I recently celebrated a milestone birthday…I turned 30. Yikes! It’s a big number with lots of – or so I felt – ‘life weight’.
I had to do something special on November 10th, 2016.
Perched atop my Bucket List for far too long has been scuba diving in a cenoté. The deep, dark holes in the ground made famous (and infamous) in Clive Cussler novels and National Geographic photographs.
After securing a dive shop, deciding on the cenotés I desired above all, and picking out a (hopefully!) quaint B&B located in the Akumal jungle, it was time to board an InterJet aeroplane from LAX to Merida and set foot for the first time on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.
Perhaps it was my imagination or the palpable magic that comes from embarking on a wish-list experience, but I shivered as I stepped into the humid, tropical weather of the Yucatán. A secret smile of imminent adventure.
In the future I will keep an eye out for tickets to fly into Cancún instead of Merida – although the 3.5 hour drive across the peninsula takes you past Chichen Itza, it’s a long, flat highway walled on either side by jungle, jungle, and more jungle. Not exactly the best use of precious vacation time.
Hiring a car was relatively easy yet warrants another post… so I’ll suffice to say that if you are planning to do anything aside from sit on the beach in an all-inclusive resort, you will 100% want to hire a car. Taxis can add up and the distances between attractions and towns are significant. Petrol is very cheap and the other drivers don’t care about you, so tackle the roads with confidence and safety.
Where to stay: Itour Akumal Villas Tortugas (from $38p/night)
If you are a traveler, and a diver like me, you already spend plenty of dinero on dive equipment, aeroplane tickets, and other essentials so finding a place to stay that is charming, clean, welcoming, and doesn’t break the bank is a gift from above.
Bienvenido and welcome to Itour Akumal Villas Tortugas – the most adorable, affordable place to call home in the Yucatán. Three years ago Italian couple Davide and Claudia bought this little cluster of single-bedroom stone cottages and they have spruced it up to become the perfect oasis in the jungle. Expect to spend only about USD$38 per night which includes daily cleaning, a full jug of purified water, basic breakfast supplies (bread, jam, butter, orange juice and milk) and Wi-Fi.
Itour Akumal Villas Tortugas
Phone or WhatsApp: +52 1 984 146 3669
Who to dive with – Scuaba10, Irene, Gerardo and Chino
When ticking off an enormous Bucket List item, you want to do it right, so selecting the best dive shop for the job was essential, and difficult!
I am writing with with a small bias as I have only dived with Scuba10 in the Yucatán but after their warm welcome, over-the-top care, and desire to make my birthday one for the record books, I don’t feel the need to look anywhere else.
Gerardo is the man in charge of Scuba10 and if you have a little extra time, ask him to tell you some stories – he has a wonderful sense of humour and an incredible knowledge of the area, its history, and the multitude of dive types the Yucatán can accommodate. From hard core cavern exploration and rebreather-welcoming cave systems to ocean dives and reef conservation, Gerardo knows it all like the back of his hand.
Gerardo’s right hand man, er woman, is the beautiful and incredibly kind Irene. She’s also hilarious.
Send them a message on WhatsApp and mention this article.
WhatsApp: +52 1 984 151 14 20
Which cenotés to dive – The Pit, Angelita (advanced only), Dos Ojos, Gran Cenoté
The Yucatán is a swiss-cheese peninsula full of beautiful, fascinating freshwater sinkholes and cave systems that, once-upon-a-time, were dwellings for the ancient Maya but have since filled with stunningly clear, fresh water.
After doing some research I had my heart set on The Pit and Dos Ojos for my 30th birthday dives but when we arrived, Irene offered us an alternative plan. As advanced divers with two diving days up our sleeves, Irene suggested that we explore the mystical sulferous ‘cloud’ in Angelita and then wind through the tunnels of Gran Cenoté. Master caver Chino was to be our guide and we couldn’t have asked for anyone better. Accommodating and extremely fun, Chino speaks excellent English and knows the cenotés with his eyes closed and 3 tanks strapped to his back.
We accepted the alternative plan, rescheduled photographer Ernesto from FishEye Foto for the second day.
It’s hard to describe the feeling a diver gets when gazing at a pool of water in the jungle. Angelita cenoté looks unnatural, like a mirage of brilliant blue nestled in the vibrant green vines of the Mexican jungle. It’s easy to see why the ancient Maya believed these to be portals to the Underworld. Although the water is clear, the bottom of the cenoté is 30m down so no matter how hard you stare into the turquoise water, what lies beneath it remains an enchanting mystery of the abyss.
Unless you’re a diver.
I smiled as butterflies tickled my insides while gearing up and walking to the small platform. The heat of the jungle began to take its toll on my thick neoprene and I gladly took a giant stride into the ethereal blue pool.
Descending into a foggy hole surrounded by vertical stone walls is a surreal feeling and gets even more so when you think you see the bottom.. ‘The Cloud’ as they call the dense, white halocline is a layer of decaying jungle gunk that sits above a larger pile of dead trees, leaves and tunnels that reach even deeper shrouded beneath it.
As your visibility turns to zero and you breathe out – all the way – to dip through the cloud you can taste sulphur all around you, even through your regulator and mask.
Swimming around the crooked, perfectly preserved tree conjured images of the River Styx’s crossing for the dead in ancient Egyptian mythology.
On the way up, if you’re advance, your guide might take you through a little tunnel into an air pocket (don’t take out your regulator, there is no connection to fresh air so it’s most likely solid sulphur gas) and then straight down a vertical exit.
Rad. Rad rad rad rad rad rad!
Love caves? Dive Gran Cenoté. Gearing up in the parking lot you walk past a 12′ wide, 5′ high map and the realization of its grandeur finally dawns on you – this entire peninsula is an ant-warren of aquous, intertwined tunnels that intrepid exploration cavers have, in fact, mapped.
And you’re going to dive one itty, bitty, teeny, weeny little piece of it.
Striding in next to snorklers and Yucatan fun-havers you feel like a bit of a badass as you deflate your BCD and head in under the “ABSOLUTELY NO SWIMMING BEYOND THIS POINT” sign.
Giant stalactites and stalagmites create an ancient obstacle course with twists and turns that will probably scare the bejeezus out of anyone with claustrophobia but for me were a subterranean paradise filled with ethereally clear water so that were it not for bubbles emanating from regulators, divers look suspended in thin air.
I did the entire dive in a constant state of awe, gently following Chino along (and behind) the line using only the air in my lungs.
This dive was magic.
Appropriately named, El Pit is a f*cking GIANT hole in the ground, but you wouldn’t know from the surface. Once upon a time a 30′ jump into the small pool was required in order to enter El Pit. Your gear followed you down on a rope, courtesy of the locals manning the cenoté. For better or worse, they built a steep staircase in recent years so foot after footstep takes you down slippery wooden rungs to a small platform and a giant stride into a turquoise pool.
I’d seen a National Geographic image of The Pit before the trip and I was mesmerized. I wanted me, in that image, on my wall, forever. Sorry to spoil the end of the story but I soon realized that the image was heavily doctored (where are the bubbles?!) and not a realistic capture unless you hit a one-in-a-million time when no one else was in the cave and the water was Iceland-clear.
But it was amazing nonetheless.
Imagine floating in thin air inside an airplane hangar. That’s what diving in El Pit feels like. The cavern is truly monumentous and the bottom sits at about 35m. I wriggled down to 42m before my computer yelled at me and I headed North.
You’ll want to go lightly on your air because there’s just so much beauty to behold.
I also found a fun little pancake in which to squish myself for a fun photo.
“Two eyes” is named for it’s geographical configuration, much like the sugar skulls popular during Dia de Los Muertos (which also makes an awesome t-shirt) and it’s like Gran Cenoté on crack. Glass-clear and intricate with a myriad of spaces to explore. In my opinion this cenoté truly captures the feeling of being in another world, the Mayan ‘Xibalba’ where souls enter the next world numerous interconnected structures, all holding a new and horrific challenge for the newly deceased to pass in order to enter the next life.
You’ll want to have very good buoyancy for this cave, otherwise it can be a (no pun intended) death-trap of hose-snagging stalactites and beautiful structures formed over millennia that it would be a true travesty to injure.
I emerged from Dos Ojos feeling closer to all things Yucatan, and intrigued about the Mayan culture, people, and mythology.
But that’s another post…