Postcards from Paradise
September 3 - 7, 1995
Ah, Cozumel. Just a few miles offshore of the southern coast of the Yucatan lies Mexico's largest island, a ceremonial center for the ancient Mayans, a mecca for pirates and later for scuba divers, including Jacques Cousteau, who once proclaimed Palancar Reef among the finest dive sites in the world.
Sitting in one of the open air restaurants that line the seawall in San Miguel, their fronts open to the sea breezes, Annie and I are at home in Cozumel from our first day there. This is the kind of vacation that people dream about, a million miles from jobs and deadlines and lists of chores waiting to be done. Ten years Annie and I have been married, and finally we have made it to Cozumel. Once there, it seems foolish to have waited so long.
The people are friendly. You can speak Spanish and pay your tab in pesos, but just about everyone knows English and accepts American currency. Our hotel, the Fiesta Americana Cozumel Reef, is luxurious and clean, its public beach raked to a spotless white each morning. The island is beautiful, the Caribbean striped in colors of green and deep ocean blue. The diving, of course, is superb. We snorkel the beach even before checking into our hotel, and make arrangements for a morning dive.
By 8:30 a.m. the next day we're aboard Dive House II, a large but fast boat that takes us 20 minutes down the coast to a site known as Palancar Caves. We march down the deck and step off into the clear water, warm enough in September to dive in just a swimsuit. With Juan the divemaster in the lead, our group of eight descends toward a sand bottom, then moves quickly into the coral jungle. Visibility is at least 100 feet, and no aquarium can hope to match the colors and variety of the fish that are all around us. The reef here forms a series of canyons that wind back and forth along the edge of the wall, where the bottom slopes steeply away into an endless expanse of blue. Eighty feet down, we pass through a short tunnel in the reef and glide out into bottomless space. The current gently moves us along the wall. After 35 minutes we begin a slow ascent and hang in the current at 15 feet to be sure excess nitrogen has a chance to leave our bodies.
An hour later, we're back in the water at Yucab Reef for a shallower dive away from the wall. Juan points out lobster, shrimp, and spotted moray eels as we drift along 50 feet down for another 40 minutes of exploration.
"Want to do a night dive?" someone asks as we get off the boat.
Annie and I look at each other. "Yes!" we say.
At night, the reef shifts into high gear. We're in about 30 feet of water at Paradise Reef, less than a mile from the hotel. The current moves us almost without finning as the divemaster points out big lobsters and crabs. We see our first octopus, then another, then another. At times it gets crowded as our group of ten moves in to see the latest creature. Other divers are in the water, too. A large group behind us is spread vertically and horizontally in the water, the beams of their lights making them look like a cross between a Stephen Speilberg spacecraft and a laser show.
On our second day we again rise early and get a taxi into town to catch a ferry for the 40 minute ride to Playa de Carmen on the mainland. Once there, we easily grab another cab and for 20 dollars are taken south towards the village of Akumal for a day of diving in the spectacular cenotes of the Yucatan.
Arriving at Villas DeRosa/Aquatech, we meet Sam Meacham, a cave diver from Texas who has been guiding here for the past year and a half. The Yucatan is home to perhaps the longest and best decorated underwater caves in the world, most of them still under exploration. With only about 30 resident cave divers, and new cenotes being discovered all the time, this is the mother lode of cave diving. Even open water divers can safely tour some of the cavern areas when in the company of a qualified, cave-trained guide. The importance of the guide's credentials can hardly be overstated. Just three weeks earlier, a Mexican guide had taken eight open water divers into a popular cenote known as The Temple of Doom. Ignoring two large warning signs, he led the group well past the cavern zone into the cave system. Three of his eight customers died that day.
Sam takes me, Annie, and another American named Linda bouncing down the road in a VW bus through several makeshift gates to the beautiful cenote known as Ponderosa. Our first glimpse is an open water basin 100 feet across, with a gaping cave entrance at one end. I circle the basin on a pathway to take pictures and unexpectedly encounter my first iguana, which like all members of the lizard family has a unique ability to disappear an instant before a camera can be triggered.
We suit up in partial wetsuits (the water in the cenotes is about 80 degrees) and enter via a small dock, following Sam as he lays out a safety line for the short distance until the permanent line begins. As we leave the overhung mouth of the cave behind, the passage continues in dimensions that can only be described as huge: 40 feet wide, 20 feet high. As daylight fades behind us, the light from another large cenote comes streaming in ahead. It's quite possible--and maybe even best--to do this 220 foot traverse with your light turned off.
We surface briefly in the second cenote, then submerge to wind our way around in the large passage that continues. Sam pauses to point to pottery shards sitting on the edge of a large rock. Although formed below water, these caves became air-filled during the last ice age, and evidence of habitation can be found in many. In later years, the Mayans regarded the cenotes as sacred, and bones and artifacts strongly suggest they were the sites of human sacrifice.
After circling back to the second cenote we follow its huge curve in the other direction, and there encounter the halocline, where heavier salt water meets the fresh water above. The layers are quite distinct, but as we pass through, the water mixes and produces strange visual effects. We all enjoy the halocline.
"Don't think your contacts have fallen out," Sam had warned us. "Just expect everything to get a little blurry and kind of psychedelic."
After poking into various alcoves, we make our way back towards the original entrance, and again I'm impressed by the size of this underwater gallery. Any one of the many alcoves we've poked into--never mind the main passage itself--would be a respectable cavern dive in most parts of the world. By the time we surface, we've been underwater for 45 minutes without seeing the same view twice.
After lunch at the resort of Puerto Adventuras, Sam drives us back into the wilderness towards Taj Mahal, a cenote which had only been dived for the first time the previous April. Near the second of two crude gates Sam points out a nice sized tarantula crossing the road, and tells us of the parrots and birds--and oh yes, the deadly snakes--which are commonly found in the largely uninhabited jungle around us. As we arrive, three workmen are finishing up an unexpected taste of civilization: a set of concrete steps and a walkway which will make it easy to reach the water without having to battle spiders or snakes. Although the men had muddied the water, we quickly drop through this layer and into another large underwater passageway.
As we slide into the darkness along the right wall, the passage widens in an awe-inspiring display. This, Sam had told us, was called the Points of Light Room. To our left, a glimmering circle shows where the roof of the chamber breaks into airspace above, with a shaft of sunlight slanting down into the water. A huge beheaded column is on the floor, while hundreds of stalactites hang alongside roots from the ceiling. In twenty years of exploring caves, I've never seen anything like this.
On we go, towards the cascading daylight of yet another cenote, circling this on the right wall. A hundred feet further, we rise to a ledge to peer up at yet another opening to the surface, this one too shallow and silty to use except in an emergency. These four cenotes, perfectly spaced, make what would otherwise be a full cave dive into a cavern tour encompassing around 400 feet of linear passage. Circling back on the opposite wall, we rise up towards a perfectly shaped circle of daylight in the third cenote, surfacing momentarily to admire the view. Sam notes that exiting the cave here would be difficult, since the walls rise above water another 15 feet to ground level.
Underwater again we retrace our path briefly and then veer right on another guideline into the Points of Light Room. Our lights move among stalactites, columns, and flowstone, all formed when the cave was filled with air. We swing wide around the room and rise gently to the surface at the burning shaft of sunlight, then float dream-like in a large, dimly illuminated chamber as bats fly above us. Later, Annie and I will decide that this one place, the Points of Light Room, is our favorite memory of the entire trip. On the boat ride back to Cozumel I relive the experience over and over in my mind.
There is one more full day on the island ahead, and we spend it doing a dive on Palancar Horseshoe. Again the variety of fish, the towering nature of the reef and its canyons, and the vastness of the blue, deep spaces beyond is something that most people will experience only in their wildest imaginations. I can't help thinking how limited a view most people get of the underwater world, and how lucky (not to mention clever) Annie and I are to witness such grandeur first hand.
We finish up the day with a shallow dive on Chankanaab Reef. We're almost back to the hotel when the boat slows, then stops. Another boat comes alongside, and two Mexican soap opera stars in bright wetsuits climb aboard. The other boat begins to films us ("Just don't look at the camera," we are told) as the two stars attempt to strike up natural-looking conversations. Without even trying, Annie and I have become extras on a Mexican soap opera.
The next morning we take a taxi about a mile to Chankanaab park, where we tour the botanical gardens, museum, and beach. The snorkeling here is excellent, with coral heads and fans right on the shoreline, and fish everywhere ("More than 60 species of fish and coral!" the guidebook trumpets). Even the bare sand is occasionally adorned, this time by man, with statues and sculpture. There's even a halocline where the fresh water pouring out of an extensive cave system meets the sea. We swim for at least 45 minutes, taking it all in.
Just before I leave Chankanaab Lagoon I stick my mask back to my face and peer into the depths for one final glimpse at the fish and the coral and the sand. By early afternoon we'll be at the airport; by dinner we'll be airborne, and two hours later we'll be in the Atlanta airport, waiting half the night for our bags while all around us people talk about their escapes, however brief, from the ordinary world.
Everybody liked it. I don't hear anybody say they're glad to be going home. Like us, they are already remembering.
At any given moment, men with guitars are serenading couples in a dozen restaurants along the waterfront. Towering cruise ships appear out of nowhere in the morning only to vanish during the night. You can sit forever in Ernesto's Fajitas Factory with the sea breezes in your face and a cold Dos Equus on the table in front of you, just watching the parade of dive boats coming and going just offshore. And every day as the sun climbs the sky a beam of light will enter the clear waters of Taj Mahal and split the darkness just as it has for thousands of years, and perhaps two or three people in the world will be fortunate enough to see it.
There's a spot down off the Yucatan of Mexico, part natural beauty and part state of mind, that the Mayans called Ah Cuzumil Peten, the place of swallows. From now on, Annie and I are just going to call it Paradise.
Copyright © 1995 by Rodger Ling.
All rights reserved.
The Dudes' Guide to Underwater Caves of the Yucatan
The Dudes' Akumal Travel Tips