|Divers often come away impressed by the pristine soft coral growth of sponges (foreground) and large deep-water sea fans (background).|
A great oval of coral rises from the Mexican Caribbean, yet Chinchorro Bank is a void on most divers' maps.
On a cloudless day, we skim over the 3,000-foot-deep valley of water separating the atoll from the Yucatan's mainland and reach the midpoint of Chinchorro's western reef in about an hour. One hundred miles to the north, hordes of divers are de-scending on Cozumel's drop-off. But on Chinchorro, from horizon to horizon, as far as we can see, we are alone on this reef and have to ourselves more than 30 miles of dazzling, unexplored reefs and shipwrecks.
Isolated from the Yucatan Peninsula by swift currents and nearly bottomless water, Chinchorro has evolved into an intricate ecosystem with few rivals. Here is a Caribbean we didn't know still existed. Queen conch track endlessly over sand slopes and lay in piles against the coral. Huge schools of gray angelfish and masses of creole wrasse swarm up to investigate divers' bubble streams as they glide over the reef wall and down a channel blanketed in a rainbow of encrusting sponges.
Great mounds of star and brain corals sprout gorgonians that wave like feathered headdresses in the warm, clear water. Not just the common lavender sea fans, but fields of deep-water gorgonians that appear black as midnight but are actually a rich burgundy color when hit with a dive light. And everywhere there are enormous orange elephant ear sponges, some so large that they'll dwarf your dive buddies.
The potential for discovery at Chinchorro seems limitless. The reef at Cayo Lobos is one of the healthiest we have seen. Its spur-and-groove formations are lined with undulating sea fans and topped with staghorn corals whose tips break the surface on a calm day. More than 200 feet away from the wrecked freighter here, you can easily see thick schools of grunts and porkfish weaving in and out of its rusting hull.
|The rich diversity of Chinchorro Bank makes for an excellent hunting ground for stealthy predators like this great barracuda.|
Water Clarity and Temperature
Visibility ranges from 60 to 200 feet, depending on wind and sea conditions. Drift dives are done when strong currents are running, but many dives are done on sites with little or no current. Winter water temperatures are cooler, in the high 70s. Summer temperatures are in the low to mid-80s. A light wetsuit is advised even if you normally do not wear one. Diving at Chinchorro is an all-day affair with repetitive dives that can lower core body temperature.
Currently, there are two hotels pioneering Chinchorro dive tourism—Maya Ha and the Explorean Costa Maya.
Maya Ha is a newly opened dive resort located 10 miles south of Mahajual. The focus at Maya Ha is on diving, and trips to Chinchorro are offered daily, weather permitting.
Five miles south of Maya Ha, the Fiesta Americana Group has constructed Explorean Costa Maya, a luxurious tropical beachside retreat for adventurous travelers who also appreciate fine food and intimate surroundings. Trained naturalists are a key part of Explorean's staff, and personal guides accompany guests on soft adventure excursions to the area's lagoons, jungles and Mayan ruins, while Juan Leca's Dive House offers dive trips to Chinchorro.
|A school of southern sennets moves with silent grace across the pristine reefs of Chinchorro Bank, where the fish still outnumber divers.|
Getting to Chinchorro Bank used to be a three-hour, bone-crunching ordeal in traditional fishing pangas, but new roads and nascent resort developments along the white sand beach between the thatched-roof villages of Mahajual and Xcalak now beckon divers to experience Mexico's last untouched reef in fast, sleek-hulled dive boats. The 17-mile ride to the closest reefs now takes about an hour.
The best air connections to the region are through Cancun, with direct flights from many major U.S. cities.
Because it is a five-hour drive from Cancun's airport to Chinchorro dive resorts, plan to land by midday if you want to arrive on the coast on your first day in Mexico. Maya Ha and Explorean charge about $100 per person round-trip for transportation from the airport. Renting a car is another option and most major agencies have offices at the Cancun airport. Be prepared to fill up with gas at every stop because the closest gas station is two hours north of the resorts.
A small commuter airport has been built in Mahajual for connecting flights from Cancun, and it is expected to be operational sometime in early 2000. Check with your dive travel specialist for updated information.
Best Time to Visit
Diving is year-round. The best diving days are usually in the summer when the air is warm and the seas are calm. Hurricane season, September through November, is the slowest time of the year, and often rainy.
No visa is required for U.S. citizens. You will need a passport or birth certificate to enter Mexico. Upon arrival, you will be issued a Mexican tourist visa.
Mexico runs on a 110-volt power system just like the U.S. Because of the remoteness of this area, the hotels are powered by generators and may not have 24-hour air-conditioning or charging capabilities. Check with your dive travel specialist or resort for specifics.
Food and Water
Bottled water is the norm throughout Mexico, however, your hotel, as in the case of Maya Ha, may have desalinated water that is safe to drink from the tap. Ask before you try it. Local Mayan food and traditional Mexican dishes are popular along this section of the Yucatan, often called the Costa Maya. Fresh seafood is often on the menu. Dive boat lunches at Chinchorro usually consist of sandwiches, cookies and fruit.