Postcard from Yucatan, Mexico: Mayan ruins, sacred cenotes and margaritas

santa barbara cenote

Water surrounds much of the Yucatan, but salt water does not quench one’s thirst. Instead of pooling in rivers and lakes, fresh water is hidden from view. Through the ages, water seeped through layers of limestone, and the gradual erosion formed holes in the earth – natural entrances to caverns filled with pure water. The Mayans regarded these precious offerings from the gods – cenotes – as sacred.

As the only natural source of freshwater, cenotes are and were essential resources to people living in the Yucatán. Prehistorically, some cenotes were exclusively domestic, reserved for drinking water; others were exclusively sacred with their locations kept secret. A few, like the Great Cenote at Chichén Itzá, were sacred sites that served a number of religious purposes, including but not exclusively ritual sacrifice.

To the ancient Maya, cenotes were passageways to the underground world of Xibalba. They were often also associated with the rain god Chaac, and sometimes said to be his dwelling place. Settlements grew up around many cenotes, and they were often part of or directly connected to the most important monumental architecture of the Maya capitals.

“The Geology and Archaeology of Sinkholes,” ThoughtCo.

Fortunately for its occupants, the Yucatan has somewhere around 6,000 cenotes. One does not have to drive far from Merida to hit roads lined with locals trying to flag cars down with signs to indicate their particular cenote is better than all the rest.

Proximity and lack of overcrowding were guiding our choices when we picked the destination for our Mayan archeological site and a cenote. And, of course, we wanted lunch.

Having visited Chichen Itza and Uxmal several years ago, we headed to Mayapan. We found two busloads disgorging passengers from nearby cruise ships upon our arrival. Fortunately, their scampering time was short, and then we, the occupants of two other cars and the iguanas had the site to ourselves. 

With the decline of Chichen Itza, Mayapan was founded about 1250 by Kukulcan, a powerful ruler named in honor of the plumed serpent deity worshipped by the Mayans. The last capital of the mighty empire, Mayapan had a population of 12,000 to 17,000. 

Among the advantages to Mayapan is that visitors are free to climb the pyramids (No, I did not.) and explore at will; it is less than an hour’s drive from Merida; it is uncrowded; and the entry fee is only 45 pesos per person. That’s right. Only about $2.

Finding ourselves sufficiently hot and thirsty, we then headed to the cenotes at Santa Barbara, another relatively under-visited spot. The whirring fans overhead in the high-ceiling palapa-style restaurant were particularly appreciated by the person in our party without a bathing suit – me. Going a bit off the beaten path again proved an amazing bargain. Lunch plus a plunge into the cenotes totaled less than $10 per person, even with a round of margaritas and beer.

Postcard from Edzna, Campeche, Mexico: Wandering amidst ancient Mayan ruins without the crowds

As incredible as the extensive ruins of Chichen Itza in the Yucatan are, the experience of visiting them is somewhat spoiled. The site is overrun by hundreds of stalls of vendors and swarmed by busloads of tourists.

But there is another spot to visit the Mayan home of the Itza family – Edzna, less than an hour outside of Campeche. Edzna means the House of Itzas, so named because the Itzas lived here before setting up quarters at Chichen Itza. At Edzna, one has to wait around for a while for someone to walk into the camera frame to provide a sense of scale. There were maybe five cars in the parking area.

Construction on the site began around 600 B.C., with the ancient Mayan city expanding to close to ten square miles at its peak of power. The satellite image plucked from Google maps illustrates the small portion of that territory that has been excavated.

The site particularly is noteworthy for its sophisticated system for capturing, storing and distributing rainwater. Hieroglyphics at the foot of its main structure, Edifico de los Cinco Pisos, trace its construction to 652, but additions and alterations were made up until the 14th century. From the base to the top of its comb, similar to toppings at Palenque, the structure measures more than 100 feet high.

Although Edzna was occupied until the 15th century, it was not rediscovered until 1907. Excavation began in 1958, with much of the caretaking services in recent years provided by Guatemalan refugees under the watchful eyes of the resident iguanas.