Traveling Cancun (Part 2)

Diving – Cenotes

Midway through our trip we got the opportunity to schedule a Cenote dive trip.

What are Cenotes?

A cenote is a natural pit, or sinkhole, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath. Especially associated with the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, and probably the most extensive cave system in the world.

Cenotes were the main source of fresh water for Mayans and had a great significance in their religious beliefs. The Cenotes were associated with the Maya Underworld due to being underground. They were also connected to the goddess Ixchel and the moon.

Diving the Mexican Cenotes

The day started SUPER early–it ends up being a couple hour drive from the dive shop to get down south to Tulum–but thankfully the shop Solo Buceo pretty much had everything sorted out for us. We’d already left our gear there, so all we needed to grab were some wetsuits (you’ll want one; the water is about 75 degrees year round. Not bad to start, but you’ll get chilly by the end of it, especially with no sunlight). They loaded all our gear, had a van ready, and packed us all lunch. Pretty solid all-inclusive day trip!

After the nap-inducing drive (it’s great jungle scenery, but it was way too early and just long enough to make me sleepy) we arrived!

The dives on the itinerary were The Pit and Dos Ojos. Both pretty popular among dive sites for cenotes, so I was very pleased to see them as our targets that day.

Cenote El Pit

El Pit is one of the deepest cenotes in the area – it’s the deepest part of the huge Sistema Dos Ojos, And that’s the third largest underwater cave system in the world, in fact! Shaped something like a giant hourglass, the first cave drops to around 120 feet in depth (we hit just over a 100 feet). The most notable thing about this particular cenote though is the cloud layer in it.

Around 40-60 feet down in the first chamber is the halocline, the line where the fresh water and salt water meet. Here your view gets very interesting. You see a shimmering and it looks as if the world around you become blurry until you pass fully through it.

Below the halocline, around 100 feet or so, is a cloud. It looks as if a fog has settled. It’s actually a cloud of hydrogen sulphur. This makes for a murky, eerie sight as you pass through it, even more so by the floating debris like branches and fallen rocks which can loom out of the gloom. A small distance after the cloud is the bottom of the first cavern.

Gear setup and prep at El Pit

Cenote Dos Ojos

Part of the largest underwater cave network in the world this sinkhole is called Dos Ojos (two eyes in Spanish) because it’s actually two different cenotes that are connected by a 400 meter long underwater passageway. It’s definitely a top notch cenote to dive!

Dos Ojos cenote sign

There are 2 primary dive lines set up for this centoe, the Barbie Line (you’ll see why) and the Batcave. Both make for a gorgeous dive. Obviously if you’re cave certified there are a ton of locations in the cave you can lay line and explore, but there are only 2 pre-set dive paths for you, and you are required to have a special cave and cenote-certified guide with you.

You can pretty easily make a 40-60 min dive out of either line, assuming you’re going leisurely along. But bear in mind this is a super popular cenote to dive, and so the earlier you start your dive the better. We got there early enough, but it certainly was VERY crowded when we left. Along the dive groups hopped around each other and it can become confusing in the water if you’re not paying attention to your dive group.

You are effectively in a cave or cavern environment at every point while diving, so make sure you are following ALL safety guidelines and listening to your guide. You can not immediately ascend is most cases, so air monitoring is critical. And it should go without saying, but never stray from the line!

Whalesharks

If you don’t know, the whale shark is a slow-moving, filter-feeding carpet shark and the largest known fish species out there. The largest confirmed individual had a length of 18.8 m (about 62 ft). They may be called “sharks” but they’re not like any shark you’ve seen. Their lives are spent travelling to filter feed, and they don’t give a crap about you. I’m not actually really sure that they can see that well–they’ve got pretty tiny eyes, to be fair. Most divers have travel to their migration areas to have a chance to see them, and off the coast of Cancun is an area where they’re generally found!

One of the last days of our trip was slated for Whale Shark snorkeling. We’d been trying all week to get that in, but the weather had not be cooperating by any means. There were a few days when the ports were fully closed due to the storms and wind in the area. While not unexpected, it did suck. That time of year (August/September) is Caribbean hurricane/storm season, but that is also why the city probably wasn’t quite as crazy crowded as it could have been.

When we finally got put on a boat going out towards the end of the trip, we were stoked to see it confirmed that we’d be out with some amazing whale sharks. And it’s honestly fine that it was towards the end, we needed to off-gas anyway.

cancun sunrise when scuba diving
Sunrise on the trip out to find some whale sharks to snorkel with

The boat ride out is a long one, be prepared to chill out for an hour or so to even get there, plus a bit of running around to find them. But once you’re on them you’re good to go! As with anything, the earlier you go the better–once one boat finds them the rest tend to follow and it’ll become crowded by the end of the morning/afternoon. Thankfully we left pretty much at dawn, so we didn’t have too much crowding to deal with until towards the afternoon.

They are really such majestic animals!

Once we were on them, we got to hop in the water! Seeing them from a distance is beautiful, but being in the water with them? So much more! I’ve seen whale sharks in the wild once previously, but seeing them again was just as magical as the first time. They are curious, inquisitive, and gorgeous. These one we found that day were likely juveniles, and only around 10-15 ft or so. We were also graced with a couple mantas doing a drive by too! Pelagic life encounters are off the charts in this off shore area. Sadly I wasn’t able to get photos of them, as they didn’t hang around long.

Weather

Weather in the Caribbean is about what you’d expect–hot and tropical, and subject to temper tantrums. It is pretty similar to Florida (which should make sense) and so during August-October or so things tend to get pretty windy and hurricanes can roll through.

Take the timing into consideration. You can get some good rates for “off season” diving and travelling, but bear in mind that weather can be temperamental. We went late August and got pretty lucky. Blown out a few days but all in all pretty decent weather.

Isla Mujeres

The last stop on our exploration at the end of the week was the island Isla Mujeres, which is a small island off the coast from Cancún. It’s a vacation destination known for beaches such as northern Playa Norte (pretty but probably overrated), resort hotels and for snorkeling and scuba diving on the surrounding coral reefs. At Punta Sur, the southern tip, there’s a lighthouse, the remains of a Mayan temple and a sanctuary for sea turtles.

We hit the majority of those top-recommended places, and while a few were kind of overrated they are still worth visiting.

Getting to Isla Mujeres

The easiest way to get over there is a general ferry; it’ll run you about $20 or so, depending where you buy the ticket. Pretty much any little activity stand you walk by can get you set up, makes it easy. Once you board, after roughly a 20 ride, you’re there and the fun can being!

It may be different based on which ferry you take, but when we were on they offered a discount on renting a golf cart to drive around the island if we booked it right there on the ferry. And honestly that’s your best bet. The line to get set up for the golf carts can be crazy, but you’ll save a few bucks by doing it on the ferry. What better way to tour the island is there?!

Exploring Isla Mujeres

There’s a few different points of interest to take a look at. At the Southern Tip of the island is a small lighthouse and ruins from ancient Mayan temples that are pretty neat to take a look at. During the time we were there they were renovating and it was free to enter, but that will likely change. The view from there is spectacular, out into the open ocean.

Beach ocean view at Isla Mujeres

Isla Mujeres Turtle Sanctuary

On the island is also a small turtle conservancy that is worth taking a look at. It cost us about $5 per person to enter, and they had a ton of turtles being cared for. Green, loggerhead, hawksbills–babies and adults alike. There were no leatherbacks at the moment (which are pretty rare anyway).

They also had some relocated nests there too! Staked and fenced in to prevent anyone disturbing them.

Look at all the baby turtles ❤

I would definitely recommend visiting the turtle sanctuary. It’s not large, but it’s certainly an organization worth supporting by the small entry fee. There’s always souvenirs if you’re into that as well, but unless you buy them from the actual organization, they’re just street vendors and the proceeds don’t support the sanctuary.

Playa Norte Beach

The last stop was a bit of beach time at Playa Norte. Famous for the soft white sand with fantastic views. While I do say it’s worth dropping by if you have the time, I personally found it to be overrated. The beach, while beautiful, was CROWDED. Tiki bars and restaurants abound, so it’s a plenty nice place to chill out if you’re in the mood for some beach time. Just don’t expect a private beach. Many boats from small cruisers to large yachts were anchored near the beach as well, so you’re dealing with more than just foot traffic on the beach. All in all worth the visit, but I wouldn’t call it a priority must-see.

The Trip Home

Our last night there was spent with (way too much) drinking at Fat Tuesday. Super touristy, I know, but it’s always been a fun place for us, and we try to stop by them whenever we’re at a place that has one. I wish I had photos of our good time, but honestly there was way too much liquor and none of us have a great recollection of that night. Which means it was a pretty good one. In retrospect though, getting blitzed the night before we left may have made for a pretty crappy flight back. Though there was some tasty hangover food to eat in the airport!

After an action-packed 10 days or so, it was finally time to head home. Being able to visit Mexico (even with as touristy as Cancun is) lent a new light to a country that is a bit maligned in the media. There’s a charm to it, and a lot of fun culture and activities to delve into.

Traveling Cancun (Part 1)

Mexico has been on my bucket list for years, and I recently got the chance to go visit and friend to explore. The whole point of the trip was as a dive excursion (and that’ll be a few posts in itself!) but I took the opportunity to play tourist a bit and enjoy what the city had to offer ❤ Maybe there’s a couple tips here that can help you on your own adventure.

Staying in Cancun – Step Back from the Hotels

We spent almost two weeks in the city, and the best part of it was honestly NOT being part of a hotel ecosystem. We stayed with a dive instructor friend of ours, and being able and forced to explore outside of an inclusive resort allowed for a level of integration into the area I don’t think we would have gotten otherwise. Make no mistake, Cancun is effectively an American city in Mexico. If you really want to, you can barely dip your toes in anything cultural that isn’t familiar.

View from the balcony

Friendly cat to keep us company!

There are benefits to an all-inclusive resort, but I don’t think they outweigh the benefits of having a more quiet and relaxed environment! I got so many opportunities to use my broken Spanish, sneak off the beaten path, and find some fun gems. Just my opinion.

First Stop – The Beach!

We spent the first day or two relaxing. De-stressing, and letting the flight lag and tiredness dissipate. The whole point of the trip was to disconnect to hang out with friends, and this was the best opportunity. I definitely suggest taking a day to just chill. Over planning a trip is a surefire way to make it just a tiring as normal everyday life.

We took that chance to play at the beach! There are so many gorgeous (and free!) beaches to explore, and luckily we were right across the street from one.

The view of the ocean is always incredible

It’s been a while since we were at a beach. There’s something distinctly touristy about it–and that’s ok. We lived in Florida for so long that I think the beach doesn’t usually register as a “destination” of sorts, it just exists. It was nice to take the time to wander over and enjoy the sun.

It’s very clearly part of “the strip” of hotel beach areas in what’s called the Hotel Zone, and they were crazy. But it’s a fun vibe, and the soft sandy beach with vibrant blue water was worth it.

Fun fact: don’t swim in the bay, only the Atlantic side. There are crocodiles there… for real. People get bitten. Heard some stories from our friend we stayed with about tourists having a “bad day” over there.

Exploring the City

After spending the first day and half ish unpacking, pulling out dive gear to sort, and drinking too much beer, it became time to explore a bit!

Our friend Louis acquainted us with the bus system. And I’ve gotta say that I really do love public transportation, it’s minimally existent where I live. About 12 pesos per person (around $0.75), the buses run 24/7, and since everything is pretty much right along the main road they’re perfect to get you in an out of wherever you need to go. Lugging around a bunch of shit sucks (and I did NOT enjoy dragging gear bags on them to the dive shop) but for quick grocery runs or souvenir shopping they’re freaking amazing.

And I’m pleased to say we only got on the wrong bus direction once 😉

Along the main strip is a TON of stuff to see/do/shop/drink. Obviously there’s the obligatory chain restaurants–good old Fat Tuesday–but it’s definitely worth doing some wandering.

The street vendors here are AGGRESSIVE. They will keep talking your ear off trying to sell you and pull you into their shop… and if you look and act like a tourist it’ll be even worse. We learned that the hard way when my boyfriend pulled out his camera to get some shots as we went along. It was amazing how much smoother and less harassing the walk went the next day when we didn’t have the camera out.

It’s interesting to note that haggling is entirely possible and encouraged in some situations here. The main strip is designed to take advantage of the tourists, and they’ll charge prices commensurate with that. But generally the prices in the strip shops are negotiable, and they’ll start dropping the price if you don’t seem interested. If you’re really not interested, just say no thanks and keep walking. The secret is to keep walking… if you stop, they’ll keep talking.

Chedraui Is Life

There’s this awesome big supermarket called Chedraui, and it will have pretty much anything you need, international or otherwise. If you’re looking to stock up on room snacks, booze, or drinks then I strongly suggest it. You pretty much can’t miss it from the bus, so it’s just a quick ride from most any place. It is a big chain market, and I do think you should check out the small markets too, but it’s perfect for getting a big variety of stuff. Upstairs there’s a great food court area too, and the food is authentic and delicious.

I’m pretty sure we hit that market at least every other day to restock on beer and snacks. The beer was kind of a recurring theme for the trip; but it’s vacation!

It was just as much fun to take the bus to the market and then wander the stores outside on the strip to shop.

Diving the Reefs In Cancun

A couple days into the trip we got our opportunity to get our gills wet. It’s been a bit since we’ve been diving (we’ve spending time back in the Midwest with family until we go back to Florida in a few months) so a bit of reef diving was a perfect way to reinvigorate ourselves.

Our friend works at Solo Buceo Dive so that was where we did our diving for the week. It’s a fun shop full of hilarious people, and great employees. They’re actually attached to the Hyatt Ziva, so that’s a solid option to stay if you’re diving with them. We were able to leave our gear there all week in a locked locker, which was perfect–it was enough of a hassle to get it there on the bus in the first place.

The shop itself is small, with a check-in area and a bit of stuff for purchase (think souvenir shirts, basic gear, stickers, bottles etc). Which was totally fine by us–we were more interested in diving, and most places there are focused on the actual diving rather than gear sales. They do have repair techs on staff, though that isn’t a service really offered for guests. It’s more for their internal rental gear basic servicing. But if shit hits the fan it’s always nice to know that you could potentially find help.

Reef Diving in Cancun

The dock for the boats is right by the check in, so there was no travel time to get to the boat for setup. The guides at Solo Buceo loaded our gear and offered to set it up for us. I’m a Divemaster and my boyfriend an MSDT, so we definitely prefer to set up and check our own gear–thought I always appreciate it when boat crew offer. It’s just good customer service.

This dive was a bit different than our others in the past, in that our friend Louis asked us to play a trick on his friend (who was our guide that day). We were to pretend to be newly certified divers who had no idea what we were doing! So we proceeded to get on the boat, set up our gear all incorrectly, and ask for an excessive amount of weight to dive with. Sounds mean? We’ve all had it done to us 😉 It’s part of the internal joking that abounds in the dive community, and it’s pretty common to mess with each other.

The guide was on top of it–noticing our things weren’t set up quite right, and trying to gently talk us into using a more appropriate amount of weight to dive with. He also kept a good eye on his divers in the water, paying everyone equal attention. Though I’m pretty sure we about gave him a heart attack to start with by worrying him that we were going to be problem divers. The jig was up after the first dive though, as how we looked underwater evidently gave us away. Plus we didn’t want to overly worry the poor guy TOO much. He seemed to get a kick out of it, and I’m pretty sure Louis had us play that trick on him as retribution for some joke played on him.

The reefs in Cancun are similar to what we’ve experienced in Florida–it’s all the Caribbean essentially, so not surprising. I will say they seemed to be in pretty good condition, as compared to some places in the Florida Keys I’ve been. The ride out to the reef itself is very quick and the depth is relatively shallow, I think we clocked around 40 ft or so for the house reef. There is a good amount of structure to the reef, with nook and crannies, coral heads, and sand channels to explore. We also got plenty of time in the water and didn’t feel rushed, which is nice. I enjoy using the air in my tank! All in all it was a very pleasant dive. The 80+ degree water certainly helped!

The rest of the journey incoming on another post! Look out for Part 2.

Turtles and Scuba Diving in Florida

Scuba Diving With Turtles

Along the Florida coast a variety of turtles are known to nest and frequent the area along the coast, so you can definitely expect to see them when diving! During the summer is their huge boost in nesting, and there have been dives where I saw so many turtles–mostly loggerheads–that I stopped counting at 22! It seems to peak roughly around June/July, but they are often spotted year round. Check out the common species you might see below.

LOGGERHEAD (Caretta caretta)

Red-orange sea turtle lightly below the water

The most common sea turtle in Florida, the loggerhead is named for its massive, block-like head. Loggerheads are among the larger sea turtles. They can weigh around 275 pounds and have a shell length of about 3 feet or more. Its carapace, which is a ruddy brown on top and creamy yellow underneath, is very broad near the front of the turtle and tapers toward the rear. Each of its flippers has two claws. As is true for all sea turtles, the adult male has a long tail, whereas the female’s tail is short; however, a juvenile’s cannot be determined externally.

The powerful jaws of the loggerhead allow it to easily crush the clams, crabs, and other armored animals it eats. A slow swimmer compared to other sea turtles, the loggerhead occasionally falls prey to sharks, and individuals missing flippers or chunks of their shell are not an uncommon sight. However, the loggerhead compensates for its lack of speed with stamina; for example, a loggerhead that had been tagged at Melbourne Beach was captured off the coast of Cuba 11 days later.

Sea turtle swimming in the dark

GREEN TURTLE (Chelonia mydas)

Green turtles, named for their green body fat, were valued by European settlers in the New World for their meat, hide, eggs, and “calipee” (the fat attached to the lower shell that formed the basis of the popular green turtle soup). Merchants learned that the turtles could be kept alive by turning them on their backs in a shaded area. This discovery made it possible to ship fresh turtles to overseas markets. By 1878, 15,000 green turtles a year were shipped from Florida and the Caribbean to England. At one time, Key West was a major processing center for the trade. The turtles were kept in water-filled pens known as “kraals,” or corrals. These corrals now serve a more benign role as a tourist attraction.

A more streamlined-looking turtle than the bulky loggerhead, the green turtle weighs an average of 350 pounds and has a small head for its body size. Its oval-shaped upper shell averages 3.3 feet in length and is olive-brown with darker streaks running through it; its lower shell, or plastron, is yellow. Generally the coloring on a green turtle is more vibrant than a loggerhead, and commonly they are spotted to be smaller than the loggerheads in the area. Given that the gulfstream comes very close to the Southern Florida coast, the possibility of large pelagic turtles is always possible though.

Green turtles are found during the day in shallow flats and seagrass meadows and return every evening to their usual sleeping quarters-scattered rock ledges, oyster bars, and coral reefs. Adult green turtles are unique among sea turtles in that they are largely vegetarians, consuming primarily seagrasses and algae. Approximately 100 to 1,000 green turtles nest on Florida’s beaches each year from June through late September.

Baby sea turtle on beach

LEATHERBACK (Dermochelys coriacea)

The leatherback is a fascinating and unique animal, even among sea turtles. It is larger, dives deeper, travels farther, and tolerates colder waters than any other sea turtle. Most leatherbacks average 6 feet in length and weigh from 500 to 1,500 pounds, but the largest leatherback on record was nearly 10 feet long and weighed more than 2,000 pounds.

Leatherbacks look distinctively different from other sea turtles. Instead of a shell covered with scales or shields, leatherbacks are covered with a firm, leathery skin and have seven ridges running lengthwise down their backs. They are usually black with white, pink, and blue splotches and have no claws on their flippers. Leatherbacks eat soft-bodied animals such as jellyfish, and their throat cavity and scissor-like jaws are lined with stiff spines that aid in swallowing this soft and slippery prey. Young leatherbacks in captivity can consume twice their weight in jellyfish daily.

True denizens of the deep, leatherbacks are capable of descending more than 3,000 feet and of traveling more than 3,000 miles from their nesting beach. They are found throughout the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, as far north as Alaska and Labrador. Researchers have found that leatherbacks are able to regulate their body temperature so that they can survive in cold waters. The leatherback is found in Florida’s coastal waters, and a small number (from 30 to 60 a year) nest in the state.

Sea turtle laying on the sand

KEMP’S RIDLEY (Lepidochelys kempi)

The Kemp’s ridley is the rarest sea turtle in the world and is the most endangered. It has only one major nesting beach, an area called Rancho Nuevo on the Gulf coast of Mexico. The location of this nesting beach was itself a mystery to scientists until the discovery of a film made in 1947 by a Mexican engineer showing 40,000 Kemp’s ridleys crawling ashore in broad daylight to lay eggs. Sadly, an “arribada” (from the Spanish word for arrival) of such awe-inspiring splendor can now be seen only on film. Fewer than 1,000 nesting females remain in the world.

Kemp’s ridleys are small, weighing only 85 to 100 pounds and measuring 2 to 2.5 feet in carapace length, but they are tough and tenacious. Their principal diet is crabs and other crustaceans.

During the 1980s, many eggs were removed from the beach at Rancho Nuevo and incubated in containers. The hatchlings that emerged from these eggs were then raised for almost a year in a National Marine Fisheries Service facility in Galveston, Texas. Upon release, it was hoped that these “headstarted” turtles had a better chance of survival than they would have had as hatchlings. Unfortunately, there were many problems with this program. When it was discovered that the sex of turtle hatchlings was influenced by temperature, project workers realized that the artificial egg incubators were producing only male turtles. They also discovered that many of the “headstarted” turtles did not behave like their wild counterparts after release. Many scientists worried that these “headstarted” turtles would never become reproducing adults. Although two “headstarted” turtles have finally been known to nest, headstarting is generally considered to be an inappropriate conservation technique for marine turtles.

Baby sea turtle swimming

HAWKSBILL (Eretmochelys imbricata)

The hawksbill is a small, agile turtle whose beautiful tortoise-colored shell is its greatest liability. The shell is still used in some European and Asian countries to make jewelry, hair decorations and other ornaments, even though international trade in hawksbill products has been banned in much of the world.

Hawksbills weigh from 100 to 200 pounds as adults and are approximately 30 inches in shell length. Its carapace is shaded with black and brown markings on a background of amber. The shields of this kaleidoscopic armor overlap, and the rear of the carapace is serrated. Its body is oval-shaped, its head is narrow, and its raptor-like jaws give the hawksbill its name. These jaws are perfectly adapted for collecting its preferred food, sponges. Although sponges are composed of tiny glasslike needles, this potentially dangerous diet apparently causes the turtle no harm.

Hawksbills are the most tropical of the sea turtles and are usually found in lagoons, reefs, bays, and estuaries of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. They are frequently spotted by divers off the Florida Keys, and a few nests are documented annually from the Keys to Canaveral National Seashore.

My Journey – When the Wanderlust Hit

It’s been a wild few years for me up to this point. I climbed a corporate ladder doing what I thought you’re supposed to be an “adult,” and felt unfulfilled. When I found a Groupon for scuba diving and discovered a passion I never knew I had, I knew my life needed to change. I had done what I was supposed to do, according to society, and yet it didn’t feel right. I dreaded going to work, working long hours in a place that was not inspiring. So why not make a change?

Abandoning My “Professional” Job to Become a Divemaster

I worked my way up through my divemaster level on my days off through an internship and quit my big kid job to work on boats instead. That was about 5 years ago in West Palm Beach FL.

Since then I had made diving my full time job. Eventually I met a guy I rather liked (who is also a pro diver) and we’ve worked the industry together. We opted to go even more non traditional in our lifestyle and bought an RV straight out. Breaking my apartment lease, in December 2016 we moved to Key Largo FL to get a new take on diving while living in the RV. We started right before Christmas and hit the ground running!

Is it scary? Absolutely. Many would say that the dive industry doesn’t pay well enough to make a living off of. And they’d be wrong! It may not break the bank generally, but if you are paying attention to your finances and take care of your tips then you can do just fine for yourself. Not to mention the other ways that the industry “pays” in the way you get to travel and dive–what most people only get to do while on vacation!

Evacuation and Migration

September 2017 we were forced to evacuate due to hurricane Irma and headed back to the Midwest for the winter. Luckily we had the RV so it was easy enough to pack up and move–though the trip to Missouri/Kansas was far from uneventful. We could have gone back to Key Largo honestly, but the RV Park we were at didn’t even try to open back up until December and John Pennekamp State Park had laid all employees off until about that same time as well. We couldn’t afford to be out of work for so long so we opted to stay in the Midwest for the winter and then make new plans for summer. Since then we’ve been bouncing and exploring, and I see no signs of that stopping!

The Winnebago

Our road warrior scuba-mobile

Key Largo