Portals of the Gods: Diving Mexico's Cenotes
by LORRY HEVERLY
An eerie glow of neon-blue bathed the cavern. Above me, thousands of razor-sharp limestone icicles dangled precariously from the roof, inches above my head. Below, stalagmites threatened to impale me if I suddenly plunged from my free-floating voyage through the watery wonderland. Here, in a timeless world preserved and protected forever by water, I was diving through chambers of an underwater cave, the sacred and ancient home of Mayan gods.
As a first-time cenote (cave) diver, I didn’t know what to expect. Previously, I had not understood the attraction of following a machete-wielding, barefoot guide through jungle, and hauling heavy dive gear to a remote sinkhole. Once, an overzealous guide at one Mayan city recounted how, in ancient times, virgin girls were adorned in feathers, furs and gold and led to the nearby cenote. Here they were ceremonially sacrificed and thrown into the water to appease the gods.
Thankfully, the cenotes I dove were very accessible, without a trace of skeletons in their depths.
Found along the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, cenotes are water-filled openings leading to a vast system of underground caverns, tunnels and chambers. For thousands of years, these caves had been dry, filled with stalagmites, stalactites, columns and flowstones. In some places, the land above subterranean rivers had collapsed, flooding the caverns while leaving their limestone formations undisturbed. Cenotes are sacred to the Maya, who believe they are the entrance to the spiritual world and the place where the Sun God sleeps at night.
Over 60 mapped cave systems offer divers cavern and cave diving options around Riviera Maya, the region that stretches for 75 miles from Cancun to Punta Allen. Although special certification is required for divers who want to penetrate caves, no advanced training is necessary for certified divers who want to explore cenotes, since routes always follow tunnels bathed in natural daylight.
Martina, our dive guide from Tank-Ha Dive Center, had her hands full with two first-time cenote divers. We left the highway to follow a dirt road through the jungle to cenote Taj Mahal. After a briefing which included practicing bent-leg kicks to preserve limestone formations in tight areas, swimming single- file and keeping an eye on the guide at all times, we set up our gear. For us, this consisted of just a single tank and dive lights, but Martina, a fully certified cave diver, carried double tanks, primary and backup lights and full cave gear.
A short walk led to a circular aqua pool where sunlight gleamed off crystal waters. Martina told us the easiest way to enter the water was to giant-step off a rock, but the water only looked about a foot deep. In blind faith I stepped off the edge expecting knee-deep waters, and sunk into a pillow of blue over eight feet deep.
We descended to about 20 feet, following Martina single-file through a small crevasse to chambers, tunnels and caverns hidden from the outside world for thousands of years. Gliding toward a distinct blue glow, we discovered the first of several openings where the roof had collapsed, allowing sunlight to pierce the waters with white laser-like beams.
A jumble of twisted vines and roots dangled in the water. Looking up, I could see trees, the sky and floating leaves, a glimpse of reality from the underworld. Snaking through the seemingly endless cave system, we floated over white snowdrifts of flowstones and limestone columns, and wove through tunnels carved by time.
Although visibility in the fresh water had been incredible, my vision was suddenly blurred, like someone had dumped oil into the water. I was swimming (although the sensation was more like flying) through a halocline layer, created by saltwater seeping through the porous limestone and mixing with fresh water. Although disoriented, I could swim a few inches above or below to escape to clearer waters. Mesmerized, we tunneled deeper, watching our air bubbles run up the wall like beads of liquid mercury.
We surfaced in a domed cavern with an air pocket, awakening hundreds of sleeping bats, causing a commotion of rustling wings and piercing screeches. Beckoned back into daylight with half-empty tanks, our senses reeled from the first of two extraordinary dives.
Riviera Maya has some of the easiest cavern dives in the world. The dives are also among the safest because of strict guidelines followed by dive operators. Divers must first go on an ocean dive so instructors can observe how comfortable people feel in the water, and if they can maintain buoyancy control. Just one uncertain kick could wipe out stalagmites and stalactites formed over millions of years. Certified cave guides constantly monitor their group and take only four divers into a cavern at a time.
A Cave of One’s Own
Named after the mighty Mayan rain god, Chac Mool was our next cenote site. Also in the jungle, the site was easy to access, down a short flight of handcrafted stone steps to the water. Swimming under large round boulders and a few ledges, this dive was filled with collapsed rooftop openings affording spectacular jungle views, as well as stalactites and occasional haloclines. We never saw another diver inside and felt like we were on a private tour of secret passageways.
“Although the popularity of cenote diving is growing,” explained Alberto Leonard, director of Tank-Ha Dive Center, “less than 15 per cent of divers coming to my shop dive a cenote.” Although cenotes are fascinating, divers may also want to check out ocean dives in the Caribbean Sea along the Great Maya Reef.
The second longest reef system in the world, the Great Maya Reef stretches from the shores of Mexico southward to Belize, Guatemala and Honduras. Divers can enjoy a variety of interesting sites just a short boat ride from Playa del Carmen.
Life of the Sea
Dropped at Tarpon, a site named for frequent sightings of these large, silvery game fish, we found favorable currents for a dive over large sponges and colorful corals. Giant sea turtles were out in force, camouflaged behind coral heads or resting on the ocean floor. The tarpon, however, were in hiding.
Doing well on air, we drifted into Tortuga, where we had the company of reef fish and a couple of nurse sharks. Suddenly, we are face-to-face with an awe-inspiring handful of huge tarpon, apparently on a jaunt from their namesake site.
Sunk to create a fish and coral habitat, the 60-foot police boat Mama Vina now rests at 89 feet for the enjoyment of divers. Approaching the site, I spotted dozens of giant barracuda patrolling the wreck, along with numerous sting rays and jacks. We had to be mindful of strong and unpredictable cross-currents around the boat, which have sent many unsuspecting divers crashing into the steel hull.
Also, allow a day or two to explore area attractions above sea level. The Riviera Maya is known for both Mayan cultural sights and ecological attractions, ranging from the ruins of Tulum and Coba to jungles and mangroves.
For exploring cenotes, dive operators include Tank-Ha Dive Center in Playa del Carmen — Phone: 011-52-987-3-03-02; Website: www.tankha.com — and Dressel Divers at Iberostar Hotels in Playacar — Phone: 011-52-987-72000 ext. 3402; Website:www.dresseldivers.com/ engl.html. Or contact Mexico Tourism: Phone: 800-446-3942; Website, www.rivieramaya.com
Photo courtesy of the Riviera Maya Tourist Board.