Los Cenotes en la Riviera Maya

If you have seen Planet Earth as many times as I have, then you would know about the Cenotes, the huge network of flooded underground caverns that flow beneath the jungles of the Yucatan. Many exist throughout the region, caused by collapsed cave ceilings that create sinkholes and gateways into a magical and largely uncharted underwater world. The water is clear and illuminates in shades of turquoise and sapphire, caused by rainwater slowly filtering its way through the limestone bedrock above. Simply put, the Cenotes are a truly remarkable wonder of the earth.

At one time, these caves were the main water source for the Mayan people, but now they are primarily tourism attractions and reminders of an ancient time. People visit them to snorkel, cliff jump, or if they’re ambitious, put on scuba gear and descend into their dark underwater tunnels.

It was my first time and I had no idea if I was ready for any of this. I flew into Cancun the day before, Christmas Day to be exact. I suppose this dive and some of the other things I did were my Christmas present to myself. I left early for the marina the next day, not wasting any time. When I got there and checked in, the divemaster Eduardo greeted me and asked me when I had last done an open water dive.

“Uh, a couple months ago when I got certified, then again in a local pool last week to test my gear.” This is all great if I’m diving shallow reefs, but the caves??? I looked for doubt in his face, and didn’t see it. A hundred different things could go wrong in a cave dive, and I was nervous as hell. Could I really do this?

“Are you claustrophobic?” he asked. I told him no, but wasn’t entirely sure how true this was. I went spelunking once when I was 16, and don’t remember freaking out.

“Okay, wait here. I’ll be back in a few minutes and then we’ll go.” Well I guess that settles it. I’m diving the Cenotes. And if I lose my shit in the middle of a dark tunnel and it’s game over, at least I went down doing something awesome. No, Dan Hagen, DO NOT talk like that. Don’t even think it.. you’ll be fine in the caverns, it’s what you came here to do and you know it’s going to kick ass. YOU’RE going to kick ass. Don’t listen to the I can’t do it voice in my head, just like it says in The Power of Now. You got it.. and at the worst if you can’t dive then you can always snorkel… But then if I do decide to dive it and something goes wrong in a tight spot, what am I supposed to- NO, DAMMIT, stay cool and quit freaking out!!!

This kind of inner monologue went on in my head for an hour. I could not for the life of me keep my cool. But if at any point I felt like it was beyond me, I would shamelessly call off this ambitious dive and snorkel around the pool instead. I got this.

We got to the Tajma Ha Cenote close to Playa Del Carmen an hour later. We unloaded our gear at a concrete table next to the stairs leading down to the cave entrance, and carried our tanks down to the edge of the pool. Already, I felt better. The cave was every bit as beautiful as it looked in the pictures. When illuminated by the sun, the water would glow and cast flickers of light all over the cavern walls and ceilings. It reminded me of the scene in Tron, when Flynn and his program friends discovered the pure energy stream halfway through the movie. That was what this water looked like. Already, I could feel it calming the monkey fight in my head. I sat by the edge of the pool as twenty little minnows swam up and tried to eat my feet, and failed miserably.

Eduardo split us into two groups, and I was placed with an English man and his teenage son and daughter. We got into the water with our gear and I was as ready to go. The cave descended for twenty feet into a large open chamber, and then descended another 20 feet to small tunnel that eventually reached another cenote and daylight. Then it continued towards another small opening, and a stop sign marking the end of that channel of the Riviera Maya. To keep divers from getting lost, the path was defined by a golden line that ran along the cavern floor. We swam in single file, with Eduardo in front, the family behind him, and me at the end, out of the sunlit pool and into darkness. We went through a narrow channel and descended towards the first chamber. I was already having trouble equalizing.

Equalization is when you open the air flow in your ear canal to match the pressure changes in your outer ear, which is done by swallowing or closing your nose and gently blowing pressure into your ears. In diving, if you descend too far without doing this, it can rupture an eardrum. It wasn’t the first time my right ear has been stubborn. Eduardo swam up, grabbed me by the shoulders, brought me up a few feet, and then slowly back down. I felt the relief and squeaking noise of the pressure blowing out of the ear canal. That seemed to get it. Game on.

We descended into a big open room with stalactites along the ceilings and the water surface high above. I think this was the bat chamber he was telling us about. By now, there was only a faint glow of daylight coming from the entrance, which seemed far behind us at this point. We turned around and swam back along a narrow passageway on the far side of the cavern. I wasn’t bothered by the tight passage – as good of a sign as any that I’m not claustrophobic. Soon, we were swimming back towards the dancing beams of sunlight at the entrance.

I got to the surface, relieved and satisfied that I made it through my first cave dive without any major bangups. Eduardo told me that because of my equalizing problems, he could only take me halfway for the second dive. I didn’t want to hold the others back, and decided to stay out. I snorkeled around the pool while the other divers went back in.

It was sick as balls, but not the main reason that I went to Cancun. I really wanted to dive the underwater Musa museum just off of the coast. What I didn’t know was that the coastal weather conditions in the winter season are inconsistent at best. When I went back to the marina a couple days later, they had cancelled that one and all the other reef dives, due to wind and choppy water. No snorkeling either. Too bad, as you can see here, it’s awesome.

But if I can’t dive, then I’ll snorkel. And if I can’t do that, then I’ll rewatch Star Wars: The Force Awakens at the local shopping mall cinema and bookmark the rest of this diving for another season.

This story continues at Arena Mexico.