Students and teachers looking for a distinctive trip would be wise to put the Yucatan on their wish list, its unique combination of archeological, geological and natural biology translating into a rich educational experience, among them the Mayan pyramids and the amazing freshwater sinkholes known as cetones.
A visit to Chichen Itza must surely include seeing the famous Mayan pyramids, 1,500-year-old structures, located only 75 miles from Merida. The pyramids are divided into three sections, a North grouping of structures distinctly Toltec in style. The central group appears to be from the early period. The southern group is known as “The Old Chichen.” All three can be seen comfortably in one day.
The most famous of the Mayan pyramids, Chichen Itza has been studied extensively and is the most popular Mayan ruin in Mexico. An early morning or late afternoon visit will avoid the punishing midday sun.
The main attraction is the central pyramid, El Castillo del Serpiente Emplumado, which means “Castle of the Plumed Serpent,” referring to a popular deity in Mesoamerican cultures. Among other names, the Mayans called this god Kukulkán. While it is sometimes possible to visit the inside passageway of the pyramid, visitors who are claustrophobic may want to skip that part of the adventure.
Inside visitors will find a narrowly enclosed staircase that leads to a chac mool, an altar where offerings to the gods were placed. Climbing to the top of the pyramid is no longer allowed.
Just beyond El Castillo is a large ball court where Mayan men played a game called pok ta pok, the object of the being to hurl a ball through a ring that was mounted on a wall, seven meters above the ground.
At the entrance to Chichen Itza, there is an informative museum, a dining room, clean restrooms, a few gift shops and vendor stands.
Exploring the Cenotes
These freshwater sinkholes are a true wonder.
The Maya called them dzonot (ZO-note), which the conquering Spaniards translated as cenote (say- NO-tay.) Giraldo Diaz Alpuche, was a military commander in the 16th Century who was greatly impressed with these underground caverns and pools, and he tried to explain the meaning of the word cenote in the Spanish language as meaning “deep thing”. The Motul dictionary, a dictionary of Mayan hieroglyphics, defines dzonot as “abysmal and deep”.
In the Yucatan there are over 3,000 cenotes, with only 1,400 actually studied and registered.
These structures were once the only resource for fresh, sweet water in the local Yucatecan jungle. They were the sacred places of the Maya for that reason, but also because they represented the entrance to the underworld.
The Yucatan Peninsula is a porous limestone shelf with no visible rivers; all the fresh water rivers are underground. Being porous, caverns and caves formed where the fresh water collects. The water that gathers in these subterranean cenotes is a crystal clear turquoise color with a very pleasant temperature of 78 degrees.
Stalactites and stalagmites form inside the cenotes and in many, holes in the ceiling allow the sunlight to filter into the cenotes, giving the scene a magical feeling. The cenotes of Yucatan are a natural treasure that should be seen by all, keeping in mind that they should be protected so that man does not destroy in a few days what nature took millions of years to create.
There are four different types of cenotes – those that are completely underground, those that are semi-underground, those that are at land level like a lake or pond, like the one at Dzibilchaltun and those that are open wells, like the one in Chichen Itza. Some of them are accessible for swimming and cave diving, but only with a professional guide.
A day trip visit to Cuzama is a car trip of about 45 minutes from Merida and to the cenotes. Students visiting the cenotes will be able to enjoy the peace of the Yucatan countryside, and have a refreshing swim in three different cenotes. The first one, Chelentun (Chay-len-TOON), has the easiest access with cement stairs and handrails aking it easy to go down for a swim in the crystal clear water.
A second cenote, Chansinic’che (Chahn-seen-eek-CHAY), is a bit harder to get into. A hole in the ground and a ladder made out of railroad ties is the access, with visitors descending the ladder for about 10 meters or 30 feet for another swim.
The next and last cenote is Bolonchoojol (Bow-lawn-chew-HOLE), an impressive cenote that is the subject of many pictures used for publicity on cenotes in the Yucatan. The entrance is also a hole in the ground with a railroad tie ladder.
The hole may look narrow but inside is a huge, well-lit cavern with the crystal clear blue toned water of the cenote. In the middle of the cenote the stalactites have formed what looks like a huge tree.
A nearby restaurant at Hacienda Tepich (Teh-PEACH) serves international and Yucatecan cuisine using chicken, pork, beef or rabbit. Tepich is on the way back to Merida, after Acanceh, about 24 kilometers or 18 miles from Cuzama.
Teachers planning a student tour to the Yucatan will want to include the Mayan pyramids and the cenotes on their itinerary.