At the not-so-ripe age of 39, I finally got my PADI dive certification in Taganga, Colombia, and proceeded to dive 40 more times over the next two years. These aquatic adventures included swimming alongside giant manta rays at Nusa Lembongan (Indonesia), through a pack of menacing sharks at Sipadan (Malaysia), with large sea turtles near Roatan Island (Honduras) and down the surreal Blue Hole off the coast of Belize. With such an emphasis on an activity I wanted to do my entire life, it sounds like I became an instant scuba junkie, but I actually came to think diving is a bit overrated. Not a popular sentiment I agree, but I usually don’t see that much more at 120 feet with an oxygen tank than I do at 30 feet with a mask and snorkel. That said, a boat-less dive in Tulum completely blew me away, and the water had little-to-no visible fish.
When it comes to pre-Columbian Mexico, most people think of the Aztecs since their former capital is now Mexico City, but the Maya occupied southern parts of the country that included the Yucatan Peninsula. The most iconic Mayan ruin is El Castillo temple in Chichen Itza, while backpacker-friendly Tulum boasts ruins directly on its white-sand Caribbean beaches. Though not as touristy as Cancun, Cozumel and Playa del Carmen to the north, Tulum arguably outshines them all with beachfront archeology, alluring blue waters and outstanding restaurants like Hartwood and Gitano. The Yucatan also boasts numerous underwater cave systems called cenotes (pronounced “say-no-tayes”) that divers can explore. I booked one such adventure with an Australian-raised Slovokian divemaster named Tomas Kuzela.
“I’m taking you to Dos Ojos,” said Kuzela as he picked me up outside a local hostel. I was the only diver who signed up that day so it was just the two of us. “The name means ‘two eyes’ in Spanish. Are you claustrophobic?”
“Not at all,” I said.
“Good,” the divemaster continued. “It can get cramped in there, and for parts of the system, you will be completely surrounded. You will not be able to surface to get air if your equipment malfunctions or you start to panic. For this reason, you need to stay close to me the entire time.”
“This sounds safe,” I thought to myself.
Cenotes—a mid-19th century term derived from the Maya word “ts’onot”—are natural sinkholes in which limestone bedrock collapsed and exposed a water-filled cave system below. The Yucatan Peninsula contains many such systems, and Dos Ojos is one of the longest and most famous. Exploration of Dos Ojos started 30 years ago, and the Quintana Roo Speleological Survey reported in 2014 that it contains at least 30 sinkhole entrances and stretches more than 51 miles. Per the survey’s analysis of 101 local cenotes, Dos Ojos is the fourth longest, with Sistema Ox Bel Ha leading the pack with nearly 168 miles of caverns. As far as depth, Dos Ojo is the known leader with an area called The Pit stretching 390 feet down.
The namesake Dos Ojos are the Blue Eye and Black Eye whose entrances, as you might have guessed, look like a pair of eyes from an aerial view. For the more adventurous diver, the Black Eye offers a sensory-deprived adventure through pitch-black caves that require portable lights to navigate. Kuzela, however, took me into the Blue Eye where divers swim through turquoise-blue freshwater filled with majestic stalagmite and stalactite formations. At one part of the system, divers can also emerge from the water into a bat cave. The Maya, who settled around these sacred wells, believed the cenotes were entrances to the Xibalba underworld where they could commune with their gods.
“We will do two dives today,” said Kuzela after arriving at the Blue Eye, which is a short drive north of Tulum. “I brought food and drinks, so we will have lunch between the dives.”
I noticed his dive gear included two oxygen tanks.
“You dive with two tanks?”
“Yes,” he explained. “It is a safety precaution in case there are any problems with the tanks, or you run out of air in the caves.”
Dos Ojos is arguably the most famous of the Yucatan cenotes, and many people have seen it on the big and small screen. The 2002 IMAX film Journey Into Amazing Caves and 2006 BBC/Discovery Channel series Planet Earth both featured Dos Ojos, and scenes from the 2005 film The Cave were filmed here (though most of the cave scenes were shot in a manmade system constructed in Romania).
The cenote entrance looked like a giant cavernous pool, and several people were snorkeling atop the water. With our gear on and tested, we entered the pool-like sinkhole and proceeded to swim through the warm water toward a cave entrance. As we entered the system, a measure of darkness flooded the scene before us, yet the crystal-clear water—predominantly rain water filtered through the limestone—offered an unreal level of clarity with visibility reaching 200 to 300 feet. I knew immediately that this dive was going to be special.
As I followed Kuzela for about 45 minutes, I almost felt like I was on a Disneyland ride, but this attraction gives all the credit to nature. The various caverns felt like ancient cathedrals and temples flooded by water and decorated with glorious columns that sometimes stretched from ceiling to floor. Many of the stalactites (icicle-shaped rocks hanging from the ceiling) and stalagmites (icicle-shaped rocks protruding from the floor) radiated such beauty that the Maya people likely thought the gods shaped them with their very own hands. Some were the size of a pencil, while other formations resembled petrified trees. Beams of light cut through the water at various points illuminating the limestone and sometimes refracting in strangely beautiful ways. Whereas I typically chased fish and turtles out at sea, my first cenote experience felt like swimming through a museum filled with natural canvases.
According to geologists, the Yucatan was once a giant coral reef covered by water, but ocean levels dropped considerably during the Ice Age killing the coral and allowing jungle to envelope the now exposed reef. The cave systems developed as the coral limestone slowly dissolved over a very long stretch of time. When the Ice Age ended, the glaciers receded and many of the cave systems collapsed. Archeological finds in the cenotes include the fossilized remains of mammoths, camels, jaguars and sloths, and explorers discovered the 13,000-year-old skeleton of a teenage girl in the Sac Actun cave system that actually connects to Dos Ojos. National Geographic described the find in 2014 as the “oldest most complete, genetically intact human skeleton in the New World.”
After the first 45-minute dive, Kuzela and I had sandwiches and bottled water beside the entrance. After about an hour break, we got ready for the second dive.
“Do you feel comfortable swimming through a narrow passage?” Kuzela asked.
“We will have to go through it one at a time, and the passage is narrow,” he continued. “If you have a problem, stay calm, and don’t go through if you feel anything is wrong.”
We explored the next set of caves for about 15 minutes before we arrived at the tunnel. Kuzela entered the narrow pathway first, and I followed closely behind. Despite all my dives, I struggled to stay level in the water, and my tanks banged against the top rocks when I first entered. I opted instead to float down a foot or so before I proceeded. Rather than continue to bang my tank on the ceiling, I planned to use my hands to avoid hitting the bottom, but fortunately I made it through without again touching the sides. Kuzela waited for me on the other side and gave me the thumbs up when I emerged. We spent the next 20 minutes exploring other sections of the underwater wonderland.
As we emerged from the water at the end of the second dive, Kuzela asked, “So, what did you think?”
“I definitely want to dive more cenotes,” I proclaimed. “This was my favorite dive ever.”
Image: Marcus Bay/Shutterstock