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July 1999 Vol. 14, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Diving Into the Interior of the Yucatan

staying at the Villas DeRosa and diving the cenotés

from the July, 1999 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The fast currents and big reefs of Cozumel are the big lure for divers traveling to the Yucatan peninsula, but for bad weather days or a change of pace, the Yucatan mainland is less than an hour’s ferry ride away. There you’ll find a totally unique diving experience: cenote diving (pronounced say-No-tay. Cenotes are sinkholes, pools of water leading to underground rivers that have carved their way through limestone. Although the center of cenote diving is around Akumal, a small collection of resorts, restaurants, and dive shops about 60 mi. south of Cancun, cenote diving is being promoted everywhere, including the streets of Cancun and Playa del Carmen. They require no specialty training to take a dive and cruise the crystal-clear waters of the pool or swim back into the mouth of the cavern where the entrance is always in sight. If you haven’t tried it, do; it’s worth the effort.

If you find you like it, there are several ways to get past the warning signs at the end of the cavern zone. In our May issue, our correspondent reported on his cavern/intro cave training at Florida’s Ginnie Springs. This month’s correspondent goes a little further and a little deeper, opting for full cave training in some of the most extensive cave systems in the world.

___________________________________

Dear Fellow Diver,

By day ten of my Yucatan diving adventure, I was feeling like a veteran. My muscles had strengthened to where there was spring in my step as I lumbered along with 90 lbs. of gear hanging off my overweight torso. No, I wasn’t headed for the beautiful, sunlit reefs offshore: I was making my way through the jungle to a waterhole.

Jumping into the Cenote Carwash with my guide, I did the mandatory gear check, then sank into the cenote and headed for the cave. The beginning of the cave system is a large, gaping cavern where my guide pointed out charcoal remnants of campfires and shards of pottery left by ancient peoples who used the cave as a dwelling in prehistoric times before it flooded. The eerie cavern entrance is crisscrossed with a tangle of trees that have fallen into the cenote over time. We tied off our guideline and entered the darkness.

Gliding through water so clear feels like floating in air. I concentrated on applying my newly-learned skills, making sure my legs delivered only the short, abbreviated kicks I’d been taught would minimize the “prop wash” from my fins and prevent silting of the passageway. As I ran my guideline back 350’ toward the “Chamber of Horrors,” my pinkie finger gently applied friction to the reel to keep the line from snarling. Then, picking up the permanent guideline, I tied off my primary reel and looked around, and that’s when it hit me: it’s incredibly beautiful in here. Swimming on past “Luke’s Hope,” a minor cenote in the system, I contemplated its namesake, a foolish, under-prepared diver named Luke who was saved from impending death years ago when he ran across this tiny exit out of the underwater world.

Negotiating some minor restrictions, we snaked our way back to “Crystal Palace,” where I moved past legions of brilliant white stalactites, soda straws, and dribbling flow stones. When we arrived at the “Room of Tears,” the cave opened into a large chamber that resembles an ancient cathedral with sculpted columns. It didn’t matter which way I turned; there was cathedral-like ornamentation in every direction. Although my MX-10 camera wouldn’t do justice to this scene, I was there absorbing every view and burning them into my memory.

After penetrating 1700’ into the cave, we turned around, our timing based on the air management “rule of thirds” (use 1/3 of your air in, 1/3 out, and surface with 1/3 left). I picked up our reels as we retraced our path through the magnificent structure. Arriving at the juncture between the cave and the cavern zones, I checked my instruments for the log book. I’d spent 1 hr. 50 min. in pure bliss. And I still had 1200 psi left in my doubles.

The Caribbean coastline between Playa del
Carmen and Tulum offers the greatest concentration
of highly decorated cave systems in the world. It’s
estimated that close to a million feet of survey line
has been laid since 1985. About 50 cave systems have
been explored to date, and the two longest caves are
competing for the title of world’s longest: Nahoch
Nah Chich, with 215,000’ of surveyed passages, and
Dos Ojos, with 200,000’. Exploration of new cenotés
is ongoing, and major expeditions are organized
regularly to push new line into the two biggest ones.
No one thinks they’ve reached the end.

My home away from home for these 11 cave-diving days was Aquatech/Villas DeRosa in the quiet little community known as Aventuras/Akumal. With no restaurants, bars, or stores, Aventuras is less a town than a whistle stop off the main drag, Hwy. #307, running from Cancun nearly to Belize. The community hugs the beachfront in a lovely cove along the Caribbean coast, and Villas DeRosa is the centerpiece of the two- or three-block long enclave. Like so many small outposts along the Mayan Riviera, Aventuras/Akumal will soon experience some serious growth. Construction has started on a mega-development projected to include about 1,000 hotel rooms/condos. Today it’s still an outpost, and the beach is abandoned more often than not.

The Aquatech/Villas DeRosa complex includes several neatly arranged buildings constructed in the typical Mexican stucco/cement style, all bright white and sporting freshly varnished woodwork. The main office is in the apartment that owners Tony and Nancy DeRosa share with their kids and their mischievous parrot, Rico, who sneaks up on people and nibbles on any exposed flesh. Diving Into the Interior of the YucatanNancy DeRosa, a dynamic young woman, keeps up with the day-to-day logistics of the operation from her massive desk in the bedroom. Fifteen of Villas DeRosa’s units are hotel rooms; there’s a dozen more oneand two-bedroom condos, and a couple luxury villas. All have mini-balconies looking over the pool into the jungle. Oceanview villas and condos have large kitchen and dining areas and a spacious sunken living room that extends into an ample balcony/patio with spectacular views. For a single guy whose nightly ritual consisted of studying technical diving manuals, the $45/night hotel room was adequate: the twin beds had firm mattresses; the room was clean and bug-free; the a/c worked well; maid service was daily; and I had plenty of space to spread out my stuff.

Meal routine was simple: when you’re hungry, stroll down to the basement kitchen and tell the staff you’re ready to eat. Since there’s no dining room, meals can be served in your room, on the rooftop patio, or by the swimming pool. (The roof-top “La Terraza” bar, another dining spot, was closed for renovation during my visit.) My dinners in my room were a little lonely until I met other divers, who invited me to join them.

Dinner menus varied, with baked or broiled fish three nights, chicken twice, a jerked beef dish, fajitas, two different shrimp meals, and a sensational steak wrapped in bacon that just melted in my mouth. Side dishes included rice or potatoes, at least one other vegetable, a salad or soup, and a homemade dessert. The chef specialized in exotic sauces: his curried chicken with rice was spectacular, baked fish with raisin sauce superb, and his delicate white sauce made even cauliflower taste good. I often took potluck and let the kitchen serve their special.

Cave certification at Aquatech can be
approached several different ways (such as 4
two-day or 2 four-day sessions), but if you know
you’re going to go all the way, the quickest,
cheapest option is to do it all at once over a sixday
period. The 600 minutes of bottom time is
grueling, but the class begins with double-tank
training, skipping the single-tank training
usually offered in cavern and intro courses. The
course fees include all specialty equipment
(except primary lights, which can be rented),
such as: doubles, backpacks, wings, reels, long
hose regulators, etc.

The kitchen didn’t open till 8 a.m., which made getting all the divers fed, downstairs, and loaded up for the day’s diving somewhat of a rush. My breakfasts were usually eggs and toast served poolside, and my giant sub sandwich lunches were eaten out in the jungle between dives. On the days I lunched at the resort, enchiladas and a hamburger platter were offered.

And he’s a hAquatech’s training operation is anchored by an almost-legendary cave instructor, Steve Gerrard, who’s been teaching cave diving since 1981 and has certified over 1300 cavern and cave students. A past President of the National Association of Cave Divers (NACD), he’s one of the more experienced cave divers in Mexico.ell of a nice guy. His laid-back training style was thorough, but not at all like the drill sergeant he was once reputed to be. Although Aquatech offers reef dives, fishing trips, and a full spectrum of tourist activities, their focus is on cave diving (they claim to service 85% of the area’s visiting cave divers). All ten of the principals on staff are certified cave-diving instructors or divemasters who regularly explore. The four I dived with were friendly, professional, safety-conscious, and ecstatic about cave exploring.

I came to Aquatech a novice, a purebred open-water diver with nary a shred of cavern-diving experience. They paired me with a British cavern diver, and, as the days progressed, we fell into a routine of gearing up around 8:30, grabbing two sets of doubles, and taking off for an intensive four-dive day. Lectures were presented during surface intervals, on the road to the dive sites, and occasionally at night back at the resort. Our first and third dives, conducted with full doubles, were our deepest and longest penetrations, dives two and four shorter ones using our remaining air for skills drills. I logged 704 minutes of bottom time during 15 dives in five days of training.

Although most cenotes run with crystal-clear water that gives you the giddy feeling of floating in nothingness, in some places the cave system runs close to the surface and picks up brown, tannin-soaked jungle waters. These dark, low viz waters can stain entire cave systems a dirty brown and obscure spectacular formations. Marine life is conspicuously absent from most cave dives; however, there’s usually a thriving marine ecosystem in the open bowl of the cenote. At Cenote Nahoran, large box turtles cruised in and out of the aquatic grass. As we bobbed on the surface at Carwash, my earlobes were regularly assaulted by schools of Yucatan tetras and an occasional Jack Dempsey. At Cenote Vaca Ha, Steve called his dog in from the swamp because a week earlier his wife had seen a small crocodile there. During deeper penetration cave dives, I ran across several blind Yucatan cave fish and a couple of remipedes, small white centipede-like creatures.

Why train extensively for dives that you can only do at a few places in the world? There are reasons beyond the spectacular formations you’ll see. Having seen a lot of reefs, cenote diving takes on new challenge and mystery. It’s an excellent way to develop self-sufficiency as a diver. And, although I didn’t venture into any unexplored territory, I certainly got a feel for what the explorers are into. There are few destinations left where you can actually be the first one to enjoy the view.

If you’re vacationing in Cancun or diving Cozumel, a day adventure in a cenote is still a treat. Not only is it totally unlike reef diving, it’s also a way to get wet in bad weather, a quiet retreat from hectic Cancun, and an other-worldly experience to add to your mental log book.

— X. P.

Diving Into the Interior of the YucatanDiver’s Compass: If you’re coming from Cozumel, catch the ferry downtown to Playa del Carmen, where several dive operations on Fifth Street or along the beach offer cenote dives. Most are within an hour’s drive of Playa...In Cancun, cenote dive options which include transportation to the Playa/Akumal area are marketed by most dive operators or hotels...To contact Aquatech/ Villas DeRosa: phone 52-987-59020, website www.cenotes.com. Rooms $45-$200 (varies w/size and season). Packages for cavecertified divers including airport transfers, full meal plan, 7 nights accommodation, and six days guided diving start at $850/person for groups; full cave-training packages w/room and board run $1400 (6 students) to $2075 (private); many technical courses and private cave tours offered...Mostly aluminum 80s, some steel 85s, 95s, and 104s, Nitrox available...10% tax on almost everything...Water temps 76-79 year-round, viz as high as 300’; air temps 80-85 mid-November...C-cards and log books checked...Cokes were free, local rum $2.50/liter in Tulum...

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