Mayan Riviera, Quintana Roo
From the surface it looks like any other cenote. The pool is large and inviting, the water clear, wildlife abundant (even if the turtle was a little shy), and the entrance is easy to find.
Here the majority of similarities with most caves end and it gets spooky in a hurry. Unlike most caves with light coloured walls these have been darkened from years of tannins in the water as the material from a nearby swamo decays. Unlike say Gran Cenote or Nahoch which are white, gleaming and inviting, these walls eat light for breakfast. Maybe there are people who enjoy that kinda thing, I’m not one of them. Give me a salt water passage with all the character, detail, light walls and great visibility any day.
Like Little Red Riding Hood we ventured in, tried the main line, it was too dark. Tried the Double Dome line and it was just as dark. Tried the Sakbe line and it was just right. Slightly deeper, light walls, oustanding visibility, and no spooky feeling (and no bears, as far as I could tell, no porridge either - which is also a good thing).
Jumping into the entrance pool that looks like a puddle, only smaller, you suddenly realize how the sardines feel when being squeezed into that little can. Damn cozy in here, and watch that elbow. Or if you prefer you can think of it like a balloon: you jump into the little roundish bit that’s left over once you tie it, squeeze through a restriction and suddenly you’re in a massive chamber that you could never have guessed from the other side. Your choice, fish or party favours, you can go either way, whatever works for ya.
So now you’re swimming inside a fishy balloon. Not really like you’d imagined, is it? This balloon is stacked with things to see and is definitely different than the rest of the Mexican balloons… I mean caves.
It doesn’t take long to realize the halocline - where fresh water meets salt - is well defined and doesn’t vary all that much. It marks on the walls exactly where the two intersect: fresh water walls are darker and generally smoother, while the salt water affected ones tend to be much lighter in colour and pitted due to an increased acidity. You’ll know when the diver ahead of you enters the halocline - your world will instantly go out of focus, blurrier than on the worst bender of Keith Richard’s inexplicably long life. It’s much like when you shake your favourite bottle of oil and vinegar salad dressing and vigorously mix two liquids that would really prefer you didn’t. To say it does funny things to light is an understatement on par with saying Microsoft has slightly more money than what has fallen between the cushions of your couch, even if you have one of those rare money eating couches, I think they come from Ikea.
So to sum up: as you go through Vaca Ha on your Ikea couch, enjoying your salty sardines and balloons covered in salad dressing, enjoy looking around. Just make sure you’re on the couch in front or Keith Richards will ruin it for ya much like Microsoft ruins everything. (If that made sense to you then you must be as tired as I am)
"There can’t be a cave here," kept repeating over and over in my mind. The garbage dump out front of a wooden gate 10 minutes from collapsing under its own weight certainly wasn’t suggesting this was the way to a cave diving panacea. So much for truth in advertizing.
Unlike larger operations like Gran Cenote with sizeable signs, parking galore, modern conveniences like toilets and stairs, this site offered precisely none of that. You even had to go into a nearby town 15 minutes away and look for an equally unmarked house to retrieve the key (and pay your admission) - if she wasn’t at home you were outta luck. These are the kinds of things the CIA used to do (and likely still do) to hide their most valuable treasures in plain site, they’re like camouflage.
Standing at the edge of the micro-cenote it appears the CIA has done a particularly exceptional job when you’re HERE and still hear the voices in your head that you’re in the wrong place. At this point only the over-abundant mosquitoes know for sure, but what the hell, ya suit up and jump carefully into the tiny opening of water hoping the 12 little fish in there won’t be catapulted into the surrounding forest when you splash.
Immediately after squeezing through a restriction at the very edge of the tiny pool the passage opens up and you can finally accept this really is the place you’ve been hearing about. Even the CIA couldn’t keep you out. Ha! But it’s clear why they were trying to hard to keep the place a secret. Formations abound, and a plethora of lines mean you can explore this place for a considerable time before exhausting this playground. Go deep and you will be in the salt water zone, decorated, bright, clean looking, with a wavy-windy meandering river kind of feel to it at times. Stay on the lines in the shallower parts of the cave and you’re in the fresh water zone which was quite tannic (meaning tea coloured) and decidedly spooky. Great visibility enjoyed in the salt water zone is gone here and light struggles to penetrate even a few feet before being consumed by the tannin monsters of the deep (yes, I’ve been reading too many novels lately).
Sistema Nohoch Nah Chich (Myan for "Giant Bird Nest") is a guided dive - ie. you need a guide to get in. It’s for good reason. This place is simply gorgeous. Without a doubt it is the most decorated cave I’ve so far encountered in Mexico - if they get better than this I may just have to move there.
The diving platform is massive, the entrance pool is gorgeous, and it just gets better from there. One of the most memorable items was a giant root ball from a tree that extends from above the surface (see photo just below). Surrounded by rock passages of white it really stands out.
It costs months of research and thousands of dollars to get into digital photography, but only one cave like Dos Ojos to make it all worthwhile. Yes, it is that beautiful.
At the surface pool the water seems to glow this iridescent azure blue that looks like something you make jewelry from. After that it only gets better. Ceiling and floor decorations abound, some massive and others delicately slender. The setup area, tables and stairs are exemplary, all combining to make for a damn fine day of diving. That’s the upside.
The downside is this system has gotten so incredibly popular it was overflowing with cars/trucks/vans/bodies when we visited last (Jan. 2009). Wall to wall tourists (just like us) who didn’t particularly want to be crammed in right next to other tourists (just like us, funny how that works), some with questionable music tastes they had no qualms about sharing via their (mercifully underpowered) car speakers.
Naturally, once past the open water area the cavern divers, snorkelers, paddlers and swimmers are a thing of the past - it’s unlikely you’ll see other cave divers once inside. If you stay in the cave long enough they’ll all be gone by the time you come out - cave diver paradise having the place to yourself, the reward of a 3+ hour dive in the afternoon. Granted, when you come out shortly before (or in our case fractionally after) closing time you may be greeted with, "Is that your truck???? Oh thank GOD!!" You get the feeling they’ve had the unfortunate experience of having more vehicles at the end of the day than divers to drive them home, which means bad things. Their relief vented, they now let you know it’s time to go, Mr. Tourist With The Faulty Watch, the workday is over, get out. Politely, of course, this is Mexico.
One of the nicest cenotes in terms of the gigantic size of the entrance pool, the elevated area for swimmers to leap in from (the really brave ones climb a tree on the ledge and jump from there), and having lines that lead both upstream and downstream, Sistema Ponderosa is a decent cave system overall.
The system, in the limited distance I’ve seen it, lacked any signature item, had few remarkable formations unlike many Mexican caves, but did have a nice cavern zone featuring dramatic shafts of light.
The "Pet Cemetery" line, which the owners are desperately hoping people will start calling something more marketing-friendly, is a lumpy ride past the phenomenally tourist-popular Dos Ojos entrance on the same road - that is where the similarities end. Currently under construction (winter 2009) you know you’re getting close to the cenote when the road suddenly takes on a look more suitable to the sand bunker of a fine golf course - massive quantities of pure white sand have been removed from the cenote and since they had to do something with it they "paved" the road - at least it evens out some of the car swallowing crevasses along the way much to the delight of car rental companies.
Actually part of the Nohoch system, the formations found here are incredibly similar: highly detailed with every corner bringing a new look which boggles the mind yet again.
In Mexico when you meet someone who says, "You have to dive this systema", and has a vested interest in attracting you to the place you’re naturally a little… skeptical. It was somewhere I’d never head of (I’m Canadian, the amount I know about Mexican caves couldn’t fill a mosquito’s thimble) but what the hell. Because we’re in Mexico for such a limited time our choices of which locations to visit on those precious vacation days are spent like ever-dwindling bars of gold. This site was so good we spent not one but TWO of those bullion bars and would gladly have doled out another if the trip had only been one day longer (dammit, where’s that winning lottery ticket?).
Having heard there is an utterly massive room in this system reaching nearly 300′ deep which is rarer in Mexico than vacations that are long enough, we took it as a challenge and went a lookin’. Silly gringos. We looked for hours and didn’t find it - a lack of street signs and an inability to reach Google Maps on my dive computer were the culprits. Didn’t matter, this place was spectacular. Once it becomes "popular" the rooms may get official names but for now I’ll just invent some, here goes: The Place With the Ceiling of Spikes, Another Room With a Ceiling of Spikes, and finally, An Even Better Room With a Ceiling of Spikes (you see now why I’m sticking to my day job and those vacation days are so precious).
Being late in the trip and feeling comfortable in the caves again, having seen ultra-cool floor to ceiling posts that look like they’re supporting to roof too many times to find them all that interesting anymore, there was a certain complacency setting in. Been there, seen that, wore out the T-shirt. This is where Mexican caves are good at kicking you back into breathless-ville. Turning a corner and topping a rise it would be easy to miss, but buried in the floor was something special. Ever seen those slow-mo commercials where they have a single drop of milk (or more recently Budweiser) break the surface of an otherwise still glass and it forms a perfect crown? Picture hundreds/thousands of those all connected together forming ribbons of what is now solid stone covering a patch that is a little over a square meter. Does this exist anywhere else in Mexico? The world? How long did they take to form? I have no clue but it was just another example of the tiny treasures these caves contain.
Perhaps the most well known cave in the entire Yucatan peninsula, Gran Cenote earns its reputation the old fashioned way: it earned it. I have not done many caves in Mexico and I’ve gone only humble distances at best, but Gran Cenote was perhaps the most memorable yet.
Even with my limited linguistic knowledge I’m going to be fairly certain "Gran" means "big" (I may have picked that up from a Taco Bell menu) and this cenote is certainly large - both the entrance pool and the cavern area. Large formations start at the edge of the pool and we had trouble keeping snorkellers out of the photos (for some reason they thought we were from a magazine and tried to get in the background of all the cavern shots - leading me to contemplate suggesting to Aquatica their next camera housing accessory should be a built-in spear gun).
With a washroom, excellent stairs and large platform the site is well developed and worth the slightly higher charge than most other cenotes I’ve been fortunate enough to see. Once inside the cave the notable formations were immediate and frequent, with very light colored walls making the passages seem larger than some other cenotes. Silt was minimal, current non-existent, no halocline, what more could you ask for? For a rookie cave diver like myself this is a fun place to spend a few hours and likely the one I would most recommend to others who are new to diving in Mexico.
(Chacmool - The name ‘Chac Mool’ translates as "Large Red Jaguar" or "thundering paw" in Mayan.)
A hurricane can really ruin your day, and it would have if you’d been just a short way into Chak Mool when Katrina hit in 2005, causing a collapse, totally blocking off the downstream line.
Known as the "Jaguar Cave" in Mayan, Chak Mool had some of the most dramatic collections of ceiling stalagmites (including which is reportedly the largest in the world pictured towards the bottom of this page) and flowstone decorations I’ve seen yet. It also featured some dramatically large rooms and an excellent cavern area. Access was easy with well built stairs leading down to the water and a rather picturesque entrance which also includes a small rowboat - not that it would get you far in this cenote.
A real symbol of how things have changed in Mexico, Carwash is one of the most well known cenotes in the region. Named because locals used to drive their cars right to the water’s edge for washing, the practice was discontinued years ago when it became more widely known it was actually damaging the system
Located just about as close to the main road as you can get, this site is one of the few popular ones that require climbing no steps whatsoever to reach the water, making this an excellent second site of the day when you’re looking to relax and take it easy after having had to hike all your gear half a mile at another location.
A large surface pool makes the site popular with swimmers but a relatively dull cave entrance means it likely won’t attract many cavern divers. Nicely decorated inside with various cenotes to see along the dive, there’s good reason the site is so well known.