Snorkeling the Cenotes

While in Mexico recently I had the opportunity to snorkel in a couple of the cenotes on the Riviera Maya.  Much of the Yucatan peninsula, particularly along the west coast is made of limestone.  There is so much rain in this area that the fresh water leaches through the limestone, creating caverns filled with stalagmites and stalactite.  The fresh water, as it permeates the limestone, brings with it minerals, primarily calcium I suppose, into the water.

Cenote means sort of literally, ‘well’, in English so these caverns are filled with fresh water that is recharged during the rainy seasons with rainwater that percolates through the stone.

The water in the cenotes is incredibly clear, and ranges from open pools to partially covered pools, to completely underground water-filled caves that you can dive through with a flashlight.

It’s like swimming through a bowl of our childhood Magic Rocks, except that there are no psychedelic colors.  In fact there is a startling lack of color, vegetation or aquatic life in the cenotes.  I have tentatively asked my personal guide, Alex, if would hold my hand the entire time in the water as I am afraid, really, of water in general and can’t imagine snorkeling in an enclosed cave where I can’t get out and spears of stone have have me in an Iron Maiden.

Wonderful, sweet Alex agrees to hold my hand at all times, not to take me anywhere I don’t feel comfortable, and to let me experience the caves slowly, gradually, not leaving sight of open sky until I am ready.  Of course I feel like an overly timid middle-aged woman, but Alex and I chat about the plants and animals of jungle as we walk toward the first cenote, the First Eye of Dos Ojos.

Dos Ojos Cenote (image courtesy of

Dos Ojos Cenote (image courtesy of

He cautions me gently to watch my footing on the wooden steps leading down to the water since they may be slippery and then shows me how to dunk my wetsuit in the cool water to help slide it over my sweaty body.  Suit on, I put on my lifevest, chaleco, again feeling silly as no one is wearing a life vest.  But he assures me that the reason is provide more buoyancy for my very slim body and help to keep me warmer since I don’t have the body fat of most. (He’s A-1 on my list at this moment, smart fellow).  I figure out how to get enough suction between my mask and face to seal out most of the water, stick the snorkel in my mouth and feel like a big dork again, sitting there on the side.  Alex encourages me to gently slide into the water so, anticipating the big shock of the 55 degree water, I take my last breath and slide in.

Wonder of wonders the water is cool on my now neoprene wrapped 100 and 5 degree skin and I bob like a cork!  Alex offers his hand, grip it like grim death, and we put our faces in the water and push gently away from the steps.  The underworld of limestone formations comes alive with cones, spires, hoodoos and elephants.  We just float there for a few minutes as I try to stop hyperventilating.  When he senses I am relaxing, he gently steers us out about 10 feet into the cave pool.  We pop up and he explains that we will circumnavigate the pool for about 7 minutes and then exit to walk over to the Second Eye pool.  Basically he tows me, ever so gently and slowly, around the while I reach dumbly for the little silver fishes that seem to be the only inhabitants.  Of course the little fishes are much farther away than they appear so rely grasp at water.  Our flashlights show their little silvery sides with the occasional flash of yellow, and the grey, white and blacks of the formations below us.

I am finally able to relax my grip on poor Alex and when we enter the third snorkeling area, close to the Cueva Murcielagos.  Murcielagos are Bats, so we have found the secret entrance to the Batcave, but Batman, my friend Mikey, is off with another group actually diving through the caves as they connect completely underground.  So I Robin, alone but for my trusty guide, must enter the Batcave on my own.

We glide into the water, and this time can venture just a hair closer to the walls where the water is more shallow.  Alex can tell I’m getting very relaxed now so he points out a way we can cross into a a completely subterranean cave by swimming through an narrow path between stalactites hovering only a few inches above the surface.  So we go, gently scraping our snorkels against some mineral sugar cones and emerge into complete darkness.  I turn off my light, and so does Alex and we bob gently, our heads out of the water, listening to the darkness.  Absolute quiet.  The ceiling here is perhaps 5 to 10 feet above our heads, a dome sloping down at the sides to meet the water which is perfectly still.  Finally I put my light back on, Alex his, and we resume exploring the stalagmites under water again.

He have never let go of my hand, and he has now gone from A-1 to Superman, or perhaps my future ex-husband.  Except that he’s half my age, and has two seven-month old twin girls Dasha and Disha.  A treat like this is rare, a new experience, from fearful to relaxed, a personal guide who seems to understand exactly what I’m feeling and what I need.  Bless you Alex.

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