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Cenote Diving in the Yucatan
Quintana Roo, Mexico
Cenote is the modern word, mangled by the Spanish from the Mayan Dízonot, meaning sacred well. There are hundreds of cenotes spread over caribbean Mexico and many are remote, hidden by the dense, lush growth of the Yucatan. Many cenotes have been opened by local landowners, and some Mayan families have been living and relying on this sacred water for generations.
What the Yucatan lacks in rivers it makes for in a vast interconnected underground water-system that is truly massive. Here and there we glean some of the system through the cenote, but it’s possible to spend some time in the Yucatan and never accidentally stumble into one. Since the release of the IMAX film Journey into Amazing Caves, many more people have been introduced to the magic of the cenotes. Unfortunately, capitalism tends to turn some of these places into mini-Disneylands -- with lights, bloated entry premiums, and silly tourists who would like nothing more than to have another one of these places built in their hometown.
When we first started visiting cenotes in 1998, there were few resources around about them, and searches online still returned few or no results. Now you can search for cenote and quickly have a montage returned of a retarded couple holding hands while snorkeling at about 40’. Thank god so few of them are divers – but we’ve seen these folks as well – and I have only two thoughts about it: if you’re holding hands for a sense of security then you are a risk – if it’s simply that you’re sooo in love, get a room. Ok I’m done the rant.
The best way to find out about cenotes is word of mouth. By the time you read about them online you are too late to make a new discovery, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make great dives. If you want to explore you need a rental car. So, we picked ours up, a white Chevy with A/C and drove to Grand Cenote in the afternoon. It was nice still but bigger than before. The ladders that is, not the sinkhole or cenote itself. The old ladder is now a staircase and there is a house with a new car parked by it. I think the Mayans who have a cenote on their land are lucky. We snorkeled around and met Kim from Sweden who was coming up with another diver who sounded English. As it turns out the two of them have been spending several years off and on exploring new cenotes and Kim was working with a new dive operation trying to get off the ground out of Tulum.
We talked with him about doing a few dives and agreed to meet at a Pemex station in Tulum and go diving. We met him at 10am and he was waiting for us in a red truck with Texas plates. Then we followed him to the dive shop (a house in Tulum with dive gear in back). We got our things together and followed him to Grand Cenote to start. He explained our dive, we reviewed signals and gear, then ready, we did our big stride entry. Visibility, as always, was perfect. Kim led with one of us following directly behind. Some spaces Kim led us through were kind of smallish at least compared to open water. Kim called this the meditation dive. Serene. The caverns really give you a floating through air sensation – all green, blue and gray. The dive was max. 40’ for about 45 minutes. Over a small surface interval, we chatted about real life back home, some of the new cenotes Kim had been exploring, and we made our way to the next cenote, the Temple of Doom.
It was the deeper of the two, so by rights it should have been done first. But, I don’t blame Kim for doing is second. It’s trickier than Grand Cenote and probably more dangerous with longer cavern passages and little light in many places. It’s called Temple of Doom because it has two small openings into the main cavern and one large one. “If you use your imagination it looks like a skull”, Kim said doubtfully. There were two circles we were to do. He explained that after jumping in, we were going to swim around the cavern, beyond the ‘Stop’ sign and then do the inner “safe” tied line. We geared up again by the side of the road and walked following Kim into the jungle. We wore our shoes on Kim’s advice and were glad because it was very woodsy. There were lots of mosquitoes too, little bastards. A few minutes later we got to the hole where the water was about 10’ below us. Strange feeling – that – jumping in. Nothing, nothing with all your gear on, then kerploosh into cold water. It’s was fun though, and nice to get cooled off and out of bug world. We descended and went for the edge of the cavern.
If Kim wanted to get rid (read take-care) of us this would have been a good time. I turned my light out periodically to check for natural light because for long stretches it seemed like there was none. It was weird again floating through pristine water without any noticeable current. At this cenote, the saltwater joined the fresh at about 40’ making a halocline. Each pass through the halocline made for a foggy, oily, unusual loss of visibility. Passing through the mix after a diver was like having just lost a pair of critically needed glasses – aiming your direction at the vague blobs ahead. It never took long and we were either in salt or fresh water and it was pristine again. I stuck my tongue out the bottom of the regulator to taste the water we were in – but mostly only for fun. The temperature change gave away the type of water – the freshwater was about 77º and the saltwater was about 7º warmer.
Temple of Doom was much more moon-like than Grand Cenote. “The saltwater is much more aggressive than the fresh”, said Kim. There is more silt in this place, less light, and many places with handprints of previous divers having made their mark. We resisted doing this, but the idea of leaving “Johnny and Bimbo, 4ever 2gether” marked on the bottom was tempting. It’s fun to pretend that you’re the first there. And since it was so surreal here it was easy for me to do anyway.
The halocline also makes weird mirror-like effects. When Kim shone his light up and down across the separation it was giving it a strange reflective look and a ‘matrix-like’ effect, When you swam right at the edge of it you warped the separation and made it ripple before it mixed up. Everything was in slow motion. The main cavern was illuminated by a beam of sunlight and occasionally you would catch a glimpse of this beam through the side tunnels.
Upon finishing the dive we were fortunate to catch a glimpse of the Blue-crowned Motmot. Kim recounted that he frequently uses the birds as a guide to locating cenotes in the jungle. We spent some more time visiting a few other favourite cenotes such as Crystal and Car Wash and we did a few reef dives to round-out our visit. There are so many cenotes left to explore, and thankfully, most remain off the beaten path.
©2004 Itchyfeet Online Travel