Why Are Cenotes All the Rage in Mexico's Rivera Maya? I Found Out
First, You Must Choose the Riviera Maya Over Cancun
Want to challenge yourself with Riviera Maya snorkeling and diving in spooky caves?
There's a fork in the road on the way out of Cancun Airport. North is Cancun and its vivid nightlife. South is the Riviera Maya and serene luxury resorts along the Caribbean coast.
But a mile west of the beach, the untamed Mexican jungle reigns supreme. Monkeys chatter, iguanas slither, and venomous spiders lurk. The jungle is the Riviera Maya's only source of fresh water, concealed underground in interconnected caves called cenotes (pronounced seh-NO-tays).
Once Holy to Mayans, Now Sacred to Adventurers
The native Mayans worshiped the life-giving cenotes. But over the centuries, most of them were forgotten and overgrown. These cenotes were rediscovered in the 1990s and became trophy destinations for intrepid scuba divers. Many cenotes are only partially filled with water, permitting snorkelers to paddle through, nearly as thrilling as cenote diving.
I'm a certified diver and wanted to test my cojones in the cenotes. Online I scheduled a dive in the Riviera Maya's biggest cenote system, Hidden Worlds, which I'd seen in the iMax film Journey into Amazing Caves.
All My Nerve Might Not Be Enough
I flew to Cancun and took the fork in the road south. Hidden Worlds swarmed with adventurers. Divers prepped tanks for plunging into Dos Ojos, a meandering underwater cenote. Snorkelers tried on masks for swimming through Hilario's Well and Tak Be Ha, only part-filled with agua.
Owner Buddy Quattlebaum, an ex-Floridian, thought I could handle Dreamgate, his most recently discovered and most spectacular cenote. He'd accompany me as my divemaster. "You'll be fine," he said. "Just don't kick any stalactites." I zipped myself into a thick wetsuit for the 76º water and joined Buddy in an ancient flatbed truck that lurched down a rutted dirt path toward Dreamgate.
"Here" Means a Hole in the Ground
"We're here," said Buddy. "Here" was a rickety metal ladder emerging from a hole in the ground. We climbed about thirty feet down to a wooden platform perched where the cave gave way to water.
My eyes adjusted to the dark, and a murciélago -- a long word for a tiny bat -- swooped past me. I strapped on my vest, tank, weight belt, and fins. The water was even blacker than the cave. "I can't do this," I whined. "Oh, yes, you can," said Buddy. "Just follow me."
He slid into the drink. I lowered my mask, clamped my teeth onto my breathing regulator, and jumped in. The water wasn't as dark as it appeared. I could see Buddy signal "thisaway."
No Currents, No Sharks, Just Blue Calm
The water was still and predator-less. Just Buddy, 15 feet ahead, keeping an eye on me. I relaxed and breathed deeper and more slowly, just like a diver is supposed to.
We glided into a chamber the size of an off-Broadway theater. Dreamgate looked like Carlsbad Caverns, but submerged. Baroque limestone swirls and crystalline icicles glittered like jewels under my flashlight's beam. Luminous rays of gold, green, and blue poked through holes on the caves' roof.Dreamgate was so captivating, I forgot that I was underground and underwater, with a layer of rock between me and air.
One dazzling chamber followed another. Kicking calmly behind Buddy, I got into a groove. I breathed calmly and avoided brushing a single stalactite or stalagmite. The hour-long dive passed like minutes.
An Altered State of Consciousness
Afterwards, I shared shrimp tacos with Buddy. He described himself as "an old hippie" who meditates daily in a treehouse as the sun rises over the Riviera Maya's Caribbean coast. I understood why Buddy was so proud of Dreamgate. Inside this rock cathedral, a sense of wonder melts your cares away and fills you with peace. You understand what the Mayans found holy about cenotes, and feel at one with history and nature. It's a profound experience.
To Learn More About Hidden Worlds' Cenotes and Visiting Mexico's Riviera Maya
• Hidden Worlds cenote diving/snorkeling info, prices, reservations
• Hidden Worlds on Facebook
• On Twitter
• Hidden Worlds reservations by phone 888.339.8001
• A more accomplished diver does Hidden Worlds, in About's Adventure Travel
• Another great adventure in Cancun and the Riviera Maya, swimming with 40-foot whale sharks
• Where to stay nearby: the luxury all-inclusive, Zoetry Riviera Maya
• Or: a deluxe local hotel with romantic jungle cottages, Viceroy Riviera Maya
• Official tourism info for the Riviera Maya
As is common in the travel industry, the Expert was offered a complimentary cenote dive in order to describe it. For details, see our site's Ethics Policy.