Sargassum chases visitors off the beaches and into the cenotes

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Sargassum-filled beach in Playa del Carmen in 2021. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Historic levels of sargassum along the Mexican Caribbean coast during Holy Week have triggered an  “unusual abundance” of tourists at Yucatán’s famous cenotes.

“There were more people here in the area, throughout the cenote park, and in all other places,” a Maya priest named Freddy Orlando Coto told the EFE news agency. Orlando Coto, a shaman who performs purification ceremonies at Dos Ojos park, attributed the influx of visitors to the influx of stinky algae on the beach.

Scientists warned in February that the arrival of sargassum, a variety of seaweed, came three months early and is expected to be the most acute of any previous season.

“The people (tourists) did not feel comfortable on the beach because sargassum smells bad,” Orlando Coto said.

But the cenote waters, contained in underground sinkholes, remain pure. 

“It is medicine, and it is a great element that has sustained our lives,” he said.

For Noé Rodríguez, president of the Association of Hotels and Hostels of Valladolid, Yucatán, the cenotes are a must-see for visitors at the archaeological zone of Chichen Itzá. Once, cenotes were considered a minor tourist stopover, but interest has increased, he said.

“In each of the cenotes, there are different concepts, coupled with amenities such as swimming, exquisite and authentic cuisine, bicycle paths, and zip lines,” explained Noé Rodríguez.

For the shaman Orlando Coto, the presence of more tourists is an opportunity to talk about the Maya culture.

“They have a good time because when they come and enter a cenote, it is like entering the underworld. You feel connected to that place, with the water, with the earth, and you feel that it is like a baptism that you give yourself in your body and that feeds your life,” he said. “It is a water that purifies even our blood, for that reason, the cenotes are so sacred.”

Although there is no official census, Quintana Roo tourism authorities estimate that there are more than 2,500 cenotes in the state and around 7,000 in neighboring Yucatán state, but few have tourist facilities or are open to the public.

Seaweed bloom on the move

The mass of sargassum floating toward Florida’s Gulf Coast will likely be the largest ever recorded, according to the University of South Florida. 

The sargassum bloom is expected to grow, peaking in June or July. The east coast of Florida, the ocean side of the Florida Keys and the Caribbean region are projected to see major impacts in the next few months.

Once the seaweed washes up, it decomposes and smells like rotten eggs. The hydrogen sulfide released by rotting sargassum can lead to eye, nose and throat irritation and could be worse for those with asthma.

People who visit beaches with sargassum should avoid touching or swimming near the seaweed because it could be host to organisms such as jellyfish larvae.

Sources: EFE, CBS News

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