Deciding it was time to go back to Mexico and do some cave diving, I picked Tulum as the place I was going to stay. It's nearer the best cenotes for diving and it's much smaller than Playa Del Carmen, which I've seen get bigger and bigger over the years. Next I had to decide who I was going to dive with. I picked Eric "Budgie" Burgess who I used to know when he ran the Aqua Hotel and dive centre out of Portland many years ago. So I contacted him and he said he could pick me up from the airport and arrange some accommodation for me
The flight over was with BA. It was about what you'd expect from Cruz-era BA with their new "densified" seating packed sardine-like with 10 in a row on a 777. I had an empty seat next to me. I don't think I would have enjoyed it much if I hadn't. Other airlines also fly there direct including Virgin Atlantic.
I met Budgie at the airport and we did the two hour drive down to Tulum. I was staying in Villa Matisse, a small hotel with 6 rooms. I paid US$50 a night for a double room with ensuite bathroom. It was spotless and there were good meshes on the windows to keep the mosquitoes out, of which there were plenty. There was no aircon, but I wasn't expecting any.
Tulum isn't a big town, but it does have plenty of bars, restaurants, 3 decent supermarkets and more then enough shops selling tourist tat to keep anyone happy. There was a 24 hour Oxxo shop just opposite the hotel, one of several in town, so getting snacks and drinks was easy, if sometimes a little slow if you had the misfortune to get stuck behind the person paying 4 different household bills at the till in there. There were sometimes more people doing banking and paying bills in there than actually buying anything.
First day and we set off to Cenote Car Wash for a couple of shakedown dives. Car Wash is so called because it used to be used by the taxis to wash their vehicles. It's just off the main road and has facilties like toilet, changing rooms and kitting up benches. It also quite popular with people coming to swim and laze by the pool though given the number of mosquitoes, it's not really something I'd want to do.
First dive was nice and simple up the main line. About ten minutes in, after swimming along in the darkness, you come to a small cenote called Luke's Hope, where an OW diver with no cave qualifiaction once crawled out to safety having almost exhausted his gas supply. It's a bit surreal as it's now a swimming hole, so I emerged from the darkness to find a woman in a bikini swimming 5m above my head.
The second dive was a bit more adventurous as we jumped the gap into the restriction that leads to the Room of Tears. This a is a prettier and more decorated section of the cave than the main line.
The second day, we went to Cenote Cristal, which is part of the Sistema Naranjal, which in turn has now been linked to the Sistem Ox Bel Ha, the second longest underwater cave system in the world with 270kms of explored tunnels, so more than enough for a couple of hours diving. The water in this system contains a lot of tannins, so the freshwater sections of the cave are stained quite dark hence the name "Naranjal", which means orange grove. So when you enter the cave, it is dark. The lines are stained browny orange and the tannin content of the water seems to suck the light away. It was like being back in the UK only with really, really great visibility.
Below the halocline, it's a different story as the saltwater keeps the formations white. We did a couple of 70 minute dives to a max depth of 23m checking out various stuff including the halocline line to Chac's Room.
The third day, we went to a personal favourite of mine, Cenote Mayan Blue, also shown as cenote Escondido on maps. It's the other side of the road from Cristal and about 1km down a dirt track. It's used as a training site, so there were a number of groups there doing courses. However, it's got a lot more to offer with 4 separate entrances and tunnels fanning out in multiple directions. It's also part of Sistema Naranjal, so you can do the traverse to Cristal and it has the same dark, tannin stained features in the freshwater.
However, jump the gap down into Death Arrow passage below the halocline and it's a different story completely. White cave formations of stalachtities and stalagmites contrast with the dark sediment on the floor and in places there are bubbles of calclite formed by dripping water thousands of years ago before the sea level rose. On the first dive, we did the whole of Death Arrow, jumping back onto the main line before doing our turnaround on (my) thirds and coming back the way we came. It was 64 minutes with a max depth of 24m.
On the second dive, we went out towards Mayan Two cenote. It gets shallow, about 5m, where the ceiling has collapsed and it's quite restricted. The map shows silt, but there's enough traffic that it isn't really that silty. When you head back down it opens out into Hostage Hall, a large decorated chamber with a high ceiling.
The next day, we did something a little different, going first to Angelita, which isn't a cave, but a sinkhole. It must be connected to other caves as the water is fresh, but those entrances are presumably behind the rubble of the roof collapse. What Angelita does have is a hydrogen sulfide layer, formed by the rotting plant debris that has fallen into it over the years. As you get down to around 20m, you can see tree branches poking up through was looks like a silty bottom. As you descend through it, you can actually smell the hydrogen sulphide as it penetrates right through your mask. Below the layer, it's pitch black and crystal clear. Ascending back up and there are a number of fun little swimthroughs around the sides in shallow depths.
Next up with Cueva de Golondrinas, which means Cave of Swallows. It's also know as Xulo after the owners. It used to just be some holes but the owners opened it up, installing some steps as well as a very impressive toilet block. It has only been dived for the last couple of years. Descending down inside, the cave is decorated right from the start with interesting rock formations everywhere and it's relatively shallow down to 9m but rising up to some gas pockets, which would probably kill you if you tried to breathe them. Then there's a newer section which goes down to 24m. At this point, it becomes sidemount only, so we turned the dive. Budgie wanted to know whether I had a new favourite, but on reflection, I still preferred Death Arrow passage, but it was a close run thing. He promised to challenge that the next day.
The next day we went to Cenote Calimba, which is part of the Sac Actun system and is over the road from the well know Grand Cenote. We did two dives here, with about half of both along the main line. The first dive, we got to a T and headed towards Grand Cenote briefly before turning the dive on thirds. This did prove to be my favourite. It's highly decorated the whole dive though it is a bit squeezy in places. There are no really tight restrictions, just a lot of it at the beginning is a bit tight, but it's worth it for a couple of very nice dives. It's also really shallow, at 13m, so we did two 81 minute dives without getting anywhere near deco.
The last day, we went to Jailhouse Cenote. It isn't the most attractive looking dive site from the surface. It is basically a muddy puddle. The main line comes out of the water, which is never a good sign. Unlike the clearer pools, where there are two entrances pushing water through, the entrance into the cave is a hole into the side of a tunnel. I could just about see my hand on the line, it was all a bit reminiscent of UK diving but once we'd dropped down to 5m, it was the usual crystal clear water you'd expect and we quickly came to a T. On the first dive we went left, on the second we went right. The shallow, fresh water sections are dark contrasting with the deeper parts below the halocline which are white. Like Mayan Blue and Cristal, it's part of the Naranjal section of Ox Bel Ha. It was another very prety cave with rooms of tall stalachtites and stalagmites. It was a good site to finish off the dives for the trip. The depths varied with one section around 12m, another around 25m.
I did have a break from diving in the middle of the holiday. I decided to visit the ruins in Coba, which feature the tallest Mayan pyramid there is. It's easy to get there. Just catch the once a day bus from the bus station. It left more or less on time and drops you by the gates. It picks up from there in the afternoon. The ruins are quite impressive though fairly spread out. If you're unable to walk far or are very lazy, there are cycle taxis inside the site. Unlike many of the other Mayan pyramids, you can still climb up this one, though it looked very busy and crowded, so I gave that a miss.
On the last day when I'd finished diving, I visited the iconic Tulum ruins high on the cliff over looking the sea. It was the first time I'd seen the Caribbean all holiday. I made the mistake of going on a Sunday when Mexicans can get in for free, so the queue was huge. However, I didn't need to queue because there are a couple of electronic ticket machines on the left of the entrance that I only noticed when it was too late. The ruins are smaller than Coba but they're in a very picturesque location.
After the ruins, I walked down the beach. There are a few beach bars, charging about twice as much for a beer as you pay in town. It's quite a long walk back from the beach to town, though there is a segregated cycle path all the way to town and my hotel had free bikes for guests.