Nico's light swept before me, its beam picking out pillars of molten wax; huge stalagtites hung from the cavern's ceiling, millions of years old. We probed further, and the natural light from the cenote's entrance faded behind us. I felt the giddy excitement I'd first experienced diving wrecks: this was another level. I've visited plenty of impressive caves since my boyhood, particularly those of Cumbria and Ha Long Bay in Vietnam; it's quite a different experience to be floating through them, chasms below you and otherwordly formations and tunnels awaiting you. A dive in Malapascua had been akin to a spacewalk: out in the blue with no points of reference at 5am, bio-luminescence in the purple water like stars. We saw nothing alive whatsoever, yet it remains one of my favourite dives. Here in the darkness, shapes and formations from the mind of Giger leapt into view with every corner turned. If the Philippine dive was a spacewalk, then this was exploring an alien planet: truly incredible. And, considering that stalagtites grown only 1.5cm per century, the ages of these formations are staggering: they are huge.
These limestone sinkholes were first discoved in the 1980s, and it wasn't long before pioneering divers were exploring them. The entrances were revealed when the land collapsed; the hidden cave systems themselves created over millenia by underground rivers. Local land had been divided up amongst the people many years before, and several families lay claim to each cenote. Nico explained that these would provide incomes for those people for life. More cenotes are being discovered to this day, and is like a lottery win for the Mexicans with claims to them. Dos Ojos, one of the more popular dives, is owned by 175 families. Akhtun Ha is less popular, but owned by one man. It's an easy living.
Some of these cave systems stretch for kilometres, Dos Ojos for 60km. By definition, cavern diving allows divers to penetrate up to 60m in, and always within view of an exit. Nico had taken me a little further once he knew I was a confident diver. I watched technical divers continuing beyond the signs bearing skulls and the legend: WARNING! Do not pass this point without the proper training. I was like a puppy watching a kid eat a hot dog as they disappeared from view down a tunnel. Nico took me to a point in Dos Ojos where we surfaced inside the Bat Cave, a small dome populated hundreds of the tiny mammals. Quite bizarre to be floating in water bith leathery wings flapping around your head. We'd had the dive to ourselves, as most tours went to the other system first. As we returned to the entrance, other divers were heading our way through shafts of light knifing the water, the trees surrounding the hole shimmering above us as a mirage.
Nico was grinning as I surfaced behind him. He asked me if I'd enjoyed the dive. By way of reply I asked how much the full cave course was, and how long it took. He laughed. I'd wanted to dive these since reading about them after completing my Open Water course in May 2008, and I wasn't disappointed. From the moment I'd sunk into Akhtun Ha on our first dive of the two days, the resident baby crocodile swimming above me, I was hooked.
Nico's a native of Cordoba, Argentina. He came to Cozumel almost 10 years ago to work in the hotels on the island. By chance he'd befriended a local dive instructor who introduced him to the sport, and he progressed to Divemaster. As in my case, this changed his life. And once he'd dived a cenote, he completely ignored the sea, and knew he'd found his vocation. Now he said he can't imagine a day in his life without diving them, and they account for 95% of his diving experience. I understood immediately after that first dive, and was already thinking about Tulum as a potential new home. I was already picturing the house by the sea, hot Mexican wife, kids and a dog. It really was that good.
I'd found Nico through a recommendation on a scuba forum. I liked the idea of diving with someone local, rather than with a Western-owned shop. We'd had a quick chat in Playa before I headed for Cozumel, and I'd liked him immediately. There were cheaper options, but I'll always dive with people I get a good feeling about from the off. On returning, we'd arrived in Tulum and I let him know I was back. A few days later he was collecting me in his yellow pick-up and we were heading out. We shared a similar outlook on life, and he'd travelled the Americas. He'd had some problems with his girlfriend when we met, and I'd said that the good thing about diving was that you didn't think about anything above water when you were under it. He said that wasn't the case when he was with divers like me: as he only had to check I was still around every so often, he was having plenty of time to contemplate things with the missus. You don't get a backhanded compliment like that every day, and I appreciated it. I knew where he was coming from, as I'd guided some excellent divers on the wrecks in Coron...and it was like diving with mates rather than working. It's not always the case.
We spoke of travel, and he recommended some places to visit. When I asked about Guatemala he told me he'd been in one city at night, and a local had told him to cease his search for a meal and return to his hotel immediately before something bad happened, as the streets were dangerous. And he's latino! That certainly got me thinking. I asked if he'd been to Peru, as I'd loved the place. He'd said he got as far as the border with Bolivia when a taxi driver turned round with a gun, and robbed him of everything. Lovely chap. Having had the presence of mind to have stashed $40 in a sock, he wasn't completely broke. But he was several thousand miles from home. Getting by on the kindness of strangers, cheap buses and hitching rides, he made it to his neighbourhood with $1 to his name almost a month later. Not the nicest of experiences at the time, but a great story to tell the grandchildren at some point?
So if you're planning on diving the cenotes, have a chat to Nico. I can't recommend him highly enough. And tell him you want the chicken sandwiches with picante: they're bloody good.