Mexico's Route 307

Scuba Destinations
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Tulum. . . Mayan ruins on the beach
Akumal. . . Pristine and isolated
Xpu-Ha. . . Diving in cenotes and underground caves
Paa-Mul. . . Renegade dive town
Playa del Carmen. . . A pilgrim's journey ends

Tulum's attraction is the archaeological ruins. The Mayan city is not as refined, nor as beautiful as the more famous Chichin Itza and Uxmal. Tulum, though, stands high above an ocean cliff, a lone sentinel against the Caribbean Sea. The view down the cliff to the coastline is jagged with rock outcrops and a stretch of white sand beach. The blue-green Caribbean splashes against boulders fallen from the cliff into the ocean.

Arriving and Diving
In the town of Tulum proper there are only two east-west roads leading from 307 to the beach. Take the one to the hotels, not the one to the ruins. If you can't decipher the road signs, ask a local; they'll be more than happy to help out. After two kilometers, the road splits and runs parallel to the beach. To the right are the resort hotels, to the left, the cabanas and campgrounds. Take the left and watch out for the iguanas.

The cheapest accommodations are Don Armando's and Sante Fe, another two kilometers from the crossroads. Both have small huts for 70 pesos, wooden huts to string a hammock or roll out a sleeping bag. Cabanas fill quickly, even in the off-season, but tenters can always set up nearby and use the showers for 20 pesos. There are restaurants both at the cabanas and in town with meals as cheap as 30 pesos.

The ruins are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tourists are bussed down from Cancun and begin to pack the walled city by 10 a.m. The entrance fee is 16 pesos, 30 with a video camera. But the brave can sneak northward up the rocky coast, hiking from the campsite to the ruins in the early morning to climb the cliff and sit by the south-eastern watchtower and watch the sun rise as the Mayans did six hundred years ago.

Seventy-five kilometers to the north, along a straight road with unpretentious towns and mile after mile of coral reef, is the famed Isla Cozumel. The first shrine, nine kilometers to the north, is Akumal.

When I dove Akumal, I was alone, just the divemaster and myself. No other divers had scheduled for that morning, and with no one to take out, Ted was on his way home. When I showed up, walking in off the road with only my backpack, he turned right around, got me set up in the dive shop, and off we went.

Only the blue, indigo and violet rays of light penetrated beyond 75 feet, giving the reef a mysterious uniformity. Fan corals waved and trembled in the north current. Throngs of tropical fish scoured the reef for food, seemingly unaware of human intruders. Ahead and behind were 15-foot reefs, teeming with sea life, and to the right, a cliff dropped straight to the ocean floor. This is isolation, a place unattached from the world above.

Great barracuda, five feet long and ugly-mouthed, would appear from nowhere. Queen Angelfish—blue with a yellow dorsal streak and as big as a person's torso—swam in pairs or trios, then turned away, becoming thin enough to slide through a closing door. Crabs walked the ocean floor, and turtles passed overhead, splitting the beams of the sun in an angelic vision.

The Caribbean is warm; even at 110 feet a wetsuit is optional. And the ocean was calming in its silence and grace. When we returned to the surface, I was relaxed, more aware of the world around me, sentient.

Arriving and Diving
Akumal means "place of the turtles" in Mayan because the gigantic turtles lay their eggs here in the summer. The Spanish galleon Mantancero lies off the coast; sunk in 1741, it can still be explored. And 1.5 kilometers to the north is Yal-Ku lagoon, an outstanding snorkeling site.

If Cozumel is a Mecca of dive resorts, Akumal is an extensive shrine built in imitation. Evidence of the tourist growth on the coast, Akumal was a small, unknown operation until just two years ago; today there is a large, professional dive shop alongside a new hotel, strictly for the affluent. Less than 15 kilometers north of Tulum, at kilometer marker 255, it's an exciting place to dive but too costly to stay the night for those on a budget.

The turnoff from 307 is hard to miss. The large, new gateway tells the future of this coastline. Down the paved road leading to the ocean is the spotless, whitewashed resort, owned and operated by an American corporation. On the other side of 307, down the dirt road, live the Mexican workers.

Go on up into the makeshift town if you're hungry. The restaurant has a cheap, filling breakfast to prepare you for your dive. At 15 pesos, it's five times cheaper than the continental breakfast served across the way at the resort.

Gonzalo owns the Akumal dive shop. Single dives are $45, $60 for two, including full equipment rental. Most likely the dives will be crowded, up to 12 people, but the service is professional, and the dive masters are some of the most knowledgeable on the coast.

Unless you want to shell out $80 for a room, don't stay in Akumal. Dive in the morning, relax for a little while afterwards, then head on up the coast to Xpu-Ha where you can camp the night, enjoy an uncrowded, undeveloped beach, and watch the sun rise again over the Caribbean.

"It's your own fear that you have to watch out for," is the advice Jorge gives divers. "That's the thing that can kill you." In the back of a flatbed pickup, bounding over a dirt road that heads straight into the jungle, Jorge explains how to remain calm while diving in the blackness of an underwater cave.

The Yucatan does not have a substantial above-ground river system. Instead, water flows in underground tunnels. From across the peninsula, water empties into the Caribbean through entrances to underwater caves, the cenotes (say-NO-tay).

In 20 minutes, Jorge has his divers at the entrance to Dos Ojos, the Two Eyes: two cenotes within 150 feet of each other, leading to an underground cave system. With flashlights in hand, divers crawl down a ladder into a giant room, don their gear and slip into the water. It's amazingly lucid, clear as a mountain brook.

Stalactites and stalagmites, big and fang-like, hang down or push up from the smooth limestone walls. The caves were formed thousands of years ago, and filled with water during the ice age. Parts of the caves had remained unseen for thousands of years—until the advent of scuba equipment. Humans have never lived in them, few animals entered, and they're void of vandalism.

Divers often say that in the cenotes they don't feel like they're diving; it's more like flying through a cave. Light from above—a clear turquoise luminescence—sparkles in descending rays. The limestone walls seem to breathe, and as you weave around stalactites longer than a human body, the jungle, green and alive, can be seen through the mouth of the cave, shimmering far above.

Arriving and Diving
Sitting on the beach at Xpu-Ha is like keeping a secret. The entrance is indicated only by a small sign in front of a roadside restaurant. If you're taking the local bus, the Playa Express, just ask the driver where to get off. If you're driving, keep a sharp lookout 9 kilometers north of Akumal. Most guidebooks don't mention this place.

There are two entrances: The southern road leads to a campground, the northern to a small hotel. At the campground, ask for Elisio; he'll introduce you to his family and find a place to set up your tent or sling your hammock. For 15 pesos, the campground offers a clean bathroom and showers, use of the senora's concrete laundry slab, and an empty beach to walk. All three restaurants in the area serve fresh seafood, meats and poultry, and you won't need your shoes to get in.

Xpu-Ha is quieter than a beach in an office daydream, but here you won't wake up drooling on your desk. You'll walk through the tide with your pants rolled up. You'll sit on a white sand beach, maybe rock slowly in a hammock, watching the sky turn from orange to red. Then you'll sit at the outdoor bar, with a Mexican bartender cutting up a juicy Mexican lime to put in your Mexican beer. He won't speak English, but you'll be able to communicate just fine.

Xpu-Ha is one of the few beaches on the road less traveled where you'll have to choose between more than one dive shop. There are two, and Jorge owns the one to the north. The Barrier Reef Dive Club, a two-room operation, charges $35 for a one tank dive, $60 for two, and $12 for full equipment rental, but if you catch Jacob, the manager, in a good mood, he might cut you a deal.

They make two or three dives a day, and maybe a trip to a cenote, depending on who's around. Most of the dives are just off-shore. Morning dives are usually deeper: 110 feet for 35 minutes, 16 bottom time. The reef is filled with lobster, spider crabs, sea stars and every two or three dives, a tortoise is spotted.

"There's less people here, which means less destruction to the reef," Jorge says. "It's the same reef as in Cozumel." The same ecosystem, same fish, same coral, same stingrays. Yet, Cozumel is famous, Xpu-Ha is not, and that's the way Jorge would rather things remain.

"So, what was your name before you came to Mexico?"

Old timers in Paa-Mul joke around while waiting for Mark Willis, owner of the Scuba-Mex dive shop, to ready the gear for the morning dive.

"Come on, fess up. What'd ya do up north that you're runnin' from?"

The regulars that dive every day with Mark and his Mexican crew live in the trailer park community not far from the dive shop. These folks have been through much of their lives already and have chosen this spot to relax and dive, or to escape from their pasts. A few have weight belts that say "1000 Dives," and to look at the motley crew, there's no trouble believing it.

Every morning, they gather with pre-dive energy, talking about getting down there, about trailing whale sharks or seeking out queen triggerfish. They don't fool around in Paa-Mul, and Mark runs a solid operation. Everyone has Nitrox air mixtures and dive computers to allow maximum down time.

When he's prepared, with his Texas drawl, he shouts to everyone, "Y'all ready to do some divin'?"

Barrel-rolling into the water, the regulars didn't even wait below the surface to give the "all OK" sign. They gave it while sinking, tank first, straight to the bottom. I joined them in time to see an eagle ray spread its enormous wings and glide away.

Trumpet fish, long and skinny, turn without bending. A gargantuan barrel sponge, fifteen feet high and large enough for a person to fit inside, rises up from the sandy floor. Isolated from the reef, it shelters twenty varieties of fish, and lobster hide near its base, only their inquiring tentacles extending into view.

We were down for 71 minutes, long enough to want to resurface, and all that time, every thing was still new, even after three days of diving the same reef system. The sea floor, a pageantry of colors, is a celebration, and these divers respect it like a living sanctuary, careful not to touch any coral or destroy any piece of the ecosystem.

Arriving and Diving
"Every day is memorable," Mark says. His dive shop is one of the best deals on the coast: $36 for a dive, including equipment.

Turn at the large orange and green sign for the trailer park. Tenting costs $10 a night, but if you walk northward along the small road that leaves the trailer park, you'll find a virgin cove with no buildings and no people. There might be a fisherman, waist deep in the bay, throwing a net that unfurls mid air, but other than him, the cove is empty. To spend the night out there is to wake up swearing you're alone on the earth.

Back at the trailer park, you can meet retirees and divers like Clee and Gail Moreman. Paa-Mul has been their winter residence ever since they drove down their vintage 1978 Airstream from Alabama when there was nothing here to speak of, not even running water or electricity. "Friendliness is a part of it," Gail says. "We have some neighbors here who are as good friends as those at home."

There's two inexpensive restaurants up by the 307 turnoff. And a small shop owned by Louis, one of the last black coral divers in Mexico, an artisan in an age of mass-production.

Louis dives solo, with only a small tank strapped to his back, a single regulator and swimmer's goggles. Mark gives him rides out and lets Louis jump off to seek out the rare coral. Back at his shop, he'll strip it down, heat it, cut and polish it into exquisite necklaces, bracelets and earrings. He sells his art at a fraction the price of the machine-made jewelry in Cancun.

Playa del Carmen
After four or five days traveling along 307, diving the lesser known areas of the Yucatan Reef System, you'll be ready for Cozumel. It's the shrine, the mecca, the shining star.

Fifty-three kilometers long and 14 kilometers wide, Cozumel is Mexico's largest island. Mayans lived here as early as A.D. 300, and the island flourished as a trading post. The first Spanish contact, in 1518, was peaceful, but Cortez, en route to his conquest of the mainland, laid waste to the Mayan shrines.

Pirates like Jean Lafitte and Henry Morgan used Cozumel as sanctuary and headquarters in the late 17th century. And at the turn of this century, the local population grew thanks to the chewing gum craze. The U.S. built an Air Force base here during WWII, and when the military left (after paving Mayan ruins under a runway), the island slumped into economic hardship.

Then in 1961, Jacques Cousteau raved about the Palancar reef and a resort was born. Fortunately, due to a scarcity of water, Cozumel is not in danger of becoming like Cancun, but even now the island is over-run with tourists.

The ferry lands in San Miguel, the island's town. A single road circles most of the island, and dive shops can be found in town and along the southern coast. There's much to choose from, so ask around before choosing a dive shop.

The most prominent reefs are Palancar, with horseshoe coral heads and five kilometers of coral formations. Maracaibo reef, with its challenging current, is for experienced divers only. Paraiso reef is famous for its brain and star coral formations, and Yacob reef is active with marine life and great for beginners.

Stay away from Chankanab Bay. Famous for its inland lagoon and clear water bay, so many people have visited the spot that the water has been fouled and reef damaged. The government, in order to reduce destruction, has declared it a National Park, charges 50 pesos to enter, and makes the lagoon off-limits to swimmers.

A night dive, for me, was an exciting end to a journey that might otherwise have been a disappointment because of overcrowded dive spots and polluted reefs. Much of the tropical marine life is nocturnal, active only at night, and in addition, life forms active during the day often sleep at night, enabling night divers to approach these creatures more easily.

The colors during a night dive, especially on Cozumel, are the most stimulating attraction. With bright flashlights, all the colors of the spectrum are illuminated in the dark scene. Colorful sponges and corals become more exposed during nocturnal feeding, and the diver relies less on the sense of sight, more on instinct, which creates a unity with the underwater environment unobtainable during the day.

Arriving and Diving
Until recently, there were two ferries making the trip from Playa del Carmen to Cozumel, but one ran aground, and now only the Mexico III makes the 45-minute journey. The massive boat leaves and returns throughout the day, from 5:30 a.m. every one or two hours until 8:45 p.m. Local advice is to arrive a few hours in advance to buy a ticket at the ferry dock, one and a half blocks from the main square.

Cozumel is a crowded island, a lot like Cancun. Some claim it's the best diving in the Caribbean. Others say that those who claim this are either out for your money or they're biased. It's easy to be biased towards Isla Cozumel, though; it's the kind of place you might never want to leave.

If you're thinking of a night dive on Cozumel, you won't be able to take the ferry back that same night. Cheap lodging is hard to come by. The Posada Edem (tel. 2-11-66), Calle 2 Norte, no. 12 charges $12 a night for a single, $14 for a double. Check the rooms before you pay. Posada Letty (no phone), Calle 1 Sur and Avenida 15 Sur charge less, but the rooms might not lend themselves to a good night's sleep. The Hotel Yoli (tel. 2-00-24) has semi-clean rooms for under $10.

Since the reef does not hug the coast this far north, the diving in Playa is not worthwhile. But it's a town on the rise, a Cancun before Cancun became famous. The kind of town where you might catch an artist painting a mural on a newly built hotel. The nightlife swings, and food and accommodations are still cheap. There are campgrounds right by the beach, La Ruinas and Las Brisas, both a few blocks to the north of the Avenida Principal.

Daniel Kaplan  is a lecturer at the University of Maine and an avid diver and traveler.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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