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I'm frog-kicking through the cool, shady basement of Mexico's Yucatan, a place the ancient Maya called Xibalba, or underworld. Loosely translated, Xibalba means "place of fear." Ironically, it's a sublime place, where sunbeams fall like lazy curtains from the cenote entrance, tiny tetras dart in front of my mask, and the water is so clear, I get the odd urge to pull the regulator from my mouth and take a deep breath of air. While it's thrillingly spooky, it's far from scary, and I find myself reinvigorated by these dreamlike caverns; they're such a unique departure from your garden-variety Caribbean reef dives.
The Riviera Maya lies--geographically as well as figuratively--between the throbbing Partyopolis that is Cancun and dive-centric Cozumel. For years, it was simply the place where you disembarked your colectivo (shared taxi van) after the 45-minute ride from Cancun's international airport and boarded the half-hour ferry from Playa del Carmen to Cozumel. But more and more divers are forgoing the ferry altogether and diving the calm reefs and underground rivers of the Riviera Maya.
Stretching from Puerto Morelos to the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, the region boasts some 120 miles of coastline and more than 600 miles of underwater cave systems. There are more than 50 documented dive sites in the Riviera Maya and approximately 500 cenotes. It doesn't take a mathematician to realize there's more to the Riviera Maya than what's on the surface.
We begin our journey through the heart of the Riviera Maya in Tulum, a town with a Mexican heart and two personalities. One is a gritty village that lies on the main north-south thoroughfare between the tourist hubs of Cancun and Playa del Carmen and the Quintana Roo state capital at Chetumal, just above Belize. The second is a mellow tourist zone with beachfront bungalows and a pace of life reminiscent of Playa del Carmen a decade ago.
Chowing down on tacos al pastor from a roadside joint called Antojitos la Chiapaneca, photographer Steve Simonsen and I are playing a game of intestinal roulette. But the bigger hazard is probably the exhaust belching from buses and dump trucks lumbering down Tulum's main drag. The taqueria doesn't have a liquor license, so we buy Coronas from a nearby convenience store. We chat about the mission at hand: to dive the best cenotes and reefs the Riviera Maya has to offer. We're giddy with excitement about the prospects, and not just from the fumes, or the incredible tacos we've just eaten.
The next morning, after a restful slumber in the cozy Don Diego de la Selva, we roll down to the Xibalba Dive Center where we're greeted by Robbie Schmittner, a 33-year-old German who lives and breathes cenotes. He settled here a decade ago with his family for much the same reason many Europeans have--its proximity to the Yucatan's premier caves and its simple, unhurried joie de vivre. He's part of a team that's pushing the outer limits of the Sac Actun (or "white" in Mayan) cave system, one which, according to some records, is the second-longest underwater cave system in the world (Ox Bel Ha is the longest). He's logged more than 3,000 dives here, only 50 in the ocean.
"There are a lot of places left here that are unexplored," Robbie says. "In eight years, I have found 40 to 50 kilometers of cave passages. We sometimes stumble over human remains, and mastodon, giant sloth, deer and horse bones. Near Coba, there's a cenote with 117 skeletons in it that we believe was a Mayan cemetery."
It's a horserace between Sac Actun at 155 kilometers and Ox Bel Ha at 164 kilometers for the world's longest underwater system. If a connection between two cave systems is found, the combined system takes the name of the one that's larger. For example, Sac Actun lurched into the No. 2 spot when it absorbed the smaller but more famous Nohoch Nah Chich system, adding 60 kilometers to Sac Actun's length. There is, in fact, a genuine rivalry between Robbie's team and the Ox Bel Ha explorers, and he looks crestfallen when I inquire if the two might actually be connected.
"We're starting to believe that it's one giant cenote with many entry points," Robbie admits. "We've already linked nine systems together. The best way to find cenotes is to talk to the Maya. We also do flyovers, and if you see a motmot bird, you know there's a cenote there."
Not only is there a race between the Sac Actun and Ox Bel Ha teams but a race against time as well. Cavers here know that these magical cave systems are threatened by development that is spreading like wildfire down the coast from Playa. Their first order of business is to stop construction of a proposed golf course that could threaten not only the health of the area's underground river but the entire Sac Actun system as well. And Tulum's population looks set to skyrocket, much like Cancun's did 30 years ago to its current half-million mark. The Yucatan's limestone crust is like a coffee filter. It might seem rock-hard, but water--and pollutants--seep right through it. The health of the western hemisphere's second-largest freshwater reservoir lies in the balance.
We enter Sac Actun for the first time at Gran Cenote, just north of town on the road to Coba, so-named for its large entrance that invites snorkeling. Descending the steps to the dive platform, I stumble upon the colorful feather of the motmot, which the ancient Maya believed were guardians of the cenotes. I take it as a good omen. Below ground level, it suddenly becomes shadier and cooler, and the cenote's lily pad-studded surface gives way to an ethereal underground ballroom, which in turn leads to endless passageways and chambers. I'm starting to like this cenote stuff.
Our next dive is at Calavera (or Skull Cave), also called Temple of Doom. Here, we hike in full gear from our rental car through the jungle, walking past two small holes in the ground to one big one adorned with a rusty ladder. In unison, we jump, fins in hand, into the cenote's gaping maw, free-falling the 12 or so feet to hit the cool water below. The halocline's shallower here than our last dive, and in just 45 feet we transcend the fuzzy, disorienting layer of saltwater--the underground Caribbean--below which all the freshwater is suspended.
The next day we rise with the sun and head to Car Wash, a cenote named for the spot where Tulum taxi drivers used to clean the Yucatecan mud from their coches. This cenote has two distinct atmospheres: summer, when the water at its entrance takes on a dazzling emerald hue, and winter, when it's blue. We hit it in early fall, so it's still a brilliant jade. There's no more awe-inspiring sight in all of the Yucatan than reemerging from its darkened passageways to view the deep green entrance, stalactites dripping from the cave roof like the teeth of a dragon.
By this point, we're clearly hooked, so we're going for more at Dos Ojos, or "two eyes," one of the most well-known and oft-visited of the Riviera Maya's cenotes. After touring the bat cave, we're both chomping at the bit to escape the throbbing heat for the cool relief of the low- to mid-70s water. This is a popular spot with day-trippers from Akumal and Playa, so scads of snorkelers are ogling Steve as he sets up his housed D200 on a tripod in the large chamber between two ambient light sources. This place is huge, so if you're reluctant to try cenote diving because of claustrophobia, you've got no excuse. After a short surface interval, we decide one dive isn't enough and do it again.
We agree we'll miss Tulum's cenotes, but on our last day we decide to sample the area's above-ground wonders. We motor 25 miles to the northwest, past roadside hammock and hubcap peddlers, to the small village of Coba, nestled against a crocodile-infested lake. In Mayan times, Coba was a hub of agriculture with more than 50,000 people; it flourished between 500 and 900 A.D. We pay our $4.50 entrance fee, and hike a mile or two to make the hot climb up the site's tallest pyramid, Nohoch Mul, 42 meters above the jungle. I burst into sweat as if I've been doused with a bucket of water, but my strenuous exertions pay off with incredible views of the Riviera Maya's interior, with little hills in the distance (there are no hills in this region, by the way) that hint at yet-to-be-discovered archaeological gems.
Continuing our Mayan Mystery Tour, we return to the coast and to the ruins at Tulum, perhaps the greatest seaside town of the ancient civilization. The great structures still standing today were erected between the 1200s and 1400s, and the city was occupied as late as the end of the 1500s. It was not only an important port and center of trade and contact with the outside world but it also played a role in the worship of the Mayan diving god. How appropriate. We reverently sit on the sheer cliffside and soak in the turquoise Caribbean below, replete with throngs of sunbathers on a beach nestled among temples. No wonder it's the third-most visited archaeological site in Mexico after Teotihuacan and Chichen Itza. This is a truly inspiring spot.
We continue north up the Riviera Maya's coastal route 307 to the seaside village of Akumal. Literally translated to "place of the turtles," Akumal is situated on small bays that are a favorite spot for sea turtles, which, from April through October, can be found laying eggs on the beach and swimming in the surf. Their hatching season coincides with hurricane season, June through November, which doesn't help their survival stats. The village was founded in the late '50s by salvage diver Pablo Bush Romero, whose family still owns much of the town, including the restaurant where we ate every meal while in Akumal, Lol-Ha (try the chorizo pizza, it's to die for). What makes Akumal so wonderful is that it gives you a glimpse of what Cancun might have been like three decades ago, before the high-rise hotels eclipsed the sun. And the tourists here are more likely to be American than European, vastly opposite from what we found in Tulum.
We link up with Arturo Orozco and his son Gerardo at Akumal Dive Center, right on the beach in what would loosely be called "downtown" Akumal. We prep our gear and carry it the few paces to our panga waiting in the shallow surf. We motor to Gorgonians with Scottish divemaster Marieke, and we quickly find ourselves on a nice little reef punctuated by fissures--dense with corals, sponges and gorgonians--and we meet the local turtles face to mask. Gorgonians is perhaps the farthest dive site from the shop and still takes only 20 minutes to get to. We head back to grab new tanks and scoot over to the Horseshoe, a five-minute boat ride from the beach. Here, turtles, morays and barracuda populate a vast plain of coral mounds.
Back on shore, the skies turn gray and the heavens open up, unleashing buckets of rain. We call the diving day and retreat to Las Villas Akumal, a half-mile south of town and a 15-minute walk down the beach. The weather clears the next day--if you don't like the weather in the Riviera Maya, wait a minute--and we're dying to get back into the water. Truth be told, we're itching to get back into the cenotes, so we make a beeline for Chac-Mool, the Jaguar system. Chac-Mool has a nice large entrance, which leads to fascinating chambers with interesting formations. Here, you'll find the halocline gets relatively shallow, around 30 feet. Next, we're off to Tajma Ha, a nice little cenote with great stalactites and stalagmites, and the perfect place to scan the bottom for fossils.
Playa Del Carmen
We continue north to Playa del Carmen, which I've seen grow by leaps and bounds in my decade and a half on assignment for the magazine. Our hotel is smack dab in the heart of downtown Playa, just yards from the famed, pedestrian-only 5th Avenue. Hacienda Paradise combines Colonial charm with modern sensibilities, your textbook-definition boutique hotel. It epitomizes what Playa has become--a swanky seaside destination that's part European resort town, part Mexican fishing village. Playa is totally what you make of it--romantic getaway with a spouse, Spring Break party town if that's your thing, or dive central if you BYOB (bring your own buddies). Our patios alone bear unsightly, damp, stinky dive gear, so I assume we're the only divers in the hotel. But I get the feeling this will soon change.
Playa, just 12 miles from Cozumel, gets a fraction of the divers but is growing at a much faster pace. In fact, it's going gangbusters--what was just a sleepy village a decade or two ago is today one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. While there's not much room for Cancun and Cozumel to grow--they're located on an isthmus and an island, respectively--the Riviera Maya is a luxurious swath of coastline that invites large-scale development.
We hook up with Philip from Scuba Caribe, who takes us out to sample Playa's reefs. We depart as we did from Akumal--off the beach--but the scenery's a little different. Here in the resort area of Playacar, there's not an undeveloped spot of sand for kilometers in every direction. This is the realm of the mega all-inclusives, and your senses can't quite tell if you're in Playa or Palm Beach. We vamanos for a site called Pared Verde, or Green Wall, a half-hour ride. The bottom lies in about 90 to 100 feet of water, and an eight- to 10-foot ledge is stuffed with coral and sponge life and hosts a population of fish refugees escaping the vast sandy plain that lies offshore from the beach. The reef is shockingly healthy. We continue to Mox-Che, a pretty little reef in 30 to 40 feet that contains small archways packed with grunts, reminiscent of Cozumel's shallow coral gardens.
Playa del Carmen is the de facto capital of the Riviera Maya and the home of APSA, an association that includes 23 local dive operations. We sit in the air-conditioned offices of Riviera Maya Tourism with APSA director Alfonso Torres, whose passion for diving here is written all over his face. "The Riviera Maya is becoming more and more popular with divers," Alfonso says. "The cenote market is growing. We like to compare cenote diving with wreck diving--you have to take the same care. It's a different environment, but it's easy. Divers need to try it at least once."
And APSA takes special care in ensuring divers' safety. They've instituted regulations that mandate four divers per guide, staying within ambient light sources, the rule of thirds, no deco and no deeper than 70 feet. It's strict but not confining, and you can get an exciting feel for the cenotes without entering the danger zone.
Our last evening in the Riviera Maya is spent at Yaxche, a beautiful Mayan restaurant on 8th Street with delicacies like ceviche, fish pibil and herbed drinks spiked with xtabentun and vodka. We sit and recount our underground experiences in the Riviera Maya with a touch of sadness, knowing that we will resume our lives as surface dwellers. But the big question remains: When I return--and I know I will, sooner rather than later--how much will have changed, above and below the ground?
Riviera Maya by the Numbers
What is the Riviera Maya? Popular with travelers, it's a region spanning from just below Cancun to Punta Allen and the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve. The region also includes the Mayan ruins at Coba, about 30 miles inland.
Money Matters The official currency of the region is the Mexican peso. Dollars are widely accepted, though you'll probably receive pesos as change. When shelling out greenbacks, expect the lowest default exchange rate, 10 pesos to the dollar.
Getting Around Unless you're going directly to a resort in Playa del Carmen, you'll more than likely want to rent a car, especially if you're heading down to Akumal or Tulum. The main thoroughfare is 307, which forms the transportation backbone of the Riviera Maya. If you're heading straight down to Playa del Carmen, a colectivo (shared van) will get you there for $15 to $20 one way.
Communications Your cell phone might work in the region, though coverage will be sporadic at best. If you don't feel like bringing your laptop, several internet cafes throughout the region have computers to use.
More info Visit RivieraMaya.com.
The cenotes are freshwater sinkholes that link to cave systems. You'll see cathedral-like formations and eerily beautiful scenery in crystal-clear, 75-degree water. The reef off the Riviera Maya coast is punctuated by deep spur-and-groove coral formations with numerous canyons and swim-throughs. On many sites, the top of the reef begins at 30 to 35 feet and slopes down to a 130-foot or 140-foot sand bottom, where the wall drops off sharply. There are sand-channels from 40 feet to 90 feet that divers can swim down. There's a mild current, and visibility is usually 100 feet or more. Diving here ranges from snorkel-simple reefs to the freshwater labyrinths of underwater caves beneath the surface of the Yucatan mainland.
Along the northern curve of the peninsula, near Cancun and Isla Mujeres, currents outside the sheltered bays are strong, but the vis is better. You'll find puppy-sized French and queen angelfish, prickly burrfish, colorful reefs and overhangs, and bull, black-tip and lemon sharks. Off the southern shores of the Riviera Maya coast are less-explored reefs with dramatic pillar corals, delicate anemones, current-twisted barrel sponges and stair-stepped deep reefs.
Pleasant year-round--mid-80s in summer and mid-70s in winter.
Summer temps are in the mid-80s; winter temps in the 70s.
Consistently great vis is the norm--near 100 feet on deeper sites, less on shallow reefs, and more than 100 feet in the cenotes.
A passport is required. Nonstop flights to Cancun (CUN) originate in many U.S. gateways, including Los Angeles (LAX), Dallas/Ft. Worth (DFW), Atlanta (ATL), Houston (IAH) and Denver (DEN). Shuttle service is available from the airport to many destinations in the Riviera Maya, including Tulum, Puerto Aventuras, Akumal and Xcaret. Departure tax is usually included in the airline ticket price.