Cenote Nohoch Nah Chich. Sistema Sac Aktun
By Steve Gerrard
Once internationally known as the world’s longest underwater cave system, Cenote Nohoch Nah Chich (the Giant Birdhouse) stands out as one of the most beautiful underwater cave areas in the Riviera Maya. First explored and surveyed during the summer of 1988, it annually grew in size from the efforts of the CEDAM exploration teams directed by Mike Madden. Each year from 1989 – 1996, Madden organized a group of cave divers to gather together for periods of two weeks to a month exploring and surveying the cave passages. As each year passed underwater cave maps were produced beginning with the basic line maps and the final two beautiful cartography maps were produced by the talented Eric Huchenson. The final illustration was in 1994 representing over 126,000 feet/38,182 meters of underwater cave passages. The culmination of this map evolved from the first time use of underwater video footage assisting with the drawing. The cave grew to over 200,000 feet/60,606 meters in explored and surveyed passages before being connected into the immense Sac Aktun cave system during February, 2006. In addition, Cenote Nohoch Nah Chich was the focal point of an Italian film cave diving documentary during 1994 and the television series called Explorers narrated and participated by Ken Curtis in 1995. From an underwater cave photographer’s viewpoint, this cenote cave region offers some of the most stunning features to capture as images. Probably considered as some the best underwater cave photography ever taken, the partnership of Mike Madden and Ron Winiker using the technique of painting with a strobe flash with a Nikonos V camera with a wide-angle lenses anchored on a tripod was an outstanding success of underwater cave photography.
Cenote Nohoch Nah Chich is located on Rancho San Felipe two kilometers west from Highway 307. If driving south from the Akumal area you pass the entrance for Xel Ha Laguna Park on the east side and the entrance roadway to Cenote Dos Ojos on the west side. Continue driving further south on Highway 307 for two kilometers. From Tulum, drive six kilometers north on Highway 307. You are looking for the banner and the InformationCenter for the Labna Ha Eco Park/Cenote Caracol. Turn into the parking lot and drive to the rear to the one lane dirt road. It will merge into the sascab road heading west into the jungle. Drive for 1.5 kilometers and look for the blue gate on the right side with the sign Rancho San Felipe. Follow the road for 200 meters and enter into a parking area. For cave divers, it is asked to park as far back left of the main palapas.
The dive site fee is 150 pesos per diver. There are two ways to get your equipment down to the wooden platforms. One is to lower the gear by rope by the near-side edge of the cenote rim as a rope and pulley is provided. Or you can carry your equipment all the way around the left side to the backside of the cenote and use the wooden stairs. Most cave divers assemble their equipment at their vehicle. Once in the water swim to the right where there is a huge overhang into a half-filled with water and half air area. Swim on the surface for about 100 feet/30 meters and submerge swimming at 10:00 o’clock facing in. The permanent guideline is located approximately 75 feet/23 meters on the far side of a huge flat rock. There is air above you the entire distance to the permanent guideline.
During November, 2006 The National Association for Cave Diving (NACD) paid and installed a #45 gold braided line in 2006 with permission of the land owner Don Pedro Rodriquez to designate the main permanent guide line from all the confusion of the many offshoot guidelines. Unfortunately, the GUE divers of the Zero Gravity dive store led by Daniel Riordan ripped the gold line out of the cave and replaced it with #18 twisted guideline convincing the eldest son this was the proper thing to do. Afterward, sadly, Don Pedro passed away from a cancer illness before the situation could be rectified.
The first 2500 feet/757 meters of the upstream area is a huge delta area of offshoot passages. There is Charlie’s line, Ron’s (Ron Winiker) line, the Bill Carlson line, JJ’s (Juan Jose Tucat) loop line, Joanie’s (Joan Patrick) line, Parker’s (Parker Turner) line and Alberto’s (Alberto Rodriquez) line. Swim upstream on the main line 800 feet/240 meters and there is an air dome with a wooden deck platform (installed in 1994 for an Italian film company production) with a ladder to the surface. Today this site is used for the snorkel tours too. Swim another 100 feet/30 meters and you will swim between two massive and impressive formations appropriately named Heaven’s Gate. The next 300 feet/90 meters is known as Disneyland. All of the offshoot passageways are beautiful and inspiring. My favorite passage is Ron’s line that has several formations of halactites. These are spurs pointing upward formed by blowing wind through the cave when it was once dry during the last ice age. The entire cave area is a fabulous place for underwater photography and videography.
The Cenote Nohoch Nah Chich is primarily used by the giant Alltournative Adventure Company as they bring a continuous flow of tourists from all the All-Inclusive resorts along the Riviera Maya coast for snorkeling tours. The adventure tour starts with a ride in a 4×4 all-terrain vehicle that takes you to the Rancho San Felipe. The tourist snorkelers take part in an snorkeling adventure into the fresh waters of this underground river, swimming deep inside the cavern where they will observe stunning stalactite and stalagmite formations above and below this crystal-clear water.
Afterward a walk through the jungle is offered to view the animal prints from the species that live there, the cenotes, and the variety of flora and fauna. Arriving at Cenote Yax Muul, a beautiful natural underground swimming pool for more outstanding snorkeling is available. A traditional Maya lunch is prepared by the women of this community that awaits you back at San Felipe Ranch. After lunch you will have the opportunity to visit the ranch and its inhabitants, a small Maya family that have lived in this remote jungle location for the past 30 years.
Cenote Noch Nah Chich represents one of the best cave diving and snorkeling experiences of the Riviera Maya. It offers shallow depths of 30 feet/9 meters or less, crystal clear water and an incredible amount of decorations to observe, enjoy and record with still or video cameras. It is an underwater experience you will not forget.