I learned to scuba dive a few months ago on a trip to Playa del Carmen, which is close to many amazing dive sites. One of the most enticing natural wonders in this region of Mexico is the cenote. Cenotes are natural sinkholes filled with water that occur throughout the Yucatan peninsula.
As a child in New Jersey, my family would often take me to my father’s hometown in Pennsylvania to visit my grandparents. Nearby there were a variety of caves and caverns that were open for exploring. It was one of the great delights of my childhood, and I developed a fascination with caves.
So wanting to dive in a cenote was a natural desire. I was enthralled by the idea of immersing myself in the underwater chambers of the cenotes.
When I first started scuba diving in April, I had a lot of trouble with my ears. (And I still do sometimes.) Due to the frequent changes in depth when diving a cenote, my instructors recommended that I wait until I was more experienced.
But when I returned to the area in August to swim with whale sharks, I had another opportunity.
Arriving in the morning at Scuba Playa, they outfitted us with our gear for the cenote dive. It was more than I was used to – full wetsuits, dive lights, and the like. We then hopped in our divemaster Marco’s truck with our gear in tow and drove a half hour into the jungle to reach Cenote Tajma Ha.
By the entrance to the cave, Marco briefed us on safety issues for the cenote dive: what to watch for in our air supply, how to signal in the dark, and what to do if there is any kind of problem.
Then we got on our gear and descended into the dark depths of the cenote.
Diving a cenote is like entering a whole new world, distinct from the colorful underwater kingdom of the sea. The draw of the cenote is not the marine life (though there are some small fish that nibble at your toes).
Instead, their beauty lies in the rock formations, the quality of the light, the fossils embedded in the walls and floor of the cave.
As I dove in the cenote, I looked up and saw a curious silver substance at the top of the cave. I looked closely, and a bit of it escaped, flowing out of its nook in the rock. As the bubbles from my breathing reached the ceiling, I realized that the mysterious substance was not silver or mercury but air bubbles that had gotten lodged in little holes in the rock.
As I shone my dive light into the deep caverns of the cenote, I was mesmerized by the colors of the light. When light is refracted through the water, it first loses red, then orange, then yellow, working its way along the visible spectrum. The further you go beneath the water, the more of a blue-green cast everything takes. In the case of my dive light, the further something was, the bluer it appeared. I shone the light on a wall that sloped away from me, and the light appeared as a rainbow of color. Nearby it had a reddish hue, working its way along the rainbow to a dim bluish light reflecting off the rocks furthest away.
Stalactites and stalagmites grew from the ceiling and floor. A small shrimp skittered across the floor of the cave, among the fossils of long-dead sea creatures.
At 12 meters, there is a halocline, a layer where fresh water and salt water meet. It looks like a blurry fog. Descending through it to reach the salt water below, you are momentarily blinded before entering once more into the clear waters below.
There is more than one entryway to the cenote, more than one hole that opens up from the ground to the daylight. One such opening was home to a tree, whose roots dangled meters into the water. The sunlight dripped through its leaves and shimmered down the tree roots, casting a beautiful green glow in the water. Rainbows shimmered as the light was refracted through the water.
We came up midway through the dive in a smaller cenote. We took a breath of fresh air and gazed up through the tangle of trees that peered down at us from above, sharing the water with us as they dipped their roots in for a drink.
This was our halfway point before heading back. Marco checked our air supply, and we reflected on the wonders of what we had just seen – a magical world to which we would shortly return.
As we neared the entrance to the cenote once more, a shaft of light beamed in from above to light up a rock at the bottom of the cave. The image was like something out of a legend of old, the light shining down on King Arthur’s sword, the light of the gods peering between the clouds.
The two dives that we took in the cenote were like stepping into an alternate universe. I hope to have the privilege of returning one day. I hope to slip once more into the frigid waters, to glide once more among the stalactites, the tree roots, the shining rainbows of light.
What exactly is a cenote?
Cenotes are natural sinkholes filled with water. They are a natural phenomenon that occurs throughout the Yucatan Peninsula.
Millions of years ago, the Yucatan peninsula was submerged underwater. During the last Ice Age, the water level sunk. The coral reef died, turning into a layer of limestone as the jungle took over. Caves and caverns formed as the limestone dissolved. Some of these caverns eventually collapsed, leaving the open-air cenotes we have today. When the Ice Age ended, the sea level rose again, filling these caves with water.
During Pre-Hispanic times, the Mayan people considered cenotes sacred. They were seen as entrances into the mythical underworld, or “Xibalba.” Cenotes also served as the main source of water for the Maya, as they did not have access to a river or other major source of freshwater.
The waters of the cenotes are exceptionally clear, making them a good option for divers, underwater photographers, and snorkelers.
Cenote diving safety
When you dive a cenote, you do not need a cave diving certification because you technically stay in the cavern, rather than entering the caves.
However, there are still unique risks associated with cenote diving. For example, you pass through small, dark spaces. If you suffer from claustrophobia or a fear of the dark, then cenote diving is not for you.
Below are safety standards that you should follow during a cavern dive:
- Always dive with a professional cavern diving guide.
- Each diver should have at least one light source.
- Always abide by the “rule of thirds” for air consumption. Keep 1/3 of your air supply for the way in, 1/3 for the way out, and 1/3 for your reserve.
- Always keep a ratio of 4 divers or fewer per guide.
- Follow the instructions of the divemaster. He or she will brief you before the dive on issues such as underwater communication with light signals, air supply management, environmental conservation, what to do in an emergency, and other safety procedures.
Eco-friendly cenote diving tips
Remember as always to be respectful of the environment when you dive:
- Practice buoyancy control.
- Be aware of your body and equipment while diving.
- Inform yourself about the underwater environment and marine life, and be an advocate for the underwater world.
- Choose dive operations with proven respect for the environment.
- Don’t wear sunscreen in the cenotes, as they contain harmful chemicals that contaminate the water.
Where should I dive? Can you recommend any dive shops?
If you have the opportunity to dive a cenote while in Mexico, I highly recommend it (barring claustrophobia or any health issues, of course).
There are plenty of good cenotes for scuba divers. Some popular options are Dos Ojos, Chak-Mool, Tajma Ha, Cenote Eden, and El Pit. For descriptions of each, check out this list by Phocéa Mexico. Your dive shop will also be able to give you recommendations.
Scuba Playa is an amazing dive shop in Playa del Carmen. I dove with them each time I visited the area.
Not only are they serious about safety; they also care deeply about their customers. They will get to know you, give you recommendations on dive sites, and give you pointers on how to improve. (They even helped me with a class project while I was there!) Plus, everyone who works there is warm-hearted and passionate about their job.
Their care for the environment is also apparent. This ranges from educating visitors about marine life to stopping the boat on the way to a dive site to pick up floating trash.
To learn more about cenote diving with Scuba Playa, visit their website.
Don’t dive? You should still visit!
There are many cenotes throughout the region that are open to swimmers and snorkelers. Even if you do not dive, you are in for an amazing experience!
I had the opportunity to visit Cenote Ik Kil as a swimmer and Cenote Dos Ojos as a snorkeler. They were both amazing experiences.
For non-divers, I would recommend the cenotes Ik Kil, Dos Ojos, Gran Cenote, Chaak Tun, or Cenote Azul.