Reef and cenote diving in the Riviera Maya

Go below the water’s surface to get a better look at this part of Mexico. Photo: Allen McGregor, via flickr

HALF MOON BAY, Calif., August 9, 2012—The beginning of my PADI Open Water Scuba certification process may have been in a suburban swimming pool, but all I could think about was completing it in Mexico’s warm, Caribbean waters. On a recent trip to Akumal, I did just that.

The Mayan name of the small town means “place of turtles,” after the numerous green and loggerhead turtles that make their nests on the beach. This spot on the Riviera Maya (that area south of Cancun, through the Sian Ka’an Biosphere) is nothing like the other towns on the coast. It’s got a certain laid-back factor that the others, with crowded streets and beaches, lack. Because of that, it’s an ideal place to learn to dive.

I spent two days with my instructor, Arturo, from the Akumal Dive Center, diving in the Mesoamerican Reef—the largest stretch of reef in the Western Hemisphere. Each day started by loading our gear in a boat and heading out to the perfect spot. Underwater, aside from the required skills tests, Arturo toured me around the reef, pointing out turtles, queen angelfish, varieties of coral, and conches scooting along the sandy sea floor.

The entrance to Dos Ojos cenote. (Photo: Jill K. Robinson)

The entrance to Dos Ojos cenote. (Photo: Jill K. Robinson)

In between dives, we relaxed in the boat in a small lagoon. Arturo waved his hand toward the back of the lagoon, saying that he sometimes saw small crocodiles there.

“Small?” I asked. “How small?”

“Oh, maybe about 9 feet,” he said. That wasn’t very small. I was glad we weren’t diving in the lagoon.

At the end of the second day, after the diving and tests, I waited with Arturo to get my photo taken for my PADI card. It’s often at this moment that new divers wonder where their next diving trip will be. I didn’t have to wonder. Mine was already the next day in a cavern known as a cenote, a short distance from Akumal.

Xibalba, the Mayan underworld, is described in the Popul Vuh as a place of fear where the dead had to traverse an obstacle course of bats, jaguars, rivers of blood and rooms of sharp knives. Cenotes, the deep limestone sinkholes scattered throughout the Mexican Maya world, were the gateways to this hellish underworld.

The day after I got my open water diving certification, I found myself driving with my dive guide Jose, to the Dos Ojos (“two eyes”) cenote, north of Tulum. As we readied our equipment, I was instructed how to use my flashlight to signal in case of an emergency, and told that I absolutely had to follow the yellow string line through the cavern, staying behind Jose the entire time.

We were to enter the gateway to Xibalba at the East Eye, follow the line through the Bat Cave, and through the West Eye to what was briefly described by Jose as the “crocodile cave” until I raised my eyebrows. No, he admitted, there were no crocodiles there. Even beyond the West Eye, we’d still be underwater for some time. The entire dive, he estimated, would be 45 minutes.

A scuba angel near Xibalba. (Photo: Jill K. Robinson)

A scuba angel near Xibalba. (Photo: Jill K. Robinson)

At the East Eye, the limestone walls were illuminated by sunlight and underwater lighting that caused the turquoise water to glow. I slipped beneath the surface, and everything changed.

Before that moment, and for three weeks, my brain was non-stop chatter. I don’t think there was a moment when I wasn’t working out some problem, trying to quiet errant song lyrics, or writing articles in my head. Even sleeping was problematic without help to temporarily quell the action.

But when I entered the gateway to Xibalba, all my brain could say for those 45 minutes, was “ooooooooooo.” The silence in the underwater cavern was far different than the ocean, with the whoosh of the tide surging through the reef and the constant clatter of fish. In Dos Ojos, all I could hear were bubbles, signaling my breathing.

My flashlight illuminated stalactites and stalagmites, fossils, huge fissures in the limestone below and tiny fish. Glowing through the water was such a serene shade of blue that I still can’t find the words to describe it.

When we neared the end of the line and approached the East Eye again, I wanted to trace the route backwards to stay within the silent azure water as long as I could. If Xibalba is a hellish place, the pathway there is quite the opposite.

Where to Stay

Akumal may be small, but there’s a decent choice of places to stay—many involving condos and vacation rentals. On this trip, I stayed in a bungalow at the Hotel Akumal Caribe, just steps from the Akumal Dive Center. The prices are affordable, and the hotel’s restaurants and bar offer plenty of options when you’re not diving or snorkeling. Plus, for those who can’t live without being connected, Wi-Fi is included. I met plenty of writing deadlines while seated comfortably at the bar and in my bungalow.

Jill K. Robinson is an award-winning journalist and adventure seeker. Follow her adventures on dangerjillrobinson.com and Twitter @dangerjr. Jill is an avid kayaker and owner of Half Moon Bay Kayak Company.


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Jill K. Robinson

An award-winning journalist and adventure seeker, Jill K. Robinson has been a columnist with The Washington Times, Communities section since 2011.

Her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, American Way, Every Day With Rachael Ray, Robb Report, Westways, Journey, Let's Go with Ryanair, World Hum, Gadling, Lonely Planet and more. She lives in a small California beach town near the big wave surf spot, Mavericks, and divides her time between writing about travel, running a kayak business and trying to wring awe-inspiring adventure out of every day.

Always eager to take a leap into the unknown and experience new things, Jill shares adventure sport and travel highlights—even when the adventure isn’t adrenaline pumping or bone crushing. Adventure is sometimes only a state of mind.

Find Jill on dangerjillrobinson.com and Twitter @dangerjr 

Contact Jill K. Robinson

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