Cenote scuba diving around Playa del Carmen and Tulum in Quintana Roo, Mexico let you dive into a completely different, magical world.
There are literally thousands (at least 4000 of which 1000 are known) of cenotes in the area, some only half flooded which makes them more accessible for snorkelers and stuff like zip-lining, kayaking and similar. Some cenotes are even part of amusement parks; I would avoid those for cenote scuba diving as these tend to be overcrowded and very expensive.
I was in Tulum for the first time 1 ½ years ago. I did do cenote scuba diving for 3 days with 8 dives in total. I was able to visit dos ojos, dreamgate, angelita, the pit, temple of doom (calavera) and one I can’t remember.
Now I’m back to find out if I want to become a cave diver. While every certified diver can dive the cenotes (cavern), as soon as it comes to proper cave diving you need special training and equipment (How to become a cave diver, part I).
So what are those cenotes we scuba dive in?
Cenotes are basically sinkholes filled with water. Yucatan used to be under the ocean and what we see today is limestone built out of fossilized coral and the ocean floor.
The region does not have any rivers above ground which means all the water flows through the porous limestone into underground rivers and on to the sea.
During the ice age the water level sank and some of the caves built by the previous rivers became dry so stalactites and stalagmites could form. When the sea level rose again these caves were once more flooded.
If the ceiling of one of these cave collapses a cenote is formed.
Cenote scuba diving in fresh or saltwater
When jumping into a cenote you are first in fresh water. However, water pushing in from the sea can be found at a depth of about 10 to 20 m. The change from freshwater to the denser saltwater is called a halocline.
In some of the cenotes this change in density is clearly visible, almost like a mirror. If the water is gets stirred up it becomes blurry; this is caused by refraction through the different layers.
The Maya used these sinkholes for a variety of purposes, mainly one for drinking or to water their plants. In addition some were used in religious ceremonies as they were considered to be sacred.
In some of the cenotes and cave systems skeletal remains (human and animal) as well as gifts like jewellery and ceramic have been found. It is believed that these were offerings. The Mayan name for the cenotes is dzonot (“well”) which the Spanish understood as cenote.
The cenotes are not only famous for the wonderful stalactite and stalagmite formations but also for the clearest waters which are kind of warm all year round (26°C). The clear waters can be best seen in big cenotes like the pit where the sun’s rays penetrate down to 30 m.
I did go back to two of the cenotes which I liked a lot; these were angelita and the temple of doom. These are both more suitable for scuba diving although there were people jumping into temple of doom when we arrived. The jumping in part is a lot of fun anyway.
Temple of Doom / Calavera (skull)
The temple of doom is one of the cenotes where the halocline can be seen very clearly. There are some stalactites and stalagmites, especially in the shallower areas, but that is not what this cenote is famous for.
In addition to the incredible halocline the light around the entrance area is a mystical green. This is perfect for taking photos and there is also a nice reflection of the ladder.
Angelita (little angel)
This might be my personal favourite but it is very hard to pick just one as all the cenotes are special and unique. From the car park the adventure starts with a 150 m walk through the jungle until you reach the big opening of angelita. It’s a very beautiful view, even from above, and now it has a ladder. Last time I was here I had to jump in and climb out again.
The water is very clear down to around 30 m where there is a mystical cloud that seems like it is the ground but then people just disappear into it!
When you enter the cloud everyone and everything disappears, you might see the torch light of your buddy but nothing else until you emerge below into clear but very dark waters.
At the bottom you can find fallen trees and leaves that are the cause of the cloud which is actually hydrogen sulphide produced by bacteria breaking down this organic matter (rotting trees). The hydrogen sulphide, because of its density, is stuck between the freshwater and saltwater.
The scenery could be on land on an misty autumn morning in the woods although the cloud is deep under water, truly magically.
Dos Ojos (two eyes)
This is one of the most famous cenotes and therefore it gets pretty crowded as well. I was lucky as I visited during low season but there were still many more people than at the other places I visited.
This one is nicely decorated with stalactites and stalagmites. Due to a big opening and easy access it is suitable for snorkelers and swimmers as well.
If you scuba dive you would normally do two dives as there are two routes one called barbie line (yes, like the doll and if you go there you will see why) and one bat cave. During the second dive in the darker and narrower bat cave it is possible to surface to see how the cave got its name.
The light play from the sun’s rays meeting the very clear water is spectacular. Due to its popularity there are facilities, a souvenir shop and a sun deck whereas many of the other cenotes only have very simple toilets at the car park.
This is also a quite famous cenote. This is probably the deepest (119 m) in Quintana Roo. A rocky trail leads for about 300 m through the jungle before you reach it but then the cenote is pretty wide and the light effects are spectacular.
At 14 m you encounter a halocline and at 30 m a hydrogen sulphide layer. However, the most impressive is how clear the water is. Being at 30 m depth it is possible to see divers entering the cenote at the other side, it seems like air.
It is truly like in a dream. The whole cavern system is filled with beautiful but fragile stalactites and stalagmites but it is more difficult to dive as it is narrower and shallower (7 m).
Good buoyancy at shallow depth requires excellent dive skills which is the reason why most dive shops would only take you if they’ve seen you diving before. This cenote was the location for BBC productions about caves (Planet Earth).
Some basics about cavern diving
Diving in cenotes requires good buoyancy control and the use of proper finning techniques. If a diver gets too close to the ceiling they could get hurt or destroy a stalactite which is then gone until the next ice age – quite a long time (hopefully)!
If a diver gets too close to the ground and/or uses inappropriate finning techniques they could stir up sediment which can cause the visibility to decrease to zero within seconds and it then takes very long until the sediment settles again. This happened to us on a recent dive where the group before stirred up sediment and we still didn’t have normal visibility during our dive.
Your guide will be full cave certified using full cave equipment. And he will guide a maximum of four certified divers.
It is forbidden to enter the cave zone. Warning signs will tell you where to stop but you will, anyway, be following a rope. You will always be within 40 m of the surface with the natural light from the entrance visible at all times.
Have you been scuba diving in the cenotes? Which is your favorite one?
Share your experience in the comment section below