Under the Sea: Mexico's Best Diving and Snorkeling

The aquamarine Caribbean waters around the Yucatán Peninsula abound with marine life. But don’t forget Baja’s Cabo Pulmo Reserve, considered one of the most successful marine parks in the world.

Photo © Getty Images / Ken Kiefer

As I back-roll off the boat and take my first breaths below the surface, I feel the familiar peace of being underwater settle in. I’m in my instructor training certification class in Xcalak, Mexico, and we all descend to begin practicing our skills. Suddenly, I see a shadowy figure appear. Is it…? Yes – a manatee! As one by one we notice it, the practicing ceases; there is no training anymore, there is only us and this graceful creature. Often referred to as sea cows due to their large size, these slow plant eaters have a wide snout, flippers, round body, and a flat tail that helps them move through the water with surprising ease.

Careful not to get too close and startle her, I watch as she glides over the reef, the sun streaming down behind her, casting a very mermaid-like silhouette. We watch her for a few magical minutes before she slips away, into the great blue beyond.

An encounter with a manatee is just one of many possible adventures when diving in Mexico.

Cozumel: The Jewel of Mexican Diving

Cozumel, a world-renowned diving destination off the northeastern edge of the Yucatán Peninsula, is the most popular location in Mexico for scuba diving. The water is generally crystal clear and warm, and the life is plentiful including idyllic, waving fan corals, eels, turtles, sharks, rays and all kinds of colorful fish. While there are beginner dive sites in Cozumel, the advanced drift dives (where divers let the current carry them) are more common. The currents here make a sharp curve around the island and can be pretty strong, adding to the adventure.

Reef fish in Cozumel. Photo credit: Getty Images / Andaman SE

Banco Chinchorro: Into the Unknown

If Cozumel is the crown jewel of diving in Mexico, then Banco Chinchorro is the diamond in the rough. Located in the southernmost part of Quintana Roo, this relatively unknown, remote atoll is only accessible via boat. The reefs and sea life here are abundant and mostly untouched; fisherman and divers are the only people to be found for miles around. Sightings of sharks, rays, manatees, and saltwater crocs are common and while there are plenty of tame dive sites, advanced wreck diving is also available.

Isla Mujeres: An Eco-conscious Experience

Somewhere between the popularity of Cozumel and the remoteness of Banco Chinchorro, there is Isla Mujeres, just off the shore of Cancún. One of the exceptional dive spots here is the Museo Subacuático de Arte (MUSA) or the Underwater Museum of Art. MUSA is an artificial reef structure made up of over 500 statues placed underwater as building blocks for coral to grow on.

Many different artists were involved in the sculpture creation, and the subjects for the statues range from houses to cars to unexploded mines. One of the most evocative exhibits is a large group of standing figures, reminiscent of the terracotta warriors of Xi’an, China, with statues stretching as far as you can see. This unique intersection of art and science has been a success for the region. As divers, we’re more aware of the environmental impact that humans are having on the reefs and underwater life, and the museum is a shining example that we can still have a positive impact on our environment. MUSA’s a must see for eco-conscious divers.

Underwater Museum of Art near Isla Mujeres. Photo credit: Getty Images / Donald Miralle

Isla Holbox: Gentle Giants

Off the northern coast of Quintana Roo is Isla Holbox, a calm-water paradise that’s the essence of island living. There are no reefs in Isla Holbox, but there is a special phenomenon that happens every year from May to September – the whale shark migration. Whale sharks are filter feeders (aka not human eaters) and are the biggest fish known to man – they can reach 40 feet (12m) in length and up to 22 tons. Their mouth alone can be 5 feet (1.5m) wide.

Unfortunately, I missed whale shark season, but I hope to return soon to snorkel with these amazing behemoths (scuba diving is prohibited, one of many rules in place to protect the sharks).

Snorkeling with a whale shark. Photo credit: Getty Images / Rodrigo Friscione

Cabo Pulmo: The Great Blue

The Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park is located on the Pacific side of Mexico, a world away from the warm, Caribbean waters of the Yucatan. The Pacific Ocean is the big, deep blue – the waters are colder, rougher, and more challenging, and the sea life is equal to the environment. The pelagic life here is famous, featuring sea lions, whales, sharks, schooling rays, and dramatic wall drop-offs.

School of Pacific Cownose Rays, Cabo Pulmo. Photo credit: Getty Images/Ullstein Bild

Trip Notes

Cozumel

Cozumel has a small airport or can be reached via ferry from Playa del Carmen, about an hour from the major airport in Cancún. There are a multitude of dive shops catering to different preferences (group size vs. price). Dive trips can be arranged once on the island or prior. I recommend reading reviews on the operator’s experience and safety before booking. For accommodation, Cozumel has everything from high-priced resorts to guesthouses to hostels. Expect to spend around US $100 ($2,028 MXN) for a two-tank dive.

Banco Chinchorro

This atoll is only accessible via boat, from Mahahual or Xcalak. Both towns have rustic accommodation. Rent a car or take a public bus from the Cancún airport to reach the region. There are only a few dive operators in the area, so it’s best to contact in advance. Diving trips start at around US $150 ($3,048 MXN) and increase for overnight trips.

Isla Mujeres

The island is a ferry ride away from the major airport in Cancún. There are quite a few dive operators, and I recommend researching beforehand to find an operator that suits your needs. High and low-end accommodations available. Prices are around US $100 ($2,028 MXN) for a two-tank dive.

Isla Holbox

This island can be reached by a ferry from Chiquilá, a two-hour bus ride from the nearest airport in Cancún. High and low-end accommodations available. Snorkeling with whale sharks costs around US $150 ($3,048 MXN) per person.

Cabo Pulmo

The village of the same name near the marine park is a 90-min drive northeast from San Jose del Cabo international airport. Nearby Cabo San Lucas is a popular resort destination with high and low-end accommodations available, but if you want to stay in Cabo Pulmo, accommodations are generally more rustic and smaller guesthouse and rental properties are the best options. There are quite a few dive operators so trips can be arranged on site or prior. Expect to pay around US $100 ($2,028 MXN) per two-tank dive.

Note: Not all World Nomads travel insurance plans for travelers from all countries cover scuba diving. Be sure to select the right plan and/or adventure sport option for the type of diving and depth of dive you’re doing before you buy.

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