Fulfilling a dream: diving the cenotes of Tulum

Seeing divers in the cenotes–beautiful sinkholes only found on the Yucatan–around Tulum was what first lit my interest in diving. I extended my trip in Central America for all sorts of reasons, but changed my return departure point to force myself to come back to Tulum as a diver. An early inspiration, I was not going to leave the cenotes unexplored now that I had the skills and opportunity to experience them more fully. As my trip turned me back towards the cenotes, I grew so excited!! Spoiler alert: they were each gorgeously unique and turned out to be more freakin’ awesome as I hoped.

Sun-dappled and stoked after my first cenote dive.

Many people are concerned about diving in an overhang environment, and rightly so as it limits direct access to the surface. This does increase the risk factor if something goes wrong because you cannot simply go up for air. However, cenotes are not as dangerous as many might think. There are two categories of overhang that often get confused: cave and cavern.

Cavern: There is access to open water (meaning: air) within 60 seconds from overhang areas and you can see sunlight. (Interesting fact, because a cavern requires a daylight zone there are technically no caverns at night; all caverns become caves when the sun goes down.) Recreational divers can enter when led by a trained cave diver with extra gear and following more strict safety protocols.

Cave: There is no sunlight or access to air within the cave. You must go in and go out. Only cave divers with special equipment and significant training should enter.

Cenotes can either be caves or caverns (or have areas of both), but the ones recreational divers go into regularly are caverns. The amount of overhang varies greatly, with some being very cave-like with extensive overhang and others completely open water. Regardless, when diving caverns you follow some different safety rules. Instead of using half your air out and half back, you use a rule of thirds: one third out, one third back, and one third emergency reserve. ALWAYS. Your guide must be a full cave diver and enter the cenote with cave diving equipment including most notably double air tanks. When diving a cavern/cave you use a line that marks a safe path and tracks how to return to open water. You dive with a light, pay attention to signs underwater, and use good buoyancy to not run into walls/ceiling or kick up sediment on the bottom (which can ruin visibility and cause big problems).

What to do and not do when diving a cavern, posted outside of Dos Ojos.

Dive shops in Tulum do exist but there is also a strong network of independent guides who either give private cenote tours or work for the dive shops on a contract basis. Differently than ocean diving, there are no boats or boathouses, so all you need is a guide with know-how, transportation, and access to gear (easily available in Tulum; all the guides have a gear-supplier and access to the tank fill station). My travel companion Richard had a personal recommendation for an independent diving guide, Julia Gugelmeier. Julia was kind enough to meet with us upon my arrival to explain how everything worked and answer all of my cenote questions over beers. Julia was already booked to dive with another group, so set us up to go with her associate Sandy Moskovitz (you can book diving with Sandy via email: samoskovitz@gmail.com).

After meeting with Julia, we went out and had an intense night… I most definitely should have gotten more sleep than I did, but stumbled out of bed diligently at 7am, grabbed a ham and cheese croissant and a banana-grapefruit liquado to perk myself up, then waited by the curb to be picked up. The powerful Tulum taxi mafia dislikes guides picking guests up at their hotels and driving to cenotes because they want the business for themselves; the common practice is to meet for pickup in an alternate location. (Yeah, it’s serious.) She arrived promptly on time and we quickly found we had lots to talk about. Sandy had been an instructor at Cross Creek in Utila, the sister dive shop to UDC! She spent a good amount of time in Utila and knew many people in common with Rich and me. It was a ton of fun to talk shop about Utila life. I had no idea my spending so much time there would enter me into an inner community of divers who also know and love-hate that mad crazy place!

We made a few stops before heading out of town to gather everything we needed. First, we went to the house of her equipment guy (why pay expensive rent for a retail/storage space if you can keep your inventory at your house?) and suited up in some brand new gear; very pleased with the quality. We used 5mm wetsuits as the cenote water at 25C is a little cooler than the Caribbean. Then over to the fill station to pick up our tanks. Rich couldn’t help his divemaster instincts and carried tanks out to the car. It all sounds a little piecemeal, but when you see the system that is in place it all starts to make sense and you realize it is legit and just a non-traditional way of providing high quality diving service. Then off to our first cenote dive: the Pit.

I am a documentation fanatic, and it is a best diving practice to keep a log of all your dives. I write in mine religiously, largely as a diving journal instead of statistics and boxes checked for each dive. Below I have included the notes from my dive log for the cenote dives, in italics.

THE PIT

We started with two classic cenotes. The Pit is a great first cenote dive as it is beautiful, yet fairly straight forward: a deep open water dive with glimpses into caves below. On a typically beautiful Yucatan day the sun pierces the water for some dramatically beautiful light effects.

Entry fee: MEX$300/$25USD for Pit and Dos Ojos combo ticket
Max depth: 37.7 m
Time in: 9:53 am
Dive time: 38 min

My first Tulum cenote dive! All open water, we descended to a deep dive in the bottom of the pit, passed through a shimmery helocline as we went from fresh to salt water, saw a layer of trees decomposing, Watched rays on sunshine pierce the cenote and illuminate a rock formation in the center. Absolutely beautiful. Love how 100% clear cenote water is! First time in fresh water. So nice to not have my eyes sting when water gets in my mask! The dive gear is shiny chrome because there’s no salt to corrode.

Looking down into the pit as another dive group gets ready to go down, me snapping a photo from the deck below. Photo courtesy of Richard McKenna.
Me looking up out of the pit, just catching Rich back!
Cenote water is so magical.
Rays of sun coming into the Pit. Image from http://www.tauchernest.de
Image from http://www.gocaverndiving.com
Photo credit: Paul Nicklen via http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/

DOS OJOS

This was where I was first inspired to dive, and now I was back to explore it fully. Fantastic! There are two routes in Dos Ojos–the Bat Cave line and the Barbie line. We went Bat Cave. Dos Ojos feels more like a cave than the Pit, swimming through passageways in a loop. I was in awe of the experience, absolutely loved being inside the beautiful cavern. I’m now one of those people I wanted to be!

Entry fee: MEX$300/$25USD for Pit and Dos Ojos combo ticket
Max depth: 10.5 m (note: super shallow in some places. In snorkel areas, my frog kick brought my fins out of the water.)
Time in: 11:55 am
Dive time: 53 min

I adored this dive. Brought me back full circle to why I became a diver. The cavern is immense, and the formations above and the crystalline floor below remind me of Crystal Cave in San Ignacio, Belize, but flying through instead of climbing. I did have moments of “holy crap, I’m in an overhang environment!” but all felt very under control and safe. Inspiring experience and breathtaking dive. Diver air bubbles trapped in the ceiling, glistening and moving like mercury. Tasty sandwiches for lunch!

Snorkel area of the first eye. Photo courtesy of Richard McKenna.
Divers heading into the cavern. Notice some of the trapped air bubble in the ceiling in the upper left corner. Image from http://www.expertvagabond.com
Strolling the grounds after, basking. Photo courtesy of Richard McKenna.
I hope Sandy will laugh I included this… every little touch helps make for a good day of diving. And Julie’s sandwiches were great–so unusual to have bread with seeds, spinach, good cheese and meats, and roast vegetables in Central America! Actually quite an unexpected treat for this foodie.

ANGELITA

Day two: visual obscura day! After our first day of classic cenote beauty, our second day focused on weird phenomena. Up first, Angelita. Unusually not connected to a large underground cenote system, Angelita does not have an inflow of current so as plant matter decomposes a murky hydrogen sulfide cloud has formed. It’s an unusually spooky and organic cenote. So freakin’ weird! Definitely a favorite.

Entry fee: MEX$200/$16.66USD
Max depth: 37.4 m
Time in: 9:20 am
Dive time: 37 min

I love each cenote more than the last! Angelita is a deep near perfectly round hole, not connected to other systems so there is no current and decomposing plant life creates a murky hydrogen sulfide cloud midway down. We descended through the cloud, magical mystical enveloping. I felt a fine grittiness in my wetsuit that I loved. It smelled lightly of rotten eggs. The visibility cleared immediately under the cloud and a spiny tree rose from the depth like something out of a spooky story. BREATHTAKING descent–made me squeal with delight! Under the cloud it was beautifully odd. My heard beat rapidly, I was so entranced. Had to try to calm my breathing, but still chewed through a lot of air. Wound around the perimeter and up, then moved through the cloud up — a smokey pea green. I reached for Rich’s hand as we went up, he and Sandy becoming figments. Coming up, I couldn’t see the bottom half of my body, then emerged from the liquid smoke, my fins stirring it slightly and beautifully as I delicately kicked up. Came up feeling elated. Wondered if it was possible to get high from the cloud, or maybe just narked from going deep. 

Gearing up. Nice to prep on land instead of a rocky boat.
Rockin’ the Flor de Caña swag. Oh yeah…
Angelita, with new swimming guide ropes.
What? This is weird… Image credit: Anatoly Beloschin via http://thewatchers.adorraeli.com/
Approaching the cloud. Image from http://samwhiteside.blogspot.com/
Coming up through the cloud. Image from http://samwhiteside.blogspot.com/
Debrief. I should probably get in on that…
What an awesome dive!

CALAVERA

Another weird one, Calavera is connected to Gran Cenote and has the feature of a very distinct helocline–border between fresh and salt water–that the line passes through over and over, so you get to experience the phenomena thoroughly. Super cool to see the difference between the two! I totally dug it.

Entry fee: MEX$150/$12.50USD for diving (you can get in for around MEX$40 for just swimming)
Max depth: 16.1 m
Time in: 11:37 am
Dive time: 41 min

Surprisingly awesome dive. I’d been here swimming twice before but had no idea of the super cool helocline phenomenon underneath  The line zigged and zagged up and down alternating between fresh and salt water, often passing through the helocline, which made everything blurry like an oil mirror or gazing through a transparent oil slick. We went through many times–so cool! Buoyancy changed too, became more positively buoyant as I sunk into the salt water. The light from the holes above shone green and we saw snorkelers thrashing above at the surface. If they only knew what they were missing! Love the mystery of vision being obscured. Mystical and special. Found treasure: a dive light at the ladder. Rich’s light broke AGAIN. It happens to him on every dive!

The jumping off point.
Looking up to the swim area. Image from http://samwhiteside.blogspot.com/
More bouldery that other cenotes. Image from http://samwhiteside.blogspot.com/
Following the line, up and down… Image from http://www.moskitoplayadelcarmen.com/
Image from http://www.gocaverndiving.com/

DREAMGATE

I couldn’t get enough so opted for a third day of diving, just Sandy and me. Dreamgate was only opened to the public a couple of years ago, so isn’t as popular or as busy as the other cenotes I dove. We were the only people there. Another factor is that the cavern is highly decorated with fragile stalactites so is not appropriate for divers who cannot control their buoyancy. Sandy said there is a gentleman’s agreement between all the divemasters to only bring people who can handle it here and that she never brings anyone here on their first day, only after she has evaluated their skills.

Entry fee: MEX$200/$16.66USD
Max depth: 6.9 m
Time in: 9:00 am
Dive time: 43 min

So DARK! Felt like a cave dive, not a cavern (though does have two dark air pockets inside). Fine stalactite formations, beautiful, especially the ceiling. Followed by a school of small fish the whole time–attracted to the light. Crawdads. Was a buoyancy obstacle course–so much fun! Felt awesome about my buoyancy; some of my best work. So much fun being hyper aware of buoyancy. When we got out, I loved it but felt very eerie because of the darkness. The cave feel make me feel still and struck inside. I decided instead of a second Dreamgate dive (our plan), I wanted to end on a cheerful sunny note so switched to Gran Cenote instead. I’m drunk with power!

The fifteen-minute long suspension-killing drive to the cenote entrance.
Pulley system to lower tanks and other gear to the water surface.
Shallow entrance. Image from http://www.xibalbahotel.com/
Ceiling detail. Image from http://www.xibalbahotel.com/
Passing through Dreamgate. Image from http://www.xibalbahotel.com/
Beautiful, lovely Dreamgate.

GRAN CENOTE

My cenote journey ended with the classic and beautiful Gran Cenote, the one most tourists go to if they only have one day. It was pretty and happy, and a perfect spot to eat lunch, just the note to end my cenote adventure on.

Entry fee: MEX$150/$12.50USD
Max depth: 10.0 m
Time in: 11:15 am
Dive time: 45 min

The sunlight and beautiful ambiance of Gran Cenote is so happy and cheery. Under the water it really is grand — the rock formations are a brilliant white and more majestically large. Passed through a keyhole archway swimthrough that was a picture perfect view of the open water spots. I dug watching the snorkelers’ feet kicking around too. 🙂 Positive energy of people having fun. We had lunch together in the cenote, fun chatting with Sandy , getting the scoop on being an independent guide in Tulum.
Classically beautiful Gran Cenote.
Sunny and lovely.
Image from http://www.gocaverndiving.com/
Living the dream. And it’s gooood.

It is unreal how beautiful the cenotes are from within. They inspired me to learn to dive and called me back. Fulfilling dreams is what this trip is all about. And I am taking that lesson with me. I know I will be back.

Hungry for more? Check out this photo gallery or the video below:

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4 thoughts on “Fulfilling a dream: diving the cenotes of Tulum

  1. @rich Thank you! Yes, absolutely fantastic dives, with even better company. 😉 I too wish we had an underwater camera. Your pics from diving with Danielle (wish I could have been there with you all) are insane-cool, and I hate borrowing material from other travelers for the blog. If only the photographer at Dos Ojos had cut her outrageous prices and sold us a photo for cheap…!

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