The birth of the Yucatan Peninsula’s Cenotes & Underground Rivers

Yucatan Peninsula: land of cenotes and subterranean rivers

Did you know that the YUCATAN PENINSULA has more than 7 THOUSAND CENOTES and CAVERNS that are connected to each other by SUBTERRANEAN RIVERS?

Throughout millions of years, the water FILTRATION advanced the erosion of the CALCAREOUS SOIL of the region leaving it full of holes and caverns (like a gruyere cheese) and resulting in one of the most spectacular and interesting NATURAL PHENOMENA. The cenotes are unique formations that only exist in the Yucatan peninsula!

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The Yucatan Peninsula and the beginning of the Cenotes

The Yucatan Peninsula, as we know it today, and the beginning of the cenotes are the result of the COLLISION OF A METEORITE, approximately 66 million years ago in the Gulf of Mexico and the northern part of the Peninsula.

The impact was so great (equivalent to the energy released by 100 atomic bombs) and the temperature of the meteorite so high that it unleashed mega tsunamis, earthquakes, fires and a cloud of dust and ashes that covered the sky for several years, generating a greenhouse effect and causing the destruction of 75 percent of life on the planet, including dinosaurs.

The shock propelled rocks and sediments from the subsoil and the sea to the surface. The impact generated so much heat that all these materials melted and mixed with each other forming a flat layer of limestone 120 meters beneath the surface and giving life to what we now know as the Yucatan Peninsula.

The evidence of this event is what is known today as the Chicxulub crater. It is under 600 meters of sediments in the depths of the sea and jungle. The investigations from the group of geologists that discovered the crater in 1978 indicate that the formation of the first cenotes and subterranean rivers of the Yucatan Peninsula are related to the impact of this meteorite. Along its outer ring, we see the formation of water and air basins that made up the first network of underground caverns, today known as the “Ring of Cenotes”.

El anillo de cenotes de la Península de Yucatán.

The cenotes, underground rivers and beaches of the Riviera Maya

The Yucatan Peninsula is flat and hides large cavernous systems in its subsoil. The whole region is connected by subterranean rivers, most of them have not been mapped because of their difficult access, but there are explored sections like the cavernous systems of Dos Ojos, Sac Actum and Ox Bel Ha where diving is possible. These systems have more than 300km of caves, it is estimated that the entire Yucatan Peninsula has thousands of kilometers of these formations that constitute the largest underground river and tunnel system in the world. Thanks to its smooth character (the highest points of the Peninsula are only 30m above sea level), the water runs great distances without obstacles, between caverns, crossing the entire peninsula until it flows into the Caribbean Sea.

Cenotes are natural water deposits formed by the erosion, advanced over millions of years, of the subsoil limestone. They are pools in the jungle, caves or caverns flooded and connected by large underground river systems, fed by rainwater and the entrance of sea water to underwater tunnels. It is important to note that the Cenotes only exist in the Yucatan Peninsula, because here the limestone is near the surface, is very porous and has a great thickness; in other places of the planet there are similar caverns that are several kilometers underneath, but they are unreachable. The cenotes of the Riviera Maya have crystalline waters and are easily accessible.

When, after thousands of years of filtration, the walls or roofs of an underground cavern are too thin to support themselves, a collapse occurs and with the new opening a cenote is born.

Like the Cenotes, the Riviera Maya Beaches are unique because they are the result of the erosion of the limestone that has been carried, for millions of years, to the coast through the underground rivers that flow into the sea. That is to say, the sand of the beaches of the Riviera Maya comes from the calcareous stone, which does not contain minerals, that is the reason why it does not burn the feet. The sand of other beaches contains silicon and that is why it boils. Have you ever noticed that the sand of the Riviera Maya never burns?

The Cenotes we like the most

There are different types of Cenotes, open-air cenotes that are pools of water with constant movement through underground channels; semi-open caverns; closed caverns that can only be reached through underground rivers; cylindrical Cenotes with huge walls; and lagoons.

When traveling around the Yucatan Peninsula be sure to visit these Cenotes:

Caves or Caverns

This type of Cenote is closed at the top and has a small opening that allows you to enter through the jungle and in other cases through underground rivers. Depending on the size of the cave there are sections where you can swim or float quietly, without the need to dive and there are others where the water is 4 or 5 meters deep. In some caverns it is possible to walk both in and out of the water; in all you can find unique rock formations, millions of years old: stalactites and stalagmites. Each cave is unique, but they are all beautiful and a great adventure.

Sistema de ríos y cuevas subterráneas

Open Cenotes

Outdoor cenotes are one of our favorites, one of the oldest and closest to the coast, commonly known as “open air cenotes”. They are pools of crystalline water in the middle of the jungle, incredible and unique places to experience nature. These cenotes are for having fun, refreshing and connecting with the earth; in them you can dive, swim and snorkel. In some of them there are zip lines, in all of them you will take incredible photos.

Cenote al aire libre, o abierto.

Cylindrical cenotes and large vaults

These Cenotes are special because they are located in the center of the Yucatan peninsula, where the surface is about 20 or 30 meters above sea level. As all Cenotes are connected by underground rivers that flow into the sea, the water level of a cenote is always below the surface, at sea level. When the roof of these vaults’ collapses, holes in the shape of cylinders are left, with walls of up to 30 meters. These vaults have to be entered through small openings on the surface, sometimes with ropes.

Cenote cilíndrico.

The cenotes are the most beautiful and impressive landscapes of the subsoil; connected by subterranean rivers, they create a network of ecosystems so complex that even today they keep secrets about the evolution of the planet and the origin of life on earth. For the Mayans the cenotes were sacred, they represented portals of access to the world of the dead, in the underworld. Today they are a source of water and life for the communities of the Riviera. In addition, they are exceptional places to enjoy nature, swimming in fresh and crystalline waters.

Coba & The Jungle

The Secret of Coba

The inscriptions on the walls, stelae and stone panels of this archaeological site hide the secrets of this ancient Mayan city. Archaeologists have deciphered the meaning of its name, Coba, is the place of “chopped water”, or the “humidity of water”. The reason for its name is that this archaeological site is surrounded by 5 lagoons and is deeply immersed in the jungle. The beauty of Coba lies in its elusive and narrow paths that make their way, like a labyrinth, through dense undergrowth and lead, to surprising discoveries. Its pyramids, among them the highest in the Yucatan Peninsula, have been little intervened, they preserve the traces of the passage of time and their intimate relationship with nature. Coba tastes of discovery and hides spectacular views.

Coba's trails.

The Ancient Mayan City

The Mayan city of Coba prospered among 5 great lakes, which were an essential source of its greatness. By the year 600 A.D., the city extended over 70km2 and was connected with other cities and regions by paths of seashells that were illuminated by the moonlight, known by the Mayas as sacbé (white road), these illuminated streets were used at night to avoid the heat of the day. One of them, 100km long, flowed all the way into Chichen Itza. With 50,000 inhabitants, Coba became the most important economic and political center of the neighboring villages, there came to be a network of more than 50 roads. The city acquired its imperial dimensions between 600 and 1000 A.D., communication networks were built, buildings and relations were strengthened with the populations in the Gulf Coast, Coba came to dominate the entire northern Yucatan Peninsula and had links with Teotihuacan in central Mexico.

The city prospered thanks to the control of inter-regional trade (said to control the port of Xel-Há) and ample access to abundant water resources. However, it declined from A.D. 1000 onwards as a result of a frontal dispute with Chichen Itza over regional preponderance; eventually, Coba would be defeated. The political importance of this city of lakes declined, but it remained an important spiritual center.

At the arrival of the Spanish invasion in Yucatan, circa 1550, Coba had already been abandoned. The city was rediscovered in 1843, but it was not until 1972 that the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) began developing the area to facilitate access for visitors and researchers. Coba is one of the main cities of the ancient Mayan empire in Yucatan, but it is still hidden in the jungle, offering everyone who visits it the opportunity to rediscover it for the first time.

Discovering Coba

Today Coba attracts more and more visitors eager to climb the highest pyramid in the Riviera Maya, to explore the jungle and look at the lagoons of the ancient city; Lake Coba, full of crocodiles, can be visited and crossed by zip-line! Just 47km from Tulum, it is now an accessible site and within walking distance of spectacular cenotes, several tour services offer tours to the ruins and cenotes, it is a perfect combination. Also, very close by, you can visit a nature reserve where it is possible to see spider monkeys.

Coba differs from other archaeological sites because the visit here is more intimate and enigmatic, the jungle immersion is total, and can be done by bicycle! (by biketaxi, better known as the Mayan Limousine, or pedaling on your own). The narrow dirt roads, bordered by the jungle, lead to the main temples, to the Astronomical Observatory (where the Mayas studied the sky with a precision unmatched for the time) and to the Nohoch Mul pyramid, the highest in the peninsula (42m, 20m higher than the Kukulkan pyramid in Chichen Itza), one of the few that can still be climbed, and from where, after climbing its 120 steps, you will have an spectacular panoramic view; the Riviera Maya is flat, so there are no obstacles on the horizon (Read our blog about cenotes and subterranean rivers to find out why there are no mountains on the Yucatan Peninsula: link).

Birds of diverse plumage can be spotted on the trails, and if you’re lucky, you can see spider monkeys hanging relaxed from the branches. On the way you have to let yourself be surprised, be attentive to the fauna of the jungle and the ancient structures and stelae that appear among the undergrowth, there are more than 6,000 structures devoured by the relentless passage of the years and the extension of the jungle. Also, framed by large trees you will find the Ball Games; The Church, the second highest structure in the city (24m high); and the Conjunto las Pinturas, one of the last structures built in Cobá, where you can still be seen traces of the original paintings at the entrance to the altar.

Pro tip: The best place to see spider monkeys is Punta Laguna, an ecological reserve 20 min. from the archaeological site of Coba.

More than 1,000 inhabitants of Mayan origin still live in and around Coba. In the town of Tres Reyes there is an ecological village (Pac Chen) that can be visited. Here the past and the present come together on the shores of a lagoon and several cenotes that you can also explore. Coba is an adventure like no other archeological site in the Riviera Maya, the proximity and freshness of the jungle accompany you in the search for ancient treasures, if you pay enough attention, you can steal from the jungle a glimpse of that imperial city that we are still discovering today.

Pro tip: When you visit Coba, start your day at dawn, arrive when the doors open and enjoy the freshness of the jungle intimately, without people, and after visiting the site refresh yourself in a cenote. After 11am the temperature and humidity can be overwhelming.

Information for Your Visit to Coba

Regular schedule: Monday to Sunday from 08:00 to 17:00 hours

Price: 75 pesos

Special Hours: You can enter the site before 08:00, from 06:00, and after 17:00, until 19:00 by paying an entrance ticket of $252.

How to Get There: ADO has trucks departing from Tulum ($95) and Playa del Carmen ($160). For the more adventurous there are colectivos ($30-$60) that depart from the Plaza Municipal of Tulum, they can also be taken from Playa Del Carmen and Cancun (From Cancun, will make stops in Playa del Carmen and Tulum). If you rented a car you can arrive through the federal highway 109 that you take from Tulum, and you must turn left at the first roundabout (the parking lot is worth $40). Another option is to take a private tour, usually include transportation to the ruins from any city on the Riviera, guide and other activities, is the best option to discover hidden places.