The Yucatan Peninsula sits on a base of soft limestone. Over thousands of years, the underground rivers that deliver the peninsula’s water have carved out deep caves. Some of those caves have collapsed, creating sinkhole-like structures filled with water. Those structures are called “cenotes.” They’re one of the highlights of traveling in this part of Mexico. And one of the best ways to experience them is by cenote diving in Tulum.
Why Tulum? Because there are many different cenotes around Tulum which all offer different experiences. You can see the mix of fresh and salt water at Casa Cenote, see the stalactites and stalagmites at Cenote Car Wash, or explore the bat cave of Dos Ojos. No matter which you choose, you’ll get to experience some of the best diving in Tulum.
Why go cenote diving in Tulum?
Cenote diving in Tulum isn’t about seeing beautiful coral reefs, exotic tropical fish, or large marine life. In fact, you probably won’t see any animals at all. What cenote diving is about is exploring the fascinating geologic features of these underwater caverns.
The caves play with light in interesting ways — for instance, in Casa Cenote, the sunlight bursts through through mangroves that drape into the water. In Dos Ojos, the light toys with your sense of distance.
You’ll also see unique stalactite and stalagmite formations. In some places, they reach from the floor to the ceiling. You’ll have to dodge them as you’re swimming through.
And the best part — the visibility in the cenotes around Tulum is unbelievable. If you go in the morning, you can see upwards of 40 meters through the clearest, bluest water you’ve ever seen.
Key things to know before cenote diving in Tulum
Diving in an overhead environment
Cenote diving is “cavern diving.” Unlike cave diving, you’ll always be within 60 meters of a light source/surface opportunity. The idea is that if your equipment were to malfunction, you’d be able to get to the surface before really being in trouble. This is why you can go cenote diving in Tulum even if you’re not a certified or experienced cave diver.
However, cenote diving does consist of spending your entire dive in “overhead environments.” In other words, you will have a cave wall above you the entire time. So at any point in your dive, you can’t simply go to the surface — you have to swim out of the cave first. This will be a new experience for most open water divers. If you’ve ever done “swim-throughs” on an open water dive, you have a general idea — but cenote diving is more like a 40-minute-long swim-through.
Given the unique circumstances of this type of diving, there are a few things you should know before attempting it.
Safety considerations when cenote diving in Tulum
First, you absolutely must be a certified diver to go cenote diving in Tulum. You can’t do a “trial dive” like you can in open water. If an operator offers this, you should seriously think twice about letting them take you.
Second, you need to have dove within the last six months. If you can’t prove a recent dive, you’ll need to do a refresher course (which can be tacked onto a cenote dive). Again, if an operator doesn’t insist on seeing this proof, they may be cutting safety corners.
Third, you need a reasonable comfort level in claustrophobic spaces underwater. If you get nervous in swim-throughs on open water dives, cenote diving probably isn’t for you. You’ll swim in about a 3-meter space between the floor and ceiling of the caves for 20-40 minutes at a time, with only a torch for light. Additionally, due to the small spaces, you need to have really strong buoyancy control — good enough that the fresh water won’t throw you off too much.
Finally, if you have sensitive ears or often have trouble equalizing, you may not be able to cenote dive. These are shallow-water dives (rarely more than 8 meters deep) and there’s a lot of up and down to navigate the cave floor. It’s hard on your ears. In open water, when you can’t equalize, you can always just swim up or down to readjust. But inside the caves, that’s not always possible.
My cenote diving experience
I booked my cenote dive with Mot Mot Diving. I chose them based on recommendations from several friends, good reviews, and the fact that they were willing to do a refresher course on the same day as my cenote dive. Unfortunately they are now permanently closed, so I can’t recommend a specific operator.
I booked my dive the day before I went. The staff gave me a coupon to pick up free breakfast at the French bakery next door — they want to make sure you eat something before you go cenote diving. On the day of my dive, after grabbing food, I met my dive master and diving buddy — there were only three of us total on the trip.
Dive #1: Casa Cenote
We hopped in a truck full of equipment and headed to Casa Cenote. This part-fresh, part-salt water cenote was a good place to do my refresher course — it has only a partial overhead environment, and the light is good. After suiting up, the dive started with going through a few skills on the bottom of the cenote — taking off and replacing my mask, losing my regulator, etc.
Then, we spent about 45 minutes exploring the mangroves and unique blend of fish life that lives in the cenote. (One of the great things about cenote diving in Tulum is the water is so shallow that you go through oxygen slowly — meaning you get really long dives.)
We resurfaced and clamored out of the cenote and back to the truck. Here, we took a quick snack break (Mot Mot provided cookies and bananas) and drank some water before driving to the second dive site.
Dive #2: Cenote Car Wash
Feeling much more comfortable with my diving equipment after the refresher, I was ready to take on a “real” cenote. So we chose Cenote Car Wash — a far less crowded option than Dos Ojos, with spectacular cave formations and unique lighting.
Before we began the dive, we went through an extensive safety briefing — far more than on any dive I’ve done before. We learned some unique cave-diving hand signals, and how to use our torches to signal if our hands weren’t free. We talked about buoyancy control and some of the unique challenges of diving in fresh water, where you need less weight than normal to stay down. And we discussed approaching the dive as a “team dive” rather than a “buddy dive” — in other words, we were mutually accountable for the safety of everyone in the group, not just paired with one individual. Then, we began the descent.
Swimming into the cave opening was surprisingly not-scary. Once you’re underwater, it doesn’t really register that you’re about to enter a full overhead environment. The bottom of the cenote has a guiding line the whole way, so you only need to follow that to stay oriented.
The biggest challenge, sure enough, was buoyancy control. I’m used to looking down to monitor my buoyancy underwater. But what I wasn’t expecting were the stalactites coming down from above. It’s surprisingly difficult to dodge them — especially in more narrow parts of the cave.
The cave formations themselves are fascinating, and the light is incredibly beautiful. The water is so clear that you can see all the way to the opening of the cave the entire time.
We swam the length of the cavern twice before resurfacing, for a total of about 40 minutes. By the end of it, I was pretty cold and my ears were feeling all the small depth adjustments, but I was definitely hungry for more. Cenote diving in Tulum was one of the most interesting dives I’ve ever done.
Practicalities for cenote diving in Tulum
Tulum is full of dive shops operating trips to Casa Cenote, Cenote Car Wash, and Dos Ojos. Most market to newbie divers, but if you’re an experienced cave diver, you can find shops that do more advanced trips linking several cenotes together. You can also get your cave diving certification — Tulum cave diving courses start around $250 per day.
Choose your operator carefully. Remember, your dive master will probably be the only person on your dive who knows what they’re doing in a cave. If it seems like the operator is cutting corners on the little things, imagine what else they could be cutting corners on.
Cenote diving in Tulum is in fresh water, which generally runs colder than the ocean. If you’re even remotely prone to cold, insist on a full wet suit, preferably a 5 mm one. I even wore boots and definitely didn’t regret it.
Cenote diving in Tulum isn’t a cheap activity. Expect to pay around $150 for a two-tank dive. A refresher course will add another $40.
Alternative ways to see the cenotes
Not a diver? Nervous about going underwater in tight spaces? No problem! You don’t have to miss out on experiencing the cenotes in the Riviera Maya.
If you want to get a taste of what diving would be like but aren’t a certified diver, try cenote snorkeling! The easiest option is the snorkel tour offered at Cenote Dos Ojos. This is Tulum’s most famous and beautiful cenote, and well worth visiting. “Dos Ojos” means “two eyes” — the cenote has two openings, and you’ll get to snorkel in both of them.
The Dos Ojos cenote snorkeling tour lasts about 90 minutes. You’ll receive a torch and life vest, and you’ll have the option to wear a wet suit (take it!). You’ll swim around the open sections of the caves for awhile before passing through the overhang that leads to the “bat cave” — while you never need to go fully underwater, it is a tight space and wouldn’t be good for people with claustrophobia. You explore the bat cave for awhile before leaving through a different exit and circling back around. The tour covers everything the dive trips cover, for a fraction of the cost.
You can book a Cenote Dos Ojos snorkel tour from Tulum, but you can also just go yourself and save money. Combi vans from the town center heading toward Playa del Carmen can drop you off at the cenote entrance. You sign up there and pay your $25, then hop on a truck to the cenote itself. You’ll get a locker for your belongings and you can use the (clean) restrooms. After the tour, you can take another truck back out to the main road. You can then flag down a combi to take you back to Tulum.
If even the snorkel tour sounds like too much for you, you can always just visit a cenote and swim. Cenote Car Wash is the most popular option for this — you can reach it by bicycle from central Tulum. Alternatively, do a day trip to Valladolid to see the spectacular cenotes Dzinup and Samula. Travel agencies also offer tours to a few cenotes around Tulum.
Cenote diving in Tulum is one of the top experiences along the Caribbean coast of Mexico. But once you’ve done it, stick around for a few days and explore the amazing beaches of Tulum. Check out my budget guide to Tulum to plan your next adventure!
Have you been cenote diving in Tulum? What did you think? Leave a comment!
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