The Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico is home to thousands of naturally formed fresh-water pools. “There are thousands of kilometers of caves in the area,” says Emiliano Monroy Ríos, a hydrogeologist at Northwestern University, “some explored, many unknown. In places, the cave ceiling is so thin, it collapses and creates an opening to the surface. Then it becomes a sinkhole, or cenote.”
The more swimmer-friendly cenotes are a godsend for locals during the famously hot Yucatan summers. The ancient Maya, who believed the cenotes were entrances to the Underworld, built their cities around them and used them as their water source. Even now, divers find jade beads and ceramics, relics of Maya life.
Today is the spring equinox, when travelers from all over the world descend on the Maya city Chichen Itza to watch the late-afternoon light change on the pyramid, creating a shadow shaped like a feathered serpent: the Maya god Kukulcan. One of the peninsula’s most legendary cenotes, Cenote Sagrado, is situated in the ruins of Chichen Itza. Remains found on site indicate that the Maya performed human sacrifice there to curry favor with the rain god Chaac.
Not every cenote on the peninsula sits in the middle of one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Many are deep in the jungle, relatively untouched. But some are very much a part of modern life, in the most unlikely places.