Diving – Cenotes
Midway through our trip we got the opportunity to schedule a Cenote dive trip.
What are Cenotes?
A cenote is a natural pit, or sinkhole, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath. Especially associated with the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, and probably the most extensive cave system in the world.
Cenotes were the main source of fresh water for Mayans and had a great significance in their religious beliefs. The Cenotes were associated with the Maya Underworld due to being underground. They were also connected to the goddess Ixchel and the moon.
Diving the Mexican Cenotes
The day started SUPER early–it ends up being a couple hour drive from the dive shop to get down south to Tulum–but thankfully the shop Solo Buceo pretty much had everything sorted out for us. We’d already left our gear there, so all we needed to grab were some wetsuits (you’ll want one; the water is about 75 degrees year round. Not bad to start, but you’ll get chilly by the end of it, especially with no sunlight). They loaded all our gear, had a van ready, and packed us all lunch. Pretty solid all-inclusive day trip!
After the nap-inducing drive (it’s great jungle scenery, but it was way too early and just long enough to make me sleepy) we arrived!
The dives on the itinerary were The Pit and Dos Ojos. Both pretty popular among dive sites for cenotes, so I was very pleased to see them as our targets that day.
Cenote El Pit
El Pit is one of the deepest cenotes in the area – it’s the deepest part of the huge Sistema Dos Ojos, And that’s the third largest underwater cave system in the world, in fact! Shaped something like a giant hourglass, the first cave drops to around 120 feet in depth (we hit just over a 100 feet). The most notable thing about this particular cenote though is the cloud layer in it.
Around 40-60 feet down in the first chamber is the halocline, the line where the fresh water and salt water meet. Here your view gets very interesting. You see a shimmering and it looks as if the world around you become blurry until you pass fully through it.
Below the halocline, around 100 feet or so, is a cloud. It looks as if a fog has settled. It’s actually a cloud of hydrogen sulphur. This makes for a murky, eerie sight as you pass through it, even more so by the floating debris like branches and fallen rocks which can loom out of the gloom. A small distance after the cloud is the bottom of the first cavern.
Cenote Dos Ojos
Part of the largest underwater cave network in the world this sinkhole is called Dos Ojos (two eyes in Spanish) because it’s actually two different cenotes that are connected by a 400 meter long underwater passageway. It’s definitely a top notch cenote to dive!
There are 2 primary dive lines set up for this centoe, the Barbie Line (you’ll see why) and the Batcave. Both make for a gorgeous dive. Obviously if you’re cave certified there are a ton of locations in the cave you can lay line and explore, but there are only 2 pre-set dive paths for you, and you are required to have a special cave and cenote-certified guide with you.
You can pretty easily make a 40-60 min dive out of either line, assuming you’re going leisurely along. But bear in mind this is a super popular cenote to dive, and so the earlier you start your dive the better. We got there early enough, but it certainly was VERY crowded when we left. Along the dive groups hopped around each other and it can become confusing in the water if you’re not paying attention to your dive group.
You are effectively in a cave or cavern environment at every point while diving, so make sure you are following ALL safety guidelines and listening to your guide. You can not immediately ascend is most cases, so air monitoring is critical. And it should go without saying, but never stray from the line!
If you don’t know, the whale shark is a slow-moving, filter-feeding carpet shark and the largest known fish species out there. The largest confirmed individual had a length of 18.8 m (about 62 ft). They may be called “sharks” but they’re not like any shark you’ve seen. Their lives are spent travelling to filter feed, and they don’t give a crap about you. I’m not actually really sure that they can see that well–they’ve got pretty tiny eyes, to be fair. Most divers have travel to their migration areas to have a chance to see them, and off the coast of Cancun is an area where they’re generally found!
One of the last days of our trip was slated for Whale Shark snorkeling. We’d been trying all week to get that in, but the weather had not be cooperating by any means. There were a few days when the ports were fully closed due to the storms and wind in the area. While not unexpected, it did suck. That time of year (August/September) is Caribbean hurricane/storm season, but that is also why the city probably wasn’t quite as crazy crowded as it could have been.
When we finally got put on a boat going out towards the end of the trip, we were stoked to see it confirmed that we’d be out with some amazing whale sharks. And it’s honestly fine that it was towards the end, we needed to off-gas anyway.
The boat ride out is a long one, be prepared to chill out for an hour or so to even get there, plus a bit of running around to find them. But once you’re on them you’re good to go! As with anything, the earlier you go the better–once one boat finds them the rest tend to follow and it’ll become crowded by the end of the morning/afternoon. Thankfully we left pretty much at dawn, so we didn’t have too much crowding to deal with until towards the afternoon.
They are really such majestic animals!
Once we were on them, we got to hop in the water! Seeing them from a distance is beautiful, but being in the water with them? So much more! I’ve seen whale sharks in the wild once previously, but seeing them again was just as magical as the first time. They are curious, inquisitive, and gorgeous. These one we found that day were likely juveniles, and only around 10-15 ft or so. We were also graced with a couple mantas doing a drive by too! Pelagic life encounters are off the charts in this off shore area. Sadly I wasn’t able to get photos of them, as they didn’t hang around long.
Weather in the Caribbean is about what you’d expect–hot and tropical, and subject to temper tantrums. It is pretty similar to Florida (which should make sense) and so during August-October or so things tend to get pretty windy and hurricanes can roll through.
Take the timing into consideration. You can get some good rates for “off season” diving and travelling, but bear in mind that weather can be temperamental. We went late August and got pretty lucky. Blown out a few days but all in all pretty decent weather.
The last stop on our exploration at the end of the week was the island Isla Mujeres, which is a small island off the coast from Cancún. It’s a vacation destination known for beaches such as northern Playa Norte (pretty but probably overrated), resort hotels and for snorkeling and scuba diving on the surrounding coral reefs. At Punta Sur, the southern tip, there’s a lighthouse, the remains of a Mayan temple and a sanctuary for sea turtles.
We hit the majority of those top-recommended places, and while a few were kind of overrated they are still worth visiting.
Getting to Isla Mujeres
The easiest way to get over there is a general ferry; it’ll run you about $20 or so, depending where you buy the ticket. Pretty much any little activity stand you walk by can get you set up, makes it easy. Once you board, after roughly a 20 ride, you’re there and the fun can being!
It may be different based on which ferry you take, but when we were on they offered a discount on renting a golf cart to drive around the island if we booked it right there on the ferry. And honestly that’s your best bet. The line to get set up for the golf carts can be crazy, but you’ll save a few bucks by doing it on the ferry. What better way to tour the island is there?!
Exploring Isla Mujeres
There’s a few different points of interest to take a look at. At the Southern Tip of the island is a small lighthouse and ruins from ancient Mayan temples that are pretty neat to take a look at. During the time we were there they were renovating and it was free to enter, but that will likely change. The view from there is spectacular, out into the open ocean.
Isla Mujeres Turtle Sanctuary
On the island is also a small turtle conservancy that is worth taking a look at. It cost us about $5 per person to enter, and they had a ton of turtles being cared for. Green, loggerhead, hawksbills–babies and adults alike. There were no leatherbacks at the moment (which are pretty rare anyway).
They also had some relocated nests there too! Staked and fenced in to prevent anyone disturbing them.
Look at all the baby turtles ❤
I would definitely recommend visiting the turtle sanctuary. It’s not large, but it’s certainly an organization worth supporting by the small entry fee. There’s always souvenirs if you’re into that as well, but unless you buy them from the actual organization, they’re just street vendors and the proceeds don’t support the sanctuary.
Playa Norte Beach
The last stop was a bit of beach time at Playa Norte. Famous for the soft white sand with fantastic views. While I do say it’s worth dropping by if you have the time, I personally found it to be overrated. The beach, while beautiful, was CROWDED. Tiki bars and restaurants abound, so it’s a plenty nice place to chill out if you’re in the mood for some beach time. Just don’t expect a private beach. Many boats from small cruisers to large yachts were anchored near the beach as well, so you’re dealing with more than just foot traffic on the beach. All in all worth the visit, but I wouldn’t call it a priority must-see.
The Trip Home
Our last night there was spent with (way too much) drinking at Fat Tuesday. Super touristy, I know, but it’s always been a fun place for us, and we try to stop by them whenever we’re at a place that has one. I wish I had photos of our good time, but honestly there was way too much liquor and none of us have a great recollection of that night. Which means it was a pretty good one. In retrospect though, getting blitzed the night before we left may have made for a pretty crappy flight back. Though there was some tasty hangover food to eat in the airport!
After an action-packed 10 days or so, it was finally time to head home. Being able to visit Mexico (even with as touristy as Cancun is) lent a new light to a country that is a bit maligned in the media. There’s a charm to it, and a lot of fun culture and activities to delve into.