After learning to dive in Utila Honduras, I was keen to test out my PADI diving certification in Mexico. The last time I was backpacking in Tulum, I went snorkelling in some cenotes near Tulum, and saw some people diving in the cenotes there, so I thought this would be the perfect way to dive again, without risking the sea sickness I suffered from last time! In my hostel in Tulum, a fellow guest recommended Ko’ox Diving, so I contacted them about cenote diving in Tulum to see what I could do there.
What is a Cenote?
Cenotes are natural pools and swimming holes which are formed when the limestone bedrock collapses to reveal water beneath. They can be on the surface, like a small lake, or deep within a sinkhole. The Mayas believed cenotes were a gateway to the underworld and used to throw offerings into the pools to appease their gods. The cenote in Chichen Itza, for example, was found to have artefacts of gold, jade, pottery, and even human remains.
There are thousands of cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, and most are fresh water, although some close to the coast are a mix of fresh and salt water, as they join with the sea through a cave system beneath the ground. Some cenotes are open to the public for swimming and snorkelling, and some larger ones with caves and caverns are also available for diving, while most are on private land and closed to the public. Cenote Ik Kil, close to Chichen Itza, is one of the most famous cenotes in the Yucatan, and usually included in tours to Chichen Itza from Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Tulum and Valladolid.
Diving the Cenotes in Tulum
There are several dive shops in Tulum, and a girl I met in my hostel recommended Ko’ox Diving which has a dive centre along the main street in Tulum. I checked the Tripadvisor reviews which were excellent, and after checking out their website I got in touch with one of the founders Jesus (also known as Chucho) to see if I could go scuba diving in Tulum with them. He offered me the chance to dive in two of the cenotes in Tulum, and a unique opportunity to dive with crocodiles at night!
There are a variety of options for diving in cenotes in Tulum. Below is a map of the cenotes around Tulum, including the ones we visited. Some cenotes are cave dives, which require a special certification in order to go cave diving safely, and others are cavern dives. Caverns differ from caves because they still have natural light penetrating the ceiling, so you explore the areas at the entrance to the cave system without going fully inside. If you have your PADI openwater certificate, you can dive in caverns without any extra qualifications.
Cenote Diving with Ko’ox Diving
I arrived at the Ko’ox dive shop early the next morning. I had already given my size and weight details to Jesus, and had arranged to meet my guide at the dive center so we could head straight out to the cenotes. My guide was Paco, a friendly Mexican who had been living and diving in Tulum for several years. On that day, I was the only one scheduled to dive, so I had a private tour! Usually, groups are still kept small, under 6 people, but having a private dive was great for me as I hadn’t had any experience diving since getting my PADI certificate the month before. I was pleased with my choice to dive with Ko’ox Diving, I found them friendly and fun, but also professional and safe. I was a little nervous about diving again, but Paco checked all my gear and made sure I was comfortable, always checking I was ok every step (splash!) of the way.
Diving in Casa Cenote, Tulum
Paco had all the scuba diving gear already in the truck, and we drove to our first cenote of the day, Casa Cenote. Casa Cenote is right along the coast, and has a cavern system which leads through to the sea. Paco showed me where the fresh water flowed out into the sea, and inside the cenote, the salt water & fresh water create strange ‘layers’ of water, known as halocline, where I could clearly see the difference between the fresh and salt water.
At each cenote there is a map which explains the route to take when diving, the maximum depths, and where the halocline will be. Before we got into the water, Paco went through the details of the dive with me, so I knew what to expect, and we practised the hand signals I had learned in Utila, as well as some new ones for the new things we would find here, like halocline.
We got all our gear on, including full body wetsuits, and a hood in Paco’s case – the water was surprisingly chilly considering we were in Mexico! Here we started simply by walking into the cenote, then descending slowly into the depths. The water looked a strange green colour, the mangroves and the recent rain had altered the colour, but the water was clean and beautifully clear with excellent visibility, except where the fresh & salt water mixed together when I couldn’t see a thing!
We swam around the cave, Paco pointing out points of interest along the way. Mostly I was just awed by the sensation of being below ground, oblivious to the world above, who was just as oblivious to us as we passed by.
People also paddle board through the mangroves here, but I preferred being underwater, it was like another world! The mangroves reached down with their roots, and we swam through incredible rock formations with the fishes, and the rays of light shining down through the water were beautiful. We also saw a glimpse of what was to come later that day when diving with crocodiles; a croc named Pancho who was chilling out on a rock at the surface.
When we surfaced from the dive, I felt like I had woken up from a dream. Natural sunlight seemed too bright and unappealing compared to the underwater world I had just experienced. We unbuckled our BCD jackets and water tanks, peeled down half of the wetsuits and clambered into the truck to head to the next cenote. Paco had brought towels, and a breakfast sandwich and drinks so we ate those – I had worked up quite an appetite under the water!
Diving in Cenote Calavera
The spookily named Cenote Calavera, or Temple of Doom, is so-called as it has one larger entrance, and two smaller ones which look like eyes of a skull. Here, there were more people swimming and snorkelling in the cenote, so we had to be more careful entering and re-surfacing. The scariest part of this dive was the jump off the side into the water below! There was a ladder to climb out, but it was too slippery to climb down with all our scuba gear on. It took me several minutes to pluck up the courage to jump, after a friendly Mexican visitor offered to push me in! In the end, I did it myself, and it was fine of course, just a little nerve-wracking when you have flippers and a heavy air tank strapped to your back, I was terrified of falling in!
Once we were both in the water, we descended and began to explore. Here we swam in a circle around the main entrance, where there were more rock formations to explore, instead of the mangroves that there had been at the Casa Cenote. We swam through narrow passageways, and needed torches to see the way when we were away from the sunlight. We also found fragments of pottery and an animal skull that had been left by the Maya.
When it was time to ascend, I also noticed there were bats here in the cavern, nesting in the roof above the water. It was tough to climb up the ladder with the heavy kit on, but I made it!
Did I enjoy Cenote Diving in Tulum?
YES! I felt very proud of myself to have done something new, especially so soon after getting my PADI. Paco complimented me on my trim (position in the water), and how I could balance well in the water, so I felt very pleased with myself for that, and it was just a very cool experience! If you are in Tulum, spend a day off the beach and go diving in the cenotes, you won’t regret it!
The best part for me though, was that without waves and boats, I didn’t feel seasick at all! In future, I need to take every chance to dive in lakes and caves where I don’t have the motion of the ocean to make me want to vomit!
Even if you are an experienced sea diver, I would still recommend cenote diving, to have a totally different experience. Cavern and cave diving present new challenges and experiences which you simply can’t get on an average sea dive.
After my success at cavern diving in the cenotes, I was excited but still very nervous to try night diving with crocodiles! I arranged to meet Paco later that evening for another adventure to find crocs by torchlight.
Want to go cenote diving in Tulum? Check out Ko’ox Diving’s website here for more information on their tours and pricing.
Where to Stay in Tulum
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Thank you to Jesus and the team at Ko’ox Diving for hosting my cenote diving experience. Although the tour was complimentary, all views are my own, and the fact I had a great time clearly influenced my review!
Just to let you know, Tales of a Backpacker is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. I only recommend goods and services I believe are useful and reliable.Last updated: October 29, 2019