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dannygoesdiving This is a blog & photo journal of the trips that I (Danny) and Jo (wifey) have taken over the past few years.

Cave Diving in Tulum, Mexico

MEXICO | Saturday, 18 January 2014 | Views [3457] | Comments [3]

Cenote Chi-Keen (photo taken from facebook fan site)

Cenote Chi-Keen (photo taken from facebook fan site)

It was time once again for Jon and my annual cave diving pilgrimage; this year the destination was Tulum in Mexico.  I probably pushed a little harder for this destination, as when cave diving was but a dream, the cenotes of Mexico were tauntingly featured in the British dive magazines. Jon had been here the previous year with his girlfriend having done a couple of cenote dives and one cave dive.  Consequently he knew a guy, an Italian called Mauro Bordignon who had dedicated himself to exploratory cave diving in the area for 7 years (www.maurobordignon.com). He was available .... all lights were green...vive Mexico !

Two flights, followed by two bus journeys saw us arrived in Tulum, a short taxi ride later and we were on the edge of downtown at the Hotel Mariposa (www.hotellamariposa.com).  The hotel was perfect for us, complete with a small kitchen and set back one block from the main road which runs through Tulum.

We wandered along the main drag of Tulum (the principle road that runs through Tulum from Cancun).  It pretty much comprises of restaurants, bars, dive stores and gift (read tacky) shops.  With no recommendation to go on, we picked a restaurant pretty much at random, it turned out to be a touristy Mexican restaurant with passable, if rather bland food.  The highlight was the arrival of tortilla chips and a couple of dips.  One looked like guacamole, so Jon (who doesn't like spicy food) loaded it onto a chip and ate it in one bite.  It turned out to be 'salsa verde', a hot sauce indeed - the expression on his face was worth the price of the meal itself, I wasn't sure if he was going to cry, explode or shit himself; needless to say I almost died laughing.  The main courses certainly weren't memorable, but did the basic function of sating our hunger.

I fell asleep to the shrieks of a cat on heat, barking dogs, and most bizarrely a marching band (a little confused about that one).

 

We were up early to get a cab to the car rental office where we hired a matchbox for $28 a day, we stocked up at the supermarket and then waited for the arrival of Mauro.

After reunions and introductions, we followed him a short journey to our first cenote of the trip - Cenote Cristal, a few pesos changed hands and we were in.  Gear was set up (Mauro visibly winced when he saw my setup and that was  despite the hours I spent configuring and testing it out back home), the dive was briefed and we slowly descended into the crystal clear waters of the cenote. Numerous fish darted around us and the odd terrapin stopped to see what all the commotion was as we headed towards the main line and the start of the dive.

Dive 1: Cenote Cristal (Naharon). Dive Time: 94 mins. Max Depth: 74ft. Temp: 79F. Mix: 32%. Deco: 11 Mins

I had a few nerves as it was my first cave dive using a side mount configuration, but it felt comfortable enough so that it wasn't a concern. This particular cave is also known as the 'dark cave', it was easy to see why, the walls and formations were all stained black from the tannic acid (this was the only cave we dived like this). It felt as if even our lights couldn't cut through this darkness giving  the whole cave a really eiry feel. Passing the odd catfish and shrimp along the way we entered into a cool looking saltwater layer. These haloclines really mess with your head as they affect visibility especially when the two water layers are mixed by the passing divers. Whilst we only saw a few formations, the wall colourings and haloclines made for an interesting, and more importantly unchallenging first dive - just as we had requested.

Deco stops completed we surfaced to an overcast sky - who stole the sun to warm us up ? Worse still it started to rain !

After chilling (lierally), we jumped into the back of Mauros truck. Crossing the road, we bounced along a dirt track to our next location.

Dive 2: Cenote Escondido (Mayan Blue). Dive Time: 76 mins. Max Depth: 75ft. Temp: 79F. Mix: 32%

We took the first of 3 entrances, towards the later part of the cave penetration we entered a long saltwater/ freshwater filled passage, a really cool feature, before finally entering a stunningly crystal clear passageway.

We had asked for a relaxing first day and thats what we had got.  There hadn't been an abundance of formations as is usually portrayed in all the pictures you see of the mexican cenotes, but we'd had a cool time.

That evening we opted for Thai food, I had a really tasty massaman curry, Jon bravely chose the least spicy dish on the menu - Pad Thai.

 

The  following day we met up with Mauro at Dos Ojos Cenote entrance; jumping into his truck we drove over a rough trail for about 20 minutes, eventually arriving at 'Pets Cemetary'.  The cenote is so named because of the various animal skeletons found in the cenote, one of which are the fossilized remains of an extinct prehistoric camel.

Mauro had held back for 24 hours, now he was let loose (with free reign) on my factory standard Dive Rite Nomad LT Cave sidemount. - all I had done was adjust it to my fit, add weight pockets and a couple of additional d-rings for the re-clipping of tanks as they became more buoyant.  The whole daisy chain system for securing around the tank valves were removed and replaced with a shorter bungee loop.  The regulators were re-routed to enable the tank handles to face outwards (I had them set up facing inwards). The first stages were repositioned. The long hose was switched to RHS tank, the short hose to the LHS (and would now route around the back of my head and clip to my neck loop), the LPI was switched to the LHS and both gauges were repositioned.  The inflator was re-routed from the RHS to the LHS, which would allow my LPI to sit snugly across my chest (the hose was too long but would be tucked away in the short term, long term I would need to replace it with a shorter hose). In other words  after he had worked his magic, the whole setup was  pretty much unrecognizable !

Mauro was happy and I was happier still......the knowledge imparted was priceless, my day was already made and we hadn't even hit the water !

The dive was briefed with the plan being to go to 'Blue Abyss', a 240ft deep sink hole at the end of a passageway.

Dive 3: Cenote Pets Cemetary. Dive Time: 117 mins. Max Depth: 97ft. Temp: 77F. Mix: 32%

The cenote itself is located within the jungle,  the dry section of the cenote is densely decorated with palm trees, there are stalactites everywhere and the colour of the water is a sight to behold.

We carried our equipment down a flight of wooden stairs to the cenote itself, the water was stunningly clear, stalactites hung from the ceiling and you could hear the shouts of delight from the snorkelers enjoying themselves in the water.  Kitting up I descended below the surface to familiarise myself with my new configuration. I felt far more streamlined and comfortable, the only downside was that it was a stretch to access my short hose regulator, I could certainly manage but a slightly longer hose would be an improvement. We surface swam for a couple of minutes before dropping down onto the gold line.

WOW, what a contrast to the previous days dives, visibility was stunning with white walls, floor and features. The bottom was a white silica sand floor, reminisent of rolling sand dunes, even  in the cavern section the formations were awe inspiring.   Passing the fossilsed animal remains we exited the cavern zone and entered the cave. There were the usual cave critters - shrimp and catfish, but it was the formations and decorations that just blow your mind. I just didn't know where to look or what to focus on; it was certainly the most decorated cave I had been in to date. The dive itself required 3 jumps and over a 40 minute swim including 2 tight restrictions, meaning we had to revolve sideways to pass through (not too bad for sidemount but it would certainly have been tight with backmount) before shallowing up to about 10ft where you reach the top of the blue abyss. Describing the blue abyss does in no way prepare you for it, basically at the end of the passageway and in only 10ft of water you are suddenly confronted with an awesome sink hole (apparantly goes down to 240ft) filled with impossibly blue water.  We descended to about 100ft and just hung out, looking down it just continued out of sight. It really was quite an amazing sight and experience.

It was time to head out, going against the flow made progess a little slower but that simply provided more time to take in the sights.

It was overcast again upon surfacing, so fleeces were donned, lunch was consumed and minor modifications to kit were made (Mauro provided me with a longer regulator hose and slightly lengthened the bungees).  We were now raring to go dive again; same cenote, this time though we were heading to the 'dark side of the moon'.

Dive 4: Cenote Pets Cemetary. Dive Time: 123 mins. Max Depth: 38ft. Temp: 75F. Mix:32%

Another great dive, more stunning formations and the flow even assisted this time by pushing us out. Jon had a primary light failure right at our turnaround point, so we sandwiched him inbetween us on the journey out.

A great day should end with great food and 'La Nave' didn't dissapoint, we had great pizzas, accompanied by Corona (bliss).  I would like to say we were out partying till the early hours, but alas this cave diving business is tiring, especially after 4 hours of diving. Maybe we saw 9PM, but its unlikely !

 

Yawn, was it really time to get up and go diving, I was going to need a holiday to recover at this rate !

Today we were off to the Caterpillar Cave System, a system found and explored by a team of divers (including Mauro) known at the Quiet Diver Exploration Team (www.quietdiver.com). Jon had requested todays dives, as this was where he had done his only cave dive last year and had had to turn shortly before a passageway called 'Ho Lee Shit' as the other diver that day had reached his thirds.  He had talked about this dive countless times and I am sure he lost sleep thinking about how close he came to his goal. Hopefully today he would get a second bite at the proverbial apple !

Leaving  the highway, we took another bouncy dirt road through the jungle, ending in an abandoned quarry.  Getting out the truck the only sounds present were the cries of parrots in the nearby jungle.

Where exactly was our cave ? 'Thats the entrance', I said looking at a shallow green slime filled pond in the middle of a quarry, 'No, thats our exit, our entrance is a 15 minute walk through the jungle carrying your gear' Mauro replied. Sometimes I should just not ask !  

So, we had had 2 overcast days when ther was little walking and carrying involved, when as today there was not a cloud in the sky, it was hot, hot by 10am and not a patch of shade to be had :)

A few more minor equipment adjustments were due - Mauro felt that my tanks positioned needed a little tweeking, so he fashioned a set of 'sliding d-rings' out of bungee onto my waist band.  Now I could clip in my tanks and then 'slide' them closer to my body as they became lighter, thus preventing then from flaring out - neat trick huh ?

That sorted, exploration backpacks appeared with which to enable us to more easily carry the tanks through the jungle to 'Bob Cat', which was to be our entrance point into the Caterpillar cave system. We followed mauro and his flailing machette, eventually arriving at our destination. We formed a chain gain to lower the tanks into the hole, before then passing them down to the water level (which was out of the light zone). Are we having fun yet ? To be fair, Mauro had said he could arrange for a sherper to carry the gear to the entrance for us for about 300 pesos, but hey its all part of lifes rich tapestry.

Returning to the quarry we got into suits and headed back with our remaining gear.  The plan was to exit in the small pond in the quarry, thus saving a return walk with the gear.  The reason we did not enter at this point was that entering at 'Bob Cat' saved about 18 minutes of diving (and the associated air use), which would prevent us from our proposed destination and Jon's nemesis - the 'Ho Lee Shit' tunnel.  Why is it called that... Read on and see.

Dive 5: Cenote caterpillar (Bob Cat entrance). Dive Time: 133 Mins. Max Depth: 47ft. Temp: 75F. Mix: 32%

Dragons teeth !  That was my first thought when I saw a particularly spectacular set of stalactites. I know I've already mentioned it and for fear of getting boring but the decorations continued to impress and amaze.  About 40 minutes into the dive we came across a plastic bottle attached to the main line. This had become a symbol of having reached the ho-lee shit tunnel. The idea is that you leave a donation of 50 pesos to help fund the materials required (lines, markers etc) for ongoing exploration. I think for many people its also an acknowledgement of the personal achievement of having arrived at this point.  We added our notes to the tally, its still the first bottle placed here but will soon need emptying !  The tunnel is seriously impressive, its suddenly just there, one minute your diving in a pretty bog standard passageway, then suddenly your confronted with a hugh tunnel, it reminded me of a train tunnel such is its size and shape - 'holy shit' I thought.. and so a name is born. We continued on for a while before reaching thirds and starting our return journey.  On the way back Mauro pointed out  2 sets of mayan bear remains , both front paws were clearly identifiable on the 2nd set of remains. Cool feature. The remains are supposed to be at least 10,000 years old. We continued beyond our point of entry, entering into a really twisty, turny passageway which included a number of restrictions that were certainly only passable with a side mount configuration. As we worked our way slowly shallower and shallower I could finally see daylight coming from the pond in the quarry. The sight of daylight is always a welcome sight as a dive ends, even when the water looks green from the algae covering the surface. As I literally wriggled and pulled myself through the exit I was greeted with a shallow pond full of water boatman and tadpoles. Standing up I was in barely 3ft of water, its amazing how such an innocuous pond can guard such underwater wonders.

Dive 6: Cenote Caterpillar ( downstream). Dive Time: 86 mins. Max Depth 87ft. Temp: 75F. Mix: 32%.

Climbing back into the pond we entered the Caterpillar system through another hole (this time heading downstream).  There were fewer decorations but the nature of the dive provided more than enough to occupy the mind and was certainly the most challenging (mentally) to date. The dive was a like a 360 degree maze, we were constantly changing body position to get through a continuous bombardment of restrictions; working our way through a series of both horizontal and vertical fissures. There was no way it could have been completed diving backmount, this was without doubt a sidemount dive. I could best describe it as being like a rollercoaster ride in an amusement park....and boy was it fun ! We had agreed to turn at 40 minutes to enable us to pack away before it got dark and the time arrived all too quickly.  A final treat just before we turned was a third bear skeleton. The remains were on a ledge and there were a series of deep claw marks just below - an educated guess is that it fell into the water and was carried to this point where it finally managed to scramble out onto what would then have been a dry ledge - only to find no was out :(

The return journey was no less fun as everything was in reverse !  This turned out (despite the lack of decorations for which the mexican caves are renowned for) to be both Jon and my favourite dive. Sheer unadulterated fun. 

Exiting at dusk we were treated to mosquito hell. If anyone could have seen us hopping and jumping around whilst wildy flailing our arms they would probably have called the police believing that they were witness to some strange occult ritual.  Another awesome day of diving had been had.

We are nothing if not creatures of habit and if somethings good then why not go there again ? So it was back to the Thai restaurant !  Jon stuck with the tried and tested Pad Thai, whilst I opted for the very spice green thai curry. Let me saw it was awesome, however it did get its revenge (several times), but enough said about that.

 

Sadly It was already our final day of cave diving, we were to have a late start as Mauro had a 5km endurance race (And people say I'm crazy). Jon foolishly thought that meant we would have a lay in, I however had other plans. - a morning of cultural delights at the Tulum Mayan ruins.  We arrived at about 9AM to beat the crowds and I was suprised that even at that hour it was relatively busy. Historically it was one of the last cities inhabited and built by the Mayans and managed to survive for about 70 years after the Spanish started to occupy Mexico. Its certainly compact compared to other Mayan ruins (took us less than an hour walk around) and is meant to be one of the best preserved  coastal Mayan sites. To be perfectly honest (I brace myself for death threats), its a little dull !  The ruins themselves are, well in quite a state of ruin, in so much as there is little more than a shape to signify structures (the exception being the Castillo). Its nice enough to stroll around, the multitude of iguanas basking in the sun are quite captivating and the beach and sea are stunning (and actually seem to be the main attraction). It was a cool distraction but little more than that - sorry :(. Oh and for those who know of my travels, you'll know I love all that ancient civilizations malarkey, so I'm not just being a miserable bastard. Maybe if I had not been fortunate enough to have seen the likes of Ankor Wat, Machu Pichu & the Easter Islands I would have been appreciative - spoilt I guess.

Mauro promised us a treat for our final day -  Cenote Chi-Keen, another cave recently discovered and explored by the Quiet Diver team. This cenote is actually a multi level dive (a first for us on this trip), the maximum depth in the upper level is 18ft, with the lower level being a maximum of 55ft. Mauro promised us a dive to remember with some mind blowing decorations - a bold claim indeed.

The cave is a short drive from Tulum and located on private land. The fee is actually paid at Protec (www.protecdiving.com), once you pass through the gates you park up in the shade of the trees. In complete contrast to the previous day your tanks are loaded into a wheelbarrow and transported to the cave entrance, before being carried down to the waters edge. I was glad we hadn't done this before Caterpillar as I may well have rebelled.  

 

Dive 7: Cenote Chic-ken. Dive Time: 105mins. Max Depth: 50ft. Temp: 75F. Mix: 32%

Aided by torchlight (once again) we kitted up in water and readied ourselves for the dive.  The plan was to reach the lower level of the cave via the upper level sidemount route, which included a couple of tight restrictions, one of which would require us to remove one of our tanks and push it through in front of ourselves (Gulp). The first thing I noticed (and it was a constant throughout both dives) was that the whole cave was very silty Compared to those we had previously dived. I asked Mauro about this afterwards and he said it was because it was a relatively new cave discovery and little dived compared to the more commonly known systems in the area. The second thing I noticed was the condition of the cave and its decorations.  There was remarkably little damage, in fact in most areas there was not a damaged formation to be found, it was almost pristine and it certainly made you feel priviledged to be there. I would go as far as to say that in places it was insanely decorated, someone in another forum stated 'its the closest thing to diving in a dense geological rainforest' and that pretty much sums it up. The section we reached at turnaround had apparently only been dived by 7-8 others and superfine stalactites adorned the ceiling. We progressed through the last parts of the dive super slowly so as not to damage or impact on the cave. The whole dive was exhilerating - well maybe not the removing the tank part ! The only negative about the dive was that I struggled with my tank positioning as the sliding d-rings weren't cooperating, meaning I had to constantly readjust the tanks throughout the whole dive which detracted to a degree. 

Dive 8: Cenote Chi-keen. Dive Time: 97mins. Max Depth: 56ft. Temp: 75F. Mix: 32%

A few minor gear modifications were required to overcome the tank positioning issues I had had previously,  the sliding d-ring were tightened and the tank bungees were slightly lengthened.  This time we took an alternative route to the lower level culminating at 'Mauros basement'. More silt, more restrictions and another tank removal (a little easier) And of course more stunning, undisturbed decorations. A perfect final cave dive of this trip.

The 3 of us ended the day at a really great local fish restaurant on the edge of town (which I really wish I could remember the name of). We had great maize chips and dips, cerviche, fish tacos and a Sol or two.  Good food and company - what else do you need ?

Gear was hung out to dry and an early night was had (again) as despite there being no more diving, tomorrow was not going to be a day to relax - we planned to visit one of the new 7 Wonders of the World - Chichen Itza. Chichen Itza was one of the largest Mayan cities and is one of the most visited in Mexico.

 

So surprise, surprise another early start as we had a 2 hour drive ahead of us. The journey was pretty uneventful, highlights were probably the small (non touristy) villages we passed through; the police checks were also a novel experience, especially as the police were armed with machine guns. We arrived at Chichen Itza at just after 9 AM - there were no tourist buses yet and we were pretty much the only car in the carpark, better still there were no queues for tickets and we wandered straight through and into the complex.

At this hour it felt like we almost had the place to ourselves (this soon changed and by early afternoon the place was heaving), the sun was out and there wasn't a cloud in the sky, even the vendors who were liberally scattered around the ruins were only just starting to unpack their wares. I won't bore you with a blow by blow account of where we went and what we saw. I will say that the highlights for me included the Castillo (100ft high step pyramid which dominated the whole complex), the temple of a thousand warriors, the great ball court (largest and best preserved in ancient Mesoamerica) and the skull platform.

 

 

As we wandered around we took the opportunity to browse the varies vendors wares. It was there sales patter that caught our attention rather than the rather generic goods they were selling. I was particularly amused by the regular calls of  'almost free' and 'cheaper than Walmart'.

 I was so pleased that I had not let the ruins at Tulum cloud my judgement - they are simply poles apart, chichen Itza rocks and in my humble opinion it's a must do.

That evening we wanted to go back to the previous nights restaurant but sadly it was closed so we opted for the restaurant next door 'El Camello', which was packed to the rafters with people - a good mix of Mexicans and tourists which seemed a good sign. We couldn't even get a table inside, instead sitting outside by the side of the road. We ordered a couple of Coronas and raised a toast to another successful and highly enjoyable cave diving trip, then set about the more important task of ordering food.  Jon orderd a medium cerviche whilst I ordered a whole fried fish.  The portions were massive, Jons cerviche could have easily have fed two, whilst I managed my fish but at the expense of the vegetables, rice and refried beans. Both meals were excellent and I highly recommend the restaurant (I am sure the manager of our hotel does too as he got Jons leftover cerviche !).

 

It was the travelling home day. There was a feeling of deja vu in reverse - bus, airport, plane, airport, plane and we were back home in the Turks and Caicos.

So, our trip was over, we'd had a blast, I'd learnt a lot and been converted to side mount diving (don't tell Jon). There had been alot of piss taking ( as usual), we'd had alot of laughs and seen amazing sights below and above the water. We'd tried out new food, made new friends and continued to indulge in our passion of cave diving. There really was not much more we could have asked for.

Cave diving in Mexico certainly lived up to its hype and had exceeded all my expectations ... Thanks to Mauro for some awesome diving (and for imparting his knowledge) and of course to Jon, my long suffering cave diving buddy. 

There will be no more cave diving trips this year but theres still plenty for us to continue to explore here in the Turks and Caicos - watch this space !

 

Comments

1

What a trip! I'm sure there's a whole side to the head space needed to make these dives that can't even be explained. Great write up!

  Joda Mar 11, 2014 6:02 AM

2

Nicely written Danny! A good read

  Max Smith Mar 11, 2014 10:24 AM

3

Danny, Danny... what were you thinking poistioning the Dive Rite Nomad LT Cave sidemout regulators so the tank handles faced inwards? And even I know the inflator should be routed to the left so the LPI can sit snugly on your chest, it's so bloody uncomfortable tucked in your Y-fronts, I find the sticky out bit gets right up my...
Still never mind, looks like it was a cool trip, despite your faux pas.
I'm gonna have to suffer some screen suck now finding out what cenotes are...
I can't help feeling sorry for poor bloody bears either

  Tony Smith Mar 17, 2014 11:35 AM

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