Central America trip CliffsNotes

As I meet people now who are curious about my adventures in Central America, I want to share this blog with them but my prolific 100+ entries from the trip are a daunting pile to sift through. So to help I have put together a collection of entries that to me represent the essential narrative, the most important/meaningful/highlight moments of my trip. It’s not the whole story, but they are my favorites. It’s still a good chunk of reading (it was a crazy six months ok? There are a lot of stories!), but hopefully it is more a digestible guided tour. Enjoy!

Let’s get this fun in the sun started!

Origins story
Safety concerns for a solo woman traveler
What’s in my backpack
Mexico: Day 1, arrival in Merida
Mexico: My first cenote, the beginning of a water love story
Mexico: Tulum ruins
Mexico: Tulum cenotes
Mexico: San Crisobal de las Casas
Guatemala: Border crossing and arrival
Guatemala: Hiking Santa Maria volcano
Guatemala: Colored chicks, the first sign of Semana Santa
Guatemala: Lake Atitlan
Guatemala: Bugs
Guatemala: Chichi market
Guatemala: On traveling solo
Guatemala: Semana Santa in Antigua
Guatemala: Alfombras
Guatemala: Semuc Champey
Belize: I decide to get SCUBA certified
Belize: Open Water course, day 1
Belize: Open Water course, days 2 and 3
Belize: Caye Caulker, sunset at the split
Belize: Cat calls and drug dealers
Belize: Erin’s Caye Caulker food manifesto
Belize: Just say yes
Belize: Crystal Cave
Belize: Iguana photo shoot
Belize: I heart stew chicken
Honduras: Epic transit to the Bay Islands
Honduras: Roatan
Honduras: Deciding to extend the trip
Honduras: Settling in to Utila
Honduras: Advanced Open Water
Honduras: Le sigh roommates
Honduras: Makeshift rum cake
Honduras: Rescue Diver
Honduras: Falling in love with Utila
Honduras: Perpetual illness
Honduras: Snorkel vanity shots
Honduras: Stability in Utila
Honduras: Thunderstorms
Honduras: A birthday party
Honduras: Photo dive
Honduras: Nico’s 100th dive day
Honduras: Last Utila dive
Honduras: Leaving Utila
Nicaragua: Erin gets a travel buddy
Nicaragua: Lady at a cock fight
Nicaragua: The Fourth of July
Nicaragua: Granada
Belize: Epic three-day transit to Long Caye
Belize: The Blue Hole
Mexico: Diving cenotes
Mexico: Swimming with whale sharks
Mexico: Isla Mujeres
Utila throwback
Erin’s top 5 Central American hostels
Gratitude

Erin’s top 5 Central American hostels

Thinking about traveling in Central America? Do it, it’s awesome! ūüôā Before the overcast Seattle sky sucks away all of my travel tan, I thought I’d share some of my favorite backpacker-friendly places to rest your weary head in Central America.

As a solo backpacker, where you stay has a huge impact on who you meet and how you interact with a place. I stayed in a bunch of hostels in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and Nicaragua, but coming up with my top five was EASY. There are a few that stand out in my mind as utterly fantastic experiences, where a wonderfully-run hostel environment teed up awesome experiences and connections.

First, let me share a little about what I believe makes a great hostel, in order of importance:

1) Social scene:¬†I want someplace with a bustling common room filled with my awesome fellow travelers. Let’s form a crew and have a blast for the next few days. That said, you don’t attract other badass travelers without the next three requirements…
2) Setting and grounds: Rooms and grounds should be clean, bright, and beautiful. Be it in the city, up a mountain, or on a beach, the surrounding location should be both breathtaking and convenient.
3) Amenities:¬†I’m a backpacker; I aint got no money, honey! I want as many of these freebies as possible: drinking water, breakfast, wifi, kitchen access, movies, and social activities.
4) Caring management: Hostels are often a labor of love, and people who actually love running them and love backpackers do the best job.
*) Cost:¬†This is a no brainer, so I’m not even going to truly count it but it is an important criteria. All of these fit into the backpacker budget, ranging from $3.50-$14 USD per night for a dorm bed.

Without further ado, let me introduce you to my top five favorite hostels in Central America:

Zephyr Lodge, Lanquin, Guatemala
$4 USD for a dorm bed
I heard about this place on literally Day One as a must-go spot and it did not disappoint. My three nights (the perfect amount of time) at Zephyr were KILLER fun. A party hostel at its finest. Two things make this hostel: the spectacularly beautiful natural setting and awesome other travelers who all hang together on hostel tours. Located in central Guatemala near the Semuc Champey national park, Zephyr is perched atop a peak overlooking the hills and river. The grounds are spectacular.

Overlooking the hills.
More palapas being built as new dorms.
Chilling in the open-air main lounge after a day of tubing.

It takes effort to travel to, but the cool kids come here. Shuttles are offered to Lanquin from hostels in Antigua, Tikal, and surely other hubs like Guat City, but the ride is a twisty one through the mountains. There is much fun to be had on inexpensive group tours, which everyone does: Semuc Champey for swimming and caving, then booze tubing down the river.

Everyone all loaded up in the back of a pickup truck for a bumpy ride down to Semuc Champey.
The gorgeous pools of Semuc Champey national park.
What better way to relax than a day of tubing and beer with friends?

There’s no wifi and very limited internet access, so everyone hangs out together in the common spaces. Games and drinking rule the night. You are at the mercy of the bar for most of your drinks and meals (breakfast is not included); expect standard Guatemalan hostel gringo food options. Pizza is their specialty. Be sure to check out the semi-enclosed showers with views of the mountains to experience the natural beauty more privately. It can be raucous and a little rough around the edges but overall I had an utter blast here. It is a special spot that stole my heart a bit. Find the full story of my Lanquin/Zephyr experience here.

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Yuma’s House, Caye Caulker, Belize
$14 USD for a dorm bed
Oh, Yuma’s. Yuma’s is the longest time I spent in any hostel, two and a half weeks. Right off the beach, it is well run, bright, smartly appointed, and clean. The rules and management can seem strict at first, but it is all to protect the experience of responsible guests and management actually cares a lot. In fact, excellent management, facilities, and guests are what make Yuma’s special in my book. Most definitely get reservations well in advance as Yuma’s fills up often!

Yuma’s as seen from walking the beach.
Yuma’s courtyard, guests only inside the orange fence.
Yuma’s dock, my fave place to catch the sunrise.

The kitchens are clean and well equipped–a huge plus for me–for when you crave something other than bbq or fry jack. The common areas are a great place to hang out, scattered with chairs, hammocks, and swinging benches. The six-bunk dorms are comfy, cooled by fans and ocean breezes. Private rooms are also available. Quiet hours are enforced by a night watchman, as diver guests are often getting up extremely early the next morning headed for the Blue Hole.

It is a chill place where you and your new crew of friends (over the course of two plus weeks, I rotated through three full crews) can easily slip into the Caye Caulker mantra of “go slow”. The slow life is oh so good. I took my Open Water course here and got good at day drinking at the Split. There’s a sweet rhythm to Yuma’s and Caye Caulker that is enchanting. After not too long, it felt like home.¬†Read more about my Caye Caulker experience here.

Sunset happy hour at the Split with the crew… an essential part of every day.
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La Iguana Perdida, Santa Cruz La Laguna (on Lake Atitlan), Guatemala
$3.50 USD for a dorm bed
The Iguana is peaceful, homey, and friendly. It’s a great place to take a load off and chill around Lake Atitlan; far superior to any place in San Pedro, IMHO. There is a convivial spirit that permeates the hostel and just made me happy being there.¬†I intended to stay just a night or two, but found the Iguana so relaxing that I stayed a whole week.¬†The restaurant, balcony, and patio area is gorgeous. Right on the shores of the lake, the common areas offer awesome views of the opposite volcanoes.

Just a few steps from the Santa Cruz dock.
View of Lake Atitlan from my fave breakfast couch on the restaurant patio.

One of the awesome things about the Iguana is that is isn’t just a hostel. There are bunks but also private rooms and cabanas–so people of all ages and travel budgets can stay here comfortably–and activities that feel more like a relaxed resort. It’s a very versatile and pleasing place. I stayed in the open-air dorm, in the attic bed in Castillo.

My dorm. I was up in the tippy top bunk. ūüôā
There is a full restaurant and bar, plus other services and activities are available on site too. There is a spa on site with reasonably priced facials (I got one and loved it) and massages. Yoga happens often in the mornings, there’s a well-stocked movie room, private Spanish lessons can be arranged, they were piloting trivia night when I was there, and best of all there is a dive shop:¬†ATI divers. They do high altitude diving, Open Water courses, and more. Internet at Iguana is limited; there is no wifi and wired computers are sequestered in a side room for a fee.
3-course family meals are served in the dining room every night. Santa Cruz is a small town with limited dining options, but there are other hotels nearby that do a similar prix-fixe meal deal. But I often liked to stay at the Iguana (even though I never dug the soup course) for the social aspect. It’s where most people at the hostel go and hanging in the dining space is a great place to meet new friends. One of the owners, Dave, often makes musical appearances at the weekend costume party. Ask to hear his signature: the Chicken Bus Song!¬†Read more about my Lake Atitlan experience here.
Waiting for dinner time…
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Oasis, Granada, Nicaragua
$9 USD for a dorm bed
Stepping into Oasis is just what it sounds like: beautiful, relaxing, and filled with little extras that make a traveler smile. The central courtyard is filled with greenery and rimmed with hammocks, swings, and lounging spots. The architecture, furniture, and marble floors bring you to an old and classy colonial Granada. Centrally located near the main square, it’s the perfect base to explore this charming city.

Who wouldn’t want to hang out here?

Amenities abound. Find free filtered water at a spigot near the communal kitchen (which has a blender… handy for making rum smoothies!). A movie library and book swap are available if you need entertainment. At the free breakfast, unlimited pancakes are doled out by the plateful accompanied by fruit and coffee. Off the breakfast courtyard is a small, shallow pool if you want to go for a dip.

The dorms are spacious with the tallest bunks I have ever seen and ceilings up to the sky. Private rooms are available, but the ones I saw were stuffy and small compared to the beautiful dorms. It’s a large hostel (easy to make new friends!) with people of all ages and background, including numerous families. A great place to stay.¬†Read more about my time in Granada here.

Awesome dorms. Even with railing up top so you can’t fall off!
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Nomadas, Merida, Mexico
$11 USD for a dorm bed
Nomadas was my first hostel experience on the trip and I still remember it fondly. The helpful and kind staff assisted this day-one traveler with everything she needed and more. It is *the* place for backpackers to stay in Merida, but I would also recommend it to people who don’t usually stay in hostels also.

I stayed in a double bed in the large, airy female dorm just off the main courtyard. Private rooms are also available. Everything is brightly colored, clean, and well-kept. Nomadas is full to the brim with freebies: free breakfast (bread, cereal, fruit, coffee), water, computers and wifi, salsa dancing classes, morning yoga, Mexican folk singer in the evening, and cooking classes (love!!) multiple times a week.

Central courtyard, with communal kitchen through the right archway.
Escape the sun in the spacious women’s dorm.

A stand-out feature of this hostel is its pool, with hammocks draped leisurely over the shallow end. It is the perfect way to spend a hot Yucatan afternoon after a day out in the city sight seeing. It makes you forget you are in the middle of a city. Nomadas was welcoming and friendly; I’d recommend it as a beautiful refuge in Merida.¬†Read more about my Merida experience here.

Ahh, the pool! Image from tripadvisor.com
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Best wishes in planning your trip to Central America. I hope you enjoy staying at all of these hostels as much as I did!

Pro tip: all of these places do fill up, especially Zephyr and Yuma’s. I know it’s not the typical backpacker way, but I *highly* recommend making reservations even just a few days in advance for all these places. A little bit of planning goes a long way and you won’t regret it. ūüôā

A week on Isla Mujeres

From Playa del Carmen, we moved north up the coast to Isla Mujeres. I had heard from other travelers that it was a cool, chill place to hang, much better than Cancun. Rich and I went to give it a shot. We took a collectivo to the Cancun bus station (MEX$30/$2.50USD), connecting bus (MEX$8/$0.75USD), climbed aboard the passenger ferry (MEX$70/$5.85USD) and left the mainland behind. En route we suffered through some live entertainment (does anyone really dig pipe flute music?) and arrived on the island in about ten minutes.
Making the crossing from Cancun.

We stayed on the northern tip of the island and hung out at¬†Poc-Na, the local hostel that has a beach party every night and is a great place to meet people.¬†My first impression of downtown was just how tourist-focused every single business was. It didn’t have the same plastic quality as Cancun, but everything on the main walking boulevard of Avenue Hidalgo was designed with the American tourist in mind. Knick knack shops and dinner specials quoted in USD, all with American price tags to match. We did find a few restaurants tucked away that served cheaper food–with tortas priced at a pretty standard MEX$25/$2USD–but most closed down for dinner. The best reasonably priced late night option we found was a taco stand outside the grocery story on the center plaza. Tacos loaded with toppings were MEX$15/$1.25USD, double the price of Tulum but half the price of other restaurants.

The first really special thing that happened on Isla Mujeres was my adventure swimming with whale sharks, detailed in a separate post. Super awesome! If you come to Isla Mujeres during the summer months it is a must-do.

Toes in the sand at Poc-Na.

I was getting a little jaded by the beachy lifestyle, but I would soon get over the slump. Back at Poc-Na we were generously invited to a private house party being thrown by a group of Americans from Georgia. We arrived just in time to watch dusk descend on Cancun just over the water. The house was beautiful, our hosts an awesome group of guys, and the atmosphere a fun change from the hostel beach parties. We all hung out chatting, having a great time. I lamented my lack of skinny dipping on this trip to a very cute Swede and suddenly I had a partner in crime. On the count of three… splash! And skinny dipping is like dominoes; once one falls, it’s not long before you’ve got a pool full of naked people dancing to “Thriller”. Excellent, and you’re welcome. ūüėČ

A beautiful start to an awesome night.

Lovely sunset over the water. What a view!
The next morning, I was super happy after having WAY too much fun the night before. Keeping my excellent mood going, we splurged on breakfast at a restaurant I had been eyeing: Rooster Cafe. Eggs benedict all around please. Um, yeah, it was so fantastic of a breakfast feast that I went there every morning for the next two days. So delish!

Earlier we had linked up with James, Rich’s friend from traveling in Argentina, and Helen, who we convinced to join us on the whale shark excursion. They were excellent friends to hang with throughout the week. We had a delightful surf ‘n turf double date with them on their last night on the island before they headed to Tulum.

We did have one casualty on Isla Mujeres though: Rich’s beard. After not shaving since his thirtieth birthday in Utila, he decided a more clean shaven look would blend in better at the swanky Cancun resort we were headed to. He opted for the 70s porn star moustache for two days before shaving it all off. The in-between look was, let’s say, sketchy at best!

Rockin’ the Mexican mo.
As my plane flight approached, I got the urge to do one last day of diving while I was still able. We did two dives off Isla Mujeres: Gunboat C58 and Punta Sur. Diving the current off Punta Sur was unreal. I had never experienced current like that before. Someone asked me recently if diving feels like flying. In normal conditions I’d say kind of because you can move in all directions, but this current most definitely felt like FLYING! It just took me, swept me away and was incredibly fun.
About to dive the wicked current off Punta Sur.

Rich about to get reg popped by a Hawksbill off Punta Sur. It was the end of turtle mating season, so we saw a bunch!
Making fun of my addiction to selfies.
Alright Isla Mujeres, I was skeptical at first but you got me. Adventures, cool people, and beautiful scenery. You are indeed la isla bonita.

Bored of beach life

I’m getting tired of the Cancun area. It’s been about a week now in Playa del Carmen and Isla Mujeres. There’s nothing I felt like I have actually done. There’s the beach… and hanging out, drinking, eating, consuming. I feel like I don’t actually want to just be chilling and partying. I want something special to end my trip, and this doesn’t feel like it. There are so many people on holiday, limited cheap places to buy food, all the shops are the same, and the hostels feel like factories. But I leave soon so it makes sense to stick near Cancun, right? Ugh. Unsatisfied.

I’m also thinking forward to being back in the states and getting quite excited about it. I’ve got friends lined up to stay with and see in San Francisco, tickets to Music@Menlo’s closing weekend, preparations to make for Burning Man and various road trips, ideas kicking around about staying in Seattle then continuing to travel abroad. I’m spending more of my time on the computer making sure my affairs are in order, reactivating car insurance, making doctor appointments, etc etc. So part of it is that I am checking out of Central America. I don’t want to lay on a beach and forget. I am getting ready for the next step. And the beach just aint cutting it.

Swimming with whale sharks!

Whale shark!!!! AMAZING.
From May to September, the northern tip of the Yucatan is whale shark country. The huge beasts (the world’s largest fish!) flock to feed in the plankton-rich waters.¬†Swimming with whale sharks is most definitely a must-do bucket list activity in the Caribbean that I had yet to experience. I had to go! We were in Isla Mujeres at the right time, whale shark snorkel tours were hawked by every other shop on the main strip. The price tag gave me sticker shock: $75 for a *snorkel* tour?!? But prices are fixed across vendors (they all seem to funnel together to fill boats anyway) and they have a monopoly on the experience. And where else are you going to find an experience like this? Price would soon be forgotten once I fell under the whale shark spell.
We got up early (again, after not nearly enough sleep the night before… recognize a pattern?), rushed to the hostel to be on time for our pick up, of course ended up waiting for 15 minutes, were walked to another meeting point at the docks, ate a slice of provided cake and the world’s tiniest juice box, then boarded a semi-ghetto boat. Our guide passed out fins incredibly slowly, one by one. Good thing we got up at 7am so he could take his time! When he finally finished, we motored out to sea, chatting and shooting the shit with fellow travelers.
After about an hour, we arrived where dozens of other boats were collected. I guess this must be the place. Suddenly we saw a whale shark. Then another, and another! There were dozens all around us, the size of small busses, coming right up to the boat! You could practically reach down into the water and touch them. Giant white manta rays with eight-feet wingspans cruised under the boat. They were all so massive! And didn’t care whatsoever that there were boats and snorkelers all around them. They just didn’t give a fuck. Incredible.
Whoa!

To keep the area from being over crowded, only three snorkelers per boat are allowed in the water at any given time. Each person on our boat got three ten-minute snorkels. We rolled off the edge and went hunting. They were everywhere around us. Madness. Two whale sharks almost ran me over. Actually. I kept forgetting how to swim as the excitement of being near these beasts overwhelmed me. I somehow managed to snap a few photos while in a state of near-hysteria.

They move more swiftly underwater than you might imagine, and when one comes towards you with its mouth open it is easy to freak a little. But they always avoid the snorkelers somehow. Whale shark are just so freakin’ cool!

Yes, they get thisclose!
Attempted selfie with me+whale shark. I got his tail in the background!
Even back on the boat our snorkel surface intervals were awesome. I lay on the bow playing spot-the-whale-shark, not a very difficult game in these waters. The plankton keep the sharks near the surface so even when you aren’t in the water you can still watch and be in awe. The whole time felt exciting, like we were experiencing a miracle that kept happening.
Exhausted, I crashed on the ride back, falling asleep with my head in Richard’s lap. The rest of the boat was in a similar condition. I woke when I started to get cold. Suddenly, rain started to pour. Cold rain. Everyone woke up as the captain told us to quickly! get in the bottom of the boat! We huddled together, shivering, barricading ourselves with lifevests, and laughing. Luckily we were close to shore so made a beeline for the beach to pick up our lunches. When we arrived, everyone jumped into the water to warm up.¬†Within moments, the sky cleared, the sun came out, and we drank beer and ate ceviche while lounging in the warm water.¬†
 
What a rough way to spend an afternoon.
Just another day in paradise. No big deal… except that it was freakin’ kick ass bucket list shit! I’m finally a member of the whale shark club.

Playa, this is your last chance

Oh, Playa del Carmen. My first “bad” stop on my trip. Why am I returning to you? The optimist in me hopes desperately you redeem yourself.¬†Playa doesn’t feel so awful this time, but I am more struck by how utterly expensive everything is. You want *how much* for a taco? Oi. The people here are still not my people–American or South American families, retirees, or partiers on holiday. Why are backpackers so hard to find in this town? Are they just wearing a different uniform?
In the back of the collectivo en route to Playa. Come on, Playa, show me what you got!

There was fun to be had though. I actually did some of the classic Playa things! One night we went out to the main late night scene at 12th Ave and 1st St. The clubs were pumping, aggressive recruiters passed out free drink tickets and wristbands to everyone, and men in polos and women in skintight leopard spandex drinking tequila out of litro cups. Each song reminded me on someplace else, another time, another memory. Still not my crowd.

We spent a day at the beach chillaxing. I found a copy of¬†Kitchen Confidential, which threw me back to first reading it in Southeast Asia, so all my classics reading went out the window in favor of Anthony Bourdain being a smart ass. The water is so beautifully blue, sand so smooth and white, and ocean so warm it’s possible to forgive all the Jersey Shore-lookalike travelers all around.

A typical tienda shelf.
Enjoying the beach.
Shallots, the secret is shallots.

Another day we visited nearby Akumal to swim with the sea turtles, just a short collectivo ride south. It was insanely resorty there; charging $15 for a snorkel set?! And you are required to wear a goofy lifevest? Madness. I have seen enough turtles on this trip thankyouverymuch. We spent the money on tacos, beer, and ice cream instead.

Akamal!
It’s hard to be upset around water this blue.
Excellent fish and shrimp tacos for lunch at Lucy’s. Half off for happy hour too!

But more often than not we stayed in, cooking something fabulous, and watching stand-up comedians online. Although our hostel had a very low-key social scene, the facilities were great, especially the kitchen. We took advantage and bought a whole mess of fresh groceries–including spinach, which is quite elusive in Latin America–and returned to cooking. I hadn’t cooked in earnest since Utila, unless fruit and rum liquados count. In Playa we cooked virtually every meal, and it was goooood:

Rich making his magic.

Ready to do this.
Eggs florentine with hollandaise. Yeah, because we’re the awesome kind of backpackers.
Peanut butter banana pancakes and fruit and spicy steak and vegetable curry. YUM.

Spending so much time and energy in the kitchen with Richard actually made me very happy, even though much of Playa still wasn’t for me. But off to the next beach, Isla Mujeres, in search of a chiller vibe, more likeminded travelers, and whale sharks!

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 Ca√Īa 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. ūüôā 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: