Return to the Yucatán

Every year in August, Vince and I take a trip on or around our wedding anniversary. Instead of buying each other gifts, we get away and spend some time adventuring together, whether it be as simple as camping in South Dakota or as far-flung as searching for dragons on Komodo Island. For our ninth anniversary, we only had one requirement in mind. Wherever we ended up had to have good SCUBA diving. We narrowed our search down to the Caribbean so that we’d be able to make it a short trip, and after I made a handful of different itineraries, we settled on finally returning to Cancún, something I’ve been wanting to do since we last visited in 2014. In fact, we travelled to the Yucatán three years in a row when we were first married, and had a blast every single time, so I was happy to finally get to go back.

This time around though, mother nature had some surprises in store for us. As we were arriving at the airport for the first leg of our journey, Hurricane Grace was making landfall in Tulum, just over 60 miles south of our hotel in Puerto Morelos. Somehow our flights still took off with only a minor delay, and we arrived at the Cancún International Airport in the midst of a deluge of frigid rain. Fortunately the downpour was short lived, and had greatly subsided by the time we got to the Budget office to pick up our rental car. The situation when we arrived at our hotel however, shed more light on the destruction Grace had caused mere hours before.

The Hotel Casa del Puerto by MIJ is a lovely boutique hotel with a feeling of privacy in the laid-back town of Puerto Morelos. All of the rooms have either a spacious balcony or patio overlooking the ocean, and the small hotel has a much calmer vibe than the big all-inclusives in Cancún’s hotel zone. The hotel zone had been great for a big group of friends looking to party, but the Casa del Puerto was perfect for a quiet anniversary trip by ourselves. Unfortunately, we checked in to find a scene that, although comparatively mild, gave us just a taste of the damage that tropical storms can cause. The power was out and the ocean front restaurant had been smashed to bits. A view from our balcony revealed that the pool and beach were piled with debris.

As we watched the still-raging ocean pummeling the shore from the safety of our room, I got a text from Scuba Total Cancún, the dive shop where I’d arranged all of our dives and tours for the long weekend. Things weren’t looking certain for our reef dives the next day, but we would have to wait and see what the harbor master said in the morning before rescheduling.

In the meantime, Vince and I drove to the Puerto Morelos city center to wander around aimlessly. The city was completely devoid of tourists although many shops and restaurants remained open. We stopped at a grocery store to buy bottled water and snack food, then found a little taco shop where we ate dinner.

The next morning we ordered breakfast at the Casa del Puerto while waiting to hear about the status of our dives. Our breakfast of Huevos a la Mexicana and fruit was served at our room because the restaurant was still out of commission. At 9 AM, the harbor master said that recreational boating was still off, but there would be another check at 11. Vince and I hung out on our balcony, enjoying the sun and breeze from a hammock until 11 when the harbor master declared that boat trips wouldn’t be happening that day at all.

Now we found ourselves in the position of having to reschedule the rest of the activities on our trip. Our cenote dive for the next day would be unaffected, but we had to move our whale shark tour from Monday to Sunday, and our reef dives to Monday morning. We had been planning to drive down to Zona Arqueológica de Tulum on Sunday, but now we would have to take the chance and try to get there immediately, although we knew there was a chance that it had suffered major damage from the storm. There was no information to be found online that said the ruins were closed, and no one around seemed to know, so we made the two-hour drive south only to find that the ruins were indeed closed for clean-up, but might be open the next day.

With our plans for the day completely upended, Vince and I did the only thing we could think of, and walked down to the nearby Playa Santa Fe, which was a classically beautiful white sand beach fringed by rocky cliffs and tall palm trees. We explored the cliffs where we found an iguana, and poked around a colorfully painted boat wreck, before heading back to our car and driving north.

On our way back to Puerto Morelos we made one more stop to eat an early dinner at Playa Xpu-Há, another beach that we’d visited nine years ago on our honeymoon. We recreated the meal we’d enjoyed on our honeymoon, and then took a swim in the warm Caribbean before calling it a day and heading back to our hotel, hopeful that Saturday would be more successful.

Early the next morning we met up with our divemaster, Rafael, and fellow diver, Mark in a parking lot near our hotel. We joined them in their van and Rafael gave us a geological history of how cenotes are formed as he drove toward Playa del Carmen. After a quick stop to pick up tanks, the four of us got into a discussion of our various diving experience (Vince and I were the least experienced by far), and of different heinous injuries we’d collected over the years, comparing scars and misshapen body parts.

In what felt like no time, we were pulling into the parking area for the cenote system, which was completely deserted since we’d arrived so early. Rafael doled out gear to us, and we suited up and then walked down a stone staircase to an unassuming looking pool that was the entrance to the cenote.

Having snorkeled in cenotes on two of our previous trips to Mexico, I knew that the dive would be much cooler than the view from the surface let on, and as we descended into the crystal clear water I was not disappointed. At first we navigated through a maze of stone very close to the surface where fresh water turtles and little fish swam out of our way.

As Rafael led us deeper into the cavern, we experienced a completely different world. He used his dive light to show us crevasses containing rows of stalactites, the water was so clear that I could almost be fooled into thinking we were dry caving by how well we could see the stalactites. That is, until we were deep enough to reach the halocline layer, where the water became a blurry cloud. Haloclines are formed where fresh and salt water mix together. In this case, the cenote’s deeper areas are filled with salt water that has seeped underground from the ocean, where the top layer is fresh water that collects from rainfall. The two layers meet around 10 meters deep, and create an optical effect that is truly mesmerizing.

During the dive, we would swim into dark passages, and come out again to be met with views of otherworldly beams of light piercing through the water. I knew that the beams were caused by sunlight filtering through jungle foliage at the surface, but the surface felt like a distant memory of another planet compared to the weightless and blue underwater world.

When we resurfaced in the jungle we found multiple sets of other divers receiving briefings around the edge of the cenote, and I felt a vague sense of shock as I realized that we hadn’t seen another group of divers the entire time we’d been underwater. Rafael explained that he likes to get to the cenote early so that the first dive will be completely private, and I could understand why. Having the cenote all to ourselves had been one of the most beautiful and magical things I’ve ever experienced.

We still had one dive left, but Mark was unable to join us because he’d accidentally scratched his eye badly when we surfaced. After changing out our tanks, Rafael led me and Vince down a steeper set of stairs to the entrance of the next cenote as he said, “If the first dive was the day, this one is the night.” The meaning of his remark quickly became clear as we dove out of acid-green water into dark tunnels where the only light source came from our dive lights.

Now, I am no cave diver (not even close), but I had researched the sport enough to know the difference between a cave dive and a cavern dive, and a bit about the equipment and training required to be considered a cave diver. A cavern (which is what we were diving) is an overhead environment in which daylight is visible. Caverns can be explored by open water divers like me and Vince. Cave diving on the other hand, is an overhead environment where daylight cannot penetrate. There is a set of five basic rules to follow in order to safely dive in caves, the fifth of which is “Be well trained in cave diving and mentally prepared for the dive.” As we penetrated deeper into the cavern, I began to feel that we were pushing the boundaries between cavern and cave diving. Although I had seen a map of the cenote and knew we would never be far from an exit, I began to take more serious note of the yellow guideline that zigzagged through the cavern. The thought crossed my mind that if something were to go terribly wrong, we would be in very real danger, and I had a small spike of anxiety.

In my above water life I struggle with controlling anxiety, but something about diving has always made feel uncharacteristically peaceful (with the exception of one 60 mph drift dive with 2 foot visibility). Almost as quickly as I felt fear creeping into my mind, I was able to let it go, feeling as though I was exhaling it from my body along with all the bubbles that were released by my rhythmic breathing through my regulator. I reminded myself that worrying too much would be heavily unproductive, would ruin the dive for me and possibly Vince and Rafael, would likely cause me to blow through my air faster, and could possibly escalate into an otherwise avoidable emergency if I were to panic.

I refocused my mind on the dive, practicing my buoyancy as Rafael pointed out beautiful stalactites and fossils trapped in the ancient limestone. I began to feel heavily invested in the spirit of exploration. I knew this was a well-mapped system, not even close to an exploratory dive, but to me it felt like a real adventure. We swam though another halocline layer, which was even more amazing than the last one because of the darker environment, and eventually I looked up and noticed that we were directly underneath an air dome.

We surfaced in the dome and took our regulators out of our mouths, shining our lights around in awe. We were surrounded by stalactites and tree roots that penetrated through the the limestone ceiling that separated us from the forest above. We were in complete silence other than the sound of our own breaths and occasional words murmured in amazement. This was the turning point of the dive, and our route back to the entrance was much less circuitous, which confirmed my earlier suspicion that we were always closer to the entrance than it felt like we were.

All too soon, we were surfacing again to find even more divers preparing to get in the water. Once more, I felt lucky that we’d gotten to complete another dive with no one else in sight, a worthy trade for having to get up early. All the way back to Puerto Morelos, I talked Rafael’s ear off, wanting to hear everything he had to say about cave diving. Considering the price of training and equipment, it’s safe to say I won’t be taking a cave class any time soon, but it was downright amazing to get to do a cavern dive, and it ranks as one of my favorite dives I’ve logged so far.

When we got back the hotel, it was only midday, another perk of starting early, so we drove back to Tulum only to find that the ruins were still closed. We made the spur of the moment decision to drive to the Cobá ruins instead, although we barely had enough time to get there before they closed their gates for the day. Another 40 minutes of driving down a less populate highway brought us past little villages with restaurants and souvenir shops, which would be perfect places to stop for dinner on our return drive.

We arrived at Cobá minutes before its final entry time, and quickly purchased tickets and went inside where we rented a pair of bicycles so we could get out to the ruins faster. This turned out to be a fun, and easier option than walking the four kilometers out to the site in the blistering afternoon heat. We spent the next two hours exploring different areas of Cobá. It wasn’t very busy, and there were many moments when we found ourselves completely alone with the ancient structures and for the second time that day I felt like an explorer.

Cobá differed greatly from Chichén Itzá, which we visited in 2014. The iconic site had been massive and sprawling, with restorations done to some of the ruins to better represent what they would have looked like when they were first built. Cobá remained forested with trees still growing out of the stone buildings. This gave it more of a feeling of stumbling upon an untouched ancient civilization while exploring the jungle. The were two distinctly different experiences, and it was interesting to see the contrasts between the two sites.

We rode from ruin to ruin, especially admiring the ball court and of course, Nohoch Mul Pyramid. The latter was the last structure we made it to before the park closed, and was easily the most impressive.

I especially liked how the back side of the pyramid was covered in trees, making it look as though it were emerging from the jungle. The structure was closed to climbing due to Covid, but we wouldn’t have had time to get to the top before park employees warned us that the site was closing.

We biked back to the entrance and started the drive back to Puerto Morelos, stopping to shop a little bit and to eat dinner at Ju’l-K’iim, where we got to try an array of pre-hispanic Mayan foods, easily the most unique and delicious meal of our trip. We got back to the Casa del Puerto after dark and spent some time relaxing in the moonlight on our balcony, replaying the day’s adventures and excitedly looking forward to the next day’s whale shark tour.

2 comments

  1. What an interesting place and history. Just looking at such structures must take your breath away. And then, there’s your diving, brave people that you are. It must be fantastic underwater.

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