Dive Into the Surreal World of Cenote Angelita

The cenotes in Mexico are popular in an area of the world-famed for its offshore diving. Joana Villar/Shutterstock

In the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, on the southeastern shore of the Yucatan Peninsula, 100 yards or so through a jungle and just off a road that runs north to the beaches of Cancun, one of the world’s strangest, most beautiful dive spots lurks.

This is not like scuba diving a shipwreck in the Caribbean or exploring the Great Barrier Reef. Really, that’s so ho-hum.

This is strange — like a dive-in-the-middle-of-a-jungle strange. Like doing both a freshwater and a salt river dive at once. Like a deep, deep dive though an underwater “river” kind of strange.

The place is Cenote Angelita, and its stark, strange beauty simply blows people away.

“It is the most surreal experience I have ever had,” says one of the reviews on the ScubaBoard forums.

“My dive buddies looked like space aliens as they emerged from the cloud,” said another reviewer, baracuda2.

An underwater river? A cloud?

This place is different.

Cenote (say-NO-tay) is a Mayan word for a deep hole formed when the ground — normally limestone — collapses, exposing water under the surface. The Mexican cenotes were formed thousands of years ago and have, for centuries, been the primary source of drinking water in the Yucatan. Some played a part in Mayan religious ceremonies.

These types of holes are found all over the world, and people dive them all over. But the cenotes in Mexico are especially popular in an area of the world famed for its offshore diving.

Angelita — it translates to “little angel” — is special among the Mexican cenotes. Freshwater from the ground falls into the pit and sits atop the underground salt water. Where the two levels meet, a layer of sulphate swirls between salt and freshwater. It looks, from the water above, strangely like a river, or the cloud that baracuda2 mentioned.

Check out the videos. Ancient trees poke through the cloudy river. It puts off what seems to be a mist. It’s eerie, in a decidedly beautiful kind of way.

Above the cloudy river, the water — as in most cenotes — is crystal clear, providing awesome visibility. But once divers pass through the cloud — somewhere between 60 and 100 feet or so, which is a deep dive — the water becomes salty and visibility plummets. Underwater lights are needed to navigate the rest of the dive. Angelita is somewhere around 200 feet deep.

Returning to the surface is especially memorable. Divers ascend from the darkness in the deepest part of Angelita, through the cloud into sunlight, with many feet of clear water and ceynote still to go before reaching air.

“[As] you emerge, the water is so clear that you feel like you are above water and almost feel like taking off your mask,” one reviewer wrote. “You swim around a little half in the cloud and half out and the experience is just magical.”