Can Mexico's cenotes be saved?
Mexico's cenotes are a haven for divers and snorkellers, but tourism is taking its toll.
A MexicoReporter dispatch for CNN Traveler, with unseen video and pictures.
The mystical depths of Mexico’s ceynotes attract cave divers from round the world. But what can be done to safeguard these ancient treasure troves from the impact of tourism? Deborah Bonello reports
Human remains, gold, jade and other clues to Mayan civilization have been dredged up from the fresh, sweet, clear water next to where I stand. Dos Ojos is one of 3,000 cenotes (pronounced say-no-tay) on the Mayan Riviera on Mexico’s Caribbean coast. Nowadays, the beautiful limestone sinkholes that make up some of the largest underground networks in the world attract divers rather than priests offering human sacrifices – but their mythical reputation as the gateway to the sacred underworld of the Mayans remains a huge draw.
Cenotes are unique to this part of the world, says Dave Tomlinson, the founder of the Cenote Dive Centre in Tulum and Playa Del Carmen. ‘This is the only place in the world that has anything like this to speak of. There are some other places, but not with formations like these. And this is the place for cave-diving because most of the caves are shallow, which means you can dive a long time in them.’
The wooden platform from which divers and snorkellers begin their journey into the underworld provides a view of the entrance to the labyrinthine depths of the cenote. The clear, blue water stretches out beneath a limestone ceiling that gently slopes down to meet the water, signalling the end of the road for snorkellers. In other parts of the cave, the water and stone roof remain separate, but the waterway is obscured by darkness as the surface disappears underneath the rock. Roots from trees above the cave snake through cracks in the rock to hang above the water, reaching down for sustenance.
As I lower myself down, the chill of the cenote cuts through my wetsuit – but it is still a welcome contrast to the 40-degree heat of the midday sun and the merciless mosquitoes of the surrounding jungle.
Huge stalactites hang from the roof, dripping down onto the water’s surface like molten wax; divers and snorkellers have to be careful when surfacing not to bang their heads on the low-hanging formations. Once in the water, it is easy to follow their path down as they reach towards the bed of the sinkhole, here less than two metres deep. In other parts of Dos Ojos, the depth of the water stretches down more than 12 metres. ‘The bottom of some cenotes have never been reached,’ says Rosso, my guide.
Soon we are off, divers led by yellow guidelines that stretch along the bed of the underground caves, snorkellers following their guides carefully as they negotiate the surface, sometimes with as little as 10cm between them and the rocky roof. A few shafts of sunlight stab though holes in the rock penetrating the dark waters; the only other light comes from the torch beams of divers and snorkellers, eerily illuminating the ancient formations.
As we move further into the cenote, the roof closes in. Claustrophobics take note – Rosso has stories to tell about panic-stricken swimmers changing their minds halfway through the tour.
Our path eventually reaches the second of the two ‘eyes’ that form Dos Ojos. When we surface for a breather, the air is cool but thick with the smell of sulphur. Above the sound of the water lapping the edges of the cave, the squeal of what sounds like mice can be heard echoing round the cave. Sweeping our torches up, we see numerous nesting bats in the eaves of the cave, snuggling together as they sleep, the occasional one breaking off for a flight round the vast interior.
We pause for some awestruck minutes; then it is back to base. We have to be careful to avoid breaking off some of the finer formations that cross our path. As we walk back to the minivan, Rosso tells me how three years ago the formations, which take five years to grow 1cm, were in much better shape. ‘The popularity of the cenotes with tourists has led to their degradation. Many people break of pieces of the formations to take away as souvenirs.’
Without proper care and attention it is easy to do unintentional damage. Many swimmers enter the water wearing sun-screen or insect repellent that washes off, affecting the acidic balance of the cenote. I mention to Rosso that the water in my hotel room is sweet, like the cenote water, and he explains that it is because many of the local hotels – lacking an adequate public water system – draw their supply directly from them, meaning that the water level of many is dropping.
The degradation of the cenotes is only one of the many direct and indirect effects that tourism is having on the local environment, according to David Nuñez, director of the environmental NGO Mexiconservacion.
Tulum, host to some incredibly beautiful ruins and the Sian Ka’an Unesco Biosphere Reserve, is also suffering environmentally. The growth of tourism has created new jobs, which has led to an influx of workers from other parts of the country and the growth of new settlements. No bad thing, but, says Nuñez, the mushrooming towns have neither the obligation nor the facilities to dispose of their waste properly or to treat their water.
The Meso-American barrier reef system, which runs along Mexico’s Caribbean coast, is the largest in the Northern hemisphere. Activities such as the destruction of man-groves, over-harvesting of key marine species and tourism round the reef are damaging the coral. The release of waste water into the sea and the run-off from agricultural lands and golf courses, which are springing up along the coast, are also impacting upon the environment.
‘If you go down to the Sian Ka’an reserve, the beach is one of the dirtiest you’ve ever been to and that’s because no one ever cleans it up. The beaches which the hotels look onto are cleaned every single day,’ says Nuñez, who describes the prevailing public attitude towards the environment as one of ‘complete disregard’.
A number of hotels claiming to be eco-friendly have also sprung up in Tulum, especially along the beach road that runs through the reserve. Lucy Gallagher, Nuñez’s colleague at the environmental NGO, is sceptical. ‘The term “eco” is a buzzword and very often a lot of the eco hotels and tours may not be so,’ she warns.
One of the tourist offerings, for example, is ‘turtle tours’, were you can release baby turtles back into the world. While seemingly eco-friendly, the turtles have been kept in buckets for days and the tours are severely detrimental to the area’s wildlife. ‘We encourage people to enquire about the environmental policies of hotels, restaurants and tours they go on,’ says Gallagher.
The emphasis therefore is on responsible tourism. It is vital that visitors look past the marketing literature of businesses and find out what their activities and policies actually are. That way, the intrigue of the cenotes and the natural beauty of the Mayan Riviera could survive beyond our own civilization.
The best way to get to Tulum is to fly to Cancun direct or from Mexico City and then hire a car. Alternatively, take one of the many buses that head down the coast. Many airlines fly those routes, including Aeromexico.
For useful information about the region, check out
www.travelyucatan.com and www.tulum.com. There is a huge variety of accommodation, from basic cabañas to luxury hotels – the best options are along the beach road (www.hotelstulum.com). For five-star options, head back up the coast to Playa del Carmen or Cancun.