For many divers, Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula conjures up images of the shimmering green waters of the western Caribbean and Cozumel, with perhaps a sidelong glance at the ruins of Tulum. For Roxanne Pennington, the Yucatán means cenotes.“Outside of Akumal, Mexico, there are underwater caverns that the Mayans believed were sacred,” Roxanne began. “The water is crystal clear and the views of the stalactites and stalagmites are spectacular. As light shines through openings, it creates a beam with incredible colors. When you surface and see and hear the jungle, it’s breathtaking.”
Cenotes (pronounced “say-no-tays”) are a geological phenomenon found through much of the state of Quintana Roo, on the eastern side of the Yucatán peninsula. The story of how cenotes came to be so prevalent in the region is fairly complex, but in short form goes like this: The surface strata consists of porous limestone, remnants of what was not so long ago (in geologic terms) an ocean floor. Over thousands of years, rainwater filtered through the limestone, creating an extensive series of underground rivers, with accompanying caverns. Cenotes are essentially sinkholes that occur when the limestone surface crumbles. The Mayans revered cenotes, viewing them as portals to a spiritual world below the earth. (At the ruins of Chichén Itzá, northwest of Akumal, divers have discovered jewelry, pottery, and human skeletons, believed to be offerings to the gods; it’s uncertain whether the skeletons were the result of human sacrifice by drowning.) On a pragmatic day-to-day basis, cenotes were extremely important to eastern Yucatán residents as a source of fresh water for drinking and irrigation. Some cities were constructed around cenotes to facilitate easy access to fresh water.
Today, cenotes give casual passersby a wonderful spot to take a cooling freshwater plunge, snorkelers an interesting chamber to inspect, and divers an entrance to a vast underwater cave system. “Among my diving experiences, visiting the cenotes is a one-of-a-kind experience, in many ways,” Roxanne continued. “It starts with the adventure of getting to Akumal—by land instead of by boat. Most of the cenotes are marked by signs along the main road. You pay a small entrance fee to access the cenote in question, then go bumping along a rugged road, back into the jungle—the sound of clanking equipment in the back of the jeep or van stays with me. Eventually, you reach a parking area, where there’s a table where you can gear up. From the start, you have the feeling that this isn’t going to be your normal dive!
“Once you’re geared up, you walk down a path, or some stairs or a wooden ladder, to the water. Each cenote has its own type of entry, which is part of its individual charm. The water is cool and exhilarating—around 75 degrees—so you might need a wet suit, though the local guides dive in their swimsuits. When you enter the water, but before you go under, you’re struck by the sounds of the jungle—the calls of the monkeys and mot mots. When you go under, the water is so clear that you can barely tell you’re under water. (Visibility in some cenotes can reach 350 feet.) As you submerge, you see all the different colors of the various limestone formations—stalactites, stalagmites. As you swim along, there will be beams of light coming through from the cenote. On most dives, a third or halfway through, there will be an open room with part of the area above water. When you surface, it’s silent except for the sounds of the birds. Some of these rooms let you see the open greenery. It’s an inspiring experience to be floating there in the midst of this unspoiled wilderness. It’s where I’d like to go when I die—the play of light, the music of nature, all coupled with my love of diving.” Akumal is a wonderful place!
Cenote diving has some protocols and techniques that are its own. Like for night diving, participants are outfitted with flashlights to light the way through the tunnels and caverns. Divers need to have a good sense of buoyancy to control how fast they ascend and descend. “You don’t want to bump into a stalactite or stalagmite,” Roxanne added. “First, it took a long time for these to grow, and you want to be respectful. And second, it would hurt—on one occasion, a diver we were with pushed the inflate button by accident, and he nearly impaled himself on a stalagmite. You also need to use a modified kick, so you don’t stir up sediment on the bottom and diminish visibility. One odd experience in cenote diving is the haloclines that occur when salt water seeping in from the ocean and the fresh water of the underground river mingle. Where the higher density salt water meets the fresh—at about thirty-five feet—visibility is blurred. It’s like looking through an oil slick, though visibility is fine above and below.” Divers are advised to always stay in sight of sunlight, though there are guidelines that track through the cenote. Akumal is worth of your attention.
There are many cenotes to choose from, and new ones are identified each year after heavy rainstorms. Many are named. “Each cenote has different colors and configurations,” Roxanne said. “Car Wash is one that many people start with. It’s very pool-like, easy to get into, and easy to navigate around. (Local people used to wash their cars here, hence the name.) The limestone of Gran Cenote is completely white, which is very cool in itself. Most of the cenotes are thirty to seventy feet deep; Dos Ojos, which is featured in an IMAX movie, is 351 feet deep, and has bats in one of the caverns. One that stands out for me is Temple of Doom, I think because the entry requires a ten-foot jump. I was the first girl to go in from our group, as I knew I’d chicken out if I didn’t go quickly!” Put Akumal to your to-do list.
Should one tire of the cenotes, rumor has it that the open waters off Akumal are home to some pretty good diving, too!
ROXANNE PENNINGTON is co-owner of DiveTravel.com, Inc. (www.divetravel.com), and a travel writer, photographer, and videographer. Roxanne began her travel career in 1982 and earned the Certified Travel Counselor (CTC) designation from the Travel Institute (formally The Institute of Certified Travel Agents) in 1989. Roxanne was certified to scuba dive in 1994 and has since earned the Master Diver Certification, Cavern Diver, and NITROX certifications. Her dive travels have taken her all over the world.
IF YOU GO TO AKUMAL
Getting to Akumal: Akumal is about one-and-a-halfhours’ drive from the Cancún International Airport, which is served by many major carriers.
Best Time to Visit Akumal: You can dive the cenotes year round, though summers are uncomfortably warm for most tastes, and there’s always the chance of hurricanes in the early fall. March and April are the driest months.
Accommodations in Akumal: Akumal offers a broad array of accommodations, from modest pala-pas on the beach to all-inclusive resorts, to rental homes. LocoGringo.com provides a good overview of options.
Dive Shops/Guides in Akumal: A number of outfitters lead cenote dives; they’re listed on LocoGringo.com. NOTE: A guide is required for cavern diving unless you are cavern certified.
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