One simply doesn’t go to Playa and Tulum and not go to the beach. The sand is white as snow and the warm turquoise Carribean water is impossible to stay away from especially in the 30+ degree climate. After traversing to the west coast and then back to the east via mountains and forests, I was keen to bunker down for while, hang out with new friends, work on the tan and do some serious diving.
For the locals and tourists, there are many options available in the area and also at varying degrees of challenges and costs. One of the activities I was looking forward to the most was checking out the cenotes and also scuba diving. I had plans on getting my PADI qualifications in mexico as it’s cheaper but an offer came up on Facebook with Abyss Diving so I took that instead. I’m glad I did as the theory component of the course took a good twelve hours to complete and having to switch back into study mode whilst in Playa del Carmen would have been painful!
Ever since researching my trip I came across images of these cave structures that resembled scenes from alien movies with astronauts floating in space. Cenotes are subterranean bodies of water that are all interconnected and are unique to the Mexican Yucatan and Quintaroo regions. There are a few of types of Cenotes: Cenotes-cántaro are the type that are commonly seen in photos are ones with huge open spaces where the limestone rooftops have collapsed, allowing the mexican sunlight to penetrate deep into the crystal clear waters. Cenotes-aguadas are shallower open pools and are more common and safe for families. Grutas cenotes are the cave cenotes where they have horizontal entrances with dry areas within the system and are only recommended for expert divers as you’re pretty much screwed if you stray off the path and become lost in the labyrinth of pitch black tunnels.
There are a handful of cenotes that are accessible to the public but in total there are hundreds and are a main source of water for the area. Due to the freshwater one is able to see far into the abyss when under water. Looking into the cenote from the surface you could be fooled into thinking the depth would be only a few meters but as soon as you dive in, you would be amazed (or freaked out) at how deep they can get. Some cenotes are used by both snorkelers and divers and the deeper you go, more cavern and cave structures are made accessible for scuba divers. The ownership of the cenotes have been given back to the local tribal communities so the money made from tourists go back into the upkeep and preservation of these natural treasures.
There are several types of cenotes that I snorkelled. The first one was a aguadas cenote with plenty of open spaces and sunlite and marine life that I visited with Sarah and Tyrhone who I came to become good friends with. Being the first cenote I have visited, the water was super fresh but I acclimatised after a minute. The entire pool was teaming with marine life and there were mazes that you coud follow and explore. When you rested by the edge, small fish would come up and start eating the dead skin on your feet like in the fish spas of Thailand. It also had a 6 meter high jump so we had a go at jumping off it, including some of the kids as well. They had no fear!
The second second I went to was a cántaro cenote called Chikin Ha with Alex from the hostel. It is accessed by walking down into the sink hole that is exposed to the tree roots from above. We also witnessed a Sharman performing a traditional blessing ceremony. Snorkelling through this one you could look up and see the sunlight penetrating the surface and all the way through to the boottom. I wish I had better photos to show you all, alas my GoPro wasn’t playing ball at the time.The final one I swam in was lacking in light and marine life but made up for it in pure depth and rocky tunnels that you could swim through if you were brave enough (I wasn’t). I was a site that I felt could be in a science fiction movie. Check out the video link below.
Scuba Diving in Playa del Carmen
Not content with snorkelling and keen as mustard to experience what I had seen in previous photos, I just had to dive deeper and see the underwater stalagmites and stalactite structures myself within the cave systems. I wasn’t sure at what difficulty and depth we would go so I was quite nervous at the start. As I had the least number of dives within the group I had to dive closest to the dive master and there would be a maximum of four people. The chap at the dive shop sold it into me as that we’d always see the exit but when we descended to 10 meters and commenced the dive I could see we were going to palces that were pitch black with no exits above. At first I was nervous as fuck but I just keep telling myself to keep breathing and to focus on buoyancy control. Any sudden change in bouyancy and i would either go crashing up into the cave roof or bottom or stir up the silky bottom floor and ruin the water clarity for everybody.
After 20, min I became settled and confortable enough to relax, and enjoy the view with my trusty underwater torch and marvel at the beauty that I won’t be able to see anywhere else in the world.
I also had a crack at diving the offshore reefs at Playa del Carmen. Playa was actual made world famous by Jacque Cousteau and the work he did in nearby Cozumel. I didn’t end up going to Cozumel as it was a lot more expensive and from my research, it would have been the best at deeper levels, so I will leave it till next time.
We did a couple of dives off shore. I drift dive and a reef dive. The drift dive was an unusual experience as you would descend down to 20m and then you would let the current take you along the ocean floor. It was pretty easy. You could drift in an upright position or on your back as the current would do the work for you. There wasn’t much amazing wildlife except for the turtles. There were plenty of them but I had seen plenty by then.
The second dive we did was off a reef called Barracuda. No prizes for guessing why it was called that. It was a more enjoyable reef to dive as we could swim in and out of the reef structure without having to fight the current. It wasn’t short on marine life, and I thought it was amazing until we got to Caye Caulker which you’ll read about further down.
Snorkelling in Akumal
Akumal is a 30min ride from Playa we jumped into Alex’s car and zipped down the highway where we were greeted by picture postcard like beaches. I thought the beaches in Playa were beautiful but this was close to perfection. The sand was whiter, there were less people and the water was clearer and teaming with wildlife. Akumal is better known for the turtles that live in the area and no sooner than we were 5 mins into the water had spotted our first turtle, doing some x rated business with a much larger one. Eventually, we snorkelled further out a few hundred meters towards the reef and found more turtles, fish and beautiful reef structures.
Not even an hours drive south from Playa and you’ll hit the town of Tulum. Tulum is what Play del Carmen was back in the 80’s. A fairly undeveloped beach village, but I don’t think it will remain the same for long. The beach in Tulum was on par with what I experienced in Akumal but what it had over both Akumal and Playa was a bit of swell to have a bit of fun in. Oh yeah, and beachside ruins! Now I was a bit over seeing ruins by now but the Mayans at this place had it going for them. The ruins weren’t the largest collection of site that I’ve seen but these ones had prime possie up on the beach front. A couple of us went down to for a tour of the ruins in the sweltering heat. It must have been about 35 degrees, luckily there was a beach within the ruin site that we could have a dip in, which we did twice it was so good.
Caye Caulker is a tiny island off the coast of Belize that provide easy access to the second largest reef structure in the world, behind the Great Barrier Reef in ‘Straya. It’s a totally chilled out environment where cars are off limits without a special permit, so everybody pretty much zip around in golf carts or bicycles. We spent the best part of a week walking down the middle of the sandy roads, eating delicious spicy carribean street food. Some were off the side of the road and some were also in peoples backyards that were converted into a backyard bbq resutarant. In fact, pretty much every house you walked past, there was the presence of a BBQ that has been converted from metal drums.
Anyway, this story is about the beaches so back to the beaches. There really weren’t any amazing swimmable beaches in Caye Caulker. The only place deep enough to swim was at “The Split” which is an inlet that was created in1961 when Hurricane Hattie tore the island a new one, eventually seperating the north (mainly uninhabited) from the south island. Now as appealing it may seem to jump into the main channel, I wouldn’t recommend it as demonstrated by an American lady and her friend the day I visited. They were swept out to sea by the strong current and had to be rescued by a passing fisherman. It was pretty obvious that the current was taking her out whilst she was floating happy a Larry on her back and it wasn’t until they were a couple hundred meters out that they realised that resistance against the current was futile.
We looked at doing a couple of reef dives and decided on the Esperalla reef as we would encounter sharks and manta rays which would be a first for me. As soon as we descended, we were already surrounded by schools of nurse sharks and all sorts of fish including groper and moray eels. It was something out of this world. I had never seen so much with so much marine (not that I’d been diving a lot). The sharks would curiously cruise by, and sometimes curiously rub up against us. They were so friendly that they would let the dive master flip them over for a massage!
I was loving cruising in between coral canyons that had so much colour it was like being in an oil painting. The GoPro images and videos I captured don’t do the cayes justice.
Now I don’t normally get seasick, but it was approaching hurrican season so the seas were a bit choppy. The weather was also tempremental. One minute it would be sunny and and next it would be pissing down rain. When we ascended from the dive, the first thing I did was hurl my guts up. Immediately I thought as though last night’s jerk chicken would send the sharks into a feeding frenzy. Not to worry, I live to tell the tale.
Ask me a year ago if I would be snorkelling and scuba diving in Mexico and Belize and I would have said no way. Growing up in Newcastle, Australia I spent the majority of my life working in the family business sewing clothes or at the golf course while my mates were surfing down down at the beach. Most times when we went down to the beach was for practical reasons such as fishing or forraging for cockles so we could feed ourselves. I had no interest in anything else.
I was soaking up every minute that I spent above and below the water and couldn’t help but think of how things would have turned out if I spent more time at the beach as a kid. Would it have blown my mind as much as it did now? It was also a reminder of how fragile the world’s ocean is and you just can’t help wonder how the rapidly expanding tourism industry will have on the beaches and cenotes of Mexico. It would be a shame for a natural beauty that has been around for thousands of years to go down the shitter within a matter of decades.
All of the locals here seem to agree and acknowledge the environmental changes happening including the questionable conduct of governments with regards to development, but there seems to be a lack of action from the people’s part which I have been seeing all throughout Central America now.
I try not to go back to a place twice as the world is way too large to visit a place a second time. However I would come back a second time to these are as I feel as though there are new challenges that I could taken on once I have a few more dives under my belt: Cozumel, deeper in the cenote caves and The Blue Hole just to name a few.
So my friends. Are there any snorkelling or diving hot spots in the world that I should be bookmarking?