Cenotes, the Jewels of the Yucatán

Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is famous for its cenotes – limestone sinkholes filled with fresh, crystalline water. Chelsea Gregory shares two of her favorites.

Photo © Getty Images / Wilhelm Monnikes

Cenotes, to me, are the gems of the Yucatán Peninsula. The mysticism of these geologic masterpieces cast a spell on me at once. The Maya built civilizations around “xenotes” as their link to the underworld and a vital water source. The clarity of the aquamarine water that appears to glow, the calcified rock formations adorned with vines, and the greenery of the surrounding jungle create an all-encompassing experience.

Dos Ojos

I feel weightless, suspended in the dark, cool cavern. As I study the intricate stalactites and stalagmites around me, it occurs to me that this may be the closest I’ll ever come to space exploration. With an air tank strapped to my back, listening to the steady stream of bubbles through the regulator, I follow the cylindrical beam of light coming from my underwater torch. Slowly and steadily, I sweep it through the darkness to illuminate the delicate calcium deposits, and decide I don’t feel like I’m on planet Earth anymore. Not the Earth I’ve experienced so far, anyway.

Earlier that day, as we pulled off the highway and made our way down the dirt road to the dive site, I was a little nervous to try cavern diving – it’s not to be taken lightly. But as soon as I hopped out of the truck belonging to Alex, my dive guide, I knew I’d made the right decision. I stood in the early morning sun, pulling my wetsuit over my shoulders, and noticed an iguana larger than my arm lazily crossing the dirt parking lot. I waved hello and laughed to myself. This was going to be a good day.

I had been a little hesitant to pay the diving fee of US $150 ($3,048 MXN). It’s pricey for a backpacker, and I hadn't expected to pay that in Mexico, but a friend assured me that it would be an experience I wouldn't forget.

Now, suspended in the cave, it makes perfect sense as to why this experience came at a price. The feeling of exploring a part of the world I had never dreamt of leaves me full of wonder. It’s worth every penny.

I’ve been diving all over the world in many different landscapes of varying difficulty, but cavern diving is a completely foreign experience. If you’re looking for a more extreme adventure and want to explore the pitch black of underwater caverns in the Yucatán Peninsula, this is a dive to awaken all the senses.

Diving in Dos Ojos. Photo credit: Getty Images / Ullstein Bild

Sac Actun

Located near Dos Ojos but a bit further into the jungle, San Actun is a captivating experience that’s available to people of all levels and all ages. Like Dos Ojos, this is a cavernous cenote, but this site offers a 20-minute float along the tunnel system without being submerged.

Wearing a life jacket, I descend a vine-draped stairway and wade into the crystalline water for a leisurely float through the caves, taking in the ornate rock surrounding me. A local guide (in both Spanish and English) gives a mind-boggling explanation of the prehistoric formation of these geological wonders. I let myself drift through the glowing blue water, looking up at the ancient ceiling of the cavern and hearing nothing but the quiet drip of the water (and the occasional squeaking bat).

Thinking about the time it took to create the beauty around me makes me feel expansive, yet small at the same time – another ingredient in a “primordial soup” that has been here far longer than I can comprehend, and will be here long after I'm gone. It sharpens my connection with nature and drives home the message that our natural world is to be revered.

Sac Actun. Photo credit: Getty Images / cc-stock

Trip Notes

Dos Ojos

A 30-minute drive north of Tulum. Dive guides can be hired in Tulum and are essential if you want to do the fully-submerged cavern dive. There’s a small area near the cave opening where you can simply snorkel and play in the water, but this particular cenote offers far more for certified divers. The dive is challenging, but worth the effort. I’d recommend it for moderate to advanced divers with an excellent command of buoyancy control – the rock formations are delicate, ancient, and not to be touched.

San Actun

10 minutes past Dos Ojos. An entry fee of US $19 ($400 MXN) provides a life jacket, a snorkel, and a guide.

Getting There

Renting a car provides the most flexibility. However, there are a number of local tours leaving from both Tulum and Playa del Carmen if you're interested in the snorkeling option – they’ll take care of transportation, equipment, and entrance fees.

Note: Not all World Nomads travel insurance plans for travelers from all countries cover scuba diving or cavern diving, and many plans exclude cover for cave diving. Be sure to select the right plan and/or adventure sport option for the type of diving and depth of dive you’re doing before you buy. You should also be licensed to dive to the maximum depth of the cenote or cave and you must dive with a fully certified dive guide.

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