Ever since I first stood on the lip of a Cenote, the entrance to an underground river in the Yucatan, I longed to explore them. Once on a day trip from Cozumel, we followed a sign off the main road that pointed to an entrance.
A large ring of rock and vine gaped open in the jungle.
Within minutes we were peering into a wide, round pit and then followed stairs down to a platform. The water was still and dark yet as our gaze followed the glassy surface we could just spy light beaming in from the distance. Sunlight had pierced the limestone overhang just enough to illuminate a passage. We weren’t prepared to swim towards it but in that moment diving Cenotes rose to the top of my bucket list.
The underground rivers lace the jungle landscape south of Cancun and far to the west. For aeons rainfall has been sinking through fissures to underground aquifers, filling caverns and networks of caves. Mayans felt that the entrances were sacred and built their villages, their temples, near these sources of fresh water.
Many visitors to the region see their first Cenote at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Chichen Itza. The Spanish named, Sacred Cenote sits on the north side of the complex. According to post-conquest notes, the site was used for sacrifices and offerings. Bones of children and adults have been excavated from its muddy depths, along with many artifacts confirming that visitors from across the Americas made offerings there.
The place is surrounded with myth and legends. Local guides will speak about mysterious deaths for those foolhardy enough to fall in. Truth? I’m not sure but the stories chilled my interest to explore. I also had no desire to disturb the rain gods or the mischievous creatures known as aluxes, mythical guardians of the jungle.
Recently I returned to the northern Yucatan and made reservations at Villas DeRosa to stay near Akumal, one of the first Cenotes available to gringo divers. Aquatech Dive Center was founded by our host, Nancy DeRosa, who bought beachfront property there in the 1980’s. After exploring the rich reef life she and then husband, Tony, were introduced to the underground rivers and began mapping what they could. Interest has exploded since then with the theme park distractions of Xcaret, Xplor and Xel-Ha which draw tourists from Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
Listen to the Interview. Nancy DeRosa talks about discovering the Cenotes and life on the Riviera Maya.
Hear more stories of intrepid travelers on the Gathering Road Podcast.
The resorts may be fun but I wanted more authenticity; to dip into quiet waters with a guide and not trail along with a crowd of divers. Akumal gave three of us that opportunity. We set off from our small hotel and soon drove into the jungle to set up near the entrance. As the entrances are yards below the jungle’s surface we had to put on all our gear and climb down stairs to dive. Ocean water along the coast is bathtub warm, but the rivers are often 20 or more degrees colder, so we tugged wetsuits on and trudged down to the rocks below.
Cavern diving takes only an open water certification. You’re always within sight of rays creeping through the undergrowth to meet the surface where they bend and dip. Cave diving on the other hand takes hours of training and special gear. It’s not for the faint of heart. My family group was interested in just a taste of underground diving, so after going over safety precautions, signals and best practices with our guide, we slipped into the cool depths.
For over an hour we carefully swam past stalactites and fossils. We marveled at vines dipping past us from dozens of feet above. There was no sign of the mischievous, mythical aluxes, only a few small fish near the light. The water was spectacularly clear. It looked like we floating unless we moved through haloclines, vertical zones, where fresh and salt water mixed in blurry undulations.
We surfaced in a few caverns to look for bats and passed ages-old towers rising from the depths, skimmed over sunken boulders the size of cars and followed the guideline back to our embarking point.
It was a relatively easy dive. We never went lower than about 45 feet and rose chilly into the steamy jungle air, thrilled by the adventure. If the idea appeals to you, it’s simple to snorkel through cenotes at the resorts mentioned above or join a guided tour to more natural locations.
If you are interested in diving Cenotes:
- Contact one of the many dive guides in the area. We worked with Aquatech, the original Cenote diving center.
- Rent a car to explore the region. Public transportation is irregular and the Cenotes can be down long, incredibly hot roads that you wouldn’t want to wander alone. The main roads are well maintained and traffic is usually light. We found many reputable car agents in Playa del Carmen. Watch out for the Topes, speed bumps!
- Be prepared to pay entrance fees. The accessible Cenotes are on private land and charges are usually nominal per person. If you’re with a tour group, entrance fees are included.
- Safety is the first concern when exploring a Cenote. Many people have been trapped, lost or suffocated due to poor preparation or accidents. Do not explore without a certified guide and carefully follow their instructions. The rest of diving Cenotes is easy.
- Check out the encyclopedic book, Cenotes of the Riviera Maya, by Steve Gerrard, one of the first to explore the underground river systems in the 1980’s. A new version is due out soon. He still leads dive groups in the Yucatan
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