just any meteorite impact however – this meteorite is associated with the mass extinction of the dinosaurs (or the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event).
Cenotes also hold a sacred place in Mayan religion and mythology: for the Maya, cenotes represent the entrance into the underworld.