Scuba Diving Cenotes in Cancun

Cancun is an amazing place to travel, often overlooked by the diving community because of its notoriety for spring breakers and all inclusive resorts. Its diving is honestly some of the best in the world, even rivaling dive sites from the Great Barrier Reef.

Cancun is on the Yucatan Peninsula on the east coast of Mexico famous for its beaches, parties, and cenote caverns. The cenotes formed over thousands of years as sea level rose after the last ice age seeped naturally acidic groundwater into cracks in the rock, dissolving the peninsula’s soft limestone bedrock. Over time this process formed large underground caverns and tunnel systems covered by a thin layer of limestone. The cenotes formed as erosion collapsed the limestone roof leaving behind the water filled cavern often connected underground to other cenotes.

Cenotes provide the peninsula with a source of freshwater, utilized by Mayan civilizations for hundreds of years. The cenotes are freshwater, but deeper caves can have salt water at the bottom initiating a chemical reaction I will talk about later in the post. The cenotes are a diver’s paradise offering a wide variety of depths, fossils, features, and caves. The crystal clear water in the remote jungle is extremely inviting, especially in the warm climate. I would recommend going to a few different cenotes because each one is unique.

We chose to dive two cenotes in 2015 on the way to Colorado for Christmas. We booked a Groupon for a week at an all inclusive resort, planning to party and dive. We planned our dives through our resort’s dive shop at the Reef Playacar, deciding on diving in the Chac Mool and Kukulkan cenotes. Our first dive was planned in the smaller of the two to get comfortable with the dive instructor and learn some cenote diving techniques before heading into the more complicated second dive. 

First Cenote Dive – Chac Mool

The first dive was INSANE! We drove 40 minutes into the jungle to the popular Chac Mool cenote. This cenote has a maximum depth of 45 feet and three separate rooms. We got out of the truck, put on our wetsuits, set up our gear, and walked to the cenote entrance. The entrance had a cement walkway and a dive ladder to aid getting in and out.

At first glance the cenote did not look that big or anything spectacular from the outside, but inside it extended down 30 to 50 feet beneath the rocky overhang covering the cavern. The opening connected to the main room, descending to the cenote’s full depth. We swam through the large room learning how to follow guidelines also installed in other popular cenotes. The light coming in from the surface was more than enough to see in the main room, cascading a brilliant blue light throughout the cavern. As we swam away from the main room the light diminished and we had to rely on our underwater flashlights.

We travelled deeper into the cenote and moved into a second smaller room that was pitch black. The ground was covered in large boulders, debris, and crystallized minerals stuck to the sides of the caves. In the back of the cenote was another surface entry marked by a large tree stump. The dive instructor told us that entrance was seldom used for dive entries because debris frequently covered it. Our guide took us to one last room with an air pocket trapped in the ceiling, allowing us to surface briefly. He explained that you should only stay in these pockets for a few minutes because the air is not filtrated often filtration and some cenotes build up toxic pockets from chemical reactions from the minerals, limestone, and sea water.

Second Cenote Dive – Kukulkan

The second dive we picked was also a maximum of 45 foot into a cenote called Kukulkan. We were considering doing a deeper cenote like the Taj-Mahal or Angelita offering more fossils, caves, tunnels, and less people. However, deep cenotes also require more dive preparations, techniques, and knowledge that we did not want to hassle with.

To access Kukulkan we put on all our gear by the car and walked down a steep flight of stairs into an underground cave. Inside it was dark and filled with colder water than the first cenote, but we were the only divers there. We jumped in and immediately this dive had a different vibe. There was relatively little light entering from the opening and the water was cold and dark, relying heavily on our flashlights. 

Kukulkan was much deeper than Chac Mool, and we descended into its main room exploring chambers and tunnels that branched wildly away. As we continued the dive we swam around large pillars and over massive boulders deposited on the cave floor. We got to a deeper section where salt water from the ocean was leaching into the cenote. When saltwater and freshwater meet they do not mix, and instead create a turbid layer called a halocline that looks like a blurry cloud between them. The crazy thing about this phenomena when diving is that when you are in the saltwater portion, it looks like you are reaching the water’s surface as you ascend into the freshwater layer.

There are many stories about divers getting disoriented in deep cenotes, removing their masks thinking they reached an air pocket and drowning. Another cool thing I noticed about the halocline section was that when I was in the salt water layer, anyone above me in the fresh water section looked like they were flying. It really messed with your eyes, and I could see how it would be easy to become disoriented or panicked diving at greater depths. If you want to film or take pictures of the halocline make sure you have a camera that does well in low lighting, because cenote haloclines are only in the deep and dark sections.

After coming out the dive I realized that I had a new interest for exploring cenotes in future trips, and I am planning a trip to go back and dive in the future. Many cenotes are still relatively unexplored because they are difficult to access, or they are too high risk to explore. I am not a person who gets claustrophobic so I enjoyed exploring the smaller caves and tunnels outside of the main rooms. Cancun has cenotes for all types of people, so even if you are not a scuba diver add one to your trip because you can still enjoy floating at the surface, snorkeling, or jumping into the refreshing waters. It is also easy to get dramatic looking photos because the lighting is perfect almost year round, even when it is raining.

Things to Bring

  • Underwater Camera
  • Snorkel Gear
  • Environmentally Friendly Sunblock
  • Dive Log


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