The great Yucatán escape

Checking out the brown tube sponge at Palancar Reef, Cozumel
Checking out the brown tube sponge at Palancar Reef, CozumelSport Diver
/ Source: Sport Diver Magazine

I’m in the middle of a jungle, dangling off a sheer cliff. From deep within the green below, the spectral calls of howler monkeys fill the air. As I’m hanging over the treetop canopy, I’ve got quite a view. A toucan lands nearby, then quickly flits off. A baby boa sleeps in the branches of a tree. Somewhere in the expanse of endless green spreading out before me, a jaguar rouses itself from its daytime languor, growls a yawn and prepares for a midday hunt. But for now, I need to get — safely — to the bottom of this cliff.

It makes me think — if I were in the water, I could have slowly finned over the edge of this precipice and hovered in the blue over the wall, like a bird facing the wind, then eased down at my leisure. But that will come later. Right now, the primary thing saving me from the law of gravity is my gloved hand, which slowly feeds the rope through my rappelling rig. And if that gets ahead of me, my life will be in the hands of two 16-year-olds, Javier and Denis, who wait at either end of the line.

Technically, no tengo ni idea; I haven’t the slightest idea where in the Yucatán I am, not being privy to a map. This morning, I just got in the four-wheel-drive at the Hotel Marlon in the town of Chetumal with Ernesto from Aventuras Dive Center and my buddy Jeff. And then off we went, watching the landscape change from town, to village, to pasture, to thick jungle.

Now, as my feet touch the jungle floor, I can see that my cell phone still works. It reads “BTL,” an indicator from a Belizean rather than Mexican cell-phone service. So, I congratulate myself on knowing that I’m pretty close to Belize. But that’s it. Belize is south of the Yucatán Peninsula, but it’s under the thick, jungle canopy — I don’t even know which way is south. Without Ernesto, I’m just another gringo lost in the rainforest.

We’ve come to this far edge of civilization to camp, to experience the darkest of darks, to see every estrella known to man, and to tromp through a forest expansive and primal enough to hide jaguars — and for that matter, entire civilizations.

This green place holds the ancient structures of the Maya that previously ruled this corner of the world. The rappelling, though, is a nice payoff at the end of the trail. We hike up and drop down several times before twilight begs us to return to camp.

Once back at our base camp, a little tired and even scraped a bit (in a good, we’ve-had-an-adventure way), we gather around the campfire as Ernesto grills a gourmet jungle dinner and slaps a cold cerveza into our hands. The fish on the grill has been wrapped in the leaves of the Acuyo tree. The leaves smell and taste of anise. As night falls, the jungle comes alive with sound — the flapping of wings as bats pirouette through the sky, frogs calling out for mates and the chirping of a thousand cicadas, ebbing and flowing like waves on a shore. Casting a light into the dark folds of the forest around us, we make out the eye-shine from countless nocturnal critters. Our legs and eyes heavy from trekking, we all wander back to our tents and sleep as deeply as any of us have in years.

It’s only fitting that our adventure up the Yucatán coast — through Costa Maya to Cozumel and the Riviera Maya to Isla Mujeres and the nonstop action of Cancún — begins right in the unchanged heart of this legendary peninsula. Because only in a world where time remains controlled by nature can you begin to feel the true pulse of a place; in an undisturbed sleep, you can hear the whispers of its story. We’re starting at the beginning of time in Mexico and taking a journey to the present.

A trail of turtles
From the jungle, we wind through sugar-cane fields and the sleepiest of villages up the coast to the 24-hour playground of Playa del Carmen. Here, mariachis roam the streets and beaches, wrapping their music around anyone who will stop to listen. After the jungle, these streets seem on fire with movement — a movement, though, that somehow rides atop an atmosphere still firmly entrenched in mañana. Street vendors, nightclubs, hotels and restaurants keep alive a swirl of activity, color and aroma like that of salsa and tequila, as well as the progress of a river of sunburned travelers advancing along this town’s famous Avenida Cinco. We walk past all of this, dressed in our wetsuits, all the way to la playa — the beach.

We’ve come from PADI Gold Palm Resort Yucatek Divers about three blocks from the water’s edge. When we get there, a dive boat backs up and we wade out to board. The sound of the mariachis follows us like a comet’s tail, or a musical aroma, lightly touching our ears with its energetic tones. It mixes with the soft Caribbean breeze and the laughter of people on the beach as we push off. It’s as if Playa del Carmen is unwilling to let us leave its arms.

Not far down the coast, we back-roll into the arms of a gentle current. We drift as we descend to the seafloor at about 60 feet. We’re here at Tortugas dive site, named for the sea turtles that linger here — and they await, unafraid. Small hawksbills, they look up at us with a languor, an affected savoir-faire. We drift from one to the next, each one relaxed around us, not the slightest bit agitated by our presence. We approach and they move toward us, too.

As we drift along, I can still hear the music of Playa del Carmen in my head. I can still hear the street vendors, as if their spirits have joined the dive to make sure we see all the turtles. It’s not necessary. All along the drift, we connect the distance — like dots as it were — one or two turtles at a time, as if they’ve lined up along our intended path so that we’re able to interact leisurely with each. These turtles have definitely embraced the relaxed mañana attitude of Mexico’s eastern edge. There are places in the world where just seeing a sea turtle makes a dive memorable. Not here — they are everywhere, and I never grow weary of spending time in the ocean gazing into the time-wizened eyes of an old turtle and trying to imagine what it has seen in this vast blue plain we hardly know.

When we finally ascend, the boat captain shows us a photo, with a date and time stamp from 15 minutes earlier. The spotted pattern on the back of the massive fish is unmistakable: a whale shark. It apparently hung out at the surface for 10 minutes hoping for attention, but we’d not been able to tear our gaze from the turtles. We all make a vow to look up every once in a while from now on.

Sonrisa en el Sol
Throughout the ancient land of the Maya, only one place did not feel the spill of blood from human sacrifice — Isla Cozumel.

Cozumel sits at the far-eastern edge of the Maya’s world. Here, the sun was born anew each day, and as a place of beginnings, sacrifices were strictly forbidden. It remains a place of beginnings and renewals, a place used by the Maya for honeymoons (and still used for that today). The current washes the coastline fresh each day, bringing life to the reef, a reef that explodes with the colors of the sun — bright orange, red and yellow sponges — a reef that swells with the movement of marine life. Here, the Maya greeting, ki tanta ba (best wishes), comes alive. And for divers, Cozumel has always been a place where best wishes come true.

Divers come and keep coming. For legions of underwater adventure-seekers, it’s an essential annual pilgrimage. And we come to Cozumel the way all travelers should, the way the Maya came, the way the Spanish galleons came — from the sea.

We catch the ferry in Playa del Carmen. When approaching Cozumel from the sea, the island seems to remain distant, on the far edge of the horizon, almost until you dock. But you sense its unique charisma for the entire journey, so that by the time you arrive, you’ve undergone a transformation, and the transition from the pace of the mainland to la isla is complete. Boats of all sizes roam up and down the coast over water so clear that it seems more like blue air.

In the water, it feels as if you’re being swept along by an unseen hand. It’s all drift diving here. I love it when the current picks up and I feel the sense of speed. But mostly, I just like being carried along for a ride. All I need to do is breathe leisurely and enjoy the view. There are a couple of reef systems we are visiting here with Sand Dollar Sports at the Wyndham Cozumel Resort & Spa: Palancar Reef and Tormentos Reef. But you can dive almost anywhere along the coast and be swept away.

I always seem to find my way to Palancar Caves (probably because I ask for this multifaceted and multi-level dive again and again), one of my favorites along this reef system. When you first descend, you don’t really notice the appeal of this site. Then, as the guide leads you into the folds of the reefscape, you quickly realize just how much this place has to offer. There are hundreds of ways to approach the nooks, crannies, overhangs, coral pinnacles and spur-and-groove formations. And because of all the little twists and turns, it’s a place that you can take time to explore. I love to hang out under the overhangs, and that’s exactly what I do on this dive. I spend some quality time following a pair of French angels through a little maze.

The colors under the overhangs don’t just come to life with a dive light, they practically explode with color. You’ll find loads of sponges — rope, encrusting, branching — along this dive, and when I finally make it to the drop-off, a spotted eagle ray wanders right past a green sea turtle nibbling on a sponge. Our divemaster finds a splendid toadfish, endemic only to Cozumel waters. And at the end of the dive, we just let go. The current catches you in its net and draws you along.

There are some eddies, though, some places along this coast hidden from the current. And in one such place they sunk the C-53, an old 184-foot Admiral Class gunboat, in 1999. Sitting upright on the sand in about 80 feet of water, the C-53 has just begun its transformation as an artificial reef. Wrecks always attract at least one big barracuda and, sure enough, old snagglepuss and I greet one another as I settle on this one.

As artificial wrecks go, the C-53 possesses a quiet poise. Moray eels have settled in quiet corners along the deck, and schools of juvenile reef fish rise, fall and aggregate around the wreck. I like to swim a bit away from wrecks to see them in their entirety. And the sharp bow of the C-53 still seems to be plying and parting the waters on its way to an unknown conflict.

Between dives along Palancar Reef, we head to the main town of San Miguel, which has held on to its quiet charm. Here, even one block off the main square, you can find the everyday world of Cozumel: locals living their lives seemingly immune from tourism. It’s a warren rife with tacquerías, small markets, pharmacias and mom-and-pop grocery stores.

Around the main square you can find a thousand creative ways to spend your money — from authentic crafts to T-shirts to refrigerator magnets. Tourism has also had a good influence on the quality of restaurants: Cozumel offers a long list of great places to eat. One afternoon, we follow our stomachs to a newly opened restaurant called Sonrisa, or “Smile,” just off Front Street. Owner Francesco Morello came to Cozumel from Italy, and Sonrisa is a paean to his Italian heritage. We lunch one day over octopus carpaccio, and homemade Italian ice creams. (Why not? I get a double scoop of lemon and coconut.) Francesco is so proud of his fresh, icy desserts that he brings me into the kitchen for an impromptu tour of the ice-cream maker, imported all the way from Italy.

On our final dive of the week on Cozumel, we venture out to the deep side of Tormentos Reef. The current rips today. We get flung along the wall while passing schools of bluestriped grunts and squirrelfish hiding in eddies, a few spotted eagle rays pass with the swiftness of a tail wind, and all the barrel sponges we encounter in the shallower depths have been twisted and sculpted into wild shapes by the constant pressure of the flow. I tuck into the eddie behind some of the bigger ones, and in that quiet spot I find interesting macro worlds — gobies, blennies, arrow crabs and others hiding in small, quiet kingdoms surrounded by the rush of water. I imagine thousands of such Lilliputian communities, unable to escape their little ecospheres, trapped by the current, wondering what giant with a head surrounded by raging bubbles has passed their way.

Tulum and the underworld
There is a hidden river that connects all of the people of the Yucatán. Imagine the veins beneath the skin of a giant, and you have an idea of the extent and interconnectedness of the myriad underground streams of the Yucatán. All throughout this peninsula you’ll find tiny glimpses into this vast underworld through cenotes — apertures that, in many cases, look like nothing more than small ponds.

The draw of these entryways is timeless. Archeologists have unearthed the signs of human habitation around almost every known cenote in the Yucatán. So while we’re in Puerto Aventuras, we connect with PADI Gold Palm Dive Aventuras to explore the Dos Ojos and Temple of Doom cenotes.

The entrance to most of the cenotes is nondescript. A path leads to a small opening in the ground, which leads, in turn, to caverns, rivers and places that, in many cases, have yet to see the gaze of man. Happily, for the most part, if you want to experience this environment, you don’t need to be cave certified. You’ll always see some light in the darkness.

Not a certified cave diver myself, I set out to get a taste of the Maya god Xbalba’s realm. We connect with Dive Aventuras at the Omni Hotel in Puerto Aventuras, and soon enough, we’re immersed and descending in truly crystalline water at the Cenote Taj Mahal. We see the sign of the skull and crossbones at the entrance to one of the deeper, darker tunnels, warning off everyone not suitably trained, and we head in the other direction. 

The water we swim through is cooler than the sea — around 72°F — and we slip in and out of darkness, passing from one chamber to another. We descend through a halocline, where fresh and salt water mix. For a brief moment, everything we view is blurred, as if seen through syrup. There aren’t too many fish here, but even just exploring among the caverns, you can feel the immensity of this underground realm.

“Cavern” sounds dark, but the real reason to come to places like this is to experience the light. Everywhere that a sunbeam can sneak through becomes a mesmerizing show in these dark realms. In some places, the caverns open to the jungle, and a thousand shafts of light — auroralike curtains of light — pierce the darkness and dance and move through the water. Some light beams pry their way through a small crack and slice like a laser, straight and sharp, into the darkness. Venture from one light show to another, and soon you’ll forget any worries about diving in the dark.

Not too far from the kingdom of Xbalba, there’s a palace built to celebrate the god of the sun, Kinich Ahau. Here, perched right on the coast, is perhaps the  most photographed of all the Maya ruins: Tulum. Just like modern tourists, the Maya (and in this case, the Maya rulers), liked to head to the beach for some sand, sea and sun. This temple and the surrounding buildings were built on one of the Yucatán’s best beaches. It’s a bit like going to a circus; so much has been built up around Tulum, but it’s worth joining the flow of tourists to experience this ruin — and take a few photos, too.

Lights, action, surprise!
It doesn’t take long to travel from Tulum to Cancún. And as we arrive in this city of glitter, built for the simple pursuit of pleasure, I think of where we started on this grand escape.

We’ve come from the jungle, where life still runs on a clock determined by the sun and the moon, a place where instincts to love, flee, hunt and eat still rule our resolve. And the sounds you hear emanate from the unchanged language and life of nature.

As I check into my room at the Beach Palace in Cancún, I find a family-size Jacuzzi in my room and a small refrigerator filled with cold drinks. On my balcony, I look down on a pool and a long expanse of beachfront, with hotel after hotel. I know that in the streets below, I will be able to find just about anything I want 24 hours a day.

For now, I call down and order breakfast. They tell me it will arrive in 20 minutes. When it comes, I enjoy huevos rancheros on the balcony, looking out over the water, wondering how a life of eat-or-get-eaten plays out right next to one of bright lights, big city.

We take a taxi to the harbor from where PADI Gold Palm Scuba Cancún leaves, and soon we’re passing people parasailing, riding jet skis, sailing catamarans and filling the beaches. Above them looms a giant forest of hotels, some shaped like Mayan temples, some with rounded edges and some angled so that all the rooms overlook the beach.

The dive site seems almost close enough to swim to from our hotel. We descend and let the current sweep us toward the 80-foot wreck of C-58, an ex-Navy minesweeper, which has been broken in two by storms. We head to the bow section and duck out of the current, quickly entering the space protected by the pilothouse.

Beaches, water sports, fine dining, nightlife, culture and more – you’ll find your adventure here.

We’re not the only creatures in the sea with this idea. Snapper, grunts, parrotfish and probably every other fish that happens upon this wreck has settled into this quiet spot. But not the spotted eagle rays. They love current. Gazing through the wreck’s openings to the current-swept side of the wreck, we see about 40 of these graceful rays hovering in the blue wind, their long tails trailing behind. They swoop in and away from the wreck, and the whole time I’m thinking, Geez, who knew what was here, within shouting distance of Cancún? But it’s here, thanks to the protected marine park just outside of Cancún. We never make it to the second section of the ship; with a show like this there is just no need.

Back above water, we warm up under the Mexican sun, and I’m still in that state of diver euphoria and still a bit surprised that I’m so near to the resort-studded beach. The boat moves to a second site, El Tunel. We barely arrive at the seafloor when a hawksbill settles in next to us, paralleling us as we slip over a quick dip in the reef right into a huge aggregation of snapper. They polarize around us, gliding around the reef like a slow, yellow-and-blue river. The turtle disappears into the wall of fish.

We follow the reef through arches, swim-throughs and in and around coral gullies and alleyways, all of them packed with snappers, grunts and big-eyes. Every few minutes, more turtles, mostly juveniles, join the excursion. I can think of many places in the world that would brag about this much marine life. But Cancún seems hushed about the whole affair, even though this city — devoted to amusement, delight and desire — seems to be sitting atop some of the region’s best diving.

I’m fine with keeping the secret. Cancún is only an hour-and-a-half flight from my Orlando home.

We’re still talking about the dives when the shrimp tacos arrive at our table at Restaurante Oasis, an authentic gem hidden away from the hotel zone. 

That night, I sit in my Jacuzzi with a drink, the doors to the balcony open, listening to the Aztec music and dance show that’s playing 12 stories below by the pool. As the heat and bubbles relax my body, I hear the words spoken by one of the dancers: Our dance is a story and celebration of Peace, Purity, Joy and the honor of the Dead. It’s a tradition that has been passed down from father to son and now to you. I pull myself up and walk to the balcony. As I look down from above, I see one costumed warrior standing in a pool of light. His headdress of quetzal feathers quivers slightly in the breeze, the same breeze that cooled his ancestors. Take the honor of our story and our way of life with you. The headdress swirls in a quickening breeze, then the light fades, leaving only his words lingering on the warm Mexican night.

Deco stops
No visit to the Yucatán would be complete without visiting a Maya temple or two. Don’t miss Chichén Itzá, Tulum or in the south, Kohunlich. Follow the locals from Cancún, and take the ferry over to nearby Isla Mujeres to soak up the slower pace of life and the sun on this island’s famous beaches. Stroll down Second Avenue and sample some of the best fish tacos at any of the local restaurants. In the south, take the giant leap off the 25-foot platform into Lake Bacalar, then have a lunch of ceviche and fresh grilled lobster at the nearby restaurant. In Cancún, get a taste of the authentic side of Cancún life — check out the bullfights on Saturday. Have dinner at the Restaurante Oasis in Cancún and get a photo taken dressed as an acolyte of Pancho Villa. For the ultimate indulgence, take a few nights of bliss at the Eurostars Dive Tulum Resort & Spa in Tulum. Search for the elusive jaguar in the Rio Hondo wilderness area with Ernesto of Aventuras Dive Center. For 24/7 days and nights, take on the Fifth Avenue Challenge in Playa del Carmen. In Mahahual, enjoy the relaxed vibe with a massage on the beach. On Cozumel, check out the San Gervasio ruins and then take a long lunch at Sonrisa Restaurant (the octopus ceviche will ignite your palate). If you want to bring home some of the peninsula’s local woodcrafts, your best (and least expensive) bet is to head south and buy directly from the craftsmen. 

Ultimate moment
I have searched the world for the best place to encounter sailfish, one of the ocean’s fastest fish. To my wonderful surprise, two years ago I found sailfish nirvana in Mexico just off the sleepy island of Isla Mujeres. In the average dive life, to see even one sailfish underwater is exceptional. To see a group of 10 is exciting. To see 20 is thrilling. To see 30 is electrifying. But to witness 50 or more stretching as far as your eyes can see, feeding with lightning-fast sweeps on the bait ball of sardines, is a feast for the soul, as close to the melting point of joy as you’re likely to find diving. To experience this once-in-a-lifetime adventure, check out — Amos Nachoum

The guide to the Yucatán

Average water temperature: 80-84° F 

What to wear: shorty in summer, 3 mm jumpsuit in winter 

Average visibility: 80-200 feet 

When to go: year-round 

Must do
Lake Bacalar: Take a big leap off the platform, 25 feet above Lake Bacalar and the Cenote Azul. Afterward, celebrate your bravery with a frozen margarita from the nearby restaurant.

Must dive
Palancar Caves (Cozumel): A more apt name might be Palancar Maze. You’ll find sponge-heavy overhangs, mini-canyons and deep spur and groove formations.

Vacationers flock to Mexican destinations for sun, sand, snorkeling, mariachis and margaritas – but each city differs and offers something for everyone.

Columbia Wall (Cozumel) Drift along a deeper wall section of Columbia Reef. Keep your eye to the blue for spotted eagle rays and turtles.

C-53 (Cozumel): Bring your camera for this wreck. It sits upright in 80-feet of water. The view looking down the wreck from the bow is breathtaking.

Chinchorro Banks (Mahahual): Practically virgin diving all along the Chinchorro Banks. You’ll probably have any site along this legendary section of reef all to yourself. Enjoy.

C-58 (Cancún): Broken in two by a forgotten hurricane, this old Navy minesweeper is packed with fish inside and blanketed with spotted eagle rays (especially on high current days) outside.

Travel tips
The Yucatán is one of the easiest places in the Caribbean to explore. You’ll find lots of direct flights into Cancún from many hubs in the United States. You can rent a car and drive from Cancún all the way to the Belize border. Bring a sturdy pair of shoes for the jungle and hiking the ruins, as well as booties for traversing the rocks at the cenotes.

Must have

Local Wood Crafts: Look for the best prices in the Costa Maya region in the southern Yucatán. You’ll find everything from carved jaguar heads to intricate reliefs of the Maya calendar.

Price of paradise
If your escapist fantasies include visions of margaritas, white-sand beaches and thatched-roof shaded patios where lobsters sizzle on a grill, think Mexico’s Caribbean. Check out our online guide to real estate in this region at

Rigged & ready
Eagle Creek Hovercraft: With an expandable main compartment and dual exterior pockets, this lightweight rolling bag offers ample storage space for traveling.