Getting your Blue on in Mexico and Central America
Snorkelling and diving in Central America? You’d think that would be an easy article. Turns out, the options are so numerous, and so amazing, that even this writer, who’s participated in so many of them, was challenged.
After all, the Caribbean coast from Cancun through Honduras contains the second largest reef in the world, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System. One could write a book about snorkelling and diving here! And some have. Instead, we’ll stick to a few that we believe are the highlights—it’s a matter of opinion, of course, because a lot of it depends on what you are wanting to see.
We start with the BIG! Whale shark big! About the size of a school bus big. To be clear, though, these guys are gentle giants, not designed to eat you and, even if they wanted to, can’t open their mouths that wide. So, not to fear, even if you see him coming at you, jaw agape, it’s really the tuna eggs he wants.
The most popular spots to see them are off Isla Mujeres (easily accessible from Cancun or Playa del Carmen) or Isla Holbox. Most of the boats that will get you out to one of these spots are limited to ten people. The captain and guide know exactly where to go. When you hear the words “bastante, bastante,” you’re in! In high season, July and August, you might run into forty of these creatures. Watching their blissful gaze and glide, totally unaware of your presence will leave you overwhelmed.
Also in the area of Isla Mujeres is the Monumental Underwater Contemporary Museum of Art or MUSA (Museo Subacuático de Arte). This incredible site has over 500 permanent life-sized and monumental sculptures. The site can be visited with both diving and snorkelling excursions.
Puerto Morelos, Isla Cozumel, Playa Del Carmen and Tulum all deserve mention, too. Tulum is especially noteworthy for snorkelling and diving in cenotes (say-no-tays). These are massive sinkholes with crystal clear water, perfect for exploring! With about 30,000 cenotes throughout the States of Yucatan and Quintana Roo, we suggest planning your visits carefully–not only to fit more than a few in, but also to keep in mind is that many of them are still considered sacred to the Mayans and are archaeological sites.
Heading south, we move on to an un-BELIZE-able spot, to Caye Caulker! It’s an island of around 1200 people and once you arrive you will literally pop into the “go slow” mode; the locals are not shy about telling you to slow down. They aren’t joking; they considered trying to enforce that law a few years back. Gorgeous waterfront restaurants and bars line Front Street (the other two streets are Middle Street and Back Street), bikes abound, golf buggies – try to dodge them, as well as the barefooted locals and travellers just wanting to soak up the cool island vibe!
One of the main activities here is the full day snorkelling trip. The most professional and entertaining company is Raggamuffin Tours. Meeting at their docks around 10am, you’ll receive a briefing and then be ferried out to one of their fleet of sailboats: Ragga Queen, Ragga King, Ragga Prince or Ragga Gal. The tour includes four stops: Hol Chan Channel, Shark and Ray Alley, Coral Gardens and a final stop to see the giant Tarpon on the other side of the island!
Hol Chan Marine Reserve is the most popular snorkelling spot in Belize. It’s always been a natural hangout for lots of marine life: angelfish, blue-stripped grunts, schoolmaster snappers and green moray eels are what you see in abundance here. Shark and Ray Alley is an entirely different experience, where you get to swim with Nurse Sharks and Southern Stingrays. They are magical to watch and being with them is scary and amazing all at the same time! The Coral Gardens, several miles away, display perfectly the world of magnificent colours below waiting to greet you through your snorkel mask. It’s where you might also see Manatees moving gracefully through the waters. With a delicious lunch and fresh ceviche between sites, your final reward will be the rum punch, freshly prepared by your captain and guide, accompanied by the reggae music that will forever etch this trip into your memory. Perfect days like this don’t come around often in life, and may be limited to Caye Caulker.
There is also some epic diving in Belize, most notably the famous Blue Hole. Conveniently enough, it is also reachable for a flyover from Caye Caulker. Magnificent views greet you from a 3-5 seater plane for around $200! Diving options generally need to be booked a few days in advance, diving certification is required, and it’s not for beginners. Or, if you have a spare $8000, you can treat yourself to that skydive over the Blue Hole!
Moving through to the Bay Islands of Honduras,–Utila, Guanaja and Roatan—you’ll find stunning snorkelling spots! While Utila is a very economical spot to get your diving certification we focus on Roatan. You can choose West Bay with its lovely beaches, where it’s easy enough just to snorkel off shore. Schools of fish and perhaps a turtle or two will be waiting to greet you! It’s also a perfect location to have a sneaky piña colada! West End is home to some of the best snorkelling that Roatan offers! Along the left side of the bay, you’ll find turtles snacking on the abundant grass! Close to the yellow submarine (yes, a real one) keep your eyes peeled for small seahorse, octopi and more colourful fish. At West End you will also stumble upon beautiful and tranquil Half Moon Bay, a perfect spot to grab a couple of sun downers or pop out to the abandoned sailboat for an afternoon swim.
In addition to these do-it-yourself sites, snorkelling tours will take you to Calf and Cow Rocks, Pigeon Cay and Cayos Cochinos. To see some amazing sea life, at around 2000ft under water without getting wet, a submarine is available for trips!
Our next stop: Costa Rica, specifically the relaxed beachside town of Cahuita. The coral reef surrounding the tip of Parque Nacional Cahuita is filled with over 240 marine species including many species of tropical fish, molluscs, nurse sharks and lobsters. We recommend a nature specialist guide to snorkel with. They can explain fully the coral reef and the lush wildlife that you are going to be seeing. Beautiful snorkelling, surrounded by a park teeming with sloths, monkeys and iguanas!
Across the border, Panama offers three great snorkelling destinations. Bocas del Toro is an Archipelago of nine main islands, exquisite crystal clear water and endless snorkelling options. Local smaller boats, fitting 10 – 15 people, will generally take you to three snorkelling spots, Dolphin Bay, Coral Gardens and Red Frog Beach. The day trip will stop at a local eatery along the way for lunch; snorkelling makes you hungry!
Another option is a catamaran cruise – roomy, and with a bit of shade and a trampoline for sunbaking! Jager Knights is a professional, local company that will take you to Dolphin Bay and Coral Gardens before leisurely making your way to Starfish Beach: nothing but sun, sea and fresh air! Lunch is included and drinks are cheap on board.
The area around Portobelo–Islas Grande, Mamey and Drake–is also a noteworthy snorkelling destination in Panama. The islands are reachable by a leisurely boat trip from the sleepy city. The ruins of the Spanish colonial fortifications, along with nearby Fort San Lorenzo, a UNESCO World Heritage site, provide you with complementary experiences to your underwater explorations. A few boutique accommodation options, art and dance schools, and some tasty local restaurants make this a perfect option for a couple of days’ relaxation not far from Panama City.
Lastly, but not to be missed, are the San Blas Islands. This archipelago, off the north coast of the Panama Isthmus, comprises some 365 islands and cays, of which only 49 are inhabited. The water is crystal clear, visibility is at its best; these are the islands you dream of! Your fabulous snorkelling experience here will be complemented by the special cultural exposure to the Kuna Indians, whose home you are visiting. Getting to these islands is relatively easy from Panama City: • Via sailboat charter, which is generally the best form when you are trying to make your way to Colombia. A magical 4/5 day trip. • Flying from Panama City to El Porvenir • Water taxi and 4×4 jeep from Panama City Many of these special snorkelling and dive sites are on the itineraries of West Adventures’ Latin America trips.