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Secrets of the Sacred Cenote

During a visit to the ancient Mayan city of Chichén Itzá, UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven New Wonders of the World, your guide will take you to the mysterious natural well known as the Sacred Cenote (Cenote Sagrado). A short walk from the Great Plaza and the Pyramid of Kukulcan along a sacbe or Mayan pathway, this huge sinkhole was once the site of ceremonies to appease Chaac, the Mayan rain god. Ancient priests cast pottery and other treasures into the water and offered human sacrifices to the all-powerful deity. Cenotes and caves were portals to Xibalbá, the Mayan underworld, the realm of the gods, and with its sheer limestone walls, green water and the sounds of the wind in the jungle, it is rather eerie.

Bishop Diego de Landa was the first European to describe the Sacred Cenote and its religious symbolism in a 16th century report to the Spanish king. He speculated about the treasures that could lie beneath the surface. The intrepid Maya World explorers John L Stephens and Frederick Catherwood also visited Chichén Itzá in 1841 and had this to say about the cenote: “A mysterious influence seemed to pervade it, in unison with the historical account that the well of Chichen was a place of pilgrimage and that human victims were thrown into it in sacrifice.”

The murky depths have intrigued all those who have visited the cenote and in 1904-7, Edward Thompson, the American Consul to Merida, dredged the well, an act that would prove to be very controversial. Later dredging work was carried out by the National Geographic Society and CEDAM (Mexican Dive Association) in 1960-61 and 1967-8, respectively.

Over the years, the cenote has yielded over 30,000 artifacts including gold, jade, copper, turquoise, obsidian, copal or incense, pottery, rubber, shells and the bones of around 200 people, mostly children and old men who had the misfortune to be selected as sacrificial victims to honor the gods. Archaeologists have discovered that the offerings date from A.D. 800 to 1550 and the human sacrifices spanned 550 years between 1000 and 1550.

Many of the most precious objects were recovered during the first dredging expedition and using the diplomatic pouch, Edward Thompson smuggled them out of Mexico to the Peabody Museum where they remain on display to this day. In 1959 and 1976, the museum returned some of the finds such as a turquoise disc, gold figurines and 246 carved jades to Mexico as a goodwill gesture.

The ancient Maya were great traders and the ceremonial objects thrown into the well speak volumes about the extent of ancient trade routes and the wealth of Chichén’s ruling elite. Jade was mined in southeastern Guatemala, gold came from Costa Rica and Panama, obsidian from central Mexico and turquoise from northern Mexico and the area that is now New Mexico and Arizona.

Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Cenote) , Chichén Itzá

Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Cenote) , Chichén Itzá

Thomas More Travel offers a variety of trips to Chichén Itzá and there is always something to see as archaeologists continue to excavate this huge site and make amazing discoveries. And nature also puts on a show with hummingbirds, parrots and orioles and Yucatan’s own bird of paradise, the turquoise-browed motmot often spotted. As you gaze into the depths of the cenote you may see a flash of turquoise and hear a soft call, the motmot nests in the limestone walls of cenotes. This handsome species is also known as the clock bird due to its disc-shaped tail feathers which resemble the pendulum on a clock.

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