The Ultimate Guide To Scuba Diving In Cancun

It’s difficult to discuss dive trips, or even trips in general, to Mexico without discussing Cancun. One of the largest cities on the Yucatan peninsula, Cancun has been a popular travel destination for years due to its resorts and beautiful beaches.

Cancun resort.
Paradise found! Cancun has been a staple destination for many travelers.

Scuba diving Cancun has also been popular for sometime now. Divers travel here from all over the world to dive sites that include inland cenote diving and ocean reef diving.

Scuba diver underwater in Cancun.
From its amazing ocean reef to cenotes, divers of all level can find amazing ways to get wet.

Getting There

Cancun is located on the Mexican Caribbean Sea in Southeast Mexico, just North of the Riviera Maya.

Traveling to the Cancun International Airport could not be easier. There are many direct flights right into Cancun from over 30 U.S cities (including Dallas, Fort Lauderdale and St. Louis), Canada (including Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal) and even Europe (including Germany, London and France).

Airplane over Cancun.
Travelers from all over the world can find direct flights right into Cancun.

Scuba Diving In Cancun

Being a premier diving destination, there are plenty of options for divers to choose from for their underwater adventures. Salt water Caribbean Sea dives and fresh water cenote dives await; and there is definitely no rule that you have to choose one over the other

Dive Operations

From advanced divers to the beginners, most of the dive operations in Cancun can help you with your diving equipment and dive site needs.

Some locations cater to cenote diving and tours, while others focus on boat dives with one and two tank dives and snorkeling. However, most of the dive shops, like Manta and Cancun SCUBA Center, offer both options in their dive operations.

From cenote to open water dives, you can find a dive operation to fit your needs.

Diving Sites 0f Cancun

Lying just off the coast of Cancun is the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef system, the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere and second largest barrier reef in the world (first of course is Australia’s Great Barrier Reef).

Full of colorful fish and various other marine life, make sure to hit the open ocean for a fascinating experience no diver would want to miss.

Reef underwater in Cancun.
Amazing coral formations and marine life like above can be found on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.

On the flip side, there are the inland cenotes that are beautifully mystifying and are often listed among the best dive sites of Cancun and the Yucatan peninsula.

The inland cenotes are great sites to visit for divers, snorkelers and swimmers.

Whatever your taste is for adventure, below are some of the best scuba dive sites Cancun has to offer.

Ocean Diving In cancun

With options such as coral reefs, shipwrecks and even an underwater museum, there is plenty for divers to chose from if hitting the open water. These numerous choices make it clear why Cancun scuba diving is some of the best scuba diving in the world.

Family scuba diving underwater in the open waters in Cancun.
Divers of all certification levels can get in on the various open water dives.

Home to the furthest North coral reef in the Western Caribbean, most scuba diving in the open waters of Cancun is drift diving. You can enjoy exploring the reef while being pushed along by the current with the dive boat waiting to retrieve you after you surface.

Scuba divers water drift diving in Cancun.
Many of the dives in the open waters of Cancun are drift dives where the current pushes you along.
Manchones Reef

Manchones Reef is an extremely popular dive site. It is located about 10 minutes off of the coast of Isla Mujeres and is the beginning of the Mesoamerican Reef System. With a relatively shallow depth of about 30ft, all experience level divers can take in these amazing sites.

Divided into different parts, divers will want to take at least a couple of days to explore this beautiful reef. There is an explosion of marine life to be found including nurse sharks, sea turtles, manta rays and a variety of reef fish.

Sea turtle underwater in Cancun.
Various sea turtles can be found on the Manchones Reef.

Each dive is a world of color and not just from the colorful fish. Swimming along the coral reef keep an eye out for coral formations such as elkhorn and brain scattered among the sea fans.

Elkhorn coral underwater in Cancun.
Throughout the reef you can find the strange looking elkhorn coral.

As if the marine life and coral were not enough, there are sculptures to be found on the reef as well. Most of these sculptures are from the Underwater Museum (see below). However, there is also “The Cross of the Bay” dedicated to the famous diver and underwater photographer Ramon Bravo. Definitely bring your camera!!

The cross of the bay underwater in Cancun with scuba divers close by.
The Cross of the Bay offers a beautiful photo opportunity. (Photo courtesy of The Mexican Caribbean)
The Underwater museum

If you feel like visiting an underwater art museum, than Cancun has you covered with the aptly named Cancun Underwater Museum. The museum is made up of hundreds of sculptures and is a work in progress as hundreds of more are still to come.

The majority of the artwork can be found on Manchones Reef, with some more on Punta Nizuc and Punta Cancun. Divers can take in such works as “the Silent Evolution” that is made up of over 400 sculptures depicting humans interacting with their environment…for better and worse.

Human sculptures underwater in Cancun.
You will run out of bottom time before you run out of sights to see at this museum.

A dive trip to Cancun would simply not be complete without a visit to see these one of a kind sculptures and the artificial reef they are helping to create. Shallow depths make this a great dive for beginners and some sculptures are so shallow snorkelers can get in on the fun as well.

Ultrafreeze

Lying between Cancun and Isla Mujeres is the Ultrafreeze AKA the El Frio. This 200ft long cargo ship was sunk on purpose in 1984 to create an artificial reef.

Make sure to take your camera as there is much marine life to be seen on this popular wreck. While taking in the remains of the ship itself, keep an eye out for grouper, barracuda and moray eels.

Eel underwater in Cancun.
Keep an eye out for all sorts of aquatic life like moray eels that make the Ultrafreeze home.

Sitting in about 100ft of water, this is an advanced dive. Divers should also take care as there can be strong currents at this location.

General Anaya

The “C-58” is a WWII era minesweeper that was originally named the USS Harlequin. She was sold to the Mexican Navy and eventually renamed the General Anaya. Another ship that was purposefully sunk, this general is now serving as a popular diving site and artificial reef.

The General Anaya is located off of Cancun, about 20 minutes South of Isla Mujeres. While she was sunk in 2000, hurricane Wilma split her in two in 2005. Nowadays, a variety of marine life, including eagle rays and the occasional manta ray, can be found at this site.

The General Anaya in Cancun, with a diver shown underwater.
Divers will find the General Anaya abundant with marine life. (Photo courtesy of Yachts Riviera Maya)

The wreck sits in about 85ft of water with potentially strong currents, so it is another dive that may be best suited for those with advanced diver certification. With the wreck being split in two, there are some easy penetration opportunities, but always be sure to dive your skill level.

Manta Valley

If you are willing to take the several hour boat ride to get there, you can make it to Manta Valley. This location is a well kept secret and a journey well worth the time and effort.

As its name implies, manta rays frequent the valley for the cleaning stations located here. Due to the distance, you will usually do a two tank dive at the site, so it’s pretty much a whole day outing.

This site is made up of a series of seamounts and while it can get deep here, you will generally be diving to depths of between 70ft to 80ft. If you get lucky during your dive, you will see dozens or more of giant manta rays swimming all around you. Truly a sight like no other!

Manta rays close to Cancuns surface underwater.
A long ride to get there, but you potentially could end up diving with dozens of giant manta rays!

While you do not need to be an advanced diver, the currents here can be tricky and should not be attempted by brand new divers. Most dive operations – like Solo Buceo – taking you there will require that a diver be nitrox certified and have at least 40 to 50 logged open water boat dives.

Cenote Diving In cancun

These unique collapsed caves offer a fascinating scuba diving experience and are some of the main reasons why divers flock to the Yucatan Peninsula.

Once you descend into one of these caverns, you’ll understand why the Mayans held them in high regard and considered them doorways to the underworld.

Scuba diver in a cenote underwater in Cancun.
Just like the Mayans of old, you’ll feel like you discovered a doorway to another world in the cenotes.

Most of the cenotes are fresh water. However, in some you can find a halocline, where fresh water meets salt water, and even clouds form hydrogen sulfide…for a very different type of diving experience.

Below are some of the best cenotes close to Cancun.

Ik Kil

while almost a three hour ride from Cancun, cenote Ik Kil is definitely worth the trip. A hole in the jungle floor with vines hanging down from the circular opening, Ik Kil is everything you imagine a cenote to be.

Above the cenote, Ik Kil in Cancun.
It’s difficult not to feel like a jungle explorer visiting the impressive Ik Kil

The top of the water is about an 80ft drop from the surface, so you’ll need to descend down the carved stairway. Once at the bottom, you can make your entrance into the sacred waters where the Mayans used to pray to their rain god.

Ik Kil is a place of reverie as the Mayans made offerings and even scarifies here. Though at 130ft deep, you may not see the remains of the bones and jewelry offered long ago as part of the Mayan rituals.

If visiting Ik Kil, make sure to stop at the magnificent Mayan pyramid Chichen Itza that is just minutes away. Impressive as they are historic, you’ll definitely want to take in both of these sites as they will add to your overall enjoyment of “diving” into this old culture.

Chichen Itza in Cancun.
Chichen Itza is close to Ik Kil and a must see.
Ruta De Los Cenotes

The Ruta De Los Cenotes are only about a half an hour from Cancun. There are many cenotes in this area, but only some of them are good for diving. Others – like Cenotes Las Mojarras – are good for swimming, snorkeling and even ziplining!

For your diving adventures check out Cenote Zapote and Cenote Maravilla.

Cenote Zapote gets its name from Zapote trees indigenous to the area. A site for more advanced divers due to its depth, this cenote is known for its rock formations.

Descending through a halocline and layer of hydrogen sulfide you will hit the strange rock formations often described as “bells” or “elephant’s feet”…quit a sight indeed!

A cloud of hydrogen sulfide in above the Hell's Bells cenote.
The “Hell’s Bells” above a cloud of hydrogen sulfide.

Cenote Maravilla – at 196ft deep – is also an advanced dive site and requires a guide to get in. Much like Zapote, there are beautiful rock formations and misty waters from Hydrogen Sulfide.

Maravilla means wonderful and this cenote has a hole in the roof that funnels light down into the waters below. Truly a “wonderful” sight to behold!

Diver in a cenote in Cancun waters.
Like the image above, in the “Wonderful” you’ll experience light shining down from the roof’s opening.
Cenote Cristalino

Cenote Cristalino is an hour and fifteen minute drive from Cancun. with a depth of 29ft, it is the ideal place for beginner divers and those that want to do a checkout dive before hitting more challenging cenotes.

There is a cave here, but it is only for certified cave divers. So do not enter unless properly trained!!

Cancun scuba diving warning.
Always stay within your training level on all dives and never cave dive unless properly trained.

In the shallow “crystal” waters where Cristalino gets its name, divers and snorkelers can see some small turtles and fish.

Cenote Cristalino in Cancun.
Cenote Cristalino is a perfect location for all certified divers, snorkelers and swimmers to cool off. (Photo courtesy of Tripadvisor)

The cenotes in and around Cancun are definitely worth checking out, but you’ll need transportation to get there. Depending on which cenote you plan to visit, you may be able to get there by bus or with a dive shop running trips there. A rental car may be your best option, if planning on visiting multiple cenotes.

Other Activities

From tours of the Mayan ruins to exploring the cenotes above the water, everyone can find something to their liking in Cancun and the Yucatan Peninsula. Below are some suggestions, but for more ideas of things to do in Cancun check here.

Mayan ruins and cenotes

You definitely will want to take the opportunity to see and learn about the Mayan culture that makes up the Mayan Riviera. There is no shortage of ruins and cenotes to visit that the whole family can enjoy whether a certified diver or not.

Mayan ruins

There are plenty of Mayan ruins to be explore right in and around Cancun. For those that also want a little more history on the Mayan culture, stop into the Maya Museum of Cancun.

The Mayan ruins of Yamil Lu’um (with “The Temple of Scorpion” and “Temple of The Handprint”), El Rey (“The King”) and San Miguelito are all within Cancun’s “Hotel Zone” and worth checking out.

The ruins of Yamil Lu'um  in Cancun.
The ruins of Yamil Lu’um are located above a beach at the highest point of the city.

Other ruins you can find close by are El Meco and the Temple of Goddess Ixchel, which is off the coast of Cancun on Isla Mujeres.

Chichen Itza in Cancun.
Chichen Itza is close to Ik Kil and a must see.

To get to these sites, you can take public transportation, rent a car or book a trip through one of the numerous companies that offer both full and half day outings. Depending on your tastes, lunch or dinner can be included, or perhaps even swimming and drinks. Believe me, there are many different options to be found for your touring pleasure.

Cenotes

Not all cenotes are great for diving, but are still worth a visit. Take for example cenote Azul. Just about an hour south of Cancun, Azul is one of the more popular cenotes to visit. One look at the clear turquoise water and you’ll soon realize why this cenote is called Azul or “blue.”

Azul is an open air cenote and has two main swimming areas. There is a shallow area and for the more daring, a deeper area with a small cliff for jumping.

Azul cenote with people swimming in it.
The adventurous can jump off of the small cliff to the cool waters below.

All of the family can have fun and enjoy this cenote as it is good for both swimming and snorkeling. However, leave the fins behind as they are not allowed.

A huge group of people chilling in Azul's waters.
Everyone can enjoy cooling off in Azule’s blue waters.

There are numerous tour operations to be found in Cancun to take you on day trips to visit various cenotes. Many of these trips include swimming or snorkeling to cool off during your travels. Some of these excursions even include ziplining and tequila tasting…but you might not want to do those things back to back!

If doing tequila tasting on your excursion, remember 1 tequila, 2 tequila, 3 tequila…floor!!
Cenote Suytun

Cenote Suytun is almost three hours from Cancun, but well worth the visit. Descending down into the cenote, you can’t help but feel that you’ve stepped into an Indiana Jones adventure.

Suytun cenote in Cancun.
Suytun is an amazing cenote where it looks like Indy might find an artifact or two.

With rays of light shining down on the circular platform below, you’ll definitely want to wait your turn for a photo opportunity. Swimming and snorkeling are allowed here, but at a maximum depth of 16ft, this is not one of the common cenote dive sites.

Tulum and Cozumel

Both Tulum and Cozumel are close by and have potential for exciting day trips.

Tulum has the spectacular Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, encompassing over a million acres. There are also incredible cenotes to explore like Calavera (“The Temple of Doom”), Dos Ojos (“The Two Eyes”) and Aktun Ha (“Carwash”).

Casa cenote located in Tulum.
Casa is one of many breathtaking cenotes to be discovered in Tulum.

Additionally, Tulum has many Mayan ruins to be found at places like the Tulum Archeological Site, Zona Arqueológica de Muyil, and Ek Balam.

The Tulum Mayan Ruins offer an impressive view of the Caribbean Sea. (Photo courtesy of Cancun Adventure Tours)

For more information on Tulum, check out Scuba Jay’s Scuba Diving in Tulum, which can be found here.

If you decide to check out Cozumel, you will need to take a ferry over to the Island. Once there, you can partake in all sorts of water and land adventures. From food tours to deep sea fishing, Cozumel can deliver the fun you’re looking for.

Try your hand as “The Oldman and the Sea” and go deep sea fishing in Cozumel.

Wrapping Things Up

With the great diving in Cancun, beaches, resorts and old world Mayan culture to be explored, there is very little you Cancan’t do in this popular city just North of the Riviera Maya.

Divers and non-divers can find plenty of activities to partake in, or just relax with a drink by the water. With so much to offer below and above the waves, it’s no wonder that Cancun has been a popular destination for those that are looking for a little bit of a paradise getaway.

Drink on the beach in Cancun.
Grab your tiny umbrella for your favorite beverage and enjoy the Cancun scenery.

How boring would the world be if everywhere and everyone were the same. Safe travels and good adventures.” Scuba Jay

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