Banco Chinchorro: A treasure trove of life on a huge coral reef

If only my underwater pictures could do it justice. But they don’t.

Banco Chinchorro is not to be missed for divers and snorkelers. It’s an atoll reef, or a reef shaped like a ring. There are three small islands inside the reef.

My husband and I went on a day trip from Mahahual, and we are so glad we did. Although I have been diving, I am not certified, so I went snorkeling while my husband went on two dives.

Go when the sea is relatively calm. Most tour operators won’t want to take you when it’s too rough because the current for snorkelers can be too strong (and divers, too). Also, it’s a 60 to 90 minute boat trip out to the reef so really rough water would make the trip out less than enjoyable.

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Our trip out was great. We were in a dive boat with two engines. It took just over an hour to reach the reef, and another several minutes to find our first spot. Snorkelers got in first, then the divers geared up and went under.

There were two divers in our group – my husband and a lovely woman we met from France who spoke perfect English. There were two snorkelers besides me – a Mexican couple from the state of Tabasco who were nice people, one of them knew basic English. There were three crew members – the dive master, the snorkel guide and the captain. None of them spoke English.

The first spot was beautiful. The water was mostly clear, and the coral came close to the surface so there was enough light to get a few shots in with our old GoPro. Overall, the water was pretty deep, and much of the fish and coral couldn’t be captured by my camera.

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I have never seen so many fish and such intricate, varied coral in my life. I’ve been diving in Jamaica, and around Cancun, and snorkeling all over the place. Banco Chinchorro blows them all away.

I felt so small – so insignificant – to the greater world around me, above and below. I felt like a visitor to an alien world – grateful to be tolerated by underwater creatures. Several fish curiously looked at me – as if they’d never seen a human being. And maybe they hadn’t – not many people snorkel around out there. It’s a protected area and people need a special permit to be there, the price of which was included in our trip.

I saw baby sharks (no mamas), lobster, barracuda and countless brightly colored fish of all sizes and shapes. It was about an hour and 10 minutes in the water. I was swimming against a current most of the time, and was starting to get tired. Once we were back on the boat, we jetted over to the divers to get them.

My husband said he was equally in awe at life underwater on his first dive down.

After the first trip into the water, we went to one of the islands inside the atoll. We visited the largest, though still small, island – Cayo Centro.

This map is courtesy Google. Bancho Chinchorro is where the red pin is. Cancun (not pictured) is 90 minutes by car north of Tulum.

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Just offshore from Cayo Centro, we saw homes on stilts. These are for the fishermen who make a living near the reef. But the islands are mostly mangroves and under environmental protection so no permanent structures can be build, without government authorization.

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There are a couple of research and government buildings on Cayo Centro. There also are a few structures for fishermen to live on land during lobster season, but these are only seasonal, and during our visit, they were vacant.

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Our dive master and snorkel guide cut down some fresh coconuts, and we had sandwiches in the shade.

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We took a short walk around the small island and we saw several large iguanas, many blue crabs and about five different crocodiles.

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It felt a little like that old, horrible show from the 1970s – Land of the Lost.

Our guides threw coconuts into the water and the crocodiles came closer to inspect what could be a possible lunch. But once they got closer to us on the shore, they would just stop and look at us. Thankfully.

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After about a 90 minute break on Cayo Centro, we got back on the boat and went to spot number two. Here is where my husband said the terrain was incredible underwater. He said it’s clear why divers from all over the world come here. They went to what looked like a large hill with amazing fish and coral.

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He said he did struggle a little bit with the current on the second dive in the afternoon.

At the surface, we struggled a lot with the current. The snorkeling couple was hanging onto the life ring the guide had brought out just in case.

I don’t like to wear flippers because they give me foot cramps, and I like to think of myself as a decent swimmer. Yet even I was struggling to stay in position over a chunk of coral long enough to enjoy watching the fish. Also, the water wasn’t as bright near the surface because spotty clouds had developed. The couple cut short their second snorkel time by about 15 minutes. I was getting tired, so I cut my own short by about five minutes.

Still, it was a good snorkel, though not as amazing as the first one.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to go on a day when the seas are calm and the sun is out blazing full force.

If you are not a decent swimmer, take a floatie. Our boat had inflatable life vests, but I like to plop my belly on a floating and use my arms and legs and butt as needed to get from coral chunk to coral chunk. Once I’m in position, I like to just float and watch and not move. That relaxing floating stance was hardly possible because of  the current. A floatie may help swimmers who aren’t that strong.

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Don’t forget to tip the guys giving you the tour and taking you out to this special place. These people are so knowledgeable and helpful and they want you to have the time of your life because not that many people go.

It seems most tour groups out of Mahahual won’t go with less than five people. Tours also run from Xcalak, but I don’t know much about those. Xcalak is a small town to the south of Mahahual.

We went with a tour arranged by Pepe Dive Mahahual and the boat and crew were by Bucaneros in Mahahual. The two groups were combined to reach the needed magic number of five people needed to go for the trip. It was expensive, by our travel budget.

We paid $2,200 peso for two dives, and $1,800 pesos for my two snorkels, all gear for my spouse (I didn’t need any – I use a prescription mask), the boat ride out there, the permit needed to be at Banco Chinchorro, lunch and plenty of water and soda, plus a lifetime of memories. That’s roughly $230 USD at the current exchange rate.

Yes, it was a splurge for us, but how often will we be back in this part of the world after we move on from here? And why not see something so amazing while we are here? So we lived for that day. And oh, what a great trip it was.

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