Playa del Carmen and the cenotes ...

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August 22nd 2012
Published: August 23rd 2012
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So I know I said this would be a food type blog... ‘girl v food’ an homage to the fabulous Adam Richman! And I’ve been diligently photographing everything that has passed my lips; however that was before I got to Playa del Carmen, Mexico and started diving and more specifically started diving the Cenotes. Any thought of food had to take a back seat when the cenotes came to town... or rather, when I came to their town!

For those not in the know, let me explain what a cenote is: The word Cenote comes from the Mayan meaning ‘well’. It is a deep natural hole (or sink hole) created by the collapse of surface limestone exposing ground water underneath. These underground ‘rivers’ are all interconnected, or so it is believed. There are many unexplored areas but the areas that have been explored are quickly becoming huge tourist attractions. They have caverns and caves which show off a massive, beautiful array of stalagmites and stalactites. But it’s not all fun; many have died in the cenotes. So proper certified guides are needed and a certain amount of respect.

So, Adam and I flew to Cancun airport where we met
Nohoch Mul at Coba Nohoch Mul at Coba Nohoch Mul at Coba

The only ruin you can walk all the way to the top on..
up with Alex, who I met diving in Jordan, and Alma who Adam and I had dived with in Thailand. We then met up with Beany (who I’d met in Sulawesi) at our very smart looking apartment in Playa del Carmen. We found our apartment on ‘Air bnb’ and it was an absolute bargain at $20 a night. It had ensuite bathrooms and a pool area, as well as lovely decor, a kitchen and purified water. Not like the usual places I stay in on holiday!!

We had, or rather Beany and Alma had, spent a lot of time organising who we’d be diving with: We had, by chance, found a guy called Cristobel who was a Mexican, freelance cenote certified diver. He was brilliant. If anyone needs a guide in Playa get in touch... he rocked! We decided we needed to have an easy first day diving because we had been out of the water for a while!! So we headed for the ocean rather than the cenotes.

I’m often surprised by how few fish there are in the places I’ve been... and I’m sad to say Playa was the same. I’m glad I dived there, but
El Pit and our guideEl Pit and our guideEl Pit and our guide

not hard to see why I loved this dive ...
just not lots of fish. However we saw some great decorator crabs and a beautiful tiger tail sea horse as well as pipe horse, yellow rays, banded pipe fish and a few massive lobsters!! Any dive where you see a sea horse is a good dive in my books!!

So after our first day back in the water and back in the swing of diving we all headed to Cozumel; a small island off the coast near Cancun. It is known for its beauty, and whilst we didn’t actually go on dry land (it looked very built up) we did get some great dives... a huge wall at Palancar with massive lobsters and then some lovely swim throughs at Talila Gardens. We even saw a shark, southern ray and some more lobsters and crabs!

Day 3 was our wreck day. We headed out to C53 a wreck that was originally used as a mine sweeper before being used as a drug and illegal arms patroller. It was sunk in 1999 and sits at approximately 30 metres. It was not great visibility although more fish here, including an oceanic trigger fish and another decorator crab (I love a decorator
Decorator CrabDecorator CrabDecorator Crab

Amazing crab on our ocean dive
crab... they decorate themselves so differently over here compared to Indonesia!) We had an amusing second dive on this day where we almost missed the dive site, and Alma and I got separated from the group (the last I’d seen was Beany and Cristobel horsing around!) but it was a really lovely day and Cristobel was a fabulous and very amusing guide... but the best was yet to come!!

Day 4. CENOTES!! Cristobel picked Alex, Beany and myself up at 7.30am in order to get to the first cenote before the masses. (Alma and Adam went with another guide to another Cenote because you can only have 4 divers with one guide in the cenotes) We went to El Pit first off. On the way Cristobel gave us a very thorough briefing on how to behave in the cenotes, what to do, what not to do, what to do in case of problems etc. None of us had dived in cenotes/caves/caverns before and whilst some were nervous before the briefing we all felt well informed and ready to go after the briefing... I was like a 4 year old at Christmas; VERY excited and eager to get in the
Our merry band!Our merry band!Our merry band!

Beany, Alex, Adam, me and Alma ready to get back in the water on day 1!

El pit is a great initiation in this kind of diving. It is the most beautiful sink hole found off the beaten path in the middle of fairly dense jungle. It is a mix of fresh and salt water, which don’t mix (because they’re different densities) so you get these crazy haloclines – which look like shimmering in the water. At 30 metres there is a sulphur layer which you descend through which looks like a grey, thick mist in the water – it is amazing if not a little weird (looks like something from a horror movie as you disappear through it!).

So El Pit: Beautiful. Completely beautiful from the outside and crazy from the inside... this huge hole with a smoky looking layer at the bottom which you can pass through and swim around underneath!! Brilliant. Please look at the photos at the bottom of this blog: there will be lots!!

We then intended to go to Dos Ojos, which everyone says to go to... however the problem with something that is so highly recommended is that usually everyone has the same idea, so when we got there and were confronted with about 30 divers we all three turned to Cristobel (who had previously warned us it would be full of divers) and with sulky looking faces he read us like a book and suggested we go to one of his favourite dive sites... a secret one... that hardly anyone knows about... so secret in fact that I’m not even going to tell you the name!! (I don’t want it to be full of divers when I next go there!!) But it was full of stalagmites and stalactites, in some ‘rooms’ there was not a single centimetre of space that wasn’t full of them... it was awesome and as with El Pit, it was deserted; we didn’t see any other divers whilst we were in the water which was so lovely. But unlike El Pit, this wasn’t a sink hole, it was a cavern with cave entrances. (In a cave you are more than 60 metres from natural light and it is usually smaller than a cavern). It also has crazy thermoclines which shimmer as you swim through them and because the water is so clear and still around you, you can see each diver in their own little cocoon of shimmery water as
Moray eelMoray eelMoray eel

Found this guy hanging out on our local dive... beautiful!
they swim through the water! Crazy. So after our first day of cenotes we were all hooked! And adoring Cristobel who had looked after us so well and with whom we felt very safe.

The following day we were supposed to be diving with another guide but we didn’t want to so we postponed our diving to go site seeing in order to dive the following day with Cristobel!! The 3 of us hired a car and headed to see some Mayan ruins. The obvious choice was Chichen Itza, however we’d been told by many that it was incredibly touristy and we’d have a better time at Tulum or Coba... so to Coba we headed. The directions were brilliant; head straight out of Playa and take a right at the San Franciscan supermarket at Tulum and you’ll hit Coba... very accurate as it turned out!!

Coba was beautiful; proper Mayan ruins just as you’d imagine, although unlike Chichen Itza these ruins were from a slightly earlier period where they didn’t make human sacrifices, had only one set of stairs leading up to the top, rather than on all 4 sides and had rounded corners rather than square oh,
Our fancy pants apartmentOur fancy pants apartmentOur fancy pants apartment

The Amalfi Apartments thanks to Air BnB!
and no snake heads – I don’t think? The main building, Nohoch Mul, was incredible; one of the few remaining ruins that you are allowed to climb (health and safety would have a field day!!). It is surrounded by jungle and so once at the top you get this incredible view of the surrounding area. We got a great guide who told us all about the history of the ruins and the Mayan people – most of which I’ve forgotten now! And we hired two tricycles to ferry us round the ruins; lazy lazy lazy... but in our defence it was very hot!! – And they have to earn some money... this is what I told myself to make me feel better when I heard the man (his name sounded like Timotei – I didn’t want to liken him to a shampoo but I did have images of a blond Swedish woman washing her hair in a well in the alps springing to mind!) wheezing behind me in the midday heat!

After Coba we headed to Tulum which seemed like the Disneyland of ruins, in that it was full of tourists, vendors, music, buses, crafts, shops, drink sellers etc.
Tiger tail sea horseTiger tail sea horseTiger tail sea horse

Beautiful little sea horse..
The beauty of Tulum is the fact that the ruins sit right on the most beautiful beach. I think we queued for about 40 minutes to get our ticket, spent 30 minutes walking round and then headed out to the beach!!

After much confusion and stopping and asking in pigeon Spanish where ‘el playa’ was we found a beautiful and secluded beach and all 3 promptly fell asleep! When we woke I was just about to go swimming when it started to rain so we headed back home in our, now very sandy, hire car.

Well the following day we met Cristobel again, who had also bought Marijke along – another, lovely, guide and we all headed to Angelita. Angelita is another sink hole. Again it was beautiful. Much bigger than El Pit and the sulphur layer was much thicker – you could actually smell it as you went through! – It was awesome. I don’t know how else to describe it. It was huge. And eerie and beautiful and ethereal and I adored diving it. (There is another sink hole called Hells Bells which I would love to go to one day... sadly not this trip!). There is a great swim through in Angelita too and whilst there were a few other divers there you hardly noticed them because of the size. We finished off our diving with Tajma Ha. Tajma Ha connects 3 cenotes together and has beautiful caverns within it. The light is incredible and you can surface in one of the other cenotes which is just beautiful, with vines hanging into the water and the jungle right up to the edge. Breathtaking. And so we ended our diving. But not our trip. We still had the whale sharks to play with!!

Our final day was spent snorkelling with the whale sharks at Cancun. The 5 of us all were a group again as we headed out on a speed boat to a designated point where there were perhaps 20 whale sharks all feeding on the plankton in the water. Whale sharks are the biggest fish in the ocean (the biggest on record is about 12.2 metres long) and whilst I’d seen them in the Philippines it was still an incredible experience; only hampered by the fact there are literally hundreds of tourists in the water, many of whom try to touch them (I
Beautiful pipe horseBeautiful pipe horseBeautiful pipe horse

This tiny little thing is a pipe horse.. so beautiful and tiny! (Local, ocean dive on day 1)
did end up shouting at one group in my best and most stern teachers voice that they shouldn’t be touching them! Idiots!) It was, just as it was the first time, an inspiring experience and one I won’t forget in a hurry. You sit in the water waiting to catch a glimpse of a big shadow in the water and then kick like crazy trying to follow it – we look like crazed swimmers desperately trying to keep up with them, they look so graceful and peaceful with one swish of their tail and they shoot ahead with ease! I couldn’t help wondering why they don’t just move away from all the tourists, or squat one or two annoying ones with their tails... but they seem to be too serene for that!! Did I mention that they only eat plankton so no fear of being eaten!!

We all fell asleep (as usual) on the way back (in fact we fell asleep on the way there too!.. it’s a hard life!) and there are very few feelings I prefer than sitting on the back of a boat, the wind in my hair, the sun on my face whizzing across the
The most delicious CevicheThe most delicious CevicheThe most delicious Ceviche

this is one of my favourite dishes.. so fresh and tasty
waves... I have to admit thoughts of returning to Thailand or Indonesia to be a dive master did surface at this point!!

And so that was that. Diving done. Snorkelling done. Sleeping and eating done. Friends seen. New friends made. All done.

You may think I’ve done nothing but write about diving. Which would be true, however we did very little apart from diving! Most days we finished diving, ate and then slept or sunbathed by the pool, reading (and sleeping) and then went out for supper before returning home and sleeping some more! There were no drunken nights out, no dancing till dawn. Just eating, sleeping and diving! (Except for the last evening when we invited Cristobel and Marijke over for a delicious home cooked meal, courtesy of Alma and Beany. We ate like kings and then chatted for a while before Alex, Beany and Cristobel and Marijke headed out for a night on the tiles ... Adam, Alma and I went to sleep!! I woke at 5.30 AM as Beany and Alex returned home looking worse for wear. Amusingly Alex had to catch a bus and then a flight at 8am that morning! Which she did!! Amazingly!)

So, Beany and I said goodbye to Adam and Alma and headed to the extremely fancy Viceroy Hotel just outside Playa del Carmen. We had one night of absolute luxury. When I say luxury I mean our own plunge pool, hammock, massive double outside sun bed, moon shower luxury!! It was heaven. I got eaten alive by mosquitoes but it was worth it!! We slept (surprise surprise) ate (!) and were treated like queens before heading back to Austin for a few days of shopping...

If you’ve never been to Mexico you must go. If you are a diver and you’ve never been to the Cenotes, my god you HAVE to go. I have a notoriously bad memory; I will NOT forget the 5 dives I did in those beautiful cenotes. They were breath taking, and I loved them. And if you do go, you must get in contact with Cristobel Perez Gonzalez he was the best. It could not have been better. And what a lovely way to meet up with people I’ve met and befriended travelling and diving round the world but don’t get to see very often. Amazing.

Additional photos below
Photos: 38, Displayed: 32


Yellow rayYellow ray
Yellow ray

Day one.. dive one.. nice!
Juvenile drum fish Juvenile drum fish
Juvenile drum fish

beautiful.. at Cozumel
Peeping Toby fish Peeping Toby fish
Peeping Toby fish

Day 2: Cozumel
Flamingo CowrieFlamingo Cowrie
Flamingo Cowrie

Beautiful.. day 3 dive 2
Secret Cenote!! Secret Cenote!!
Secret Cenote!!

It was much darker with narrower tunnels and filled with Stalagmites and stalctites. Stunning

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