Unfortunately there are also some cons and cowboys looking to exploit this reputation. However if you're clever and careful Colombia is the perfect place to dive.
Taganga is the most popular spot for prospective divers. Just 10 minutes outside heavily developed Santa Marta, this unassuming little town is home to a plethora of dive shops.
Although it might not fit with your expectations of a Caribbean village, Taganga's cacti-covered hills and cosy little beaches will quickly win you over. The diving isn't quite as colourful as the Great Barrier Reef and the water can be surprisingly cold but at a mere fraction of the cost, who's complaining?
The starting point for most Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) treks and gateway to the luscious Tayrona Park, Taganga forms a lazy little eddy in the stream of backpackers flowing through Colombia.
Whether they're planning to dive, trek or just chill out, most travellers end up sticking around Taganga much longer than they expected. So even if diving wasn't on your itinerary it's worth poking your head into one of the dive shops and checking out the options.
There is on one ATM in Taganga which doesn't work with many international cards and is often empty even when it does. You might have to make a short trip out to Santa Marta to get the cash for your dives. Be wary of people watching you while you make a withdrawal and avoid doing it at night. The majority of the city's ATMs are near the Edificio de los Bancos and criminals know to hang around and watch for tourists taking out a lot of cash.
Finding the right dive school is the first and most important step. If you're an expert you'll know exactly what you're looking for but for beginners the amount of shops can be overwhelming. Aquantis, Poseidon and Octopus are the main companies and are a good place to start.
There are lots of good deals to be found but remember, low cost and high competition has led some operators to cut corners. Take a walk along the beachfront and look into a few of the shops. Checking out their gear is a good place to start. You don't have to be a technical expert: if the equipment looks dirty, damaged or poorly maintained you probably want to move along.
Most instructors will speak good English but if you find one who's friendly and enthusiastic you'll have a much more enjoyable experience.
Most companies will offer all sorts of courses and combinations of different accreditations, from complete novice to the most technical and advanced. You don't want to be hitting the same sites over and over again so ask which beaches and coves you'll be visiting. You can even work out your own little custom dive schedule, especially if you're with a group.
It will be cheapest if you do a few dives on one boat trip so it's usually best if you set aside full days for diving, rather than just a morning or afternoon. However, you shouldn't do more than three dives a day so be wary of any company that tries to squeeze in four or five (and hence more profit for them).
Once you've found a course you're all set to go. There are a few things to remember to make sure all goes smoothly:
Don't drink too much the night before. You'll be starting early to make the most of the day and you want to be on the ball. Diving with a hangover is not pleasant and can be downright dangerous.
Even if you're just starting with theory work you need to stay sharp. This is the basic information that will keep you safe throughout your diving career.
Don't eat too much either, although the heat in Taganga means you're unlikely to be tempted. Most of the dive schools will provide small meals throughout the day and will have worked out the best times to eat to suit your schedule.
Make sure to drink a lot of water, which should also be provided. The combination of salt water and hot sun on the boat can dehydrate you very quickly.
If you do go out in Taganga be wary of the drug dealers who lurk around the bars and beach huts. They are often working with the police to extort bribes from tourists. If they approach you just walk away.
Preparation is one of the most important aspects of a successful dive. Make sure you go over your gear and your dive plan thoroughly. Your instructor will help you out a lot but don't rely on them. These guys do this day in, day out all year so they can get a bit callous and skim over steps. Also, doing it yourself is the best way to learn.
If you think you've found a problem or are confused don't be afraid to ask. Biting your tongue out of shyness will seem a bit silly if a hose bursts 15m under water.
When it finally comes to taking the plunge there are a few key things that will lead to an enjoyable and memorable dive, all of which will be covered in your course.
Relax and breathe slowly. It may feel unnatural at first but whatever you do, don't hold your breath. This can cause all sorts of problems and lead to lung injuries. Inhale and exhale fully, get into a rhythm and stick with it.
Equalize. Forgetting this crucial step can leave you with permanent damage to your ears and sinuses. Pain as you descend will make it tough to forget but try not to leave it until you're uncomfortable.
Stick with your dive buddy and keep your instructor in sight. You may get mesmerised by the underwater scenery but just make sure to look up every once in a while to check you're not drifting away from the group.
The goggles, hoses and tank act like blinkers so it can be easy to lose sight of someone momentarily. Don't panic. Just do a spin and have a look around you. Don't forget to check above and below you, diving's a 3D sport.
If you are separated, perform a slow, controlled ascent. Even if you're desperate to surface, a good rule of thumb is to rise slower than your bubbles. In the end you'll probably find you're only a few metres from the boat.
Have fun. Lots of people get so caught up in remembering all the technical stuff they learned that they forget to enjoy their first dives. You're not expected to get everything single thing spot on your first time. Your instructor is there to make sure everything goes smoothly and to help if something should go wrong.
If you are an experienced diver and you're going out with a guide you need to be especially careful. The number one thing is never dive alone. It might be easier if you're travelling solo and you could be supremely confident but it's never a good idea. Taganga is full of keen divers so just ask if anyone wants to tag along. It will work out cheaper for both of you and, if anything should go wrong, you'll definitely be glad you brought your buddy and their emergency regulator.
Check any hire gear closely. Some shops are running with some pretty old equipment. Don't be afraid to bring up any issues with the stuff they bring out. It's easy for them to quickly grab another bottle or dive computer but could ruin your whole day if something breaks on the boat or worse, underwater.
Make a solid dive plan and run through it with your dive partner and boat driver, if you have one. Make sure the driver fully understands where and when you're surfacing. You don't want to pop up only to find he's disappeared round the next head.
Take plenty of food and water with you. Low blood sugar levels can be dangerous while diving, as is dehydration.
Diving in Colombia is perfectly safe but only if you maintain safety standards. You're on holiday but don't be tempted to cut corners. No matter what kind of bargain you get, it's not worth it if something goes wrong.
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