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 on the Carribean Coast but also, Baja California on the Pacific Coast. For 4 weeks I travelled around Mexico from Mexico DF to the Riviera Maya. Here is why Mexico and diving in cenotes will always remain one of my favourite experiences in the world as a scuba diver, one I will make sure to come back again and again.
Falling for Mexico during a 4-week roadtrip
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 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 pretty much the extend of what I knew.
Travelling through half of the country by bus over a month, my trip took me to :
- Mexico DF, the Federal District of the capital city;
- Acapulco, in the state of Guerrero;
- Puerto Escondido & Oaxaxa, in the state of Oaxaca;
- San Cristobal de la Casas & Palenque, in the state of Chiapas;
- Villahermosa, in the state of Tabasco;
- Tulum & Playa del Carmen, in the state of Quintana-Roo.
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. During my trip I learned the word Chido (great): it is now my favourite word in Spanish; it sums up my experience in this country: surprise, amazement, and fun!
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: the 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. If you’re starting your trip in Cancun, here is how to get from Cancun to Playa del Carmen.
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).
Playa Del Carmen offers 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!
Cenote diving in Playa del Carmen & Tulum
Diving in the cenotes made it to my list of the best diving in Americas & the Caribbean. There is absolutely no way to get bored on the Riviera Maya. The real challenge will be to have enough time to scuba dive as many sites as possible.
What is 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 formed a long time ago from the collapse of a limestone cave (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 while diving in a cenote
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 water and the sea water. 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 to fly over a lake when staying in the freshwater area. Truly magical… The most impressive phenomenon of halocline I saw was at Ponderosa Cenote. The reflection of the light on the seawater layer was perfect but the water temperature difference as well! I measured a 5°C 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 in Mexico: 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 a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 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 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.
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