Trip Report Cenote Trip Report: Playa del Carmen, December 2020-January 2021

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Ironborn

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Introduction

I had remarkable experiences during my “cavern” dives in the cenotes of the Mayan Riviera this past holiday season, from a base in Playa del Carmen. I highly recommend cenote cavern dives to any diver with adequate skill and a willingness to see the beauty in different types of environments. The cenote-centric dive operator Cenote Xperience, whom I found through the comments of other members on this forum, provided excellent service that I would recommend to others. This experience fueled my interest in cave training in the probably distant future and finally motivated me to pursue other dive courses that I have been putting off for too long in the meantime. The hyperlinks below are for photos from my trip on Instagram that illustrate my written points; please see my Instagram profile for more images.

How and Why I Went There

I had originally booked a Socorro liveaboard for that week or so after Christmas and into the New Year. That operator canceled the trip just two days after I booked it just a few weeks in advance, with a suspicious explanation. Travel restrictions left me with few viable alternatives outside Mexico. I considered going to Cozumel again, but I was wary of the higher risk of port closures at that time of year. I then remembered that some Cozumel operators arrange cavern dives in the cenotes on the mainland when the Cozumel port is closed. I had done two cenote dives in the Chac Mool and Kukulkan cenotes on the sidelines of a non-diving trip to Cancun years ago. That experience sparked my interest in further exploration of the cenotes in the future, but I was concerned that I would not be able to get as much out of further cenote dives without the considerable investment in specialized cave diving courses and equipment. In the absence of other viable options for my window of travel time, I looked into it further and found that there actually are enough cenotes accessible for more limited cavern dives that a diver without cave training can put together a good cenote itinerary of a week or so.

My research, including on this forum, identified Cenote Xperience in Playa del Carmen as the most suitable option for a cenote-focused trip for a diver without cave training. They proposed, and I accepted, an itinerary that covered most of the highlights of the cenotes that are accessible via cavern dives for divers without cave training, along with a night dive, a bull shark dive, and a regular reef dive. I also booked a separate full day of reef diving with Tank Ha in Playa del Carmen, in order to get my sea legs back and ensure that my equipment and my technique were on point before I entered the riskier environment of the cenotes. I booked a two-hour JetBlue flight from Fort Lauderdale (I live in Miami now) to Cancun, from which I took the one-hour ADO bus ride to Playa del Carmen. I found a decent hotel on Fifth Avenue, the main drag of Playa del Carmen, for about $50 USD per night. Cenote Xperience provides transportation between one's lodging and the cenotes, and Tank Ha was within walking distance of my hotel. Fifth Avenue has plenty of dining and entertainment options.

(to be continued in the next post on this thread)
 
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Ironborn

Ironborn

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The Cenotes

I would divide the cenotes that I dove into two categories. Those with a more horizontal orientation are more like what most people would expect to see in caves or caverns, including stalactites and other formations. These cenotes include Dos Ojos and Dreamgate, which were my personal favorites, and I imagine that they would be the most interesting to explore in full cave dives. Chac Mool and Kulkulkan are also similar in content and layout. These more horizontal cenotes also often have the advantage of being shallower, at least within the limits of cavern diving for divers without cave training.

What I did not expect was that many of the cenotes are more vertical in their orientation and closer to what most people would describe as sinkholes. These more vertical cenotes, such as Angelita and the Pit, are often deeper shafts and (with the major exception of Zapote) of greater interest for features other than their mineral formations, such as lighting effects, jungle debris, or acidic layers of hydrogen sulfide. Below are some comments on the individual cenotes that I dove. Many dive operators that offer cavern dives of the cenotes allow customers to choose which specific cenotes they want to dive, so keep these differences in mind if and when you book cenote dives.

Dreamgate: This cenote was my favorite for its most numerous and intricate stalactites, stalagmites, and other mineral formations. I could not help but think of the dwarves' halls of Erebor and the Mines of Moria from the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. Its orientation is more horizontal and it is relatively shallow within the limits of cavern diving. Its structure also allows for two dives at this same cenote, following both upstream and downstream routes.

Dos Ojos: I would rank Dos Ojos as a close second after Dreamgate for its extensive and elaborate formations, its generally “dwarvish" look and feel, and its relatively shallow depth and more horizontal orientation. The structure of one of the two “eyes” (the meaning of Dos Ojos in Spanish) also allows for two dives along two different routes, one of which includes a very impressive “Bat Cave” air dome that is particularly rich in formations.

Zapote: This cenote was hands down the most interesting of those with a more vertical orientation for its unique “Hell's Bells” formations, which grow from bacteria colonies. The narrow shaft through which one descends to them really did feel like the entrance to Hell, hence the appropriate name for these bizarre formations. Eerie sights like these enabled me to understand why Mayans believed that the cenotes were the entrance to the underworld. Zapote is a deep dive, with the formations at 110 feet.

Angelita: This more vertically oriented cenote is probably the best place to see the acidic layers of hydrogen sulfide that float in the middle of the water column in some of the more vertically oriented cenotes. This hydrogen sulfide comes from the decomposition of jungle debris that falls into the cenote. What makes the layer of acid here more interesting is the “island” of accumulated jungle debris protruding from below it. This cenote is one of the eeriest, with a vibe reminiscent of a Tim Burton movie, and further illustrates that the cenotes really do feel like the entrance to the underworld.

Maravilla: This more vertically oriented cenote is remarkable primarily for impressive rays of sunlight filtered through the jungle entrance all the way down to the layer of hydrogen sulfide at considerable depth below. This cenote is a must for photographers, but you will need a model to pose in the rays of sunlight. I was lucky to have some freedivers practicing while I was there.

Carwash: This cenote is more horizontal in its orientation and does not have quite so many formations as Dreamgate or Dos Ojos. Its most interesting feature was its entrance, which has a lot of aquatic plant life and fish, as well as jungle debris and strong natural light.

Tajma Ha: This cenote is more horizontal in its orientation and shallower but lacks the extensive formations of Dreamgate and Dos Ojos. It is most interesting for the lighting effects at its various entrances, where the jungle filters the sunlight that shines into openings filled with jungle debris.

Jardin el Eden: This cenote is similar to Tajma Ha, which is not far away.

Orquidea: This more vertically oriented cenote is most distinctive for its green water. It also has a hydrogen sulfide layer and more formations than most of the other vertically oriented cenotes.

The Pit: This more vertically oriented cenote is quite deep. It also has a hydrogen sulfide layer and some interesting formations.

Learning about the cenotes beforehand gave me a greater appreciation of what I saw. For example, some of the cenotes have visible marine fossils, from when the peninsula was under the ocean. The Yucatan peninsula is made of limestone (which is more conducive to cave formation from water flow) from coral and other marine life from millions of years ago. Caves formed from the remains of dead marine animals from long ago offer an interesting pairing with the rich marine life across the channel in Cozumel today. Maybe the Mayans were not so far from the truth in believing that the cenotes were entrances to the underworld, since it is a mass grave of sorts for long-dead marine animals, as well as jungle plants and animals that fall into them, producing the hydrogen sulfide layers. Some cenotes also have human artifacts preserved from when the water level was lower and they were accessible to non-divers. I cannot help but wonder, though, if the Mayans were able to freedive in the cenotes, and if the spooky, eerie sights that I saw led them to believe that the cenotes were entrances to the underworld.

Ocean Diving

I arrived a day before my planned cenote dives in order to spend a day on two two-tank reef trips with Tank Ha, so as to “warm up” for the cavern dives. I also did two reef dives (one day and one night) with Cenote Xperience. Playa del Carmen has somewhat of a mediocre reputation for reef diving, but I found it to be worthwhile for a day or two, if only in order to warm up for, or to take a break from, the cenotes. The reefs themselves are modest in comparison to those of neighboring Cozumel. There is not that much variety in the reef growth, the reefs have relatively little relief, and they lack the striking topography of Cozumel. They do, however, have almost as many fish as Cozumel, if not more, and many sizeable schools of fish. There were quite a few reef-dwelling critters as well, including eels, octopi, and stingrays. The night dive in particular yielded many interesting animal encounters. Cenote Xperience also arranged a bull shark dive, which was a bit of a bust due to raging current that degraded visibility, but we did see a few bull sharks briefly.

(to be continued in the next post on this thread)
 
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Ironborn

Ironborn

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Conclusion

This cenote-centric trip broadened my horizons by exposing me to yet another type of new aquatic environment beyond the tropical coral reefs that form the basis of most dive trips. It was a welcome change from the Caribbean reef diving that has dominated my diving experience thus far and can get old after a while. What I did not expect was the degree of variety among the cenotes themselves. I preferred those cenotes that fit my image of a cave more closely and had the most formations, and I think that such environments would be the most interesting to explore more thoroughly if and when I ever get full cave training and equipment. I found the more vertical cenotes almost equally interesting for their striking and often unusual sights, but I wonder if they would be as interesting on repeat visits or for further exploration as a full cave diver. If nothing else, this experience persuaded me to stop procrastinating and start pursuing other dive certifications that I have had on my to do list for too long.
 

ibj40

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Ocean Diving

I arrived a day before my planned cenote dives in order to spend a day on two two-tank reef trips with Tank Ha, so as to “warm up” for the cavern dives. I also did two reef dives (one day and one night) with Cenote Xperience. Playa del Carmen has somewhat of a mediocre reputation for reef diving, but I found it to be worthwhile for a day or two, if only in order to warm up for, or to take a break from, the cenotes. The reefs themselves are modest in comparison to those of neighboring Cozumel. There is not that much variety in the reef growth, the reefs have relatively little relief, and they lack the striking topography of Cozumel. They do, however, have almost as many fish as Cozumel, if not more, and many sizeable schools of fish. There were quite a few reef-dwelling critters as well, including eels, octopi, and stingrays. The night dive in particular yielded many interesting animal encounters. Cenote Xperience also arranged a bull shark dive, which was a bit of a bust due to raging current that degraded visibility, but we did see a few bull sharks briefly.

The ocean diving along the Riviera Maya improves the further South you go. We dived once from Playa del Carmen (including the Bull Shark experience), and we also unimpressed.

We dove for over a decade from Puerto Aventuras, where the reef structure is much more pronounced, the fish populations are larger and more varied, and the water conditions are usually very good, with respect to visibility.

Your cenote experience matches ours, as we have dived all of those, and a few more.
 
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Ironborn

Ironborn

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The ocean diving along the Riviera Maya improves the further South you go. We dived once from Playa del Carmen (including the Bull Shark experience), and we also unimpressed.

We dove for over a decade from Puerto Aventuras, where the reef structure is much more pronounced, the fish populations are larger and more varied, and the water conditions are usually very good, with respect to visibility.

Your cenote experience matches ours, as we have dived all of those, and a few more.

What about ocean diving from Tulum, which is to the south? I have been thinking about Tulum as a base for a future trip, as it seems to be somewhat more convenient than Playa del Carmen for access to many of the cenotes, and I would also like to try a different topside environment.
 

ibj40

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What about ocean diving from Tulum, which is to the south? I have been thinking about Tulum as a base for a future trip, as it seems to be somewhat more convenient than Playa del Carmen for access to many of the cenotes, and I would also like to try a different topside environment.

I have to admit that we’ve never gone further South than PA, but my understanding is that it gets better, but further offshore (and I stand to be corrected).

Our biggest complaint about PDC was the shore entry to the boats, where PA has a marina.

Watching the news from the region during the COVID shutdown, it appears Tulum is a hotspot of protocol violations and increasing gang activity.

Akumal is half way between and may require consideration.
 

jmcgilroy

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A small question for past Cenote divers.... how long is the average road trip from Playa del Carmen hotels to the Cenote dive spots? A 2 hour overland, bad road journey would be a killer for me.
 

ibj40

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A small question for past Cenote divers.... how long is the average road trip from Playa del Carmen hotels to the Cenote dive spots? A 2 hour overland, bad road journey would be a killer for me.

From PDC, you take the main Riviera Maya highway to just South of Puerto Aventuras, and then the cenote sites begin appearing. Some are a very short drive down a dirt road while others are a considerable drive down a dirt road.

If you have health problems with rough travel, you might check in advance with your dive guide to choose one or two of the more accessible.

I would point out that even after the trip to the cenote itself, it is highly probable that you will be walking to the dive site with your full rig (including the tank) on your back.
 
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Ironborn

Ironborn

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A small question for past Cenote divers.... how long is the average road trip from Playa del Carmen hotels to the Cenote dive spots? A 2 hour overland, bad road journey would be a killer for me.

The distance and the quality of the roads varies depending on the cenotes. I would say plan on an average of one hour each way, with most of the trip along decent highways, with a bit of dirt road as one approaches the cenote. There was only one cenote (I don’t remember which one) where the ride along the dirt road was rough enough to have a significant impact on the quality of my experience.

On another logistical note: the quality of the facilities and the ease of the “shore entries” at each cenote also varies. The bathrooms at the Zapote cenote looked like they were at a five-star resort, whereas the bathrooms at other cenotes looked like something out of a Quentin Tarantino movie. Some cenotes have also invested a lot in steps, platforms, and pulleys to make it easier to get divers and their gear out of the water. A few others, including the less well-known ones, may have fewer logistical aids added for divers. I think it depends on how much the landowners have decided to invest in them.

Also, remember to bring your dive boots and open-heeled fins, since you will be doing “shore entries.” The limestone gravel and tree roots around the cenotes can be painful to walk on in bare feet.
 

Manatee Diver

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The distance and the quality of the roads varies depending on the cenotes. I would say plan on an average of one hour each way, with most of the trip along decent highways, with a bit of dirt road as one approaches the cenote. There was only one cenote (I don’t remember which one) where the ride along the dirt road was rough enough to have a significant impact on the quality of my experience.

LOL, I took someone to Nohoch for the first time (snorkel, full cave, or guided intro level dives only). That is a 2km trip into the jungle on a horrible dirt road. I could hear my tanks bouncing in the trunk. He was probably expecting a hole in the ground with nothing around it. And you end up at this fancy little eco park with zip lines, clean bathrooms, a good set of stairs, and lead to a clean well made gear up area.
 
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