Chikin-Ha Cenote Park
I had never heard of cenotes, and even after I had got a brief run down of what they were I was kind of like “meh.” But last Sunday I went to my first cenote and it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in all my 24 years. It made me emotional, and feel things about the world and my place in life that I had never thought about. How small I am, how small my life and all the things I get my knickers in a twist are, how irrelevant so much of what I thought was important is, how stunning nature can be, how powerful it can be, but also how hauntingly scary it can be.
I didn’t know what a cenote was until we became close to the Mexican border and it was all people were talking about.
We crossed into Mexico on the Caribbean side from Caye Caulker Belize into Bacalar, a very small town situated on a lagoon. After one night there we went to Tulum and then onto Playa del Carmen.
With us were two girls from San Diego California who we had met in Flores Guatemala and were heading the same direction as Patch and I. Briana, one of the girls, had a Mexican friend named Peter who was living in Playa del Carmen working as a scuba instructor and tour guide. Peter had told Bri he would be more than happy to take the four of us to see turtles and some of the cenotes around the area.
We woke early on a Sunday morning and left our hostel with Peter to go to the famous turtle watching beach.
The beach was stunning; white fine sand that you could barely feel against your skin, luminous turquoise water, palm trees and everything in between. Unfortunately like most things in life, humans had ruined it. Humans everywhere; tourist humans like me, splashing around in the water shouting turtle every 20 seconds, beach lizard humans that like to be a lizard on the beach for the day, cocktail humans, child humans and then there were the scam humans, the ones that really ruined the beach. These kind of humans try to trick you into paying for a life jacket, an additional tour, a snorkel mask, a boat ride, a map, information, anything really. So the picturesque beach was kind of ruined.
None the less Peter took us far out into the ocean where we saw a collection of beautiful turtles, and once I had my mask on and my face was submerged in the quiet ocean watching these stunning little creatures, I forgot about the zombie beach of wretched humans.
After a successful turtle hunt on the beach we made our way in land to Chikin Ha park, where we would explore three separate cenotes.
Cenotes are the result of the earth collapsing inwards due to dissolution of rock. Rock that falls into the water below is slowly removed due to further dissolution, making space for more collapsed blocks of rock. If this continues to happen, the rock ceiling above will eventually collapse inwards completely, giving you an open water pool. Or the rock ceiling may stop dissolving and falling off leaving an overhang over the pool.
One of the most special features about cenotes is the crystal clear water. It’s so clear that you can get a sense of the depth when you’re standing on a rock above the water without a mask on. Peter told us the water in these cenotes is the second most clear water in the world, after the Arctic Pole.
The first cenote was like a magical pond, full of plants, lilies and flowers both above the water and below. The flowers below the water had long delicate stems which sprouted beautiful little red leafed flowers and swayed gently in the clear water. There was moss of all different shades of green hugging the rocks at the bottom. Little turtles would busily zoom in front of you as you swam and little fish would nibble at your toes, it was like a little garden fairy land.
We had to walk down a number of stone steps to just see the entrance, which was a huge rock face hanging out over a dark entrance, it looked like bat mans underground cavern. The water appeared completely black from where we were standing, and the path we had to swim to see the whole cenote was equally black. Patch and I stood there in front of the water looking sheepishly at each other. Peter and the two girls had already jumped in and their voices and splashes were slowly disappearing. It looked freezing and scary and I had no concept of how deep it was or what was below.
With a deep breath I put the snorkel mask on and jumped in. I plunged deep into the pool, submerged by cold fresh water. It punched the air out of me and woke me up from what felt like a dark dream. I kicked my legs hard to reach the surface quickly, feeling no ground below me and no rock wall near me. I burst up to the surface, “it’s not that cold,” I lied, “get in!” And off I swam into the darkness to try and catch up with the others.
As I swam further in, I could see there was light and an entrance on the other side, with that I put my face into the water with my mask on to see what was below me.
I am going to try me best to describe what I saw, but I don’t think any amount of words will be able to translate the impact it had on me.
I was swimming between an extremely deep valley of fallen boulders. When I would concentrate and think I could see the bottom, I would see a gap between two boulders and the light from above would shine down and reveal another 30 metres or so. I felt like I was floating in slow motion through the collapsed, crumbling buildings of an old city, or and abandoned capital after a bombing. It was haunting and harrowing but magical at the same time.
It was like I was stuck between two worlds; the above world where things moved and happened and voices echoed throughout, and then there was this dark abandoned underwater world, almost like the entrance to the underworld, and I was just floating in between.
I came to the surface and looked behind to see patch not too far behind me. He didn’t have a mask as we were sharing it.
“Patch you’re not going to believe what it’s like below,” I excitedly spat out, puffing and panting. He was kind of in his own world too as he was in awe of the ceiling, which was full of different shades of rock, glistening with the reflection of the water.
Swimming through the caverns and valleys of this cenote made me feel so much smaller than nature, so less powerful. I felt totally detached from my mind in a way, the bad side of my mind; the worry, the over thinking, the selfishness, the planning, the stress. My mind turned into a blank sponge, absorbing all of this new beauty and alien exposure.
I came out on the other side where Kristie, the other of the girls, was sitting on a rock with her knees pulled into her chest looking out into the dark cenote.
“What did you think?”
“It’s so magical and beautiful,” she said as though she had been hypnotised.
Throughout the entire course of the day spent in the cenote park we were all little zombies, completely taken away by what we were experiencing, just listening to Peters endless stories and information about each cenote.
The last cenote we went to was the sacrificial cenote, where the Mayans would end there day with a ceremony. We crawled in under this huge over hang of rock, Peter leading the way without batting an eye lid while the rest of us looked like the four blind mice. The cenote opened up into a smoothed out space, the familiar smell of burning sap filled my nose and a small alter came into sight. The people at the park keep the incense burning as part of your experience but it is also still very much used by actual Mayan families who want to perform a ceremony.
“The experience you have in these cenotes is supposed to give you a sense of re birth, like you’re coming back into the world born again and fresh,” Peter told us as we watched the burning incense smoke travel up into the air like a snake.
As we walked out of the park up the long dusty stoned path, there were many silent moments and I know that we were all thinking the same thing.
It was a truly memorable moment for both Patch and I and I’m sure Kristie and Bri felt the same way.
Since going to that cenote, we have turned our “coconut hunting trip” into a very much cenote focused trip. So much so that we have moved inland to the Yucatan, largely because we were told it’s riddled with cenotes. I’m sure we will never have the same experience as we did the first time, but we will surely treasure and appreciate each one we have the pleasure of enjoying.
I have been so lucky in the past year and a half to have seen things like the African Masai Mara of Kenya, the dense jungles of Costa Rica, the Caribbean islands of Panama, national parks of Colombia, active volcanoes in Guatemala, Semuc Champey, waterfalls, ruins and ruins, but I can safely say the Chikin Ha cenotes were the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my whole life.