Cenote diving in Mexico is one of the best scuba experiences you can have anywhere in the world. You might not see as much life, but the underground formations are astounding – made all the better by 100% visibility.
CENOTE DIVING IN MEXICO
Cenotes are an incredible underground system of waterways, caverns and pits, many of which are concentrated on the Yucatan Peninsula between Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Let’s take a closer look.
WHAT IS A CENOTE?
Much of the Mayan Riviera is comprised of limestone. When sections of the bedrock collapse naturally, they form sinkholes that expose the groundwater beneath.
Luckily for tourists, these sinkholes provide the perfect entrance and exit points for exploring the caverns, although the extent to which you can do this depends on your qualifications and experience.
Many of the cenotes are open to the public, enabling snorkellers to cool off in the shaded fresh water while catching a glimpse of what lies deeper within the caves.
Some, like the famous Gran Cenote, rent snorkel equipment and life vests.
This way, you can explore bat-filled caves and gain some insight into the beauty of the Yucatan’s alien landscape. It’s a fantastic experience in its own right, but to fully appreciate the cenotes, you need to get tanked up – and not in the way they do it in the bars of Playa del Carmen.
THE SCUBA EXPERIENCE
Some of the top dive sites for cenote diving in Mexico are listed on the Dos Ojos Scuba website, which includes information on the unique attributes that make each cenote worth visiting. Which one you choose will also be determined to some extent by your dive certification.
Dos Ojos is a good choice for Open Water divers and those with fewer logged dives.
Deeper dives, like The Pit, and more technically challenging dives, like the Taj Mahal, require Advanced certification, experience of diving to 30 to 40 m and good buoyancy control.
As a recreational diver, you’re only permitted to go on ‘cavern dives’, but dive professionals with a specialist certification in ‘cave diving’ are able to travel even deeper into the dark passageways.
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CAVE AND CAVERN DIVING
The official definition of a cavern dive is that you cannot swim further than 60 m (or 200 feet) from a cave opening. This means that there will always be some natural light still visible.
In contrast, cave divers often have no natural light to guide them and may travel several kilometres from the cave opening using a technique called sidemount diving. Cylinders are mounted alongside the diver, as opposed to on their back, facilitating movement through tight spaces and enabling the diver to change tanks more easily. Those who explore and map the topography of previously undiscovered passageways have been known to take six tanks of air with them and to stay down for several hours. They use a spool of penetration line so that they can find their way back.
WHAT YOU CAN SEE
Given that they’re all interconnected by underground rivers, it’s surprising how much the dive sites differ from each other. One common theme is that they will not fail to mesmerise and astound you – in part because of their natural beauty, but also thanks to the fascinating features that make them so alien and unique an environment.
The Taj Mahal is one of the best locations for cenote diving Mexico. It has sections of rock that glow when you shine your torch on them. Shards of light enter the caves from above and are refracted by the water’s surface to create jagged laser-like beams. You weave through a web of tunnels and vast chambers, passing fossils and impressive limestone formations and, just as you begin to wonder if you’ve passed that 60 m cutoff point, you emerge into another cenote even more remote and beautiful than the last.
At 110 m, The Pit is the deepest sinkhole in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. A direct descent to 30 m brings you to this dive site’s best feature – a thick layer of hydrogen sulphide with protruding branches. This gives the unsettling impression you’re floating above a forest on a dark, foggy night.
Below this cloud are some fascinating finds, including animal skeletons, a human skull, what appears to be an old fireplace, and marks on the wall showing the variation in water levels during the ice ages.
Ascending with laps of the sinkhole’s circumference, you then visit small caves with intriguing rock formations and mirror-like reflective surfaces caused by trapped air on the ceiling.
Some of the cenotes have haloclines, where the fresh water meets salt water. It creates an effect similar to oil mixing with vinegar, which affects your buoyancy and makes everything look blurry.
Also, if you’re lucky, you might see a few different species of fish, as well as bats, possibly a turtle or two, and maybe even a crocodile!
SOME HANDY TIPS
Wherever you go cenote diving in Mexico, your guide will give you a full briefing before you enter the water. However, there are a few key points to be aware of and to remember…
1. Whether you dive deep or enter a cavern, the amount of natural light might become so limited that you need to use a flashlight for extended periods of time. This is a little unsettling if you’re not used to it, but you’re much more likely to experience awe and excitement than fear. In fact, if anything, it’s oddly relaxing.
2. When signalling to your guide or buddy, you will need to hold the flashlight up to your hands. To make things easier, drawing a large circle with your torch means the same as the OK sign, and waving the torch frantically about is a signal for distress.
3. When moving close to the bottom of a passageway, try not to disturb the ground sediment, or divers behind you will see nothing. It helps to use the frog kick technique and to move slowly and carefully.
4. If you go deep, keep a close eye on your no decompression limits and, if you’re moving through a lot of tunnels, watch your air consumption and let your guide know if you’re one-third through. This signals that it’s time to turn around and head back.
5. Have fun! You’ll never have as good an opportunity to linger in a light beam pretending Scotty’s beaming you up to the Starship Enterprise.
PROTECTING THE CENOTES
Tragically, these cave systems are being polluted and destroyed by large-scale development of hotels and tourist attractions along the Riviera Maya. It’s vital that measures are put in place to save the cenotes. Sharing this message is an important step in encouraging the Mexican Federal Government and organisations such as UNESCO to take action.
My experience of cenote diving in Mexico was booked through Dive Cenotes Mexico, which has its main office in Playa del Carmen. Alternatively, you could stop by the Dos Ojos Scuba office (the site specialised dive facility that works with Dive Cenotes Mexico), which is located on the road between Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Plenty of collectivos and taxis run regularly along this main highway.
For more information on cenote diving in Mexico, check out the online magazine DIVE.in, which has features on top destinations and hints and tips to help improve your diving experience. Cenote diving in Mexico also appears in my list of the best dive sites in Central America and Mexico!