You may have gone scuba diving in every ocean in the world, but there’s one amazing experience you may not have had that should definitely be on your bucket list: diving a cenote. These sinkholes in the limestone bedrock are common especially in Mexico‘s Yucatan Peninsula (which has many of the 6,000 estimated throughout the country), and the ancient Mayans considered them sacred wells.
These days, many of these cenotes are popular for swimming and snorkelling – and their fresh, clear waters is also a draw for scuba divers who love to explore their nooks, crannies, and underwater rivers that extend out from them. As a plus, the fresh water means excellent buoyancy control, allowing them to sink more easily and with less weight.
Allow me, then, to introduce three of the sweetest cenotes near the Yucatan coast, the so-called Mayan Riviera, all within easy driving distance of Cancún, Playa del Carmen, and other resort areas along the Riviera.
Fifteen minutes into the jungle from the city of Tulum and just over an hour from Playa del Carmen, Angelita is a deep, open-cave cenote – one which has no roof. It’s some 60 metres (200 feet) deep, and halfway down you run into an eerie hydrogen sulfate cloud created by a halocline, the transition between fresh and salt water. Moving at speeds different to the surrounding water, this cloud reminds many of an underwater river. Playing in it is amazing – you’ll start to taste a bit of sulphur in your air, and some divers like to jump from an underwater branch to punch a hole through the cloud and go from zero visibility to perfect clarity. If you’re lucky you’ll even get to spot a crocodile! Angelita is a perfect spot to practise your deep and multilevel diving skills (to return to the surface, it’s recommended to go up in gradual circles around the wall).
En route to the Mayan site of Cobá, just ten minutes from Tulum and about an hour from Playa del Carmen, this majestic spot (above and top) is the heart of the one the region’s biggest cave systems, Sac Aktun. The shallow cave dive here (maximum 8 m/26 ft) takes you through a maze of amazing stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and crevices, with very tight clearance between the ceiling and floor of the passageways. There are hundreds of kilometres of caves to be explored, but what’s available to divers is perfectly marked – complete with “Stop” signs to keep you from going astray and getting lost, and a safety line along the floors. Very little easily visible fauna down here, but the fantastic scenery more than makes up for it!
Deep in the jungle and part of the famed Dos Ojos park of a half dozen cenotes, the region’s deepest cenote (110 m/370 ft) is because of its depth open to only experienced divers. For this particular dive the equipment is lowered by rope into the cenote, and like Angelita, this is both a deep and a multilevel dive. Your guide will bring you down to 40 m (130 ft.), along the way passing through brilliant turquoise shafts of light plunging more than 30 m and (also like Angelita) an eerie hydrogen sulfite cloud. You’ll also spot animal skeletons as well as human bones around what appears to be an old fireplace and an indication in the walls of where the water level has been throughout the ages. Located just over a half hour south of Playa del Carmen and two hours from Cancún.