Underwater Cenote Cave Maps
Quintana Roo, Mexico
In the middle of the Yucatan jungle there are small ponds, in which entrances have been discovered to sub- aquatic caverns, unique on the whole planet: the world famous Cenotes. To see the impressive lime stone stalactites in these caverns is an exclusive privilege for the lucky divers that enter the Cenotes. Here, a visibility of more than 60 metres is not uncommon, giving the impression of one floating in mid air.
You will be able to discover the halocline effect! This phenomenon is originated by the entry of sea water inside the underground system. The fresh underground water is a very thin layer that floats on a layer of sea water, which can reach many kilometres inland. Between both water layers (the superficial sweet, less dense, and the deep, denser marina), an area of specific transition is established called a halocline.
Each level of halocline will depend on the different Cenote, is usually at 10-12 meters / 33- 40 feet, and produces a stratification phenomenon of the Cenote: it operates as a physical barrier that isolates the layer of fresh water. This effect produces a very particular sensation when diving that can be perceived perfectly when observing your dive buddy. By agitating the water while swimming at the height of the halocline, a "blurry" effect takes place around you. The silhouettes merge completely contrasting with the clarity and transparency of rest of water, giving an unreal sensation that adds to the already magical scene of the Cenote.
(Click on map images for higher resolution pop-up)
A little over eight kilometers from the Highway 307 intersection, Car Wash (Aktun Ha) is the popular cave system furthest out the Coba Road. You will find it on the left hand side; the sign will say “Cenote Cristal.” (Be sure to go to the facility at the far end of the cenote, not the one closest to Tulum.)
Car Wash is famous for its delicate, soda-straw-like formations — especially in the Room of Tears. Before the discovery of Sac Aktun and Nohoch, it was considered the area’s most beautifully decorated cave.
The facilities at Car Wash make suiting up and getting in easy (you will be parking only a matter of steps away from the water). The large, upstream entrance will be immediately to your right; the downstream entrance to your left. Most divers choose to go upstream.
Car Wash is an excellent example of the importance of using a professional guide to get the most from the area’s caves. At Car Wash, the permanent line upstream starts a considerable distance from the entrance. To find it, you have to negotiate your way through a veritable forest of huge, dark columns. It is easy to get lost. Without the help of a competent guide, you can waste an entire dive just looking for the main line.
Once you find the line, there are several directions you can go. A popular dive is to go first to Adrianna’s room, then backtrack to the Room of Tears jump and check it out. (Instructors frequently use this as a way to teach the recalculation of thirds in the middle of a dive.) Wherever you, stay on the line. Soda straw formations are more frequently damaged from exhaust bubbles than they are from divers bumping into them. (This is actually good advice in any Yucatan cave.)
It is possible to go beyond the Room of Tears, to places such as the Room of Tears Basement or the Lotus Room. You can also go downstream to see Satan’s Silthole and the Chamber of the Ancients.
Depths vary widely throughout the cave. The deepest points are at 70 feet, where you will also find a saltwater layer.
Chac Mool A and B
The entrance to Sistema Choc Mool is located just south of the main Puerto Adventuras entrance, between Playa del Carmen and Akumal. It is the northernmost of the cave and cavern diving sites described in this section.
The main cavern entrance is a popular site for guided tours and can be access from two different sides. A good first dive is to start from the larger of the two entrances and bear right, hugging the right had wall until you come across the main downstream line, a few hundred feet in. (You will have to look carefully; the line is located just below the halocline.)
Among the first things you will come across is a large breakdown pile with a line T’ing in from the right and leading upward toward tannic water. This leads a short distance to the Emergency Air Cenote. You can surface and breathe here; however, the opening to the jungle is such that you cannot get out. If you’d like to check out this cenote, it is best to do it on your way back, when doing so will not affect your penetration gas or distance.
Approximately 1,700 feet into the cave you will come across a large room with depths reaching to 90 feet. Centered over the pit is a giant stalactite named Xich Ha Tunich (“Giant Drip Stone” in Mayan). At the bottom of the pit is a small room name Cuac Na (“Monster’s Lair”). Divers with good gas consumption can continue downstream and make it as far as 3,500 feet to Cenote Mojarra.
Upon returning to the entrance, you may want to take a swim around the gold cavern tour line. (You will probably agree that it is a very ambitious swim for divers with no formal Cavern or Cave Diver training.) Fortunately, the standards of practice for the area’s cavern tours and their guides are fairly stringent.
Heading upstream from the main entrance, a gold line leads to breakdown piles and decorated dome rooms. Cenote Pakal is located 3,500 feet upstream from the main entrance (the same distance as Cenote Mojarra is downstream).
With the exceptions already noted, most of the cave is 40 feet or less in depth. Sistema Choc Mool is not as decorated as some caves in the area, but nonetheless a worthwhile dive. A large, laminated map is available from several sources.
Naharon is known as “the dark cave.” Unlike other caves in the area, most of its walls and formations are stained a deep black. Naharon is part of Sistema Naranjal, which includes Cenote Mayan Blue. Recently, explorers discovered that Sistema Naranjal is most likely part of the much larger Sistema Ox Bel Ha, the world’s largest underwater cave.
Naharon is located three kilometers south of Tulum on Highway 307. The entrance is one the right-hand side of the road. The sign says Cenote Cristal. (Wait — isn’t that what the sign at Car Wash says?) Just as every tropical dive destination seems to have a “Paradise Reef,” the local Mayans like to call many of their cenotes “Cristal” to advertise the clarity of the water.
The main line at Naharon is a considerable distance from the entrance. It will take you to Choc’s Room and beyond. The first jump to the left takes you to Desconocido Doom, the Double Dooms and beyond. There are numerous jumps off both lines.
A particularly interesting dive is the Southwestern Sacbe. This jump off the Desconocido Dome line will take you down into the saltwater layer, where the walls again turn white, and you will find a number of formations. There is also a point at which you could once see the remains of an ancient Mayan who died some 1,200 feet from the entrance. (These remains have since been removed by archeologists.)
A professional guide will help make finding these sites easy. He or she can also help you set up a traverse to Mayan Blue. Depths in the saltwater zone can approach 80 feet. If you go there, expect deco at the end of the dive.
This is a great dive for a small group of from two to three divers. Most of the passageways are low and wide, with soft, crumbly limestone and delicate formations. You will pass in and out of the halocline repeatedly.
The entrance to Minotauro (the Minotaur, from Greek mythology) is directly across from Club Robinson Tulum, and immediately to the right of the new Pemex station. Be forewarned: The road back is rugged and there is not a lot of parking space at its end.
Minotauro is an excellent example of why it is a good idea to employ a professional guide — at least until you gain a much greater familiarity with area dive sites. Without a guide, you could waste an entire dive simply trying to find the right cave entrance (it is nowhere near as obvious as it may seem).
A good first dive is simply to take the main upstream line all the way to its end (it loops back on itself, forming an enjoyable circuit dive). If your gas consumption is good, you may even be able to take an offshoot tunnel to another cenote, such as Cenote Escalera or Cenote Estrella.
You could spend an entire week in Mexico just diving Mayan Blue. There are so many tunnels, and so many places to go, you could make over a dozen different dives there and see something new on every one.
Mayan Blue is part of Sistema Naranjal and, by the time you read this, a connection may have been made between it and Sistema Ox Bel Ha, the world’s largest underwater cave. Mayan Blue is located directly across Highway 307 from Cenote Naharon. The parking area is approximately one kilometer back in the jungle.
Cenote Mayan Blue is actually an L-shaped lagoon. The A tunnel entrance is closest to the parking area; the B tunnel entrance is mid-way down on the left; and, the Dead Zone entrance is at the far end. Every entrance connects with the others in some manner.
The A and B tunnels go upstream and connect at several points. The A tunnel will take you to the Battleship Room and to the connection point to Naharon (the Naharon to Mayan Blue traverse is a popular guided dive). The B tunnel line connects not only to the A tunnel, but also to the E and F tunnels, plus many other jumps. Numerous circuits are possible.
The Dead Zone goes downstream, in the direction of Ox Bel Ha. The line goes to the Cenote of the Sun; however, among the many possible jumps is one that will take you back around to the A tunnel.
Depths vary widely throughout the system and can approach 80 feet in the saltwater zone. Like Naharon, the freshwater layer will tend to be dark — especially as you get further upstream. The saltwater layer, in contrast, will tend to be very white. Dives in the saltwater zone will likely result in deco.
Nohoch Nah Chich
Nohoch nah Chich is Mayan for “Giant Bird Cage.” Many people feel it is the most beautifully decorated underwater cave anywhere. It was also officially the world’s largest underwater cave system, until the discovery of Sistema Ox Bel Ha.
Until recently, just getting to Nohoch was an adventure in itself. Unlike most other popular Yucatan cave diving sites, you did not simply drive up, put your gear on and go. First, you had to work with a local dive guide (still a good idea), letting him or her know ahead of time that you want to make a dive at Nohoch part of your itinerary.
The next step was that your guide had to attempt to contact the family that owns Nohoch and schedule a dive. (The Don Pedro Rodriquez family has no electricity and no telephone.) A common means of communication was leaving a note for them, tucked in a tree by Highway 307.
Assuming arrangements could be made (never a certainty), the “Nohoch Boys” would arrange to meet you and your guide at their parking area, 100 yards in from Highway 307, just south of Dos Ojos. Your guide would tell you how to pack your gear because it would be taken in on the backs of the Nohoch Boy’s burros. You would get to follow it, on foot. The walk was a little over a mile. Having the right shoes and plenty of bug spray was essential.
Today you can drive right up to the Rodriquez family’s rancho, just as you do at other sites. After paying your fee, you will see a large cenote with stairs leading to the usual island in the center. Don’t worry about carrying your gear down. The Nohoch Boys will be lowering it to you, by rope.
You will be suiting up on a wide deck, close to the water. Your guide will then take you on a long, shallow dive. There is no need to rush, either. No matter how far you go, or which line you take, you will not see more than a tiny fraction of the cave. Not that it really matters; everything you see will be utterly mind blowing.
Because of the nature of the site, a common practice is to make two dives on a single set of double 80s. Because of the extremely shallow depths (20 to 30 feet, or less), this still allows plenty of bottom time.
How to describe Nohoch? That’s difficult. There are some things for which the English language has no words which are adequate. Suffice it to say you will see a very large, very white cave with intricate, delicate formations everywhere. It is an experience you will remember for the rest of your life.
Continuing on the Coba Road a short distance past Gran Cenote, you will come to the entrance of Vaca Ha (“Cow Water” is Spanish and Mayan). The entry is gated; a professional guide can help you with admission fees and other entry requirements.
The cave entrance is a short distance from the road and right next to the parking area. It sits at the edge of a grassy swamp and was once a well where cows came to drink.
You start the dive by backing down a ladder into tannic water and near-zero viz. Carry your fins in your hands. At the bottom of the ladder you will find the start of the permanent line. Follow it, fins in hand, until you reach clear water and a hard bottom, just a few feet away. Don your fins, move into the clearer water and await the arrival of your buddies (reverse this process when exiting).
Vaca Ha is a largely linear system with few offshoots. Depths will tend to increase the farther you get into the cave, maxing out at around 75 feet. Unlike neighboring Sac Aktun, there is a halocline. Formations tend to be large and somewhat isolated.
Vaca Ha was originally owned by Don Camillo Solice Acosta. He was a familiar fixture, driving back and forth from his modest home in Tulum in an ancient and beat up Datsun pickup. Few were aware than Don Camillo was actually a very wealthy (if eccentric) man. He owned and leased out heavy construction equipment, earning enough money in the process to put several of his many children through law and medical school.
A few years back, Don Camillo got the idea to excavate the land next to the well to create a clear water lagoon next to it, thus attracting the snorkelers and swimmers who flocked to places such as Gran Cenote. What Don Camillo did not realize is that clear water requires flow, something an offset sinkhole such as Vaca Ha did not have.
Sistema Tortuga (“Turtle” in Spanish) is located on the same property as Vaca Ha. And, like Vaca Ha, it is an offset sinkhole with no flow.
To get to Tortuga, simply take the road leading into the Vaca Ha property to its end. Depending on the time of year, you may see large groups of brightly-colored butterflies along the way. There is parking at the end of the road, as well as tables to assist you in suiting up.
The basin at Tortuga is simply a round hole in the ground, measuring roughly 20 feet across. Visibility is usually nonexistent. For this reason, the guideline begins at the surface, tied to a log at the water’s edge. Important: Do not descend without maintaining physical contact with this guideline at all times.
The guideline will take you down the slope of the breakdown pile and through a restriction. Visibility will improve dramatically on the other side. One thing you will notice are the large floor-to-ceiling columns that decorate this first room.
Once you and your buddies are all through the restriction, you can begin exploring in a couple different directions. If you take the main line approximately 1,200 feet into the system, there will be a T to the right which dead ends 250 feet further in.
Another possibility is to take the first"T" to the left, a few hundred feed from the entrance. This leads down to a saltwater zone at around 85 feet. If you are following a guide, he or she can take you around a small circuit here, or further in on one of the many offshoot tunnels. Just remember: At this depth, you are going to accrue deco quickly, and you will have to decompress out in the tannic water.
It is rare when a cave — spectacular as it may be — is eclipsed in beauty by its cavern. Yet, that is what many divers feel is the case at Taj Mahal.
The entrance to Taj Mahal is located on the west side of Highway 307, five and a half kilometers south of Puerto Adventuras. The cave itself is quite a drive back from the highway, with lots of ups and downs. Nevertheless, rental cars and other vehicles can make it without difficulty.
The main entrance to the system is a circular cenote, with stairs leading to an island in the center. Cave passageways radiate outward in all directions; the main passageway (denoted by a gold line) is directly opposite the parking area. It is possible to make numerous trips to Taj Mahal and never start out on the same line twice.
One of the longest possible dives is simply to take the main line to its conclusion at Cenote Vista Bonita. In the process, you will pass over breakdown piles consisting of huge boulders, and through one of the region’s single largest cave rooms. It is also possible to get to Vista Bonita by taking an offshoot tunnel that shortcuts much of this swim.
When you return to the main entrance from whatever direction you choose to go, you will want to recalculate thirds so that you can take the cavern tour. The figure-eight-shaped tour line begins to the far left of the stairs and passes through, or within sight of, three separate cavern openings. If possible, time this for mid-day so that you see the incredible light show that is the high point of the tour.
The first room you will enter is a football-field-size chamber called Points of Light. If you are the sort of person who likes to save the best until last, take the cavern line to the right, bypassing the breakdown pile at Points of Light (you can see it on your return). Continue straight ahead on the cavern tour line and you will leave Points of Light and enter the Sugar Bowl, a circular cenote that drops over 30 feet straight down from the jungle to the water below.
Taking the right-hand fork in the line at the top of the Sugar Bowl breakdown pile, you will descend into another large cavern. The line will take you below the halocline. As you come around the line and begin back towards Sugar Bowl, you will see yet another large cavern opening on your right. The line will now continue up the back side of the Sugar Bowl breakdown pile and across the top. You can pause momentarily at the top of the Sugar Bowl, surfacing to enjoy the view, before heading back to Points of Light.
As you re-enter the Points of Light chamber, take the right-hand fork in the line (easy way to remember how to make this dive: whenever the line forks, regardless of your direction of travel, go right). This will take you on a meandering course through the chamber, past large stalactites and other formations.
If you have timed things right, as you cross the top of the breakdown pile, you will see the phenomena for which the room is named. Piercing the celling of the chamber are three small holes. When the sun is directly overhead, it penetrates these holes, forming columns of light that illuminate the rocks and formations below. The effect is quite breathtaking.
Continuing on the line will take you back to the entrance — and you will have gotten significant mileage out of a single set of doubles.
Most cave divers consider Sac Aktun to be among the world’s most decorated and beautiful caves. At the time these photos were shot, the difference between the two was that, while it was difficult to get to Nohoch, it was is absurdly easy to get dive gear and all the camera equipment you want into Sac Aktun.
Sac Aktun is located four kilometers west of Tulum on the Coba Road. There is an attended parking area right at the road’s edge, and a large sign that says Gran Cenote (the main entrance to the system).
After paying your entrance fee, you can suit up using convenient tables located right at the edge of the parking lot. You then walk a short distance to the edge of the cenote and descend a set of stairs. From here you walk to a large dock at the edge of the water, then jump in. That’s all there is to it.
The main cavern at Gran Cenote is a popular cavern tour site. A gold line runs around the perimeter of the main cavern. To get to the upstream side of the cave, swim in along the right-hand side of the cavern and, when you get to the point where the line makes a sharp left, tie off and continue onward. A short distance ahead you will see the start of the permanent cave line.
Starting at the main line, there are a number of directions you can go. The line itself connects to and ends at Cenote Ho-Tul. By running a reel roughly 120 feet across the Cenote Ho-Tul cavern, you can connect to the Cuzan Nah loop line — a circuit through one of the prettiest parts of the cave.
Jumping off the main line when it makes a sharp left to Cenote Ho-Tul will take you to the Paso Lagarto line. This leads to numerous offshoots and the most extensive upstream portion of the cave. A professional guide can even set up a dive for you where you enter the water at Cenote Calimba and swim a lengthy traverse to Gran Cenote.
Depths in Sac Aktun seldom exceed 40 feet, and depths are fairly constant. There is no halocline anywhere in the cave.
Sistema Dos Ojos is not only one of the world’s largest underwater cave complexes, it also boast one of the largest and most beautiful cavern dives. Dos Ojos, which means “Two Eyes” in Spanish, is located just south of the X’el Ha ecopark. As you drive the bumpy dirt road back from the entrance, bear in mind that the original explorers of this system had to make this trip on foot, with their equipment hung on the back of burros.
The name Dos Ojos refers to two adjacent cenotes. Divers usually enter from the smaller of the two, known as the Eastern Eye. Two distinctly different types of cave dives are possible from this point.
One option is to go upstream, through the cavern zone, to the far end of the cavern tour line. You’ll know that you’ve reached your jumping off point when you see a plastic alligator with a Barbie doll in its mouth. Tie off here and continue upstream.
As you head into the cave, there are actually several different lines you can choose. These lines seem to change frequently — yet another reason why it is a good idea to use a guide for at least your first trip. One line will take you to the upstream portion of the cave, where you will see wide passageways and lots of formations. Yet another line will take you to Cenote Tak Be Ha, a huge, air-filled dome that can be artificially lit. This is a popular snorkeling site.
On your return, be sure to relax and enjoy the view as you swim through the immense cavern. It is simply unequalled.
The popular downstream dive is a traverse taking you past Cenotes Dos Palmas, High Voltage and Tapir’s End, and from which you will finally surface at Cenote Monolito (Monolith). A guide is essential, as taking the wrong line could be fatal. Because you will surface far from your starting point, you will need to arrange to have a vehicle waiting for you — or prepare for a long trip back.
Sistema Dos Ojos is immediately adjacent to Sistema Nahoch Na Chich. For a while, teams of explorers were competing to establish which was the larger cave. There was also a considerable effort to make a connection between the two (to date, no one has succeeded).
So, which of the two is the world’s largest underwater cave? Neither. It has now been established that Sistema Ox Bel Ha is much bigger than either Nahoch Na Chich or Dos Ojos. Unfortunately, it is a site that is not readily accessible by recreational cave divers.
Temple of Doom
When driving south on Highway 307 toward Tulum, you first past the entrance to the Tulum ruins, then approach an intersection on the north side of town. If you turn right at this intersection, you are on the road to Coba. Several different cave systems are located along the Coba Road, and it took the building of this highway before these caves could be discovered and explored.
The first system you encounter when heading west on the Coba Road begins at Cenote Esqueleto — or, as it is more commonly known, the Temple of Doom. Located just 1.8 kilometers west of the Coba Road intersection, this site is being developed by its owner to bring it up to the standard of other close-by cave diving sites. It will eventually have parking, banos (rest rooms) and a better trail to the cenote.
Until such time as the owner chooses to start collecting it, there is no admission fee to get into Temple of Doom. That’s the good news. The bad news is, until that time, there is no site attendant to watch your vehicle, which will be parked right along side of the Coba Road. Theft has been a major problem at this site, so don’t even consider diving here unless you can arrange for someone to watch your vehicle while you are down.
Assuming you can solve this problem, diving at Temple of Doom offers a unique experience. There are no stairs leading down to the water. There is, however, a galvanized pipe ladder to help you ascend the ten feet from the water to the lip of the cenote. That’s how you get out. How do you get in? You jump. And, before you do, make certain the ladder is in place and in working order. Otherwise, you are going to be stuck for a while.
Once in the water, you will be at the top of a large, circular breakdown pile. A line leads from the top of this pile to a cavern tour line that runs the circumference of its base. From this line, you have the option of jumping off to either of two downstream cave entrances.
One choice is to enter via The Canyons. The more popular choice, however, is to go by way of the Madonna Passage. These two entranceways join up in the Coliseum Room, and proceed onward to the Hall of Giants. From here you can continue on the main line, jump off to the Old Florida Room or take any of a number of offshoot tunnels.
Maximum depths are around 60 feet. Much of the cave is shallower. You will find portions of the cave both above and below the halocline. A map is available for sale from local dive centers that cater to cave divers.
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