Well at Bolonchen, Mexico.

Bolonchen was an important settlement of the Mayan culture, the ruins of the ancient city are located north of the present town; however, many of the ancient buildings were dismantled during the 16th to 19th centuries to reuse their stones in modern constructions. Even so, several buildings covered with hieroglyphs have survived. A short distance from Bolonchen are the Xtacunbilxunan Caves.

A cenote (Spanish; mayathan ts’ono’ot, in place names usually dzonot) is a karst cave with groundwater access, often doline-like due to collapse of the cave ceiling, as a large limestone hole filled with fresh water that can serve as a well. The term cenote comes from an expression in the Mayan language of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, ts’ono’ot, which means “holy spring”.

The Maya regarded these formations as entrances to the underworld (xibalba “place of fear”) and often used them as religious sacrificial sites. The enormous caves were considered the seat of gods of the underworld.

Many cenotes in Yucatan are connected to what is probably the largest contiguous underwater cave system on earth.

Bolonchen, Maya, culture, Cenote, Mexico, Well, Xtacunbilxunan, Caves, Campeche,
Well at Bolonchen, Mexico.




Bolonchen derives its name from two Maya words, Bolon, which signifies “nine,” and Chen, “wells” and it means “the nine wells.” From time immemorial, nine wells formed at this place the centre of a population, and these wells are now in the plaza of the village. Their origin is as obscure and unknown as that of the ruined cities which strew the land, and as little thought of.

The custody and supply of these wells form a principal part of the business of the village authorities, but with all their care the supply of water lasts but seven or eight months in the year. At the period of our visit the time was approaching when the wells would fail, and the inhabitants be driven to an extraordinary cavern, at half a league’s distance from the village.

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There was one grand difficulty in the way of our visiting the cavern, or well. Since the commencement of the rainy season it had not been used; and every year, before having recourse to it, there was a work of several days to be done in repairing the ladders.

Setting out, however, from the village of Bolonchen, by the Campeachy road, we turned off by a well beaten path, following which we fell into a winding lane, and, descending gradually, reached the foot of a rude, lofty, and abrupt opening, under a bold ledge of overhanging rock, seeming a magnificent entrance to a great temple for the worship of the God of nature.

We disencumbered ourselves of superfluous apparel, and following the Indians, each with a torch in his hand, entered a wild cavern, which, as we advanced, became darker. At the distance of sixty paces the descent was precipitous, and we went down by a ladder about twenty feet. Here aU light from the mouth of the cavern was lost, but we soon reached the brink of a great perpendicular descent, to the very bottom of which a strong body of light was thrown from a hole in the surface; a perpendicular depth, as we afterwards found by measurement, of two hundred and ten feet. As we stood on the brink of this precipice, under the shelving of an immense mass of rock, seeming darker from the stream of light thrown down the hole, gigantic stalactites and huge blocks of stones assumed all manner of fantastic shapes, and seemed like monstrous animals or deities of a subterraneous world.

From the brink on which w’e stood, an enormous ladder of the rudest possible construction led to the bottom of the hole. It was between seventy and eighty feet long, and about twelve feet wide, made of the rough trunks of saplings lashed together lengthwise, and supported all the way down by horizontal trunks braced against the face of the precipitous rock. The ladder was double, having two sets, or flights, of rounds, divided by a middle partition, and the whole fabric was lashed together by withes. It was very steep, seemed precarious and insecure, and confirmed the worst accounts we had heard of the descent into this extraordinary well.

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Our Indians began the descent, but the foremost had hardly got his head below the surface, before one of the rounds broke, and he only saved himself by clinging to another. The ladder having been made when the withes were green, these were now dry, cracked, and some of them broken. We attempted a descent with some little misgivings; but by keeping each hand and foot on a different round, with an occasional crash and slide, we all reached the foot of the ladder; that is, our own party, our Indians, and some three or four of our escort, the rest having disappeared.

Plate XX. represents the scene at the foot of this ladder. Looking up, the view of its broken sides, with the light thrown down from the orifice above, was the wildest that can be conceived. As yet we were only at the mouth of this well, called by the Indians, “La Senora escondida;” or, “the Lady hidden away” and it is derived from a fanciful Indian story, that a lady, stolen from her mother, was concealed by her lover in this cave. On one side of the cavern is an opening in the rock, entering by which, we soon came to an abrupt descent, down which was another long and trying ladder. It was laid against the broken face of the rock, not so steep as the first, but in a much more rickety condition : the rounds were loose, and the upper ones gave way on the first attempt to descend. The cave was damp, and the rock and the ladder were wet and slippery. It was evident that the labour of exploring this cave was to be greatly increased by the state of the ladders, and there but, even after all we had seen of caves, there was something so wild and grand in this might be some danger attending it that we could not bring ourselves to give up the attempt.

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Fortunately, the Cura had taken care to provide us with a rope, and fastening one end round a large stone, an Indian carried the other down to the foot of the ladder. We followed one at a time; holding the rope with one hand, and with the other grasping the side of the ladder; it was impossible to carry a torch, and we were obliged to feel our way in the dark, or with only such light as could reach us from the torches above and below. At the foot of this ladder was a large cavernous chamber, with irregular passages branching off in different directions to seven deposits or sources of water, from which the village of Bolonchen is supplied.

Source: Views of ancient monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan by Frederick Catherwood (1799-1854). London: Published by F. Catherwood, 1844.

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