Mexico’s Riviera Maya has won the world over with its unique freshwater cenotes, stunning for their visibility that extends 100ft (30m) and beyond. Some of these dive sites have areas that can give visitors the feel of a cave, but with little or no overhead environment. Others are suited to guided cavern tours and cavern diving, and still others are suited primarily for fully qualified cave divers. Note that even the ones suited to open water diving have delicate formations that took centuries to form, so you want to be sure you have good buoyancy skills before your first guided tour of a cenote; think about the PADI Peak Performance Buoyancy course to refine them.
Types of Cenote Dives
Important: Do not exceed the limits of your training level by entering an overhead environment for which you’re not qualified. Divers who enter overhead environments without the required training and equipment have diving’s highest accident fatality rate.
Open water dives – a few cenotes have large open water basins you can explore. However, there is almost always a cave entrance; divers who are not certified cave/cavern divers (or under appropriate instruction/leadership) should stay out and remain in the open water area.
Cavern tour — At some cenotes, certified Open Water Divers can take a cavern tour guided by professionals qualified by some of the cave diver training organizations to lead such tours. This is a highly controlled, limited tour along a line into the cavern zone, which is defined as within the natural light zone and within 130 to 200 ft (39-60m) (some minor variations here) of the surface.
Cavern diving — Most cenotes (but not all) have overhead areas that certified PADI® Cavern Divers are qualified to visit. See your PADI Instructor or Dive Shop about the PADI Cavern Diver speciality to learn more. The end of the cavern zone is often (but not always) marked with a warning sign.
Cave diving — This is entering a cave more than 200ft (60m) and/or going beyond the light zone, and/or passing a narrow area (past cavern limits) and requires certification as a cave diver. Almost all cenotes have cave zones. Ask your PADI Instructor or Dive Shop about the TecRec®Cave Diver Distinctive Specialty if this level of diving interests you.
Casa Cenote, located 37 miles south of Playa del Carmen, is a site suited to open water divers. The dive follows the bottom of a winding river for roughly 250 yards (228m), with nothing overhead. Plus, the basin bottom is never deeper than 30ft (9m), making for an open-water-diver-friendly experience. Along the sides of the river, you’ll see the root systems of the mangrove forests, as well as a host of freshwater fish, including platys, guppies and mollies. Although there is a cave system (for qualified cave divers only), this is primarily an open water site.
This cenote, 20 miles south of Playa del Carmen, and no deeper than 42ft (12.8m), is primarily for cave divers, but it does have a cavern area. You won’t find a lot of stalagmites on the bottom, so there’s less to worry about for those who haven’t yet perfected buoyancy. What you will find is stellar visibility of 150ft (45m) or greater, plus ceilings full of stalactites. In spots, divers will experience a halocline, where freshwater and saltwater mix, creating a cloudy visual effect. Plus, thanks to its position in the jungle, its known for amazing light shows as rays of sunlight dance through the water during the height of day.
This cenote, so named “Two Eyes” for the two side-by-side cave systems, which, together form the largest cave system on the planet, is so long and varied in terrain that the majority of the system is obviously for cave divers, but there is still a lot suitable for qualified cavern divers and tours in the cavern sections. Snorkeling is also popular in the main basin. Even in the areas near open water, white stalactites decorate the ceilings of the cenote. In some parts, the formations are thin as candles, and in other places, they have formed to be as wide as traffic cones.
Nearby to Chikin Ha and Casa Cenote is Chac Mool cenote, which is appropriate for cavern divers and up, and for cavern tours. It starts with a short walk down stairs into a pool surrounded by jungle. This cenote is unique in that it winds between sections with limestone ceiling overhead and stretches that are completely open overhead with light pouring in. Plus, divers can look up in these openings and see the trees of the jungle above.
Many repeat visitors name El Eden (also called Ponderosa) as a favorite for its location amid the jungle and its topography that varies between small rooms, narrowing passageways and massive rooms where light pours in. Plus, with slider turtles, freshwater eels and several fish species, including tetras and sailfin mollies, this cenote is home to more wildlife than nearby sites. It has lots of areas for swimming and snorkeling as well as for diving.
Tours of this cenote, less than three miles south of the town of Puerto Aventuras, take divers through a figure-eight path that connects several rooms. The Points of Light Chamber contains stalactites that nearly reach to the floor, and, should you time your dive for midday, you’ll also witness the three shafts of light, bright and direct as spotlights. Reach the Sugar Bowl to find a circular pool that opens to the jungle above. Because of the large collections of stalactites, this dive requires divers to have decent control of their buoyancy. However, with a maximum depth of 50ft (15m), it’s still very welcoming for newer divers.
Learn more about diving in Mexico on PADI Travel.