Rainwater drains rapidly into porous limestone rock; as the limestone dissolves, caverns and caves are created. In those places where the caverns collapse, deep, circular chasms are formed, creating natural freshwater wells called cenotes. Cenotes were the only source of water for the great cities of Mayan civilization. The artist Frederick Catherwood, in his travels through the Yucatán with John Lloyd Stevens in 1839, depicted Indians descending eighty-foot ladders to draw water from such wells. More ominous were the sacred cenotes, or sacrificial wells, first chronicled by the inquisitional Franciscan priest Diego de Landa in his sixteenth-century treatise on Mayan life. The Cenote Sagrado de los Sacrificios at Chichén Itzá is one of the best known and documented of these exclusively ceremonial wells. Believing that Chac, God of Rain, and other demanding if lesser deities resided in the depths, the Maya dispatched human victims to please them. Well into the sixteenth century, pilgrims from the valley of Mexico as well as Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia came to the sacred city and cast gold, silver, copper, and all manner of prized objects into the moody, murky waters. The largest single collection of artifacts ever obtained from a Mayan site was excavated from this cenote. As for human remains, the bones of fewer than fifty individuals have been found, most of them determined to be those of men and children.

Joy Williams