Cenotes, from the Nahuatl word d’zonot meaning water deposit, are found all over Quintana Roo and have acted as a source of water for the region since before man settled here. They are formed when rainwater, made slightly acidic when falling through the atmosphere, collects on the limestone substrate and slowly erodes the rock, over thousands of years.
The limestone itself is made from the skeletons of trillions of small marine animals that formed the sedimentary base of a prior ocean millions of years ago. Carbonates, the major component of limestone, are slightly soluable in water, all the more so with an acidic reaction. Additionally, the decay of organic matter in the forest floor creates acidic chemicals that interact with limestone, eroding it steadily
The Yucatán peninsula is flat and at a very low elevation so fresh water in Cenotes forms a “lens” that sits on the underlying seawater, creating two quite different ecosystems. The boundary layer between the fresh water of the Cenote and saline water from the surrounding ocean is called the Halocline and erosion is most pronounced at this location. Both bodies of water can move and change in shape, so the Halocline can be quite dynamic. What results are deep holes in the rock, often interconnected with one another, forming networks of caves and sometimes underground rivers.
Over hundreds of thousands of years the global sea level has changed dramatically as various ice ages have come and gone (as things get cooler, water collects as ice at either pole, reducing the total volume of water in the oceans thus lowering the global sea level.) When the sea level lowers, some Cenotes are left as dry holes / cave systems.
The outline of the Chicxulub crater created by a massive meteor that struck earth 66 MM years ago and wiped out all non aviary dinosaurs, is marked by the “Ring of Cenotes” that scientists think may have been caused by water pushed from underneath the meteor strike area, crystallized and made impervious by the incredible pressure and heat the meteor created, to the line around the impact where rock was still permeable.
The Yucatán Peninsula, which includes some of Belize and Guatemala to the south, has several types of forest – a moist and a dry one in the North, and pine forests in the south, and areas dry enough support only cactuses. The peninsula is protected from several ocean swells to the east by the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, an extensive coral structure. The Yucatan is home to hundreds birds species, many of which migrate – the Ocellated Turkey, Plain Chacalaca, Red Throated Tanager, Olive Throated Parakeet, Keel Billed Toucan to name a few. Fine names all of them.
A sequence of satellite photos show significant deforestation on the Peninsula since 2001, with the area losing about 80,000 hectares of forest annually (+/- 300 square miles) from large and small scale agriculture and commercial and tourist developments. As the global population continues to grow, peaking in 2050 at about 11 BN people (up from 7 BN today) this is likely to continue – poor folks have to eat and their drive to escape poverty will stress the environment more, even if larger scale projects are well managed.
Today, folks swim and dive in the Cenotes, which have pure, clear water and are often beautifully set in the jungle with stalagmites, stalactites and tree roots reaching down dozens of feet, driven by the organism’s need for water. Most are run by local folks – you pay a small entrance fee to swim – some are tricked out with change rooms, cafes and equipment rentals – others feel much more primitive.
Jennifer and I swam in one that was a bit of a production to get to and didn’t have a whole lot in the way of facilities – we settled for using the cardboard carton paneled change room – but was remarkable in its own way. We entered through a narrow spiral staircase that took us to a platorm in a cavern about 40 feet below ground where we could access the crystal clear water, the entire cavern lit by a single, generator powered lamp.
We went with the kids to a couple of more organized Cenotes right off the toll road one afternoon. Things were quiet, there were only ½ a dozen other visitors at the Cenote which was more open than the one that Jennifer and I had visited. It sparkled a clear blue and green in the afternoon sun. Very peaceful.
After Liam left we drove south with Lexie about four hours to the town of Bacalar which is a stop for backpackers traveling north from Central America or south from Mexico to Guatemala, and is about 1.5 hours north of the border with Belize.
A big sky with dramatic clouds, roiling thunderheads that indicate intense rain showers somewhere nearby, seen only through the slit in the jungle canopy created by the highway disappearing into the horizon before you. When the rain comes it does so without warning and heavily, overwhelming us and eliminating visibility even with the wipers on on high. Without the knowledge that you have a lagoon-side destination, the drive would feel claustrophobic.
Bacalar has a loose feel and is laid out on a grid and looks like as though it acts as a minor center for the local area. There is a brightly lit central square where vendors make and sell “Marquesitas” – light waffles wrapped around bananas and Nutella, or sometimes cheese – from crisp stainless steel vending wagons. Along several streets are dotted restaurants, yoga studios and tour services and crafts shops.
We stayed in a small hotel on the shore of the Bacalar Lagoon, a freshwater body of water adjacent to the Caribbean Sea, with a focus on ecological exploration. Snorkeling, swimming, birdwatching, only small, quiet powered boats. It felt like a tropical version of the cottage country north of Toronto – a big, clear blue sky with roiling thunderheads in the distance, a flat expanse of water with a line of jungle along the opposite shore, occasional docks jutting out here and there.
The hotel had few cabanas tastefully outfitted with fans, comfortable beds, mosquito nets and showers with lots of hot water, its feel made me think of Sri Lanka. We were next door to a hostel that catered to French folks and so we heard a steady patter of French (The Gauls have a lot to discuss) with only occasional spurts of English. Nubbie and Lexie went standup paddle boarding and spent a lot of time on the dock chatting about this and that. Lexie had a massage in the evening under twinkly lights in a clearing by the water.
I got talking the the owner of an attractive restaurant that we ate at in town, with tables spread on gravel under a large shade tree and tasteful lighting and music, on an otherwise unremarkable street. The food was simple, tasty and beautifully presented. Greta was dandling a baby on her hip and keeping an eye on things, she is from Switzerland and had set the restaurant up four years ago with a Mexican partner from Monterrey who is a chef. His brother, an architect, designed the place which carried that strong Mexican sense of design that is at once contemporary but grounded in the local culture and environment.
She explained that most of their clientele were European or Mexican – Americans and Canadians don’t get further than Tulum, about three hours North of here. Last year with the pandemic had been very difficult, with almost no tourists and their attempt to keep the entire staff on the payroll.
This is another remarkable story – how ideas and expertise spread in a region and then around the world. Someone Swiss partnering with a Mexican chef in Mexico. The aesthetic is something you would see in Bali or Goa or Thailand and I expect that in 20 years this will have been absorbed into the market as yet another market segment. I wonder what will come after it?
I am writing this as the tropical sun disappears at the end of the day, which it will do suddenly, leaving us in the dark cloak of night. A local dog is barking and has been doing so steadily for several hours. A barking ultra marathon. The occasional silence (perhaps she is gathering her thoughts) and then starts again. What is this desire that dogs have here to bark relentlessly? To vocalize their – what – feelings? News of the day? Tips and tricks for living with humans? My diary of life as a dog? I guess we’ll never know.
We have been going for walks along the beach in downtown Playa del Carmen first thing in the morning, stopping for coffee, and then returning back along 5th avenue which is set up as a pedestrian mall. Cigars, tequila, American brands, generic prescription meds, low key touts pitching tours, souvenir stores blasting AC onto the street. Shopping as an adventure sport – folks on TripAdvisor rave about this place. Large trees make canopies with restaurants tumbling out onto the street below them. That loose tropical feel that we tourists long for.