When the meteorite that killed the dinosaurs hit the earth it struck in the Yucatán peninsula. In addition to massive destruction it fractured the limestone of the Yucatán and paved the way for a massive system of underwater rivers. Today, Mexico is home to the largest underground river system in the world. As a result, the Yucatán has virtually no overground rivers or lakes - since they all flow underground.
Every once and a while these river systems are visible from the ground, usually where the ceiling of the rivers has collapsed and created a hole or cave in the ground. These are called Cenotes and to the Mayans they were sacred connections to their gods and a lifeline of freshwater.
Today, the Cenotes and the massive cave system that connects them are one of the top dive sites in the world, particularly for cave divers. As a certified scuba diver, you can join a small group and dive through them.
Getting to the Cenotes
If you’ve been following along with the dive series from our trip to Mexico, you’ll know that we worked a lot with Pro Dive International. Keeping with the theme, they helped organize this trip.
The van picked me up at 8:10am and we began our pickup of other guests. This was probably the only logistical issue I ran into when working with ProDivers as the pickup route took us to four resorts from Playacar all the way down to Tulum and then back up to the Cenotés. All in, I was in the car for about 2.5 hours before we got to the first dive site, but I have since been told this is very atypical.
The first cenote we went to was called the Garden of Eden.
Diving the Garden of Eden Cenote
As soon as we arrived you could tell the Garden of Eden cenote was popular for locals and divers alike. The formation of the cenote is such that a large cliff rises above the deepest part of the cenote (and the entrance to the caves). This makes it a great spot for cliff jumping, which many of the other non-diving visitors were taking advantage of.
Our dive briefing was longer than usual but that’s because we had a lot to cover. Here are a few things that make cenote diving different:
- It’s dark in the cenote, which means traditional hand signals that divers rely on to communicate don’t work (you can’t see their hands). We learned how to use our lights to communicate with each other.
- The caves aren’t that large and we may pass other groups. To make sure everyone is together and safe, we swim in single file with the dive instructor first followed by the least experience diver.
- There are a maximum of four divers + a certified cave diver instructor allowed in a group.
- The dive guide took 2 tanks and all the equipment for cave diving. He had enough air to assist in an emergency.
- If anyone wasn’t comfortable or was having issues with buoyancy the dive master would cancel the entire dive and everyone would return to the surface.
- You had to notify the diver master when you hit 2/3 of your air because cenote diving doesn’t come with the option to just ascend when you’re low on air, you have to swim back to the entrance. To ensure everyone has more than enough air the group turns around when the first person reaches 2/3s a tank.
- They do not call it cave diving when referring to a cenote. You can only cave dive if you are certified in cave diving. Cenote diving is different in that you are always within 50 meters (roughly) of a cenote opening. In theory, you can also see day light at all times, though it didn’t always feel that way. I would describe it as cave diving though, so I will refer to it as such for the rest of the post even though it is not technically cave diving.
- The cenote water is ‘cold’ and the dives are long, so everyone was given a nice 5m wetsuit for the day.
You can see why the briefing took longer than a normal ocean dive. Once completed though, we were ready to get in the water.
We put our gear on and walked down the (slippery) steps to the entrance. We did a shore entry and completed a mandatory equipment check (weight check, etc) before the dive officially started. As we descended, we swam toward the cave entrance as cliff jumpers plunged into the water above us (sounding like small explosions going off above us).
We swam down and entered the cave (cenote) where we saw huge rock formations and quickly entered a massively large underwater “room”. Continuing to swim through we saw light rays pouring in from another cenote ahead of us. It was probably one of the most beautiful natural phenomenon I’ve seen underwater.
The dive was amazing overall. I think pictures tell the best story, so I’ll just include some photos in the gallery above.
Lunch & Surface Interval
After the first dive we had a light lunch. Some of the other guests let the delay in transportation ruin their day and demanded to go back after the first dive. That left a smaller group but also meant we were now lacking a shuttle.
In what felt like a very authentic experience, one of the dive guides offered up his pick up truck as our transportation. In we piled with the gear of 8+ people, and at least 16 scuba tanks. This being Mexico, two of the guides road on top of the gear in the bed of the pickup. 25 minutes of bumpy dirt roads and 15 minutes of highway driving later and we arrived at our second cenote: Tajmaha, or still water in Maya.
I was so impressed with the guys from ProDive. They handled some really unfortunate people with grace and ensured we still had a great experience.
Diving Tajma Ha Cenote
Those that left after the first cenote missed out. We learned later that the first cenote is a bit of a test to make sure everyone can do it in a cenote where limited damage can be done. Once the guides are comfortable with everyone’s ability, they take you to a more advanced (and more interesting) dive site.
For us, that was Tajma Ha. Unlike the Garden of Eden this was a diving only cenote which meant it was far clearer water and much quieter. Most of our gear was already setup and so we quickly headed down.
This dive was a circle (as opposed to a there and back) and lasted about 40 minutes. It was stunning. We saw massive stalagmites that have been forming for thousands of years, fossils of ancient corals and shells, and even crystals that have formed on the bottom of the cenote. We saw caves that branch off the cenote and quickly fade into total blackness, extending for over 10 kilometers underground.
The dive went smoothly, though it was hard to take pictures with a little GoPro in such a dark environment. You can see some of the best ones above.
After the dive there were two (!!) vans ready to take us to our various hotels in much quicker fashion. Even with the slow start, we ended ahead of schedule and were back at the resort with more than enough time for dinner.
Conclusion: If you can, do a cenote dive.
Diving in the Cenotes were such a unique experience. I’ve never done anything like it before. The team at ProDive ensured everyone felt safe and comfortable throughout the process.
I would not suggest it for novice divers though. It demands great buoyancy control, comfort using a light, and good air management. If you’re comfortable with those things, you will not regret taking a day to dive them.