The Cenotes throughout the Mayan Riviera are infamous for many reasons, though divers often have a very specific mindset when approaching these sinkholes in the limestone. Prevelant throughout Mayan culture, these underwater rivers provided the base of all the drinking water and agriculture that allowed the Mayans to become one of the most advanced civilizations of their time. The Mayans were also spiritually tied to the cenotes, they believed in many gods tied to the elements. The Mayan rain god Chaak was believed to live in the cenotes, and the locals offered him sacrifices so that he would send rain at the right time to grow their crops. While the Mayan culture did not survive its greatness through the ages, the cenotes still hold their faith. Now a new appreciation has come from divers, biologists, geologists, photographers, travellers, the Mayans are supplementing their usual income from agriculture with fees from people wanting to catch a glimpse of this god in the ground.
Divers started exploring the cenotes in the early 20th century and the archaeological discoveries have continued to present. Cenotes with human bones, treasures, and fossils have all provided scientists under a range of disciplines to be drawn to these enigmatic sink holes. The Ek Balam Cenote was beautiful to experience and I would recommend to see the archaeological site as well. As with all the major cities of the Mayan people, where you find temples, you will find cenotes. As visitors I think it is important to appreciate the cultural significance of the areas we explore, and this can be done through a variety of guided tours through the area or your own research. Since the Mayans considered the cenotes the passage to the underworld, the journey into these cave networks can seem even more surreal.
Some of the most common questions I have gotten about the cenotes are about the ease, safety and certification level needed to dive. It is incredibly easy to find a dive operation that will take any certification level for a guided tour, and especially if you are a cold water diver, the entry and exits from the cenotes I have seen are quite manageable for anyone in shape. However, this is an overhead environment with no access to surface air for long stretches. This type of diving should require more than an Open Water certification, plain and simple and if you have the time I suggest you do an introduction to cave diving course especially if you do not have experience in overhead environments. The cenotes are a fantastic underwater experience but as divers we must remember the limitations of our gear and training to keep it a fun and safe experience for everyone. Diver deaths do happen here and we should be respectful of these cave networks for their potential danger.
My suggestion is to go with a guide 1:1, I opted for the easiest travel due to my short time in the area but I instantly regretted it when I got in the water. They paired me with three divers with limited experience. As a photographer having bad divers in front of me ruined a very large portion of the dive since I was unable to get clear shots of structures, and often the area would be silted up. Being in a cave environment I was not able to wait behind like I might normally do in open water so I was heavily restricted in how long I could delay following the group. For both safety and enjoyment I would spend the extra money to get the better ration, it means longer dive time, a more personalized approach which both the dive guide and you will appreciate.
For photographers: do your research, try and connect with people before hand and look at time of day and year to check them out. Light rays coming down are one of the most pleasant aspects to shoot in the cenotes but are not there throughout the day and will change direction and angle throughout the year. It is quite dark so having your dive guide helping you light up structures would be highly recommended. I was only there for two dives so I was not able to plan anything out, but I certainly have for my next trip. I used two video lights (Sola 2500) as well as two strobes (Sea & Sea YS-D1). My spot light was more in the way than anything but the dive guide insisted I keep it on for signalling (another benefit of 1:1). Most shots were taken at F 8, 1/250, ISO 500. After reviewing I would increase the ISO and bring down the power of the strobes, mostly because of the silt that was getting kicked up in front of me. I was happy with the aperture thought shutter speed could be dropped to allow more light.