Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is world renowned for being the home of Cancun and other highly visited vacation spots such as Playa del Carmen, Cozumel Island and Tulum. These areas on the Caribbean side of the peninsula boast world-class resorts, a wide variety of restaurants, fully-equipped diving operators and of course fantastic dive sites. To avoid the crowds around these popular destinations, it is best to head towards the south where you’ll find a tiny village known as Costa Maya.
Quintana Roo is the only state of Mexico situated on the Caribbean Sea. The state capital, Chetumal, is located near Costa Maya and borders Belize. As a regular launching site for divers wanting to explore the southern region around Quintana Roo, Chetumal is an ideal starting point.
Farther south than Tulum, the Mayan Coast is a far reaching coastline that reaches the border of Belize. Mexico’s one and only coral atoll, Banco Chinchorro, lies off the shores of Costa Maya. This atoll forms part of 4 atolls that line Belize’s coast, and it is the most northern of the atolls. Diving Banco Chinchorro is an unspoiled paradise and truly a must-see.
The Yucatan Peninsula offers a great deal more than just scuba diving, and it’s important for divers to venture beyond the waters and see more of the area they’re visiting. The Yucatan Peninsula has a number of Mayan ruin sites to see, and all are within driving distance of local hot spots. The port of Costa Maya is the closest to the Mayan ruins of the Yucatan Peninsula. Visitors can opt to take a pre-arranged tour or rent a car to explore the ruins and pyramids away from the crowds. The Pyramid of the Masks, or Kokunlich, is certainly worth a trip inland and will take visitors 30 miles west of Chetumal, the capital city.
For a more authentic experience away from the large tourist stops, Costa Maya is a great choice. Unlike the popular northern areas of the peninsula, Costa Maya does not feature masses of resorts all the way up the coastline. In fact, Costa Maya is a relaxed and quiet area to visit and offers a number of dive sites nearby. Banco Chinchorro is easily explored from Costa Maya, as is the Belize Barrier Reef. This barrier reef begins off of Honduras and travels along Belize and up towards the northern regions of Yucatan in Mexico. Divers can expect to experience warm and clear waters that seem like they were made to dive in, not to mention fantastic marine life that circles these atolls.
The Belize Barrier Reef holds the title of the world’s second longest barrier reef. The reef life is rich and diverse, boasting colorful corals and marine life in all shapes and sizes. As the western hemisphere’s most extensive reef system, it was recently marked a protected area by the Mexican government, ensuring that this reef remains as naturally beautiful as it already is.
The Yucatan Peninsula on the east coast of Mexico has become one of the most famous cave diving destinations in the world. Beneath the peninsula lies the fresh water cave systems, which can be accessed through some 80-90 cenotes (cavern entrances). Over 160km worth of cave system has already been mapped. The cave systems offer world class cave diving to all levels of cave divers.
Climate: Humid, winter temps average 20 °C
Type: Cave Diving
Best Time to Dive: Nov – Mar
Water Temp: 20 °C
To experience one of the most unique places to dive, head to Banco Chinchorro, an island offshore from the meeting point of Belize and Mexico. This isolated coral atoll is wild with activity and benefits from quieter peak times than Cancun and Riviera Maya. The three islands that form this Banco Chinchorro atoll are Cayo Lobo, Caye Central and Cayo Norte. On these small islands, fishermen live amongst the mangroves on stilted homes and share the island with scuttling crabs. Banco Chinchorro was acclaimed a Biosphere Reserve in 1996 by Mexican government and is a protected and patrolled area. Local dive operators cannot easily gain access to this underwater world as it is difficult to obtain permits for recreational scuba divers. Exceptions have been made for large groups, as some registered diving operators have organized trips to visit.
Bancho Chinchorro is the elusive treasure chest in the scuba diving community. World-famous but rarely visited, this shallow area is the resting place for many shipwrecks. These shipwrecks are genuine and have not been purposefully sunk to serve as artificial reefs. This Banco Chinchorro sites offer new and old wrecks that are difficult to get to because they are located in the surf zone. Diving in water less than 10 meters deep can be very dangerous and so authorities prohibit access to many of these wrecks for the safety of the divers and the previous corals.
To see a wreck site while snorkeling, visit Chinchorro’s two Spanish Galleons. Nearby Cayo Norte, the site of 40 Canons is the final resting place for a magnificent Dutch galleon made in the 17th century. The galleon’s massive anchor can still be seen while snorkeling in the 10-15 feet water, as can an impressive 16 of the 40 original cannons. The remaining 24 cannons were lost due to thieves, which is part of the reason why the government in Mexico decided to restrict access to scuba divers.
Cozumel is a great wreck site to see around Chinchorro. Cozumel is lying upright in the water, with large portions extending out of the water’s surface. Cozumel sunk due to a ravaging hurricane, Hurricane Wilma, that hit the Yucatan Peninsula in 2005.
Outside of the wreck sites at Banco Chinchorro, the area is still an excellent place to dive, with suitable sites for all diving levels. The majority of the area’s wrecks are on the atoll’s eastern side, where the waters are shallow and the water is rough. On the west side of the atoll, the marine life abounds and there are beautiful corals and fantastic dive sites all around. Divers will be astounded at the marine biodiversity of Banco Chinchorro, with large barrel sponges attached to beautiful reefs, uniquely bright black coral and large brain coral. The atoll slopes at the edge, allowing for deeper waters in the range of 30 feet. Here divers can tap into a calm, peaceful experience as they wonder at the stunning coral formations and abundance of marine life. At certain times of the year, bottlenose dolphins and pilot whales have been seen together with giant spotted eagle rays that have the ability to make a good dive great.
To the south of the wreck site 40 Canons, the Garden is a 60-80ft dive suitable for all levels. Other worthwhile sites near Cayo Centro are those of Kai Ha and Punta Gonzalez, which offer some great diving suitable for all levels. Punta Gonzalez lies on a gentle underwater ledge at a depth of 40-90ft which makes for an enjoyable drift dive. Visitors will have the chance to encounter eagle rays, lobsters lying beneath beautiful coral formations and even sea turtles. The close by dive site of Kai Ha to the north lies at just 30-65 feet but offers a wide variety of fish life including Queen Angelfish and French Angelfish.
There are a number of popular dives around the small fishing village of Xcalak southeast of Chetumal. With quick 5-30 minute trips by boat, divers will be in the heart of a number of beautiful dives.
La Poza is a popular site that never gets crowded just south of Xcalak. There is a sunken cenote to explore in waters that are suitable and enjoyable for all diving levels. La Poza lies in less than 20 meters from the water’s surface. Commonly referred to as Tarpon Hole, this site is a sports fisherman heaven, with large schools of silvery tarpo making use of this reef to feed.
Heading further south past La Poza is La Pozeta, a dive site offering a great swim through opportunity. Advanced divers will be interested in exploring La Chiminea, which lies at a max. depth of 30 meters. The site is classified as an advanced level dive due to its intricate caverns that lead to an underwater canyon accessed, all of which is accessed by a massive wall drop.
Along Costa Maya’s southern region lies a quaint fishing village called Mahahual. Diving in the waters surrounding Mahahual is a haven offering clear waters and fantastic protected dive sites thanks to the shelter of the barrier reef. Inland of Mahahual is also worth exploring with Mayan ruins and cenotes on offer. The village of Mahahual is an unspoiled destination that gives visitors an idea of what the Yucatan Peninsula was like before the development of resorts and cities.
As a whole, the coastal area of the Yucatan Peninsula is lined with amazing reef and there are many opportunities to explore under the water.
To get to Costa Maya it is recommended to fly into Chetumal International Airport which accepts regular flights from a number of destinations including Mexico City. Once in Chetumal, there are hop flights available to get you to Cancun, or for those who enjoy driving, it is a 6 hour car journey.
There are diving operators scattered all along the Yucatan Peninsula, many of which are able to arrange day dive trips, fishing adventures, snorkeling tours and even bird watching excursions. Many dive shops will offer certification and training for all diving levels from the absolute beginner to advanced.