Between fresh & sea water: my cenote diving experience in Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Mexico is such a fascinating country. It might be culturally part of Latin America, but it is geographically part of North America. This geography detail has a tremendous importance if you want to understand its cultural background. From a European point of view like mine, Mexico has this little something influenced by the USA in everyday life with a mix of cultures tearing between the roots from the Aztecs to the Mayans and the Christian European culture brought by the Spanish. This melting pot creates a country with a culture and a history so old and so rich that it makes our medieval castles in Europe ridiculous compared to it, but moreover that creates a real Mexican pride. Creating an identity that takes advantages of these three aspects is still a challenge today. Getting why Mexico is what it is and why it works as it does take time, but as a European who speaks Spanish and lived in Canada for a while, I already had some of the pieces of the puzzle. Before my trip, I knew about the Mayan’s pyramids, I thought I knew about fajitas & tequila… Well, I believe this is it! Then I learnt about the complex and long pre-Columbian history and the modernity of the organisation of each ancient city in Teotihuacan, Chichén Itza and Palenque. I learnt about the Zapatistas movement, and then I heard about Mexican independence and how much the French revolution had an impact on the country. I tasted real Mexican tacos, mole, and mescal. Visiting the “Casa Azul” in Coyoacan, I discovered through the work of Frida Kahlo and Diego Riviera, the pride and love of their country. I finally learned the word Chido (great)! It is now my favourite word in Spanish, and it describes exactly my experience in this country: surprise, amazement, and fun!

But what took me to Mexico was the promise of incredible underwater adventures. If you research the quirkiest dives in the world, you will quickly hear about the Cenotes, the Mayan springs, famous for offering some of the most incredible cavern and cave diving in the world. Mexico is also famous for ocean dives in Cozumel, Playa del Carmen and Cancun on the Carribean Coast, but also Cabo San Lucas in Baja California on the Pacific Coast. For 4 weeks I travelled around Mexico from Mexico DF to Acapulco, Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, San Cristobal de las Casas, Palenque, and Playa del Carmen. This post focuses on the 2 weeks I spent in Playa del Carmen before travelling for a week in Guatemala and Belize.

Riviera Maya: Yucatan or Quintana-Roo?

Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, land of the ancient Mayan civilisation, is ideally on the shores of the Caribbean Sea, sharing borders with Belize and Guatemala, while pointing toward Cuba and Florida, USA. It includes 3 states: Yucatan, Quintana-Roo & Campeche. The one that interests us the most is Quintana-Roo, a curious name for a more famous one: Riviera Maya!

Riviera Maya is a dream destination just in its name, but it doesn’t describe the real treasure that hides behind it. Riviera Maya is the paradise white sandy coastline located between Cancun and Tulum, with, nestled in the middle, Playa del Carmen. Without even exaggerating I can honestly say this place has it all! Let’s put aside Cancun, which, except for spring breaks and bachelor parties, doesn’t represent a real interest. My favourite place was Playa del Carmen. Imagine a sandy beach, jungle, Mayan ruins, delicious food, and – most of all – Unique scuba diving adventures! The touristy area is mainly concentrated on the seafront (La Quinta). From the 2nd following parallel avenue (La Diez), you’re back to real Mexico with endless opportunities to immerse yourself in everyday life (with the standard prices that go with it).

Why you should go scuba diving in Playa del Carmen

The point that makes scuba diving from Playa Del Carmen is the unique opportunity to do ocean diving and cavern diving from the same place. One day you can go diving from its beautiful white sandy beach (my favourites are Tortugas and Barracuda) or from the nearby famous island of Cozumel (the ferry takes you there in less than an hour) with giant moray eels, turtles and sharks (I saw my first hammerhead shark in Cozumel!). The following day, you take the car in the direction of the nearby jungle for some exciting cavern diving in the freshwater of the Cenotes! There is absolutely no way to get bored over there, the real challenge will be to have enough time to try everything.

What’s exactly a cenote?

Have you ever thought about cavern or cave diving? No worries, you don’t have to be a tech diver to enjoy cavern diving (part of the cave where you always see and reach daylight openings). Yet it’s true that the best cave divers (or wannabes) in the World meet there to challenge their skills in the endless maze of cenote caves of Yucatan. Especially associated with the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, Cenotes were mostly used by the Mayans as a source of drinkable water and but also sometimes used for sacrificial offerings.

The origins of the word are not clear. I found different sources of information with different meanings. One of them, “Ts’onot”, an ancient Mayan word, would refer to a location with accessible water. To be a bit more specific, a cenote is a sinkhole that was formed a long time ago from the collapse of full limestone caves (formed at an age when the sea covered Yucatan). Cenotes may be entirely collapsed, creating an open water pool, or partly collapsed. The beauty of the rock shapes, the grace of the many stalactites and the surprising effect of the rays of light penetrating through the water are a real wonder of nature.

I can tell you, Grand Cenote, Ponderosa, Tajmahal, Dos Ojos, Carwash, Angelita… these are names you won’t forget! Besides, the proximity of this cave system with the coast created a beautiful effect nature as always the secret for, as both freshwater from the rain infiltrating through the ground and sea water penetrating through the cracks in the rock meeting in an interesting way…

The magic of the halocline effect

From a geological point of view, the Yucatán Peninsula is made of a large coastal aquifer system. The infiltrating rainwater can float on top of sea water coming from the coastal cracks as its density is higher because of the salt.

What we call the halocline is the interface between the fresh and the sea water. And in the same way, you can see a thermocline (change of water temperature), the density change because of salt can be seen and it less mixed that in the case of a thermocline. The difference is significant that the light reflects on the surface of the higher density sea water. It gives the impression when staying in the freshwater area to fly over a lake. Truly magical… The most impressive phenomenon of halocline I saw was at Ponderosa Cenote. The reflection of the light on the sea water layer was perfect but the water temperature difference as well! I measured 5-degree temperature difference with my computer. So the fun part is to have your body in the warm sea water while keeping your head in the chilled fresh water. Only problem: when it’s time to ascend, you don’t want to leave!

My favourite cenote: Angelita

The Cenote I found the most incredible was actually the first cenote I ever dived! Forget about the peculiar rock formations I told you about before, here this is not the point… Diving Angelita (little angel), is like living an adventure from a spooky movie.

The shape of the cenote, its atmosphere, and its unique cloud halocline make this dive an experience of a lifetime. You descend a perfectly cylindrical hole of pure, fresh water, a small tunnel with a couple of stalactites can be seen at about 12m and to be visited at the end of the dive. When you arrive at 30m, an intriguing yellowish cloud floats. Some trunks and tree branches emerge from it, giving a weird and fascinating atmosphere.

It is actually another kind of halocline above which a layer of hydrogen sulphate created by the decomposition of the all the tree branches and leaves that fell into the cenote. Watch out, because of the hydrogen sulphate, remove every piece of jewellery you might wear otherwise you’ll find them black once outside of the water. It’s not a problem to cross the cloud as thanks to the mechanism of your regulator you won’t breathe any of it, but, honestly speaking, there’s nothing special below except it’s a bit dark! The cloud lake effect above is much more interesting in my opinion.

 

 

Photo Credits: this article includes a few of the personal photos I could save from losing my camera which fell down into a cenote at Chichen Itza archaeological site(!!!) and two from Pixabay to illustrate the cenotes. The beautiful shot of Angelita Cenote is from David Jones of Triton Scuba, UK (Reproduction is forbidden without permission) thanks to the kind cooperation of the most fantastic cave diving instructor, Christine Loew www.diving-caves.com

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  1. […] to have a liquid mirror above my head, or if you prefer it was like flying over a lake, a bit like my halocline experience in the Cenotes of Mexico, except here everything was upside down. As a result it is a delightful playground for underwater […]

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  2. […] liquide au-dessus de moi, ou si vous préférez, c’était comme survoler un lac, un peu comme mon expérience des haloclines dans les cenotes au Mexique, sauf qu’ici tout était à l’envers. Il s’agit donc d’un terrain de jeu idéal […]

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  3. […] stabilisateur, mon masque et mes palmes. Après des milliers et des milliers de kilomètres au Mexique, au Belize, en Argentine, en Indonésie, en Thaïlande, en Espagne, en Italie et en France, ses […]

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  4. […] biggest challenge of this dive! Diving in this pure fresh water was amazing, reminding me of the Cenotes in Mexico or Silfra in Iceland.  I was lucky enough to have a beautiful sunshine that created incredible […]

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  5. […] rock formations are not as dramatic as the beautiful stalactites of the Cenotes in Mexico, but the crystal clear water and the light beams through the water totally got me. It is very […]

    Reply

  6. […] had the opportunity to practice it for the first time while diving the Cenotes in Mexico and then at Silfra in Iceland. I knew how to use it. It’s a movement close to the one you use […]

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  7. […] 12 meters, there is a halocline, a layer where fresh water and salt water meet. It looks like a blurry fog. Descending through it […]

    Reply

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