Zazil Tunich

Yucatán, Mexico


The experience is arranged in a unique way, as a guided walk through the Maya underworld, in a very pretty cave.


Credit:  zaziltunich.com .
 

You will find it just outside the village of Yalcobá, near Valladolid. You need to make a reservation before you come as this cenote accepts advanced group bookings. Although, admittedly, I came here without a prior booking.

 
My friend Michelle on the steps to Boca 1.
The steps to Boca 5.
 

We came here with my husband Rhod in July 2018 in the morning, not realising that the cenote is open three times a day for booked tours only: at 3pm, 6pm and 8pm for a night swim. Please bear that in mind. Also, you can come here only at the weekends, to be precise on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. However, we managed to talk the staff into letting us in. For groups, the cenote staff also arrange a Maya ceremony by a shaman, and dinner (the cost of the package is 350 pesos). A guide took us around the estate and then the cave itself, for 200 pesos per person. I normally don't go to cenotes where a guide is necessary but in this case it was fitting.

 
With our guide Luis in the cenote garden.

With our guide Luis in the cenote garden.

The cave entrance.

The cave entrance.

 

When we walked into the cave, I was speechless. Such beauty! Probably the prettiest cave cenote I have seen so far, purely due to its decorative stalactites and stalagmites. We then walked along the cave path (about 80m), amongst stunning stalactites and stalagmites. We stopped at the platform of the lords of Xibalbá, to see the first stalactite column. He represents Yum Cimil, the Xibalbá lord of death (sometimes also referred to as Ah Puch). He had a skeletal body and wore a necklace with eyeless sockets. Try to spot that in the shape of the cave column. Yum Cimil likes to come out of the underworld at night and skulk in a very scary mode. You have to ask his permission to enter the underworld. If he does not grant it, you turn into stone. And yes, there are some stalagmites next to him, which resemble human heads.

 
The Lord of Death, Yum Cimil. We asked his permission to enter.

The Lord of Death, Yum Cimil. We asked his permission to enter.

Boca 5, with a wooden platform at the bottom, to access the water.
 

Then there are the Maya hero twins, Hunahpú and Xbalanqué. Like their father and uncle (also twins), they played the ancient ball game and went to play it in the underworld, to try and defeat its wicked lords. Their story is narrated in the Popol Vuh (The Book of Council). Unlike their father and uncle, they tricked the gods of the underworld, and passed all their difficult tests. For example, the boys were at some point killed and the gods threw their ashes into the river. This was all part of the Hero Twins’ secret plan. The boys came back to life as catfish. Then later they were fully restored as the Hero Twins. Think of that story every time you are swimming in a cenote that has catfish! At another point, one of the brothers played the game with the head of his twin, who recovered his life later (maybe that is why decapitation was practised after the game from then on, following the example of the Hero Twins). At the end, the Hero Twins completed their quest and ascended into the sky and became the sun and the moon. Their sculptured solid columns sit opposite each other at Zazil Tunich, as a symbol of the Maya duality principle.

 
The Maya Hero Twins, Hunahpú and Xbalanqué.

The Maya Hero Twins, Hunahpú and Xbalanqué.

Boca 1 from above.
 

The next stalactite on the route resembles an elephant. Or a curtain, which is more fitting for the underworld. Our guide Luis told us that it was the largest stalactite in Yucatán and it was 300 thousand years old. The next column is a sparkling stone, from which the cenote gets its name. Zazil means sparkling or luminous and Tunich means stone. We could clearly see the sparkle but the photo did not capture it well, given the lighting conditions in the cave. This was not the original name of the place though. In ancient times there was a Maya settlement here called X'hebena. Hebena means 'derrumbar', to overthrow. X is often given to Maya places, it means 'real place'; it is used for emphasis.

 
The ‘Curtain’ Stalactite?

The ‘Curtain’ Stalactite?

A close-up of the luminous stone.

A close-up of the luminous stone.

The cave of the invisible sprite Alux (in green).

The cave of the invisible sprite Alux (in green).

On our way further along the path we came to the point called Beso Maya (Mayan Kiss), formed by the tilt of a giant stalagmite and we were asked by Luis to kiss. This was right in front of the Cueva del Alux, the cave home of Alux, an invisible spirit, according to the Maya mythological tradition. He can be wicked if you don't appease him (he likes cigarettes and alcohol). He kept quiet and we hoped that he was satisfied in his cave home as he did not cause us any trouble.

And finally, you descend to the circular pool and take a dip. The water is not too deep, 2m on average and about 25°C, like most of the cenotes in Yucatán. The waters are pretty blue, enhanced by artificial lights, and transparent. So you can see the Hero Twins, the catfish, swimming alongside you (they will not bother you).

 
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The park outside is well maintained. There is an old ruin, cordoned off. According to Luis, some locals thought they would find gold here so they ransacked it during the search (or afterwards, in anger?). Or it could have been Spanish looking for gold, as their presence is visible. They set up a hacienda here and there are remnants of a noria still here. Noria is for drawing water from a well, consisting of two large geared wheels, a horizontal one moved by an animal and another one that turns vertically and is provided with buckets that collect and raise the water.

 
The village house inside the cenote park.
Old ruins in the jungle garden.

Old ruins in the jungle garden.

The village altar, by Boca 1.
The shops are either closed or waiting to be open.
Alamo tree (cottonwood).

Alamo tree (cottonwood).

As for the services, there are bathrooms here. We also spotted a stall for making your own chocolate (I presume for when they have group bookings). As the restaurant was not open in the morning, we just sat on a bench and admired the jungle trees, among them an old alamo tree, cottonwood. It was used in the past by the Maya for fuel, fence posts, basket weaving, tool making, for musical instruments, and for medicine. It was chewed as an antiscorbutic as it contains a lot of vitamin C. The bark and leaves could be used to make poultices to reduce inflammation or to treat wounds. The Maya were true forest people. A pity we have now lost the basic survival skills. This is why cenotes were also so important for them: the place where life began and finished, but also a source of drinking water, a must for their survival.

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How to get there:

The cenote is near Valladolid. First you have to get to the village of Yalcobá along the old road 180D (not the toll highway). This will take half an hour’s drive. Then on the zócalo (main square) in Yalcobá you will see signs for many other cenotes to the left and one sign Xtut to the right. Follow that sign because the cenote is on the Yalcobá-Xtut road, at km 6. First you will pass a turn-off point for cenote Xcanahaltun, and after one more km you will see the large car park of Zazil Tunich. We paid 200 pesos per person for the guided tour and the swim (lunch and the Maya ceremony were not included).

To make a reservation, call the owner Armando Geded on 985 808 5827. I encountered an online booking option here: zaziltunich.com/reservacion.

 
 

Mix & Match:

You can visit the cenote on your way to or from the town of Valladolid (admittedly, Valladolid has a few other cenotes on offer).