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A dive report from last April for those that have enjoyed my others.

After some last minute hassles in getting some new video cameras and housings delivered from Canada April the 4th finally arrived and we ready to head off down Mexico way. The 9-hour flight to Miami was predictably uneventful and the 1 hour hop from Miami to Cancun was a breeze. This is too easy we thought and true to form when we went to pick up our rental car at the desk in Cancun we were told by a sour faced senorita (obviously sucked on too many cerveza con Limones minus the cerveza bit) informed us that she did not have our car. However, a couple of minutes arguing in pigeon Spanish and fluent Cockney convinced her to sort something out and within 20 minutes we were on our way down to our overnight stop at Akumal (about 1 hour South on Highway 307). Having dumped our gear in the bungalows we sought out the nearest bar to give the local beer a thorough testing.

The following morning the adventure began with a 4-hour drive South to our first destination Xcalak (Ishkalak) on the border of Mexico and Belize. We had heard horror stories of driving in Mexico so it was with some trepidation that we took the highway South. Surprise, surprise not only was the road in excellent condition but it was dead straight with almost zero traffic. Soon we left civilization behind and the road continued like a grey ribbon flanked on both sides by jungle. Occasionally, we would see people on the side of the road selling anything from chickens, pigs, eagles and even monkeys. Passing on these delights, we finally stopped to pick up a 25-kilo bag of oranges for the equivalent of 90 pence. After a brief stop for fuel at the last petrol station before Xcalak (still some 80 miles from Xcalak), the roads began to close in and get narrower and narrower. All of a sudden military check points began to appear, true to form we were waved down and asked to get out of the car. Have to say it was an interesting experience being questioned by guys carrying machine guns, but not to worry they seemed far more interested in practicing their English than searching for guns or drugs. After a cursory search we were sent on our way down an ever-narrowing road for the last 60km to Xcalak.

At last, we reached our destination. For those interested in history, Xcalak was once a thriving port trading with Belize, Honduras etc as it was the first safe harbour North of the Mexican border having two cuts in the reef access to safe harbour. This all changed in 1956 when, Hurricane Janet destroyed the place. Until recently, Xcalak could be best described as a one-horse town but unfortunately the horse got bored and left.

After a brief stop at the dive centre to let them know we had arrived we drove the final 8km up a narrow sandy track to our home for the next week, LaGuacamaya, a villa right on the beach with the nearest neighbour being about half a mile away. We were met by Bruce and Eva the owners with their menagerie of two dogs, two parrots and a whole tribe of Iguanas who had set up home next to the compost heap. Two cats completed the zoo. These cats spend their entire life indoors for fear of being eaten by the larger cats inhabiting the area. By larger cats we are not talking ginger toms but rather Panthers, Jaguars, Pumas etc. We settled in then treated ourselves to a well-earned Cerveza or eight watching the sun go down whilst frigate birds and pelicans wheeled overhead.

Next morning was our first diving day and Eva called up the dive centre on the short wave radio and 15 minutes later a boat pulled up on the beach in front of us. This was our taxi and having chucked our gear on board we speed off over the sparkling turquoise bay towards the dive centre. All of a sudden the captain cut the engine and pointed. We all looked in water and saw what we thought was a coral head under the water. But hang on a minute! Coral heads didn’t have flippers; it was a 5 foot long Loggerhead turtle swimming quite happily in about 4 feet of water. This proved to be the first of many turtle encounters. The diving was excellent with superb coral and loads of large beasties 3 species of turtle, moray eels, southern Sting rays, Eagle rays some enormous 6 – 7 foot long fish called tarpon. These were often seen in schools of up to 100 individuals and made a truly awesome sight. As well as the fish life the dive sites offered some superb swimthru’s which gave us some good training for the cenote dives that we did later in the Holiday.

On our third day we awoke to some bad news, there was a strong wind blowing and the resulting swell would not allow the boats to get outside the reef to reach the dive sites. Never mind, it was not too much of a hardship to spend a day mooching around on the beach. “Ah”! Came the voice on the other end of the radio. “When I said there would not be any diving, I did not mean just today”. The dive centre then informed us that when the wind started to blow it normally stayed that way for around two to three days.

Contingency plans where called for and we quickly made arrangements to take a trip through the lagoon and mangroves down to San Pedro in Belize. We arranged the necessary permits and at 9am the following morning we set off for the two hour boat ride. Well it should have been 9am but on the drive down to the pier we managed to find a conch shell lying on the side of the road, which inflicted a two-inch gash in the wall of one of the tyres. Finally, with spare on, we arrived in town, made some vague arrangements for the local mechanic to sort it out for us and off we went.

Before leaving we were informed that manatees inhabited some of the waterways that we were due to travel through, but that we should not get our hopes up as sightings were very, very rare. We thought no more about Manatees and sat back to enjoy the ride. Just as with the turtle incident the captain suddenly cut the engine and there in the water no more than three feet from the boat was an enormous manatee. Dick filmed from the surface whilst I slipped into the water hoping to photograph it. My theory is that the boat spooked it and having me in the water as well was just too much, the manatee flicked its massive tail fin and was off. However back on the boat a different theory was being formulated, namely that the manatee was a female and had mistaken me for an amorous male and just wasn’t in the mood hence it took off sharpish. Personally I do not subscribe to this theory.

San Pedro on Ambergris Quay is a charming, chaotic kind of place where you could buy just about anything (and Dick did, wait for the video) in stark contrast to Xcalak where even buying basic food items was not easy. After an afternoons frantic shopping involving the purchase of hats, tee shirts, rum, pancake mix and a particular bizarre item (more of that later) we headed back to Xcalak. Our wonderful hosts, Bruce and Eva had kindly prepared a barbecue for our return and we spent the evening in an alcoholic haze (courtesy of the Belizean rum) stuffing our faces with the most marvellously barbecued chicken and fish.

Over dinner we made plans to go kayaking in the Crocodile infested (no joking) mangroves up to a large inland lake. Resplendent in new hats and tee shirts we all boldly struck out at a reasonable pace, all being relative new comers to the art of kayaking, we must have covered around three times the actual distance before getting the hang of steering and arrived at the lake pretty exhausted, despite the existence of crocogators, we were not lucky/unlucky enough to see any on this trip but nonetheless had a marvellous time. The paddle back was a bit easy as we had a little help from the tide and Dick and the boys spent the rest of the afternoon jumping of the bridge into a deep plunge pool.

The next day being our final one in Xcalak brought good news, the sea at last was calm enough to go diving again, this was great news for us but even better for Michael, who had yet to complete the final dive of his Junior Open Water course. As Micheal set off for his final training dive, the rest of us headed of for a dive as well, although the wind had reduced visibility slightly it did not stop us being able to see the schools of eagle rays that accompanied us on the last few minutes of the dive. Got back to the dive centre to the news that Michael (aged 10) had successfully finished his course and had qualified as a diver. We toasted him with Fanta during our surface interval and then heard that on his dive he had a turtle literally sitting next to him whilst he completed his last few skills (certainly beats Stoney Cove ). Our group, together with Michael (on his first fun dive) headed off to do our last dive in Xcalak at a site named Scott’s Playground, which consisted of a whole series of beautiful swimthru’s. The luck of the new open water diver held true to form and Michael was one of the only ones to see the 6-foot nurse shark dozing in the entrance to one of the swimthru’s.

The evening saw us all down at “Alan’s Bar” in “town” to thank Bruce and Eva for such a wonderful week, unfortunately what was an enjoyable evening for most of us was less than enjoyable for Dick who unfortunately had ear problems and spent the evening in some considerable pain before we were able to raid Eva’s medicine chest on our return to the Villa.

Goodbyes said and car fitted with a new (well almost new) tyre, courtesy of Senor Gabi, the village mechanic and a couple of tons of luggage, we set off for the long journey back to Akumal, where Jill had arrived to join us for a week. Discussions took place as to whether we had enough fuel for the 80 miles to the next petrol station and we decided that providing we took it easy we should just make it. Unfortunately the petrol gauge had other ideas and in the middle of the jungle decided to drop rapidly towards zero. Thankfully we managed to reach the first military checkpoint and explained our problem. The soldiers told us that there was a small shop down the road that sometimes sold petrol and as it was only 5km away we decided it was worth a try. Shop duly found, we looked for something resembling a petrol pump without success and started to wonder whether the information we had been given was correct when the owner came up to us “Gasolina”? We asked, “Si”! He replied. Where? We asked. He pointed to the side of the shop where a few rusty drums where lined up. A few litres were duly poured from the drum into a bucket and then from the bucket into the fuel tank and we were back on our way. A this point the fuel gauge decided it was time to tell us the truth and shot up to three quarters full, three times the quantity that we reckoned we needed to get us to the next petrol station. The journey back to Akumal was uneventful and we met up with Jill sitting by the pool at the hotel patiently awaiting our arrival.

Akumal was originally due to be the “active” part of the holiday but we found it difficult to believe that it was possible to do more than we had done in Xcalak. Wrong again! Over the next week we went diving both in the sea and in a couple of Cenotes (more on these later) visited Mayan ruins at Coba and Tulum, hit the bright lights of Playa Del Carmen, finally saw crocogators and visited the breathtakingly beautiful lagoon of Yal Ku.

Having lounged by the pool, we headed of to the bar to lay plans for the next few days and decided to spend the following day doing a bit of relaxing local diving and general slobbing about on the beach, by the pool etc. Lynda decided to do a discover scuba diving and duly booked into the local dive centre. The morning dive was good and as Dick had decided not to risk his ears, saving them instead for our Cenote expedition Jill and I where the only divers on the boat. As we had come to expect the underwater scenery was stunning and had yet another close encounter of the Chelonian kind, coming face to face with a large Green turtle having a snooze on the reef. It really was a great dive, if only the same could be said of our second dive of the day. The dive centre asked whether we would like to accompany Lynda on her Discover Scuba dive. We said OK and headed of in the boat with her and her instructor Ivan (now known as Ivan the Terrible). Suffice it to say that the dive was unfortunately not a good experience for Lynda and we where told to surface even though we both had in excess of half a tank left. When I suggested that he did not pump my tank, as I would use the other half tomorrow he mumbled something about safety margins and buggered off. Not being impressed we complained and in fact cancelled all our diving. Not the nicest of experiences, but thankfully the only negative of our trip.

The following day was planned for the first of our “Mayan Culture” trips and despite some dissention in the ranks over leaving at 7am, we all head down to the ancient Mayan city of Coba (some 60km SE of Akumal) We got there just as the place was opening and secured the services of a guide and headed off into the ruins (once home to over 60,000 people). These ruins have not been completely excavated and presented a very evocative mix of restored buildings mixed in with unexcavated ones all in a natural jungle setting. Having wandered around for three hours or so our stomachs began reminding us that we had not eaten since the previous evening. So it was off to a local Mexican restaurant recommended to us by Bruce and Eva. On the way we finally came face to face with the crocogators, which, we had so hoped to see. It turned out that they inhabited the large freshwater lake next to the ruins so we spent a few minutes doing the Indiana Jones thing. We had planned to take in the ruins at Tulum as well, but after lunch the sun and walking took their toll and therefore decided to head back up to Akumal. On the way we stopped off a the Cave Diving operation that had been recommended to us by an English guy called James who we had met down in Xcalak. I have to say the centre called Aktun Diving had an impressive setup and we more than happily booked in for a couple of Cenote Dives with them.

Yet again we found that Akumal, although lovely was very quiet and decided to spend the following morning snorkelling at a truly awesome seawater/freshwater inlet called Yal Ku and the afternoon exploring the pleasures of Playa Del Carmen. Yal Ku was truly beautiful and as we arrived fairly early had the place pretty much to ourselves. That was all to change and by mid morning more and more people arrived many with a very stridently American way of communicating namely why say something when you can bellow. It was amusing to watch their antics however, especially when some of them spotted the small juvenile barracuda that inhabited the lagoon. From their reactions one would have thought they had just come face to face with Jaws. If only they had known there were much larger things swimming just a bit further out as I discovered. As the lagoon got a bit busier, I decided to snorkel a bit further out and was soon swimming in an enormous shoal of fish, after swimming with them for about ten minutes it suddenly dawned on me that with all this food around maybe a large predator would be close by. At that moment I glanced behind me to come face to face with a 6 foot long giant Barracuda. It had clearly been following me or the fish or both. To say the least I was slightly surprised and for the next few minutes we swam eyeball to eyeball until I decided that it would be more prudent to swim slowly away from this magnificent fish.

The girls decided that they were in the mood for some serious shopping so we piled into the car for the 45-minute drive North up the coast to Playa Del Carmen. Playa is a thriving town orientated very much towards the holidaymaker and is the departure point for the ferry to the World famous dive destination of Cozumel (about a 45 min ferry ride away). If you want to do your holiday shopping then this is definitely the place to do it, as there are three or four streets that consist of nothing more than shops bars and restaurants.

We headed for a bar on the beach and enjoyed a beer listening to a Mariachi band limbering up for the afternoons work. This limbering up was not restricted to strumming a few chords but concentrated on lubricating the vocal chords with a few Coronas. To ensure they remained in peak condition we bought them a beer and after a chorus of “Salud” they treated us to a song. It appears that the Mariachi grapevine works very efficiently, as no sooner had they disappeared than a second band, this time a duet of guitar and harp arrived and after they had done their bit a lone Mariachi arrived. It soon became apparent why he was alone, he must have been the worst Mariachi in the world. Having assaulted our ears for about fifteen minutes, Dick asked him how much money he made from each bar he visited; Senor Mariachi replied that he made around 20 pesos. “Here’s 100” said Dick “Can you go and play five bars away”. We got the joke but thankfully Mr Mariachi didn’t but shuffled off to inflict pain elsewhere. We got back early evening and after a couple of beers and something to eat as we had an early start the following morning for one of the highlights of our trip namely, Cenote Diving.

For those of you who have not heard of Cenotes (Say No Tays) they are the entrances to flooded cave systems. As the Yucatan is comprised of limestone, there are no surface rivers and all the water runs underground in massive cave systems (effectively underground rivers). In places the roof of the cave has collapsed allowing access to the water from the surface. It is these holes that are the Cenotes and in Mayan times they formed the major source of water for the local people and to some extent they still do. Even though we had seen pictures, we were still not prepared for the size and beauty of our first Cenote, aptly named Grand Cenote. The “pit” was about 50m wide, 80m long and around 10 –15 metres deep. The material from the ancient roof collapse had effectively formed an island ringed by water. This island had lush vegatation and an impressive population of two-foot long iguanas. To say that the water was clear was an understatement, to say that it was crystal clear was closer to the truth but even this does not justify the clarity. The bottom of the entrance chamber (some 6 metres or so) was so visible, that it was difficult to accept it was that deep. Having done our safety checks, we began the dive, as it is fresh water and underground the water temp was considerably colder than the sea but nonetheless a perfectly acceptable 24 degrees. I have to say, this dive must rate as one of my most memorable dives to date. The walls of the cave were a brilliant white colour with magnificent Stalactites, Stalagmites and columns everywhere. All to soon the dive was over and it was back to the dive centre for lunch. As we had booked a two-tank trip we decided to make the “Temple of Doom” our second Cenote dive. This Cenote is a bit more remote than the first and involved about a quarter of a mile walk down jungle trail in full gear, bearing in mind that the air temperature was in the high 80’s, we could not wait to get into the cool water. The Temple of Dooms’ Mayan name means the cave of the Skull, and when we reached it, all became clear, the entrance was a 10m wide circular hole with a drop of around 4 – 5 m into a green pool two smaller entrances gave the whole thing the appearance of a skull. The only way to enter the cenote was to do a 4metre giant stride (quite an experience).

The dive began with a descent over a debris cone to a depth of around 17m. What made this cenote so different than the first was that unlike Grand Cenote which was entirely fresh water, Temple of Doom was not only deeper but also contained both fresh and sea water. Where these two layers met there was a pronounced Halocline and when the layers became mixed the water took on a syrupy appearance. If you add the issue of this bizarre visibility to the buoyancy issues of changing to and from salt and fresh water all taking place at 17m inside sometime narrow cave passages it all added up to a very interesting experience. The deeper we went inside the cave the more stunning the cave decoration became all too soon we had used a third of our air and it was time to return to the entrance. The sight of the sunlight streaming through the green surface water was a stunning sight and on surfacing we were surrounded by hundreds of bats both swooping around us and roosting overhead in the cavern roof.

Our main regret about the Cenote diving and in particular the guys at Aktun divers, was that we did not have the time to do more diving with them. Unfortunately the next day was already ear marked for the ruins at Tulum, Shopping and packing for our reluctant return to the UK. Both Dick and I agreed that if we ever returned to Mexico we would do more Cenote diving and even do our cavern or possibly cave diving courses.

The final day of our Mexcellent adventure was spent visiting the Mayan ruins at Tulum, a bit touristy but to see this Mayan city perched on the cliffs above the turquoise Caribbean was worth sharing with a few busloads of American tourists screeching about. We had been told of a place just up the road called Casa Cenote where we decided to have lunch. This large cenote has a passage that runs underground before exiting in the sea approximately 6m offshore from a nice restaurant. It was weird to sit eating and drinking whilst watching the fresh water well up into the sea. It was with a heavy heart that we headed back to Akumal to pack our gear and prepare to leave first thing the following morning.

Since our return to the UK we have reflected on our two weeks in Mexico we all agree that it is a fascinating and exciting country that is well worth a return visit and we thoroughly enjoyed our Mexcellent adventure.
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