Creation of Xenotes: the Oasis Maya

An excursion a million years back, before the Mayans, to the origin of the Yucatan Peninsula

In those times, the region that today stretches through the southeast of Mexico was nothing more than a great coral reef covered by the ocean. Can you imagine snorkeling in that place? It would’ve been marvelous.  During those times in which the last Ice Age happened, the sea level decreased y left the coral reef exposed to the surface before dying out and becoming fertile land for vegetation to grow and finally become tropical jungle.


When the first rains fell on this land, it mixed with the carbon dioxide of the atmosphere creating carbonic acid, which led to the erosion of the rock. That’s how enormous cavities where created which then became tunnels and passage ways into the caverns that exist today in Quintana Roo and Yucatan. These underground rivers are home to incredible landscapes of stalactites, stalagmites and natural columns that where created by the filtration of water from the surface, one drop at a time during thousands of years.


After the last Ice Age, at least 10,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene, the ice melt increased the sea level leading to the flooding of most of these caverns. Nine caverns systems have been explored till date on this zone, nine of them in Riviera Maya and two in Yucatan. There, human skeletons of cavemen and fossils of megafauna from the Pleistocene were found.

Some of the caverns that were higher than the sea level flooded partially and the ceilings of calcic rock became to thin to support the weight from above and collapsed, creating natural openings from the subterranean rivers to the surface.  Seen from the sky they seem like turquoise eyes in the middle of the thick jungle. These openings which are very similar to sinkholes and water springs are called Xenotes, although there are some that can’t be seen, for they are still hidden under the surface and to reach them it is necessary to walk through caverns or even scuba dive.


The word Xenote or cenote, comes from the Mayan “dzonot”, which means water cavern. For the Mayans these were sacred places and their only source of pure water in the middle of the jungle. In the Yucatan Peninsula there are more than 15,000 cenotes, between opened and closed ones. Near Cancun, in a town called Puerto Morelos there is a place known as the Cenote Route where you are able to visit Xenotes by booking a tour, and do several different activities depending on their type. Some of them are perfect for snorkeling or kayaking, while others can have zip lines and rappel or even base jumping into the water.

So here concludes our first excursion through the origin of these sanctuaries of nature, if you’d like to know more about the different types of landscapes that form a Xenote and its characteristics come back soon. Until next!