Diving the cenotes of Mexico
A wonder to behold. A fairytale world hidden beneath Mexico’s peninsula Yucatan. These caves, caverns, tight passageways and underground rivers are truly one of nature’s many wonders. And no… they’re not just for cave divers.
Yep. You heard me right. Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of cenotes are not exclusively reserved for professionally trained cave divers. In fact, any diver or snorkeller can explore the sun speckled caverns of the cenotes, as I did during a trip to Mexico back in 2008.
Of course, without proper cave training, further penetration beyond the open, sun drenched caverns is strictly forbidden. Indeed, the various stop signs before the entry to any cave system are to be regarded as law. The golden rule for recreational visitors is that you have to be able to see the light of day at all times. In addition to this, various special equipment configurations are necessary – carrying at least two lamps at all times is mandatory, for example.
One of things about diving the cenotes, is that you will need to book your experience with one of the many diving centers located in the nearby town of Tulum. This ensures you have the right equipment and transport to the dive sites. Most importantly it guarantees that you always have an experienced dive guide at your side who knows his stuff.
But heed my warning: whoever comes here as a visitor with an expert guide, is usually so blow away by the beauty of the caverns, that they’re left wanting for more. Way more. Once it’s got a grip on you, the lure of the dark passages beyond is hard to shake off. Many divers have the urge to come back to this mystical place, over and over, and see more of what lies ‘beyond’.
And why not? With pleasant water temperatures and great visibility, the cenotes are perfect to take your training to the next level. There’s such a demand here, that many centers and diving schools around Tulum have specialized in cave diver training. But as with all diver courses, it’s always advisable to be careful in selecting a center to complete your trianing. Do your research. Ask a friend. Ask a cave diver. Use google. This is especially true in regards to cave diving. But once you’ve found a reputable, professional center or experienced cave instructor, there’s really nothing holding you back!
So… what is a ‘cenote’?
A cenote is a natural pit, or sinkhole, in the ground that results from the collapse of the limestone ceiling and exposes the groundwater below.
Many centoes are make up of stunning cave systems that can be found underground throughout Mexico. Connecting caverns, rivers and caves link up to form a huge underwater labyrinth. For archaeologists and speleologists in particular, these underground water systems are hugely important historical places to find archaeological data – the waters here once used to be considered sacred by the Mayas. Indeed, the term “cenote”, derives from an ancient Mayan word meaning “holy spring”.
How did the cenotes form?
It all started many millions of years ago when the Yucatan Peninsula was nothing more than a huge coral reef. During several ice ages, the sea level dropped, exposing and killing the coral reef. Over time, an approx. 1.5 kilometer thick limestone plateau formed. This area was flooded once again after the Ice Age. The process was repeated many times. Each time the coral reef lay dry, atmospheric carbon dioxide combined with rain to form carbonic acid. This penetrated the soft limestone and dissolved it. Since all water is well known to flow towards the sea, the limestone was continually dissolved piece by piece as the water moved towards the sea. As a result, an underground river system formed, over the many years, which flows through a huge tunnel system back into the ocean.
Where are the centoes?
Just south of Playa del Carmen one of the most famous and atmospheric cenotes is called Chac-Mool. Not too far away are also the cenotes known as Ponderosa and Taj-Mahal, both perfect for snorkeling as well as diving. Further south, just northeast of Tulum, lies the cave of Dos Ojos, whose spanish name means ‘two eyes’, and indication to the shape of the two entrances.
Gran Cenote is, for many, one of the most impressive caves in the region and boasts a more modern set up than some of the smaller cenotes. There are showers, lockers and a large area with well kept lawns. Although the name ‘Gran Cenote’ suggests it is one big cenote, it actually consists of many small, interconnected cenotes meandering through the thick jungle, each wonderfully connected by wooden walkways.
Temple of Doom is really nothing more than a small collapsed sink hole, and the water is relatively green and murky… at least it was during my dives there… but it gives a very dramatic backdrop for photographers around noon with the sun’s rays shooting wonderful, photogenic streaks of light into the clear water below.
Finally, if you want to see a lot of fish, you should not miss the Cenote Actun-Ha. And Cenote Cristal in Tulum is actually quite small compared to most cenotes, but lives up to its name in terms of visibility. The water here is so clear, it’s almost invisible.