Cenote Ponderosa ou Jardín del Edén. Magnifiques jeux de lumière aquatiques, entre le végétal et le minéral. (Mexique, juillet 2014)
Corinne Bourbeillon / Little Bubbles Elsewhere

Scuba Diving into The Mysterious Mayan Cenotes


  Mexico: Yucatán - July 2014

Dear English-speaking readers, this page is an automatic Google translation from a post originally written in French. My apologies for the weird sentences and the funny mistakes that could have been generated during the process. If you can read French, the original and correct version can be found here:

In Mexico, the Yucatán peninsula is like a Swiss cheese, pierced with holes of fresh water, called "& #160; cenotes & #160;". Sacred for the Mayans, the cenotes are today bathing places & #8230; and diving spots & #160 ;!

What is cenotes?

The word maya "Tzonot" or "Zonot" gave "Cenote" in Spanish (pronounce ce-no-te). These are holes, chasms, formed by the collapse of limestone rock, filled with fresh water.

The largest concentration of cenotes is found in Mexico, in the Yucatán peninsula. They are everywhere, of all sizes, scattered in the jungle, but also in the heart of towns and villages, which have developed around these natural wells.

The Ponderosa cenote, also called the Garden of Eden & #8230; (Mexico, July 2014)

Le cenote de Valladolid, attenant à un bar-resto, se trouve au cœur de la ville. (Mexique, juillet 2014)
The Valladolid cenote, adjoining a restaurant bar, is located in the heart of the city. (Mexico, July 2014)

When the cenotes are in the middle of the jungle, we sometimes see a strange creature out of the canopy of the trees. Long nose, clawed legs, long bushy tail. A coati. The Mexican version of the raccoon. 

Tourists who picnic attract them. They do not hesitate to beg for a piece of sandwich, standing on their hind legs. The animal reminded me Indonesian couscous... But let's go back to the cenotes.

Standing on its hind legs, this coati is used to begging tourists for food. This funny animal is a cousin of the raccoon. (Mexico, July 2014)

A unique geological phenomenon

In the north of the Yucatán peninsula, there is a series of cenotes arranged in a ring, all around the Chicxulub crater. This is why it is believed that they were created by the impact of a meteoritefell there about 65 million years old & #8230; It might even be the meteorite that caused the extinction of dinosaurs!

I put you below some diagrams found on websites, which allow to visualize the thing.

Les cénotes du Yucatán seraient nés de l'impact d'une météorite. [Sources : Dailymail.co.uk / Secretebase.free.fr / Timwilko.com / Mayantreasure.net]
The Yucatán cenotes were born from the impact of a meteorite. [Sources: Dailymail.co.uk / Secretebase.free.fr / Timwilko.com / Mayantreasure.net]

Subterranean fractures connecting Mexican cenotes form a huge network of galleries and sunken caves, which communicate with the water tables, or, near the coast, with the sea. For the Maya, these water holes were sacred places, a mouth open to the other world. Some cenotes were places of worship, offerings were thrown there and sacrifices made, of animals and humans.

Find out more → Wikipedia on the cenotes

Bathing places

Today, cenotes have become tourist attractions. The surroundings of the best known are arranged to allow swimming, snorkeling, diving. Showering is compulsory before going to swim in certain cenotes, to prevent sunscreens and mosquito repellents from polluting the water.

Cenote Ponderosa ou Jardín del Edén. Mexique, juillet 2014.

The cenotes most frequented by bathers are outdoors, surrounded by trees, open to the outside. But you can also paddle inside cenotes completely buried underground & #160 ;: you can access these caves via a staircase which descends in a spiral or straight down into the rock. Below, a generator provides the light & #8230; I visited several, including one 18 m underground & #160 ;!

Swim in an incredibly clear and pure water, under a ceiling of stalactites, along which sometimes hang tree roots, is an extraordinary experience. But to feel the magic of the place, it is better to avoid groups, always noisy ...

Above, an underground cenote. (Mexico, July 2014)

Cénote souterrain. Mexique, juillet 2014.

Diving among the Mayans

The cenotes, I dreamed for a long time. It was my main motivation as a diver-photographer (with whale sharks) to fly to Mexico, instead of going to Asia as I do almost every summer.

I admit & #160 ;: I never dive in fresh water, I do not especially love caves even in dry conditions and caving diving does not attract me more than that. But the spectacular underwater images taken by other divers in the famous Mexican cenotes in the middle of the jungle had captivated me. And made me want to see it with my own eyes! So, this summer, I fell for it. I went there too, to make my own pictures & #8230;

Grand Cenote. Mexique, juillet 2014.
Grand Cenote. Mexique, juillet 2014.

Feel Indiana Jones under the water

Some cenotes give access, through galleries full of water, to underground rooms, whose ceiling is pierced with openings, more or less wide, outwards. When the hole is small, the rays of sun that pass through are like blue laser beams in water !

Dans la "salle des lasers" du cenote Tajma Ha. Mexique, juillet 2014.
In the "laser room" of the Tajma Ha cenote. (Mexico, July 2014)
Cenote Tajma Ha. Mexique, juillet 2014.
Cenote Tajma Ha. (Mexico, July 2014)
Cenote Tajma Ha. Mexique, juillet 2014.
Cenote Tajma Ha. (Mexico, July 2014)

I came for these unique lighting games, particularly beautiful in the cenotes where I chose to dive: Ponderosa (Garden of Eden), Tajma Ha, Car Wash, Grand Cenote.

Difficult to explain, to share the absolute fascination that this kind of places gives me. What could be more exhilarating than photographing water, light, mineral and plant together, brought together here by a unique geological hazard & #160 ;! 

Cenote Ponderosa ou Jardín del Edén. Magnifiques jeux de lumière aquatiques, entre le végétal et le minéral. (Mexique, juillet 2014)
Cenote Ponderosa or Jardín del Edén. Beautiful play of light aquatic, between the plant and the mineral. (Mexico, July 2014)
Extraordinaire ambiance au Cenote Ponderosa, appelé aussi Jardín del Edén. (Mexique, juillet 2014)
Extraordinary atmosphere at Cenote Ponderosa, also called Jardín del Edén. (Mexico, July 2014)

I lived in the cenotes magical moments, new sensations. Nothing to do with diving in the sea. Immerse yourself in the chasms revered by the ancient Mayans, it's not nothing. Feeling Indiana Jones underwater is exhilarating. In the cenotes, I turned 10 again & #160 ;!


Another strange phenomenon in the cenotes, which I was able to experiment in particular at Tajma Ha : where a layer of fresh water is superimposed on a layer of salt water, the water seems to separate in two. One has the impression of a line, as when one is on the surface, between air and water. Except we are immersed in a gallery full of water.

I do not have a photo that can show you that ... We go down and we raise our head, we have the impression to come in and out of the water. But not at all. We are always immersed. Very disturbing, very disturbing. This is called a "& #160; halocline & #160;". Fortunately that I had been warned of the thing before diving, because at the time my poor brain struggles to understand what is happening. Especially since the phenomenon in question occurs when we are in a totally underground environment, without any external glow. Almost scary, I admit.

The underwater skull signs signaling the entrance to galleries that it is risky to explore impressed me less than this strange sensation of half-air, half-water, regulator in the mouth, in crystal clear water like crystal & #8230;

Diving à la carte

Some practical info & #8230; I really wanted to explore the cenotes in good conditions for taking photos. So i opted for a small structure, knowing from experience that it would be easier to “customize” my requests than in a large center. My choice fell on sure O2 Mexico, based in Playa del CarmenI contacted before leaving. This will be the only thing planned a bit early in this trip to Mexico.

Good pick & #160 ;! Great welcome, great service. Diving à la carte and almost private: I ended up just with a buddy or alone with a guide. In short, luxury according to my criteria.

Cenote Ponderosa (Garden of Eden). Mexique, juillet 2014.

My guide in the cenotes, Clément Prandi, is himself an underwater photographer (see his site Mystic Vision). He was therefore particularly sensitive to my wishes and even paid in person, playing the role models, always going to be in the right place at the right time for my images & #8230;

Cenote Car Wash

Clement suggested that I go and visit this cenote apart, called Playa del Carmen, near Tulum, Car Wash, because before, people came to wash their cars there & #8230; Bacteria make up a kind of opaque layer on the surface.

The atmosphere is different, strange and ghostly. A spectacular place, again, for underwater photos ...

Cenote Carwash. Mexique, juillet 2014.
Cenote Carwash. Mexique, juillet 2014.
Cenote Carwash. Mexique, juillet 2014.
Cenote Carwash. Mexique, juillet 2014.
Cenote Carwash. Mexique, juillet 2014.

The cenote gives access to a cave and galleries, where there are a succession of large tree roots and stalactites at the entrance & #8230; Plant cathedral and mineral cathedral. All in a water capped with a green, opaque ceiling, which lets in only a diffused light.

It is both beautiful and a little scary. Indiana Jones and Crocodile Dundee were watching over me. There is a little crocodile, a real one, who lives in this cenote. I was hoping to at least photograph his silhouette in backlight. But he was stashed somewhere in the mangrove, and did not deign to play the extras ... So Clement paid for himself and took the pose for my photos.

Cenote Carwash. Mexique, juillet 2014.
Cenote Carwash. Mexique, juillet 2014.
Cenote Carwash. Mexique, juillet 2014.
Cenote Carwash. Mexique, juillet 2014.

Water temperature

Finally, a quick note for my diving readers, who always want to know what combination to take in their luggage & #8230; In the cenotes, the water is “& #160; fresh & #160;” according to my criteria. About 24-25 ° C. It is cold compared to the sea, which is 28-29 ° C in July on the Caribbean coast of Mexico.

For simple swimmers, swimmers, snorkelers, immersing themselves in the cenotes is very pleasant & #8230; Especially when there is an overwhelming tropical heat outside, as is the case in July in Mexico. We paddle the time we want to cool off, we go out when we have enough. But for divers, it's totally different, you don't feel the water temperature at all in the same way.

Cenote Ponderosa (Garden of Eden). Mexique, juillet 2014.

It is something that I often find it difficult to make my non-diving friends understand, in particular Breton (for them, water that exceeds 17 ° C, it's just science fiction and they finds “& #160; good & #160;” from 14 ° C & #160 ;!).

Dans la "salle des lasers" du cenote Tajma Ha. Mexique, juillet 2014.
In the "laser room" of the Tajma Ha cenote. (Mexico, July 2014)

In fact, in water, heat exchanges are much faster than in air (water conducts heat 25 times faster than air) and we cool so very quickly.

The thermal neutrality temperature for the human body, at which loss and heat production are balanced, is 24 to 26 ° C in air, against 33 ° C in water. To learn more, I refer you to this medical file, which explains all this very well & #160 ;:

Any body immersed in cold water ...

My little person being more sensitive than the average to these physical and physiological laws (complicated way of saying that I am cautious), so I put on a shorty of 5 mm with hood, over my old long jumpsuit (also of 5 mm), to be able to last one hour underwater without coming out of a frozen state. It was very good.

I therefore recommend extra protection for the most cautious, to explore the cenotes. The tough guys can try a simple 5mm without a hood. But it will be more comfortable with one more layer.

In conclusion

The cenotes are great. Must do if you are traveling to Mexico, whether you are a diver or not. These are spectacular, magnificent places. Accessible to all. And for saltwater divers, the experience is really different, rich in thrills. Unforgettable.

Grand Cenote. Mexique, juillet 2014.
Cenote Tajma Ha. Mexique, juillet 2014.
Cenote Ponderosa (Garden of Eden). Mexique, juillet 2014.
Cenote Ponderosa ou Jardín del Edén. Magnifiques jeux de lumière aquatiques, entre le végétal et le minéral. Mexique, juillet 2014.


Find the other articles on this trip to Mexico by clicking on the link below ...

  Mexico: Yucatán - July 2014