Water, time and light in the land of the ancient Mayans

Season: Year-round diving

Visibility: 10-30m/65-165ft

Water Temperature: Temperature: 22° C/72°ft

Karen Doody's award winning image of a diver exploring one of the larger cenotes. (Karen Doody)

The Yucatan Peninsula is steeped in the history of the ancient Mayans, famed for their pyramids and stone settlements, now preserved as ruins for visitors to explore and admire. Whilst the best ‘big animal’ diving in Mexico can be found in Baja California, or amongst the Revillagigedo Islands, what is special about a dive trip to the Yucatan is the opportunity to dive the famous ‘cenotes’ (pronounced ‘seh-no-tehs’) or underground caves and wells. Millions of years ago, the Yucatan Peninsula was covered by the ocean. Some 15,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age, the sea level descended approximately 75 metres. For thousands of years, the porous land surface, formed by fossilized coral and limestone, has filtered rainwater, which dissolved parts of the subsoil. This process created a unique labyrinth of flooded underground rivers and caves and makes up the largest network of caverns in the world. Most of the best sites are dotted along the Riviera Maya, the stretch of land running from Cancun in the north to the coastal ruins of Tulum further south. These picturesque limestone caverns are known as some of the best in the world for their accessibility and geological splendour. Most of these freshwater sink-holes are inland, accessible by road followed by a short stroll down a board walk and then splash – into the hole you drop! Some cenotes open up into underground flooded caverns with enough room to surface, while others extend into narrow water-filled passages and yet others extend far underground and back out into the sea! These cenotes were the key to existence for the Mayan population as they provided seemingly endless supplies of fresh water, particularly during periodic droughts.

When thinking of cave diving, many people might have visions of dark holes and cramped spaces, but what makes the diving here so appealing is the way the light falls through the cave openings as the sun casts its strong but gentle beams down into the sinkholes. You will marvel as the natural light from the surface, which first of all glints emerald green as it filters like a laser beam through the foliage above the entrance and then cascades onto the surface of the piercing blue water and bends in every direction. In the deeper wells, the water changes colour as you go deeper and as you look up and turn around to admire the light show, see how many shades of blue you can count from the bright blue-white light at the opening of the cavern to the inky midnight shades beneath you as you descend into the Mayan underworld. See how the grand stone columns cast shadows onto the water’s surface and the cave floor below. The water in the cenotes is nearly always crystal clear too. Here you can see how water, light and 65 million years have interacted to create such intriguing rock formations. Stalactites and stalagmites, ranging from the very tiny to the very large, are shaped into cones, funnels or sharp points. Some look like tiny but sharp crystal teeth, others look like great ivory towers supporting the very cavern in which you swim. It could almost be a wax sculpture, as it seems the rocks ‘drip’ off the ceiling or create candle-like columns and pillars of varying length and width. Fossils can often be seen set into the walls of the cavern. Which beasts lie captured in these walls after so many millions of years?

At 10 meters a remarkable and strange visual effects can begin to take place. Without
warning you may only see the top half of your buddy! This mysterious effect is due to a halocline, which is what happens when salt and fresh water start to mix.

If you are ever feeling ‘reefed out’ then a visit to the cenotes will re-ignite your passion for SCUBA!

Kindly note that some of the walkways and entrance ways to the cenotes are steep and slippery and you should be in good physical condition to dive here.

Dos Ojos, or ‘Two Eyes’, located north of the ruins at Tulum is a flooded cave system still being explored. This massive cave system extends for no fewer than 61 kilometres under the water, with 25 known sinkhole entrances, making it one of the world’s longest underwater cave systems. Dos Ojos is an anchialine cave system, meaning that the main body of water is landlocked but it is connected to the ocean by an underground passage, though no human has ever entered the cave system from the open ocean. The water here is always extremely clear as the rainwater that fills the cavern is filtered by the limestone rocks. Dos Ojos is so called because two neighbouring entrances in the ground connect into one larger cavern.

The adventurous diver (or obsessive photographer!) might want to make a particularly daring journey to The Pit, accessible only after a 300 metre walk through the jungle and a jump of approximately 10 metes directly down into the deep entry pool! The cavern contains human bones and has some particularly impressive geological formations.

Grand Cenote begins as you step over a large lip of rock into what seems like a giant mouth set into the limestone. The entrance is quite shallow and is suitable for snorkeling, though divers can continue deeper into the cavern. In the afternoon light the sun glints gold against the limestone in the shallower parts.

Car Wash is well known for its beautifully decorated ‘Room of Tears’ where the delicate-looking stalactites could be made of silver. Hundreds of these slender structures rain down from the ceiling and the ‘room’ seems to be held up by what could be hand carved posts stretching from floor to ceiling.

When in Puerto Aventuras, not only are you perfectly placed for cenote exploration, but a mere 10 minutes from the marina you can access the world’s second longest barrier reef! Coral gardens, canyons, swim-throughs and seemingly endless coral heads make for some pleasant and easy Caribbean diving. Hawksbill Turtles are very common and all your favourite Caribbean reef fish will be present from Pufferfish to French Angelfish, to various wrasse and Spadefish. Schooling fish also frequent the area with tarpon and barracuda passing through in numbers. During May, June and July, Whale Sharks frequently visit and it is possible to arrange boat trips to go and snorkel with the wonderous creatures. Boat trips are usually taken in the morning and you can take your camera. Crowds are not big here unlike in some areas further north so take advantage of the opportunity to see these magnificent goliaths of the ocean up close and personal! In the winter months (usually January and February are the best) the Sailfish visit Isla de Muertes a little further north of Puerto Aventuras. Day trips are easily arranged.

Price: From about £574 for 7 nights. Includes: airport transfers; 7 nights room and breakfast accommodation on twin/share basis in a Standard Room at Omni Hotel and Beach Resort. A two tank dive at local cenotes is from about £85 and a two tank dive to 'excusrion' cenotes is from about £111. Single Occupancy Supplement: From about £417


The water is gin clear! (Karen Doody)

Exploring the cenotes (Karen Doody)

The different shades of blue are quite spectacular! (Karen Doody)

It really is a whole new world down there... (Karen Doody)

Don't forget the wide angle lens (Karen Doody)

Inspecting the stalagtites (Karen Doody)

The 'room of tears' (Karen Doody)

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