The sway of the palm trees on the beaches of Playa Del Carmen is still on my mind. A warm breeze was gently touching our slightly burned cheeks while putting my dive gear away for the last time, reflecting on the perfect week my friends and I had. What a beautiful, serene place. You would think- perfect for vacation, and you are right, but I came for action- that’s my type of vacation. Playa and Cozumel turned out to be the best dive vacation spots.
Freshly certified as a PADI Advanced Open Water Diver in the Pacific Northwest and with only 23 dives on my log, I quickly turned my eyes to Cozumel. Widely known as one of the best dive vacation places. And it’s not only because diving is very accessible and in a way a culture here but because the reefs surrounding the beautiful island of Cozumel are one of the healthiest in the world.
I’ve never been to Mexico before but my friends have, and they recommended to stay in Playa Del Carmen. They said beaches are excellent and a lot more party life than in Cozumel, I was hooked. We booked our Airbnb very close to 5th Ave (one of the main streets with a lot of shops, bars, and restaurants). The apartment was absolutely fantastic, in an almost brand new complex and very affordable with a rooftop pool, a jacuzzi and a barbecue. We didn’t need more. And so our vacation and my dive journey began.
Since my friends were not divers, I was faced with a lot of logistic issues. I wanted to maximize my time and get as many dives as I can but still have at least half a day to spend with my friends since they live in Dallas and I live in Seattle, it is not very easy to get together.
There are a lot of dive shops, different dive locations that you could dive and very diverse types of diving. Isla Mujeres, Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, Cozumel and the cenotes! Cenotes are limestone sinkholes in the jungle, close to Playa, which had been flooded with freshwater over millions of years. Yes, you can dive the cenotes with your Open Water License, no Cave Diving license is required because they are not caves. A prerequisite to labeling a cave as a cavern is the ability to see daylight in all parts of it.
Of course, I wanted to dive everywhere and everything, but that would have meant spending almost no time with my friends because I would commute to all those different places to get in touch with a dive center and then drive to locations. I thought settling for a dive shop located in Playa Del Carmen and offering a wide variety of guide dive tours would be my best bet. TANK HA was the answer to my prayers. I am not sure how this shop has only 4.9* on Google, in my opinion, and experience, it should be way above 10.
I found Tank Ha online and first of all, their website looked easy, professional and informative. I was impressed that they offer all sorts of different types of dives- Playa Del Carmen reefs, Cenotes and the most impressive- direct boat to Cozumel! This was probably my number one clue that they are good, and honestly the direct boat to Cozumel is the best feature, otherwise if you stay in Playa, you would have to get on the ferry, get off, get taxi to a dive shop on the island and then take a boat to the reefs. Not to mention that is super cost effective!
Tank Ha provides Nitrox to all certified clients FOR FREE. Now, this is above and beyond everything you could ask for. All other shops charge a fee of about $5-10 for the Nitrox. When on a dive vacation with multiple days of diving, you can really benefit from using Nitrox.
I contacted them through email and asked for additional information. Tank Ha’s customer advisor Carolina was absolutely fabulous, she answered all my questions, helped me with guidance regarding what would fit my schedule and how we can optimize it, and took care of all payment stuff that needed to be done. Needless to say, I booked all my dives with Tank Ha. Completed a total of 9 dives- 3 at the cenotes, 4 at Cozumel and 2 in Playa del Carmen which was actually a beautiful wreck dive. The early 8am schedule for 2 dives in almost all locations was perfect for me because we were back by 2pm and I had the whole afternoon to rest and have fun with my friends. You can genuinely feel that Tank Ha wanted you to have the friendliest best dive vacation.
The dive instructors were very professional, and you could honestly feel taken care of regarding safety and customer service. We even stopped for breakfast at a fantastic local taco place on the way to the cenotes at Riviera Maya. What a way to start the day.
Diving the reefs of Playa was scheduled to happen on my first diving day, but the weather did not really cooperate. The port of Playa was closed due to high surge. No boats were arrived to enter or leave the port. As I have waited for this long and was super excited, my mood went down when I heard about the port, but Tank Ha had it all worked out. They immediately changed the schedule around moved my cenotes dives earlier so I can dive that day! The locals refer to cenote diving as best diving in Mexico, I was excited.
And before I knew we hit the road and were heading to breakfast with our instructor Caitlin. She was terrific, very friendly and professional. She is certified cave diver, and we felt very safe in her hands.
Our first stop was a secluded cenote in the jungles of Riviera Maya called – El Pit (the Pit). The name is perfect for it since that is pretty much all it is. El pit is a deep and rugged gash in the jungle floor. The best time to dive the Pit is early in the morning since its deep and best to have this dive first. Another reason why you should do it in the morning is that the most beautiful light penetrates there during the early hours. Once in the water, stop and appreciate the tranquil surrounding that tower above, then descend in the middle of the cenote through a shallow halocline layer towards the hydrogen sulfide cloud at 30 meters, indeed a phenomenal experience. El pit continues deep below the cloud and narrows into darkness down to 40+ meters.
Make sure you are well equipped with good light it would make all the difference, and you will feel safer plus it will allow you to see the most beautiful places of this cenote. I used a Chinese made canister light that was extremely powerful and quite reasonably priced. Usually, those lights are costly if you purchase a good brand because they are prepared to sustain harsh conditions like long cavern dives.
This is the dive light I used, highly recommended, very bright and lasts about 2 hours with 3 batteries, get 3 more and you have 4 hours, way more than you will ever need as a non-professional.
Continue your dive above the cloud exploring the cavernous overhang of the cenote before coming up to the sloping ceiling at 10 meters. Here you will not only find stalactites of all shapes and sizes but also remember to look up and watch the laser beams of sunlight penetrating the gash from below.
I got out of the water, and I needed some time to realize and summarize in my mind all I saw for the 50 minutes of underwater adventure that felt like hours.
Arguably the most exceptional diving spot in the jungle. The Dos Ojos cenote has been described by the locals as breathtaking and picturesque. On this site, you can do 2 dives entering on different sleeves in the cavern.
The entrance to this famous cenote is one kilometer south of Xel Ha park and roughly 48km south of Playa Del Carmen. About 4km of dirt roads lead from the highway to the cenote, cutting right through the jungle.
The name means “two eyes,” and originated for the two circular shaped cenotes which are located very close to one another. Dos Ojos is known for its multiple shallow dives, gives divers plenty of bottom time to enjoy the beautifully decorated systems, of course, as long as air supply lasts and in cavern and cave diving there are strict plans on how to plan the air.
In the “first eye” cenote two very different cavern dives start and end- The Bat Cavern and the Barbie line. Don’t ask me where the names come from…
The Dos Ojos cenote leads the diver mainly along the opening of the “second eye,” where there is plenty of daylight creeping in. It also gives the divers a lot of space to swim around huge columns of stalactites. Be ready for some exciting surprises on this dive. Remember to occasionally look towards the entrance for some stunning light shows. The visibility- crystal clear!
Pro Tip: Since cavern diving is mostly fresh water you will need to check your weights, they will be much different than what you will use in salt water, mainly because you will most likely wear a wetsuit too. I wore a 5mm suit and was a little chilly; however, I needed only 4lbs of weight. That was pretty cool, considering that diving the PNW takes a drysuit and 23lbs of lead. If you are planning to do more than 1-day cenotes diving or more than 2-3 dives a day, I would highly recommend a drysuit or a thicker maybe 7mm wetsuit. The temperature in the cenotes was 76F, versus 88F in the open ocean.
Everyone into scuba diving has heard that diving in Cozumel is one in a lifetime experience. It is simple, the reef is very healthy, there is an abundance of marine life, and the conditions make every dive a breeze even for freshly certified divers. Advanced dive sites can also be found around the island of Cozumel.
If you are planning on staying at Playa Del Carmen since beaches, restaurants, and accommodation are way nicer, but really want to experience the underwater world of Cozumel, you have one option that will make your life easy- Tank Ha! The dive center offers a direct boat transfer from Playa’s port to the chosen dive spot around the island, saving you a taxi to the ferry terminal, the ferry ride itself, that could take a while, and taxi to the dive center in Cozumel. They have it all in one package, including your transfers, 2 dives on Nitrox (if you are Enriched Air Certified Diver), marine park fees, light snacks and fresh water on the boat.
The day my Cozumel dives were schedule I just showed up at the dive shop, we had a quick coffee with the staff and got our gear ready. Then we got on the tracks and proceeded to the boat! The team from the owner Matt, through the instructors to the boat crew and captain, were amiable and really made the experience unbelievable. Quick 30-minute boat ride and we were already at our first stop of the day- Palancar Gardens. There was no rush to go in the water, we were not pushed or yelled at. Everyone was chill and waited even for the inexperienced divers to get ready and feel calm before the dive.
So we were all in the water, buddied up and descended. My goal for the trip was to see a shark, since I was a new diver with only 25 logged dives, and it is rare to see a shark in the PNW. Right away upon descending to about 60 feet, you can feel the current taking you adrift. The most comfortable dive ever, just go along with the current. Beautiful, colorful coral reef formations everywhere like a botanical garden. Five minutes into the dive we hear a banging sound our instructor told us she would make if there is something interesting that we are missing- a giant lobster, and I really mean giant! It was almost a meter long and another meter for his antennas. Not long after my goal was fulfilled. Nurse sharks! Four of them patrolling the reef on the hunt for some nom nom goodness. Fifty-nine minutes later, we ascended to 15 feet, did our safety stop and waited for the boat to pick us up. Definitely my most incredible dive so far.
After a little more than an hour surface interval it was time to splash again. The second dive was on the Santa Rosa wall. Generally a shallower dive with a maximum depth of 61 feet. We spent about an hour and five minutes down there, even though I had plenty of air for another thirty, but my buddy ran out of gas quicker. Giant turtles, Nurse Sharks, Brain Coral, Parrot Fish, Scats, and Rays were just a few of the most notable encounters we had. Now out of the water, the boat crew offered us some fresh cut pineapple, watermelon, and water. Truly fantastic service. Huge thanks should go to our guide Vale who not only cared about the safety of every single person in the group but showed us some really cool hidden places on the reef where we could see Nurse Sharks sleeping for example. Thirty more minutes of boat ride and we were on the beaches of Playa again. The next stop was Tank Ha to drop off the gear for washing and overnight storage.
If you are going to Riviera Maya, staying in Playa Del Carmen or even Cozumel and you are into diving, you must dive Cozumel. It is just a beautiful place, the water is warm, visibility is more than perfect, and the drift dives are easy, genuinely relaxing. So yes, my vacation was relaxing, just underwater. And there is for sure no better way to dive Cozumel from Playa than Tank Ha! They really are the best service and safety oriented dive shop on the coast. Also make sure that you experience diving in the cenotes, an experience that is like no other and only available in the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula. This was absolutely the best dive vacation so far, I can easily see why people come back here every year for more than 20 years to dive.