The creation of the Oasis Maya

The origin of the Yucatan Peninsula

How are cenotes formed? Let me take you on a magical journey…

Before the Mayans inhabited what today comprises the southeast of Mexico, the region was a great coral reef under the sea, can you imagine having snorkeled in this magical place? It would have been a true, once in a lifetime experience.


While life was continuing, the Earth continued evolving and caused the last Ice Age, causing the sea level to drop, leaving the reef exposed. The reef eventually dried out with the passage of time, becoming part of the continent that would provide a fertile soil for vegetation and where a luscious Mayan jungle grew.


As the reef was dying out, the rains commence to descend, mixing with the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere forming carbonic acid which eroded the limestone. It was those holes that, over time, became much larger passages and tunnels, giving way to a huge system of underground rivers, cenotes and caverns that travel through what is today Quintana Roo and Yucatan. Drop by drop, after hundreds of years, the water filtration inside these caves formed amazing landscapes of stalactites, stalagmites and columns.


After the last ice age, at least 10,000 years ago during the Pleistocene Era, the melted water made the sea level rise and flood the caverns. To this date, only nine of these underwater cave systems in the zone have been explored: two in Yucatan and seven in Quintana Roo. Explorers found human remains from the last Ice Age as well as megafauna from the Plreistocene Era such horses, camels, elephants and giant armadillos.


Some of these cave systems located above sea level were partially flooded. The roofs—made from limestone—too thinned to support the weight, collapsed and created natural openings that connected the system of underground rivers with the exterior. Seen from above, the openings looked like blue, turquoise eyes in the middle of the thick jungle: cenotes. Although it is estimated that there are more than 15,000 cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula, only a few can actually be observed from above as they are hidden underground and the only way to explore these natural marvels is to scuba dive through flooded and narrow caves.

The word cenotes or Xenotes comes from the Mayan word “dzonot” that means natural well. For the Maya, these bodies of water were sacred as they were the only sources of fresh water in the middle of the jungle. In the Yucatan Peninsula, there are four different types of cenotes. In Puerto Morelos, a small town located 20 minutes from Cancun on the Riviera Maya highway, you will find the Cenote Route, where there are several cenotes with different activities. Because of their nature, visitors to this paradise can snorkel or kayak in astonishing natural environments offered by the crystal clear water of cenotes. In others, you can rappel or jump from above, ideal for any traveler looking for some adventure.

So now you know! Next time you’re swimming in one of these natural beauties and someone asks: “How are cenotes formed?” You’ll be the first to take them into a knowledgable trip!

What cenotes have you visited?

What did you find most interesting about cenotes?