We dive not to escape life, but for life not to escape us. – Anonymous
I love scuba diving because it’s so peaceful.
There’s a whole new world down there in the deep blue.
On my second visit to the Philippines, I dived for the first time. Off the coast of Malapascua island, tresher sharks hover around the black waters. I got hooked and spend the month traveling in between dive locations. The day I left the Philippines, my dive log counted forty open water dives.
I think I had seen enough clown fish and sea cucumbers. The open water dives were starting to tire me.
I wanted to dive again while being in Cuba but I wanted to do something different, a new challenge. Caves have always intrigued me ever since I was a kid. My parents used to take me to the caves of Han in the Ardennes. I would always wonder what sort of mysteries would lie hidden deep within those stone walls.
Diving inside of a cave is even more spectacular. There is no natural light and you are completely weightless. It’s the closest you can get to what it feels like to be in outer space.
Most caves that I’ve dived in were in Mexico and Cuba. Florida in the USA, France and Australia are some of the places that have caves open to divers. Every country, same as the snowboard instructor certifications, have their own certification system and safety drills.
I for example have a NACD, National Association for Cave Diving certification, which is recognized in the USA, Mexico and Cuba. But if I wanted to cave dive in Australia, I would have to get a conversion to CDAA, the Cave Divers Association of Australia.
It’s important that you know where you want to go cave diving and then get the certification used at the location.
The Difference between Cave Diving and Open Water Scuba Diving
Cave diving is one of the following steps you can take after you’ve acquired an Advanced Open Water Scuba Dive certification. It’s a branch separated from the normal path into dive master.
The reason for this is that it’s such a technical dive certification, it’s an art form on itself. You don’t become a cave diver without proper training because the cave environment is very hazardous. You must be committed. The cave doesn’t let you make many mistakes.
When in a cave an accident happens or you get lost, you can’t go up. That is why it’s so dangerous. During the whole cave course, you’ll be taught how to manage safety hazards and what to do if things go wrong. It is very important to learn these skills. They will save you and your buddy’s life.
Most accidents in caves happen from divers being unaware of the environment. They are not properly trained to handle a situation or get distracted and lost in the cave. In the course, they teach you what to do in case of light failure, when you run low on oxygen and other very important safety skills.
When finishing a course and you want to venture out by yourself, make sure you prepare! Whenever exploring a new part of the cave, go with a guide. If there’s no guide, make sure you know exactly where you’re going and what you’ll be doing.
Since it is a discipline on its own within a particular environment, cave diving has a specific set up that is different from an open water diving. If you are fully cave dive trained, you will be diving with a double set of tanks. Each tank comes with a set of regulators. Your BCD is winged shape and you’ll be carrying one primary flash light with two backups. There is one primary reel, which is your life line to the outside world and one safety reel.
The way out will be marked by personal markers in the form of directional and non-directional markers. They get attached to your team’s line.
You’ll be carrying an extra 30 kg.
Playa Larga, Cuba
The ocean at Playa Larga has a marine sanctuary. It’s one of the few places in Cuba where you can still find the ocean wildlife mainly untouched. The town has no real centre, it’s just a cluster of houses next to the beach. There is a resort hotel where you can learn how to catamaran sail. The bars have live music in the evenings where musicians try to sell you maracas and cd’s.
Playa Larga lies only a few kilometers away from a large marshland. In the evenings, huge mosquitoes will bite every piece of naked skin they can find. Cover up.
There is only one dive school in Playa Larga. They offer open water dives and cave dives. I did both while I was here. The marine sanctuary is spectacular and there are a few wrecks. The cave I dived was a large sinkhole, located inland of the main road.
Be mindful of what you eat
Most of the ocean around Cuba has been overfished. With regulation being so lax and locals feeding tourists cheap lobster, the fish and lobster population are under a tremendous pressure. They can’t restore fast enough to their normal population sizes.
You’ll notice it if you go scuba diving near Varadero, Cuba’s most popular beach destination. It’s a marine desert. There are few restrictions on fishing so the waters are empty.
Be aware of this when you come across a $10 plate of lobster. I would advise against having any in Cuba.
Most of the beach’s accommodation is in Casas Particular. It is the same in the rest of Cuba. Local home owners rent out their spare rooms for $17- $25. They are comfortable, double rooms with or without air-conditioning.
Dinner and breakfast is served for an extra price. Make sure you ask how much breakfast and dinner is before you agree to having it with your host. Prices vary a lot between the different Casas and can go from $3 per meal up to $15.
We made that mistake with one of our hosts in Cienfuegos and forgot to ask for prices. At the end of our stay we were presented with an $100 bill for two nights and meals. Usually a two-night stay plus meals shouldn’t cost more than $60 for two people.
International flights go to Havana. Then hop on a tourist bus to Cienfuegos and from there, take a tourist bus to Playa Larga. The buses are very comfortable and air-conditioned.
When I was there in 2013, Cubans and foreigners were still very much segregated. Cubans would never take these tourist buses since they are very expensive. They also bring you only to the tourist hot spots.
At the end of the ride you’ll be welcomed by an army of locals frantically waving their pictures of their Casa Particular in your face. It’s very annoying and not really the kind of stuff I like to handle on a vacation. But I can’t really be angry with the Cubans. At that time, tourism was the only way they could supply an extra income for their families.
I imagine it’s slowly changing now with the USA and Cuba now re-establishing friendship. They abolished the double coin system and allowed private property ownership since I was last there .
The cave diving capital of Mexico is only two hours south of Cancun. Development is mainly around the town and the beach. Town is about five km away of the beach. There are buses going there every hour. Don’t take the bus though, rent a bicycle and bike there. It is absolutely gorgeous!
Being so close to the marshlands, there are plenty of mosquitoes hungry for bloody snacks. Keep your beautiful bronzed legs covered. I didn’t on my first night I was in Tulum. The mosquitoes ate me alive.
The Caves around Tulum
For most sites, you’ll have to drive your gear into the jungle. There are access fees to the caves up to MXN 300 that they use to maintain the roads. Some of the sites are well developed with public toilets but don’t expect too much. You need to bring your own lunch. Be careful with the mosquitoes, they are ferocious. Try to cover up as much as possible.
The caves vary from simple caverns with access pools to large sinkholes with ladders. The cave systems can be very complex. Go with a guide or you will get lost.
Cave diving is not cheap and it is dangerous. But if you get proper training, it is really worth the money and risks will be minimal.
Since cave diving is the main activity in Tulum, the dive schools are fully equipped. They offer Open Water certifications and Full Cave Courses. Don’t worry too much about gear, since most schools include them with the course price.
Cave Dive courses go for USD 780 for a Full Cave course, this means you get a Cavern Dive and a Cave Dive certificate. You need eight days to complete the course. Take ten to fourteen days so you have some days off in between to explore the town and relax on the beach. Otherwise the course gets too intense and your body needs to rest in between dives.
I did my course with Dive Tulum. My trainer, Fernando had been cave diving around Tulum for twenty years. I felt very comfortable doing the course with him. He urged us to be cautious and was strict. You have to be, it’s not a sport you do half-hearted.
Mexican food, I love it! For all the hungry cave divers out there, plenty of deliciousness can be found in Tulum’s streets. From gourmet sandwiches to fish tacos, feast on all the flavors Mexico offers.
For as little as MXN 100 you can find freshly made juices. There is a local market that sells fruit and vegetables. I was staying in a hostel that had a kitchen, so I would go to the market daily. The avocados and mangoes were so cheap and I had three meals a day for only MXN 400.
There are two main hubs of accommodation in Tulum. The town is biking distance from the beach with a strip of jungle in between. Accommodation in town is cheaper and this is where most dive schools are. It ranges from cheap MXN 200 bunk beds to MXN 3000 luxury stays. Some hostels offer free rental bikes. This is perfect if you want to spend a day on the beach. Tulum town is fairly small, so most places are walking distance.
Some of the dive schools have a guest house and they offer a free stay if you book a cave diving course.
If you want something unique, stay at Hotel Amansala. It’s a boutique hotel with grand, vintage mirrors, a rain shower and spa toiletries. Price per night starts from MXN 1700.
The closer you want to be to the beach, the pricier it gets. There are some beautiful beach cabins at Shambhala Petit Hotel. They also offer yoga retreats.
To get to Tulum you must fly into Cancun. The airport is big so it has a good connection to major cities in North America and Europe. From the airport, there are hourly shuttle buses driving south to Tulum.
If you’re coming from Belize, there are buses leaving daily from Belize City. They drive all the way to Tulum but you have to cross the border at night. This means getting out and passing through customs on foot. Then hopping back on the bus to Tulum. Customs are a friendly bunch, they ask you for a fee and put a stamp in your passport. That’s all there is to it.