I have my first experience of swimming in a cenote at Xcaret, 50 miles south of Cancun, the “Miami of Mexico”. It is only one of around 30,000 such natural sinkholes in Yucatan.
Xcaret is a Mexican theme park, great fun for kids, and I feel I have reverted to my own childhood when I float through an underground river, surrounded by shoals of tiny fish. Any cynicism about the park itself is washed away in the clear, clean water of the interconnected sinkholes. Above me are atmospheric stalactites, while the natural lighting takes me from bright sunlight to near darkness.
Yucatán has almost no rivers but its soft limestone is characterized by these rain-eroded cenotes, the only source of fresh water and often used by the Maya for sacrificial offerings. A long period of drought is thought to have contributed to the end of the Maya Empire.
Cenote means “sacred well” and Cenote Sagrado at Chichen Itza, also called Chen Ku, was found to contain gold, jade and incense offerings as well as the remains of human sacrifices. Yucatan has an estimated 30,000 other sinkholes, many of which make great places to escape the daytime heat with a swim. Any guardians often ask me to shower beforehand to remove suntan lotion, as they do at Xcaret. Whether it’s to keep the freshwater pure, or as a nod to that ancient religion, you can decide.
Other cenotes are so remote I have only bats for company and the spirit of the Maya seems even less far away.