Cenotes of Chichén Itzá

Cenote (say-NO-tay) is the Spanish equivalent of the Yucatec Maya word for a water-filled limestone sinkhole. In Mexico's northern Yucatán Peninsula, where there are few lakes or streams, cenotes provided a stable supply of water for the ancient Maya people who settled there. The great city of Chichén Itzá was built around a cluster of these natural wells, including the one known as the Cenote of Sacrifice.

Cenote of Sacrifice

(above left) Aerial view of the sacred cenote and the sacbe leading towards the Castillo.
(above right) E. H. Thompson's dredge at the sacred cenote.

On March 5, 1904, the American archeologist Edward H. Thompson, began dredging the Cenote of Sacrifice at the ancient Maya city of Chichén Itzá in Yucatán, Mexico. Thompson hoped to substantiate legends describing this natural, water-filled, limestone well as a repository for the precious objects and human victims offered to the gods by the ancient Maya.

(above left) Gold monkey bell from sacred cenote.
(above middle) Jade pendant, late classic period, from sacred cenote.
(above right) Gold masks from sacred cenote.

Stages in the Formation of a Cenote

SOLUTION CAVERN - Naturally acidic groundwater seeping through cracks in the limestone bedrock dissolves areas of softer rock lying beneath the hard surface crust. Over time, this process creates large undergound caverns roofed with only a thin layer of surface limestone.

YOUNG CENOTE - As erosion continues, this thin roof eventually collapses, leaving an open, water-filled hole.

MATURE CENOTE - Over thousands of years, erosion gradually fills the cenote with organic and mineral debris, reducing its depth. The Cenote of Sacrifice is currently in this stage.

DRY CENOTE - As erosion continues, the cenote may completly fill, becoming a dry, shallow basin supporting trees and other vegetation.

Experiment: Solving Dissolving

It takes a long time for a cenote to form

Rain water absorbs a gas (carbon dioxide) from the air and forms a weak acid. As this trickles down through tiny cracks in the limestone, the weak acid dissolves a mineral in the limestone called calcite. Over time the limestone is dissolved and a cenote is formed.


Try It:

Put three drops of water on the chalk. - What happens?

Put three drops of vinegar on the chalk. - What happens?

Chalk is made from limestone. Vinegar is a weak acid.

Try other liquids.- Did you find weak acids?

Number your rocks and print the logbook sheet.

Compare these rocks to the limestone. - Record your results.

"If vinegar does that to a rock, what does it do to my stomach?" - Dontay Caraway, SMM Youth Assistant.

The Great City


Puuc architecture is named for the hilly Puuc region of northwestern Yucatán where this style attained its ultimate refinment. Puuc buildings have rubble-filled concrete walls faced by a thin veneer of dressed stone. The exterior walls have plain lower facades supporting upper facades decorated with long-nosed Chac masks and geometric designs. Constructed of individually carved pieces fitted together to form a design, Puuc sculpture resembles a mosaic. In Chichén Itzá the older, purely Maya buildings are in the Puuc style.


(aboveleft) The Nunnery Annex (11).
(above middle) Chac mask adorning the corner of a building.
(above right) The Casa Colorada (9).

Toltec-Maya architecture combines Puuc construction methods with designs of Toltec or Central Mexican origin. Toltec elements at Chichén Itzá include stepped-pyramid temples, long colonnades, atlantean figures used as structural supports, low detached platforms faced with carved panels, and doorways formed by twin descending feathered serpent columns.


(above left) Overview of Great Ball Court (2) and Castillo (8).
(above middle) The Castillo (8).
(above right) Shrine at the edge of the Sacred Cenote (1).


(above left) View of Upper (3) and Lower (4) Temple of the Jaquar and the Great Ball Court (2).
(above middle) The Upper Temple of the Jaquars (3).
(above right) Serpent head on the Platform of the Tigers and Eagles(5).


(above left) Aerial view of Temple of the Warriors (7).
(above middle) Serpent head from column - Temple of the Warriors (7).
(above right)The Platform of the Tigers and Eagles (5).


(above left) Glyph from the Venus Platform (6).
(above middle) Graphic illustration of glyph from the Venus Platform (6).
(above right) Relief carvings of water lily motif from the Venus Platform (6).


(above left) The Caracol (10).
(above right) Interior view of a building showing a corbel arch.

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