Thursday, January 24, 2008

Snorkling, scuba diving and caving in Mexico

Mexico may not be the first destination you think of when you are looking for madcap adventure, water sports and thrills, but when you look further at what this large and diverse Central American country has to offer, you will surely be surprised. Beyond the fajitas, margaritas and (delightful) señoritas there is a world of adventure and experience waiting to be discovered.

The eastern states of Quintana Roo and Yucatán are usually remembered for American Spring Breakers slamming tequila and grinding in the Cancún clubs and for the huge and impressive Maya-Toltec pyramids and ruins around Chichén Itza and the Mayan Riviera. However this coast also looks out over the vast Atlantic Ocean, the warm Caribbean Sea and the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

This has its pros and cons: the warmth, humidity and geography of the area makes it hugely vulnerable to the devastating effects of major storms and hurricanes, but it is also these factors that combine to support the world’s second largest reef, with its beautifully colourful marine life, stunning coral formations and breaking waves.

Aside from the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and perhaps a few choice spots in the Indian Ocean, this reef is unsurpassable as a place to pull on those flippers and dive off the back of a boat. Many trustworthy (and otherwise) tour guides, boat hire companies and independent instructors send launches out over the crystalline waters to the best locations for swimming alongside stingrays, multi-coloured dolphin fish and tiger sharks. Scuba diving and snorkelling are both well catered-for here, and if you pick the right season and the right day (not a windy day on the eve of Hurricane Stephan’s summer visit), the subaquatic sights you can see are astounding.

For those who prefer slightly more off-the-beaten-track thrills, a 3-hour trip inland can get you to one of Mexico’s unique ‘cenotes.’ These are inland, water-filled underground sink-holes, where years of water coursing along beneath the surface of the land has eventually led to a collapse of the limestone roof at ground level, leaving huge gaping holes above, and access to freshwater natural wells beneath.

In this part of Mexico there are few or no rivers above the ground, and the Mayans used the underground springs and cenotes as their source of water, their religious places and the locations for sacrificing virgins… nice! These days the burgeoning tourist industry organises trips for camera-bearing foreigners, and aspiring Jacques Cousteau types.

Cave diving is not everyone’s cup of tea. It can get quite dark and cold down them there holes, but if sinking beneath the surface of a watery cavern and dodging the huge stalagtites and stalagmites is what gets you off, Mexico is truly unrivalled, as no other country on Earth can offer such exquisite examples of this phenomenon.

Diving of a different sort is also a popular pursuit in Acapulco, on the Pacific west coast of Mexico.

Brave (or perhaps stupid) young cliff divers congregate in this part of the world, which Mexicans consider to be more of a Mexican-type holiday destination than those out west, to challenge each other and themselves to competitions of incredibly daring high diving tricks.

This is one challenge I would personally shirk, not trusting my coordination, agility and timing enough to believe that I could throw myself off those cliffs without plunging into a literally back-breaking belly flop at the bottom, but if you are that guy or gal, Acapulco is not to be missed.

With the ever-present danger of eating some dodgy beans and falling foul of Montezuma’s Revenge, most might think a day at the beach or a walk around some awe-inspiring pyramids is adventure enough, but with all that this beautiful and welcoming country has to offer in the line of adventure, all you thrill-seekers out there could do a lot worse than visit Mexico.

Niven Whatley

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