DIVE | COZUMEL • THE RIVIERA MAYA • ISLA MUJERES
This area of contrasts combines the popular resorts of the Riviera Maya with the exquisite natural wonders of Cozumel and Isla Mujeres. Underwater, too, there is much to enjoy on the coral reefs that form part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, and at offshore sites where divers can marvel at the world's biggest and fastest fish.
Cozumel dive sites
DIVE with bull sharks in Playa del Carmen
MUSA Underwater Sculpture Museum
DIVE Isla Mujeres
Whale sharks Isla Mujeres
Whale sharks Holbox
Diving with sailfish
DIVE Banco Chinchorro
DIVE | COZUMEL
With easy access to plenty of diving that is characterised by large reefs and impressive walls, the dive sites off the island of Cozumel are among the most popular in the Caribbean. And although the area is swept by nutrient-bringing currents, the western side of the island where most of the diving is offered is largely protected from the prevailing easterlies, so you can enjoy a mixture of gentle to high-energy drifts with the chance to see everything from barracuda to several species of turtle.
Separated from the mainland peninsula of the Yucatán by a short stretch of water some 20km (12 miles) wide, Cozumel Island lies to the east of Mexico's mainland and is famed as one of the most popular diving destinations in the world – between 900 and 1,200 divers a day dive its more than 25 sites. Diving has been the main driver of tourism with around 100 dive centres on the 48 km (30 miles) long and 16km (9.9 miles) wide.
Day boat diving is by far the most popular form of diving (although a significant amount of shore diving is available) and, as drift diving is the order of the day, divers should carry appropriate signalling equipment. Another quirk of the area is that there are no mooring buoys, so on busy sites it is a good idea to immediately descend to around 6m to avoid boat props.
Most of the dive sites are located around the more protected western side and many are within the Arrecifes de Cozumel National Park. This national marine park designated in 1996 extends around the southern part of the island and the reef system forms part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second largest barrier reef system in the world. The park currently covers some 120 sq km, and it is hoped that this will be extended in the future.
The long reef systems around Cozumel are known for their impressive walls, some of which drop to abyssal depths. And the deep water upwellings bring more varied marine life to the island than you find at mainland sites. This includes turtles and rays, but equally interesting are the many varieties of schooling fish species and endemics such as the rare splendid toadfish. There are 26 types of corals, with more than 100 subspecies, and 300 fish species.
The reefs are pretty with lots of swim throughs and dramatic drop-offs. And they are, considering the amount of divers they attract, in remarkably good condition.
Perfect for divers of all levels, including newbies, Palancar Reef stretches for over 5.6km (3.5 miles) and lies about 1.6 km (1 mile) offshore. It tops a sloping wall which descends to a maximum depth of more than 900m (3,000 feet). The vast coral maze offers such a wide variety of profiles that you would need 20 or even 30 dives to cover it all.
The steep reef walls vary in depth with vast stacks of coral columns providing plenty of interest and sandy patches as shallow as 10m in parts where you'll find a variety of rays. On the walls themselves, there are plenty of gorgonians and sponges as well as moray eels hiding in the crevices. One part of the reef known as the Horseshoe is well worth seeking out – the U-shaped indent has tunnels and swim-throughs and is a good place to see French angelfish. Large brain corals and sponges make it highly photogenic.
Currents can be strong on this reef on the northern end of the island which is only for experienced divers, but it is worth visiting for the large amount marine life, including turtles, several species of moray eel, nurse sharks, stingrays and schools of jacks. The eponymous barracuda are not always on view, but when they do arrive they turn up in numbers. Few dive boats offer this dive as currents can hit anything from 3 to 10 knots, but it's worth asking at dive centres.
San Francisco Reef
This reef, with depths between 5m and 20m, just off San Francisco Beach makes for an excellent shallow dive where you can slow down and take note of the marine life on this gentle to medium drift. The steep wall starts at around 18-20m, so you can go a lot deeper, but there is so much of interest on the shallow reef that it pays to stay near the surface and enjoy a longer dive. Expect to see gorgonians and barrel sponges along with French angelfish, filefish and black grouper.
Large schools of fish are the order of the day at Cedral Reef where a 1.6km-long (1 mile) ridge of coral heads sits at 12-15m. Individual large black grouper are common and Cedral is good for its variety of morays, but it's the extensive schools of grunts, porkfish and snapper that make it so special.
This is actually three separate reefs. It is 180m (200 yards) from the shore and accessible to shore divers. All three sections of the ridges range from 12 to 14m and are abundant with marine life. Expect to see crab, lobster and a lot of fish including the pretty blue chromis. Look closely under ledges and in holes and might spy the reclusive splendid toad fish. Paradise reef is the island's most popular night diving location. The current, as with all the islands reefs, usually runs from south to north. Be aware that the dive site is just south of Puerto Maya Cruise Ship Pier, so be careful not to drift too far north.
Aerolito de Paraiso
The Yucatán peninsula is best known for having cenotes – the natural sinkholes that lead to underwater cave systems – but less well known is the fact that Cozumel has its own trio of cenotes in the Cueva Aerolito system. The area can be dived by appropriately trained divers.