Locality: Yucatán, Mexico.
The advantage of this cenote is that you don't have to travel very far to reach it. In fact, if you are in Valladolid, it is located just three blocks from the main square. It is a rare urban cenote, but I find the set-up in the park very tranquil.
Some prefer cenotes outside the city as one never knows how close the urban sewage is. But if you only have a limited time and can't drive to see the other cenotes, definitely don't miss this one. It is sort of 'handy', whichever direction you are coming from. If you want to spend a day just in Valladolid, then it is a great way of cooling the heat off after walking the streets.
Another advantage is that there is a good restaurant on the site with a view of the cenote so you can enjoy a meal after your swim.
Cenotes are natural sinkholes, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath. They can be open, semi-open or closed, like a cave. This one is open, large and circular. It's a massive cave, shaded by trees and shrubs. There are stalactite formations that hang from the natural rocky roof which covers just over a third of the cenote. The floor of the cenote is composed of poplars, ferns and philodendrons. The rocks inside have algae. The depth of the water varies from 25 to 30 metres.
There are a couple of entry points with steps carved right out of the natural rock or you can jump or dive in. The waters are pretty deep, with no real shallow points. The water is dark, because of the depth, but clear. It's not the most suitable place for small children to swim, unless they use a floating device. There is a rope across the water for hanging on to when you want to rest.
The fauna of the cave are interesting too. Spot the swallows and bats. Small fish may nibble at your feet; think of it as a free pedicure. I have seen some people freaking out, but the fish are harmless. They are a rare species – eyeless black fish. In the process of evolution, when the fish entered the subterranean environment of caves, they lost their eyes. Interestingly, blind cave fish apparently also adapted their metabolisms so they show no circadian rhythm. In other words, they have no sense of time. The results of a Swedish study by Damian Moran, a biologist from Lund University, show that animals that live in environments without 24-hour cycles can save energy by not increasing their metabolism needlessly for a day that will never arrive. I recommend this approach in any cenote: switch off your clock and relax!
The Cenote Zací (pronounced za-see) takes its name from the Maya city on top of which Valladolid was founded. Zací in Mayan means 'white hawk'. This cenote was an integral part of the pre-Hispanic settlement and was used as a water supply, not as a ceremonial cenote (the nearby Chichén Itzá cenote was used for ceremonial purposes).
In 1543 the Spanish conquistador Francisco de Montejo the Younger led a war against the Cupul royal family, who ruled Zací and the neighbouring area (including Ek' Balam city), in an attempt to conquer them and build his own stronghold. He built Valladolid on top of the Mayan temples, as was then common practice by the Spanish.
Zací stood at a crossroads of the sacbes, the elevated white roads that the Maya built to connect their cities. These roads brought pilgrims and traders from Chichén Itzá, Ek' Balam, Cobá or Yaxunah. The White Hawk cenote is still sacred for the Maya; here they may still pray to the rain god Chac, who dwells in the cenotes.
The white hawk of Zací is the coat of arms of the city until today. It appears on the arcaded government palace and on the park benches in the peaceful city plaza. Every time I visit Valladolid, I sit in this park, having an ice cream and observing (like a hawk?) the people resting in the park or strolling by.
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How to get there:
You can take a bus from Cancún (2 hours), Playa del Carmen (2 hours), Mérida (just over 2 hours) or Tulum (1 h 30 min). If going by car, Valladolid is just off the toll highway (180D); the exit is about 3mi/4.8km north of the centre of town. The old highway (180) runs east-west through the town centre. The cenote is at Calle (street) 36 between Calles 37 and 39.