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.

9 Things to Know Before Going to Cancun, Mexico

Sitting on northeast coast of the Yucatán Peninsula in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo is Cancun. Known for breath-taking ocean waters, soft sand beaches, and a hell of a good time, Cancun is an unsurprisingly popular tourist destination. Direct flights are easy to come by, so it’s definitely worth taking a trip! I recently had a chance to visit a friend for a dive trip, and got to spend 2 weeks in the city (separate blog post coming!). So I’ve come up with a few things below that might help you on your own exploration into this beautiful city.

1. Cancun is super touristy – and tourist friendly!

Make no mistake, Cancun effectively feels like an American city in Mexico–so if you have concerns about exploring around, don’t fear. You’ll be able to get by with little or no Spanish. Cancun is built around its tourist industry so it’s in their best interests to make sure international visitors traveling in Cancun can enjoy nearly every aspect of it.

English is spoken by a large amount of people, particularly those catering to the visitors from abroad. That’s not to say everyone is fluent and you don’t need to as least TRY to integrate a bit, but you should be able to make due. Avoid the chain restaurants and enjoy the culture!

Checking out the famous Coco Bongo can be a great time, but there are plenty of things you can avoid–like a plethora of American chain restaurants. You’re in Mexico, eat authentically ❤ Get your but out of the hotel and check out some random backalley taco stands, or go get some fresh carne asada, al pastor, ceviche, or chilaquiles.

2. Avoid the all-inclusive hotels

Surprised? I’m not here to peddle hotel packages. And frankly, it’s very easy to get caught up in your own little world and almost never leave the resort ecosystem. If you’re traveling, generally the whole point is to actually EXPLORE and dive into culture. If you let yourself sit in the resort zone, you’ll rarely get outside of that comfort zone. Not to mention they’re just ridiculously crowded…

Give AirBnB a try, or find a smaller hotel that might give a more relaxed atmosphere. There are hotels for every budget, and I guarantee you can find something that fits your desired price range.

Scenic, quiet view from the apartment

3. Avoid taxis like the plague

Seriously. They’re super expensive, and not nearly as fun as the bus. You can expect to pay a minimum of $20+ USD just to get anywhere, even if it’s close. The buses run 24/7 and only cost 12 pesos (that’s only about $0.75 depending on your exchange rate!). The buses are generally pretty nice, and well taken care of.

Also make sure you book a super shuttle for airport pickup to your hotel/lodging. They’re only about $11 USD per person… opposed to the nearly $50 we had to pay since our flight plans changed last minute so we had to take the taxi. And the drive was not that long.

4. Mexico is a cash based society – Bring cash!

You CAN use your card at some places, but be ready for an exchange fee if your bank doesn’t cover that. And honestly, the credit card system at most places is less-than-stellar. As in they generally have one small handheld machine that will be shared among the restaurant, and often there is a small fee to use card. If the machine is currently working. Save yourself the trouble, and bring cash. Cash is still very much king in Mexico, even in Cancun.

Generally only the larger or well-established places will take card easily. Think grocery stores, (most) restaurants, and main-strip shops. But that taco stand hidden around the corner where everybody is getting kickass breakfast tacos? It’s not gonna take your card.

5. Do ALL your currency exchange before you get there, or bring cash

You can easily exchange currency, and can get anywhere from 17-23 pesos per USD depending on timing and which exchange stand you go there–there are a lot of them around. But often you can get a slightly better rate with your home bank and be prepared. Push come to shove, at least grab some cash at the airport in USD before you get there, or even exchange at the airport.

You will also find it impossible to locate an ATM to give you money (pesos or USD) that doesn’t have at LEAST a $20 ATM fee… and that will be on top of your bank fee for using a debit card abroad and out-of-network ATM. Think I’m kidding? Good luck. We got lucky and managed to be able to PayPal some money to our friend in exchange for a bit of additional cash when we ran out (he has a Mexican bank account so can deposit and withdraw it), but if you get stuck paying a ludicrous ATM fee it’ll be a bad day.

Some places will actually accept USD in cash, but honestly it’s just rude and you’re certainly not going to get your change in dollars! Not to mention you’re at their mercy for the exchange rate.

6. Cancun IS a safe city… as long as you’re not looking for trouble

Is Cancun safe? No doubt you’ve heard some negative stuff about Mexico, and at times Cancun specifically. I’m not here to deny that there are problems, but Cancun IS a safe city. The whole purpose of the city centers around tourism. So it is in their best interest to ensure that people feel safe visiting. But that being said, there is a darker side to the city, and if you go looking for it then chances are you’ll find it. Frankly that can be said about ANY city in the USA as well. This area of Mexico has a level 2 advisory… which guess what? The UK and Germany have a level 2 travel advisory as well. Don’t let the fear mongering ruin what can be an amazing trip.

Pretty much all incidents you’ve heard of in the city and surrounding area stem from tourists partaking in… less than palatable (and less than legal) activities. There are drugs if you’re looking for them, there are “ladies of the night” if you’re looking for them too. I did actually lose count of the number of times we were offered marijuana–in the middle of the street in broad daylight. There is an undercurrent of that, and as it’s a party city some people look to take advantage of it. Don’t be surprised if you get offered something, but just politely say no thanks and keep on walking along.

7. It’s true… don’t drink the tap water

Just don’t do it. You are totally fine to shower, brush your teeth, wash dishes, and cook with small amounts of it, but you’re gonna have a bad time if you drink a lot of it. It’s probably not as bad as it’s made out to be, but still definitely not something you want to chance.

Bottled water is cheap and easy to come by. You can even buy the 5 gallon style bottles for mere dollars. My suggestion would be to bring a refillable water bottle and fill that up to take along with you as you explore.

8. Souvenir prices are often negotiable

As a tourist city, the goal is to get a lot of tourist money injected into the local economy. Many of us are conditioned to expect to pay out the butt for souvenirs; things like a $20 travel t-shirt aren’t unexpected for many of us, and the local shops expect that.

The shops right on the main strips often take advantage of this, too. Be clear and direct if you don’t want to pay the price they’re asking. Many times they’ll start to negotiate with you as well, as they’d often rather have the sale. I’m not saying to devalue the items by any means, but in these main tourist trap shops the items are not made in Mexico (even if they tell you they are) and are mass produced (even if they say they’re not). Some of the owners can be pretty forceful and continue to push–if you don’t want to buy then just say “no thanks” or make up an excuse and then continue walking along. If you stop and keep chatting, they’ll keep offering.

The general rule of thumb (as explained to me by my Mexican friend) is that if the shop person is being pushy (think “hey hey come here look at this, I have great stuff!” repeatedly trying to get your attention) then you can negotiate the price with them. If it’s a static shop with set price stickers more like a big-box kind of shop, then usually those prices are firm. Often they’re better prices too!

Right near Fat Tuesday just down an alleyway there are a few great shops as well that aren’t nearly as forceful in their sell tactics. The prices are super reasonable, and if you just need that commemorative shirt/bag/blanket, they’re a good bet.

A better bet can be the women you see with mats spread out and items on then. Often they’re actually displaced indigenous people who have actually handmade the items they’ve traveled there to sell.

9. Cultural excursions are just a quick jump away

There is a ton to see and do that only a couple hours drive away at most, and this where the tourism industry there really shines. You can find a ridiculous amount of bus and excursion trips to Chichen Itza, various Cenotes (freshwater cave and lake systems), archaeological ruins, and Isla Mujeres.

If you’re at a hotel, check with the front desk. Often they can set up an excursion–and have partnered rates with them so you might be lucky with pricing. Plus the bus will typically pick you up at your hotel or nearby.

If you’re not at a hotel (or they don’t book for you) there are a ton of tour companies, like Xcaret, where you can book things through them. They also happen to be online, so you could buy the ticket that way as well. Xcaret is the most well known one there, and reputable. You can find their little booths along the road too as you explore, so you can book things while out and about and feel secure about it.

A must-see is Chichen Itza!