Mayan Cenotes – Waters of Life

cenote firstTwo stories below ground, I peered through man-size ferns at a pool of translucent cobalt water, and wondered what the Mayan high priests would have thought of a Corona commercial being filmed in their portal to the afterlife.

Then again, I knew the azure waters of the Yucatan Peninsula’s cenotes had been a battleground for the sacred and the profane before.   In fact, a controversy over rights to one of these otherworldly holes in the ground had roots reaching to Boston.

There are more than 3,000 Mayan cenotes on the Yucatan Peninsula, a thumb of land in southeastern Mexico that separates the Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Mexico and borders Belize and Guatemala to its south.  The Yucatan is a flat plain of limestone with thousands of miles of below-ground water-filled caves interconnected by subterranean rivers.  When the roof of one of these underground caverns collapses, the result is a deep, water-filled sinkhole known as a cenote.  Cenote is a Spanish word derived from the Mayan word dzonot, meaning “well.”

I had disembarked at Cancun International Airport on the Yucatan’s east coast feeling very much like a dry well.  Like everyone else arriving here in mid-January, I had the winter pallor that marked me as a snowbird fleeing the frigid north.  You would have thought the plane was destined for a Siberian gulag given the grim countenances of the passengers.  The husband and wife across the aisle from me exchanged icy stares and made brittle conversation.  The pair in the seats in front of me had matching frowns and furrowed brows.  Despite having upgraded to business class, I couldn’t get comfortable and restlessly shifted in my seat throughout the flight, chafing at the confined space.

Cenote secondI had begun to question the wisdom of my impulsive decision to make the trip, and solo at that, to an all-inclusive resort that was likely to be Party Central.  I had plans for a couple of excursions to Mayan temples, but that still left a lot of free time to spend in my own company — which could often resemble a bad neighborhood.  I had been feeling frustrated, thwarted and short-tempered, aggravated that various aspects of my life were not proceeding in accordance with my Master Plan.

A stroll down Playa del Carmen’s Fifth Avenue that afternoon was a refreshing antidote to my angst.  A vibrant, splashy mural of colorful characters and many moods unfolded before me and my own mood lifted in response. To shouts of “Hey, Paparazzi” I pirouetted, snapped and shutter-bugged my way along Quinta Avenida, becoming happily absorbed in the rich tableau.

A mountain of a man precisely cut a cigar and lit it for a well-heeled customer, clouds of smoke billowing around their lowered heads. A trio of white-garbed musicians, complete with white cowboy hats, strummed a forlorn ballad and looked like they understood sadness. A tuxedoed-waiter stood between two man-size placards that advertised his restaurant, rhythmically folding napkins while he rocked on his heels, his eyes scanning the street for potential customers. A young woman sat outside a dress shop, holding her embroidery hoop up close to her face as she plied her needle. On opposing benches, an angry couple snarled at each other and the legs of a happy pair were intertwined — I knew what it was like to be part of each equation.


Leaving the main drag to go down a block to the beach, I passed a banana-yellow building with a string of gleaming black wet suits draped across the balcony. In the golden light of the photographer’s “magic hour,” hand-woven hammocks in bold hues hung in front of small shops, seemingly glowing. In a serendipitous still life scene, a bag of oranges was propped up against an orange chair. The turquoise tide gently rolled in between rocks bright with lime-green algae.

Playa del Carmen is a small city on the Caribbean coast in the northeast of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. Originally a tiny fishing town, “Playa” as it is casually called by locals, is the center of the Riviera Maya, which runs from south of Cancún to the Maya ruin of Tulum. Playa is growing rapidly and is now the third largest city in Quintana Roo, after Cancún and Chetumal. The village was named for Our Lady of Mount Carmel, who is the patron saint of Cancún. The first recorded visitors to what was then called Xaman-Ha, or “waters of the north,” came during the Early Classic Period of the Mayan civilization, which extended from 300 to 600 A.D.

tulum wallThe next day, I headed south to the Mayan site of Tulum, which dates back to the same period, although its zenith was later, between 1200 – 1521 A.D. Tulúm is also the Mayan word for fence, and the walls surrounding the site served as a defense against invasion.

From the site’s entrance, where a hodgepodge of vendors sold trinkets and tired tourists sipped soft drinks at a cluster of casual cafes, I walked along a dusty path to a small triangular archway within a stone wall.  Once through it, I felt as though I had wandered into another, timeless world.

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