On a windy December day the MSC Divina pulled into the dock in Cozumel, Mexico. Cozumel Island sits off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, an area of Mexico dependant on tourism as its main industry and thus well guarded and kept safe from the troubles of Mexico’s inland. Cozumel is one of our favorite ports because it has such a variety of really excellent shore excursions – though a lot of them do require a ferry to Playa del Carmen on the mainland.
All excursions bound for the mainland boarded the ferry to Playa del Carmen shortly after the Divina docked. We had made this journey before to visit the Mayan ruins of Tulum, but had a much smoother ride that time. While the wind and waves of the day didn’t do much to disturb the Divina, the much smaller ferry rolled and pitched about for the entire the 45 minute trek to the mainland. The majority of seats lie inside the ferry on the lower level, but on the second level the back side has some open air seating, some of it covered. The fresh air in the outside seating seemed to help the queasy as nobody used the provided barf bags up there, while some folks inside did.
Even at the dock the ferry bobbed and swayed while workers held the gangway as it rolled back and forth and limited passengers to small groups allowed to cross only one at a time. Passengers eagerly evacuated the boat and none seemed to have much difficulty negotiating the rolling gangway as they made their hasty exit, happy to reach stable ground at last.
We felt quite happy to have done the 3-reef snorkel on a previous visit in calm water, and that today we would snorkel inside a cave far from the rolling sea. A short trip in vans brought us to the Cavern of Chac Tun. Free lockers awaited anyone who had things they did not wish to bring into the cave and banos (bathrooms) were available there as well. (The ferry also had bathrooms.)
Cozumel and the Yucatan Peninsula consist mainly of limestone, once a coral reef thousands of years ago before a meteor hit and raised land where ocean once reined. With no lakes or rivers to provide fresh water, early inhabitants found it in the cenote caves where rain drips through the porous limestone, creating stalactites as it slowly drips into stalagmite-filled pools. Residents of the area can drink the mineral-laden water, but visitors best not or they may experience Montezuma’s revenge (AKA traveler’s diarrhea).
We walked down a stairway to a hut where we were issued life jackets, hardhats, and one flashlight per couple. Guides asked that we respect this once sacred to the Mayans cave by keeping voices down while inside.
A wooden walkway passed through shallow water and low ceilings through the entrance into Paloma cave. Some areas required ducking even for short people and those who did not walk carefully were glad of the helmets as they otherwise may have hit their heads on low-hanging stalactites.
Upon reaching a large chamber inside the cave, well lit through an opening in the ceiling, people set their helmets, towels, non-waterproof cameras, and anything else they did not wish to bring into the water down on benches or rocks. If bringing your own snorkel gear take just the mask and snorkel and leave the fins behind. Water shoes (AKA aquasocks) are the footwear of choice for this cave. Bring your own or use the ones provided.
The guide described the water temperature as “refreshing,” which seems to be a code word on excursions for it isn’t all that warm as that is what they said on the river tubing excursion in Jamaica as well.
They had two options for entry into the water, a stairway for those who wanted the slow chill of a bit by bit entrance, or a place to jump off for people who would rather plunge right in and get it over with. After the first few chilly minutes you adjust and the water doesn’t feel so cold any more.
We swam about in the deep pool for awhile giving everyone time to enter the water and look around. A few small cave fish swam around, and underwater rock formations gave snorkelers something to see.
Our guide said the life jackets were required not for the deep pool, but to keep people afloat through shallow areas of the cave where they otherwise might step on the stalagmites, which take hundreds of years to grow and need protection from breakage.
We swam through a narrow tunnel, into a room full of rock formations, and on to a chamber where the guide said people could stand. There a free “spa treatment” was an option by rubbing the pro-offered mineral laden cave sand from the guide onto your skin and then waiting a couple minutes to wash it off.
As usual for him, My husband went back to the starting point from there to get his camera and take pictures without regards to whether or not there may be more of the cave left to tour, taking our flashlight with him.
Following this we swam to a sort of natural shelf where we got out of the pool and walked through the rest of the cave on a manmade path at the edge, mostly through very shallow water. Most of the people walked through this part rather quickly. Straggling along behind them I followed with an unseen man who also did not have a flashlight.
We had just enough ambient light to find the path, but nothing with which to view the cave other than my camera. I stopped frequently and aimed a camera with a totally black screen at an unseen wall and got some lovely pictures as the camera lighted the area and then eventually flashed as it took the photo which then showed the rock formations, stalactites and stalagmites of whatever area of cave wall it happened to have in its view. (I knew that it would as it had lit things up all on its own and taken some pretty good pictures without even using the flash when I went cave tubing in Belize.)
After returning to the large cavern with the deep pool, we were allowed to ditch the life jackets and swim around the deep pool or snorkel more there without them.
Though this excursion was marked only as “drink included” in the book of tours provided on the ship, we were given a full lunch in a cave entered through some stairs branching off the side of the walkway we originally took down to the cenote cave where we swam.
Back at Playa del Carmen we had about an hour to visit the shops near the ferry dock before boarding our scheduled ferry back to the ship. Looking through shops selling all manner of things tourists like to buy, in one we found a quite pretty greenish stone I had not yet seen, which the store owner said was called “map turquoise.”
The ferry ride back went much more smoothly than the ride over as the winds had died down for the evening. The ferry docked about 20 minutes after the all aboard, but the ship sat there with all the gangways still out since that ferry carried a considerable portion of the passengers as well as the crew members that had gone out as guides with the day’s various expeditions to the mainland.
Though it takes awhile to get everyone off the ferry, and passengers tend to dawdle about taking photos of the ship all lit up in the dark in spite of the fact that the bright lights on the dock corrupt the photo, the Divina still managed to pull away from the dock within a few minutes of her scheduled departure time about half an hour after the scheduled all-aboard.
I recommend this excursion for anyone who likes caves and snorkeling, those who want to try something unique and different, people who like caves, or people who enjoy snorkeling and want to see something out of the ordinary.
Anyone who is easily susceptible to seasickness may want to avoid any excursion from Cozumel that takes place on the mainland as they all involve riding the ferry and weather can’t be planned in advance to know how rough a given day’s crossing might be. If you do make the crossing in a small ferry on a rough day, try and find a seat in the outside area upstairs.