I checked off a bucket list item this April when I got my PADI Open Water scuba certification. I was excited to learn to dive, which I had wanted to do for a long time. But I was even more excited by how much I loved it!
I did my Open Water certification in Playa del Carmen with Scuba Playa. (If you plan to dive in the area, I highly recommend them!) Then, I returned a few months later to do the Advanced Open Water certification.
This area of Mexico has some dreamy dive sites for first-time and experienced divers alike. Its reefs are part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, the second largest reef system in the world. It stretches over 620 miles from the Yucatan Peninsula all the way down to Honduras. The reef system is known for its biodiversity, with many species of coral, fish, turtles, and other marine life.
Without further ado, here are some of the five best diving experiences in the Riviera Maya / Cancun area:
Cenotes are natural sinkholes filled with water that occur throughout this region. They are a lot of fun to visit, but it is an extra special experience to dive beneath their clear waters.
The caves and caverns of the cenotes are filled with pristine water, with a high level of visibility. If you have only dived in the ocean, the experience will be totally new to you. In the cenote, you can see rock formations and the beautiful refraction effects of light shining through the water. There are archaeological remains on the bottom of some of the cenotes. In other cenotes, you can see a halocline, a layer of water where the fresh water above rapidly changes to salt water beneath, creating an interesting visual effect.
Some of the most famous cenotes for diving are Dos Ojos, Chac Mool, and El Pit.
Chac Mool is a good choice for all certified divers. This dive has enormous caverns where you can see sunbeams dance through the water and the jungle above. You can also surface in an air dome with ancient fossils and hundreds of thin stalactites hanging from the ceiling. The maximum depth is 14 meters, or 47 feet, passing through a halocline at around 10 meters, or 30 feet.
Dos Ojos means “Two Eyes.” The name refers to two adjacent cenotes that resemble two eyes peering out from underground. The two cenotes are connected underground with a large shared cavern zone. The maximum depth for cavern dives in Dos Ojos is about 10 meters, or 33 feet. During a dive, you will navigate between huge stalactites and columns. You can also surface in another cenote, called the “Bat Cave” for its abundance of the fuzzy little creatures! (If you’re still wondering what it’s like, check out this awesome video from user Dmitry on YouTube.)
Cenote El Pit is the deepest known cave in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. During a dive, you can enjoy the effect of light refracting through the water near the top of the cenote. You then pass through a shallow halocline and a hydrogen sulfide cloud at around 27 meters, or 90 feet. This dive is best for experienced divers: The maximum depth is 40 meters, or 130 feet, and you need good buoyancy control to prevent uncontrolled ascents and descents.
I went diving in the cenote Taj Maha, and it was one of my favorite experiences scuba diving. I will be posting soon with more details!
There are of course some special considerations if you plan to go cenote diving. The dives are better for those with good buoyancy control, as you will sometimes dive in tight spaces. Because you change depth frequently, the dive may be challenging if you have problems with equalization. You also should NOT do these dives if you have claustrophobia or a fear of the dark!
Tortugas Reef (and other Playa del Carmen reefs)
Diving at the Tortugas Reef is an unforgettable experience. If you couldn’t guess by the name, you are likely to see some sea turtles on this dive! When I dove at Tortugas, I saw hawksbill turtles and a huge loggerhead turtle who looked as old as time itself. In this area, you can also see amazing marine life, such as stingrays, parrot fish, triggerfish, puffer fish, barracudas, and moray eels!
The Tortugas Reef is special because of the opportunity to see sea turtles, but many of the other reefs near Playa del Carmen are also home to a breathtaking variety of marine life and vegetation. Some other amazing dives sites include Sabalos, Barracuda, Jardines, Pared Verde, and Moc-Che.
I went on my first night dive in the Jardines Reef near Playa del Carmen. I got to see a huge green moray eel sleeping in a cave and a small number of bioluminescent plankton!
MUSA Underwater Museum
Have you ever seen those eerie photos on Pinterest of underwater statues of pregnant women, children, and nuns being slowly overtaken by coral and sea life?
This is the MUSA underwater museum, off the coast of Cancun and Isla Mujeres. MUSA consists of over 500 life-size sculptures of humans, Volkswagen beetles, houses, and bombs. Started in 2009, the museum is an effort to grow an artificial reef and art attraction. The artists constructed the sculptures out of specialized materials to encourage coral growth.
The sea life growing to overtake the human faces and figures of the sculptures is something I can only describe as hauntingly beautiful. While you can see some of the statues by snorkeling, diving at the museum offers a much better opportunity to view the details of the art up close. The maximum depth is about 9 meters, or 30 feet, making it accessible to divers of all levels.
Approaching The Silent Evolution sculptures by Jason Decaires Taylor was eerie. Even with other divers nearby, the scene felt silent and lonely. The figures depict raw human emotions, huddled together in anguish or in prayer, in laughter or in silence. Yet the faces covered in coral and other marine life are distinctly inhuman. As I saw the ocean overtaking human creation, I was reminded once again that humanity and human creation are short-lived. Mother Nature inevitably takes back what is hers.
There are three awesome wreck dives in the Riviera Maya that serve as popular diving spots.
Mama Viña is an old shrimping boat that was intentionally sunk for diving off the coast of Playa del Carmen in 1995. The ship has since turned into an artificial reef, with plenty of coral and sea life, including green moray eels and invasive lionfish. The maximum depth of this dive is 27 meters, or 90 feet.
The C53 Felipe Xicotencatl is a huge Navy ship that was intentionally sunk as an artificial reef in 1999 near Cozumel. The ship was built in 1944, and the U.S. Navy used it as a minesweeper during World War II. In 1962, the U.S. sold the ship to the Mexican Navy, who used it for rescue missions and for illegal arms and drug patrolling in the Gulf of Mexico. The Navy decommissioned and donated the ship in 1999. The ship is now home to coral, sponges, and tropical fish who have begun to inhabit the artificial reef. The maximum depth is about 24 meters, or 80 feet.
The C56 Juan Escutia is another former mine sweeper donated by the Mexican Navy. It was intentionally sunk in 2000 off the coast of Puerto Morelos. During the dive, you can see coral and sea life, such as eagle rays, stingrays, barracudas, and moray eels. The maximum depth of this dive is 30 meters, or 100 feet.
Due to the depth and strong currents around these sites, it is better to wait until you have some experience before diving these wrecks. Don’t worry if you do not have a wreck diving certification. (I don’t!) You can still dive these sites by following along the outside of the boats, which nonetheless offers a great opportunity to see the wrecks and the marine life that occupies them.
The island of Cozumel lies 6 miles off the coast of Playa del Carmen. Cozumel’s reefs are world-renowned, with beautiful coral formations and abundant marine life. The currents of the water have carved out an interesting labyrinth of caverns and tunnels in the reefs, and divers find the dramatic wall dives exhilarating.
Among the underwater creatures that inhabit the reefs off of Cozumel are angelfish, toadfish, damselfish, turtles, sharks, and rays.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to dive Cozumel during my trip to the Riviera Maya. But hey, it just gives me one more reason to go back!