Bucketlist Travels logo

Travel bucket list idea:

World-class diving on the Mayan Riviera

  • Mayan Riviera, Mexico

Last updated: 19 April, 2024

The Mayan Riviera offers scuba diving unmatched in variety anywhere else in the world.

The coast is fringed with a long offshore barrier reef dotted with coral islands and with one of just a handful of coral atolls in the Atlantic. The jungle-covered mainland is honeycombed with underground rivers and cenotes, with exceptionally clear water and spectacular cave diving.

You can dive with whale sharks, dolphins and crocodiles, or over underwater art galleries. Sites are rich in species and varied – ranging from spectacular drifts off Cozumel to shipwrecks wrecks galore over the Chinchorro atoll, and while the reef suffers from over-fishing, dive tourism continues to create pressure for the creation of protected areas.

Who to go with: tour operators

11

Alejandros Reef

  • Xcalak, Quintana Roo, Mexico

Green Moray Eel on Alejandros Reef

Experience

The reefs off Xcalak village in the far south of the Riviera Maya are far less-visited than in the busy north, which means better coral and fewer boats. Alejandro’s is an easy horseshoe-shaped reef with great coral and abundant morays – which are hard to see in the north.

Adult price: £100+

Min age 18

Good for age: 18+

Duration: 2+ hours

Cenote Angelita

  • Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico

Cenote Angelita

Experience

Good for snorkelling or diving (without specialist cave-diving certification), Angelita has an eerie gas cloud in its depths – looking like mist in the water, with a web of submerged trees and stalactites jutting-out, and the occasional crocodile.

Adult price: £100+

Min age 13

Good for age: 13+

Duration: 2+ hours

Cenote Chac-Mool

  • Puerto Aventuras, Quintana Roo, Mexico

Cenote Chac-Mool

Experience

This is one of the few cenotes with stalactite-filled caverns you can scuba dive without specialist certification; and it’s easy to reach, just 20-minutes south of Playa del Carmen. There’s plenty of light, spots to surface to air and two huge submerged rooms.

Adult price: £100+

Min age 13

Good for age: 13+

Duration: 2+ hours

  • Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico

These twin cenotes are spectacular: marking the entrance to one of the longest underground rivers in the world – filled with water as clear as ocean air, passing through submerged caverns covered with spectacular cave formations and teeming with strange cave fish, crustaceans and bats. The cenotes are a premium cave-diving location and were used as locations for The Cave movie and the BBC’s Planet Earth documentary.

You don’t need to be a cave diver to visit. Some of the most beautiful caverns are accessible to snorkellers. PADI open water divers can go further and designated cave divers can explore the deeper caverns. Any diving requires advanced booking.

Adult price: £12

Good for age: 8+

Colombia Reef

  • Cozumel, Quintana Roo, Mexico

Colombia Reef

Experience

Usually dived in conjunction with the adjacent Punta Sur, the Colombia Deep is an intermediate to advanced coral wall dropping to over 30 metres. It’s great for pictures. The coral is some of the Riviera Maya’s healthiest, with black coral, beautiful deepwater fans and huge barrel sponges. Turtles are common, sharks occasional.

Adult price: £100+

Min age 18

Good for age: 18+

Duration: 2+ hours

  • Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico

Like great whites and tiger sharks, bull sharks have a fearsome reputation. Getting within metres of these apex predators on a carefully controlled dive is astonishing: and in the clear, calm waters off Playa del Carmen, it’s as safe as any such encounter can be.

While bull sharks are present along the Riviera Maya all year round, dives are possible only October through March, when the more placid females enter shallower waters right off the mainland.

To dive you will need an Advanced Open Water Certification. Choose a responsible dive shop, who don’t use bait – which can be dangerous, and who follow strict distance regulations.

Adult price: £150

Min age 16

Good for age: 16+

Duration: 6-8 hours

Palancar Reef

  • Cozumel, Quintana Roo, Mexico

Palancar Reef

Experience

Plunging coral walls dropping into inky deep, reefs cut with caves and swim-throughs, coral gardens encrusted with huge barrel sponges – Cozumel Islands Palancar reefs have been a top dive site since Cousteau came here in the 1960s. Most dives are drift dives in strong currents, with average depths at 7m dropping to a maximum 38m.

Adult price: £100+

Min age 18

Good for age: 18+

Duration: 2+ hours

Punta Sur Reef

  • Cozumel, Quintana Roo, Mexico

Punta Sur Reef

Experience

With huge caverns, long tunnel swim-throughs, and a good chance of seeing turtles and eagle rays, Punta Sur is one of Cozumel’s most vaunted dive sites. But strong currents and depths over 30 metres means it’s for advanced divers only.

Adult price: £100+

Min age 18

Good for age: 18+

Duration: 2+ hours

  • Isla Mujeres, Quintana Roo, Mexico

Between May and September, the world’s largest fish visits Riviera Maya waters to feed on the large upswells of plankton from the Gulf of Mexico. Snorkelling with them is an astonishing experience, and takes place in open sea. These giant filter feeders, which can reach over 12 metres are astonishingly well-camouflaged – almost invisible in the inky blue until they are almost next to you, then gently swaying past and back into the depths.

Numerous tour operators in Cancun and Playa del Carmen offer snorkelling and diving trips which usually include reef snorkels and lunch.

Adult price: £40

Good for age: 13+

Duration: 4-5 hours

Tormentos Reef

  • Cozumel, Quintana Roo, Mexico

Tormentos Reef

Experience

With plenty of sites for beginners and intermediates, Tormentos is one of Cozumel’s most popular sites. It’s a drift dive, in a strong current, past a spectacular reef wall. Nurse sharks, groupers, turtles, and barracudas are common plus big schools of snappers.

Adult price: £100+

Min age 18

Good for age: 18+

Duration: 2+ hours

  • Xcalak, Quintana Roo, Mexico

The Mayan Riviera is one of the few places in the world where you can get close to a giant American crocodile and live to tell the tale. And as croc encounters take place in glass-clear water you’ll get some great pictures to prove it.

These are generally three day, two-night trips, leaving from the tiny southern Riviera town of Xcalak and travelling out to the remote Banco Chinchorro atoll biosphere reserve. The atoll’s eel grass-filled lagoon is home to the largest numbers of American Crocodiles on the planet. Overnight stays are in primitive fisherman’s stilt huts over the water with the crocs swimming around below.

As well as crocodiles, Banco Chinchorro offers a high chance of encounters with manatees, prolific fish life (including big tarpon) and astonishing stars. There are plenty of opportunities to snorkel over pristine reefs en-route, and you’ll catch invasive lionfish, which are used to feed the crocs. Some trips include optional scuba diving.

Swims with the reptiles are in clear water around a metre deep and a safety diver accompanies at all times armed with a big stick. According to local tour operators at least, the reptiles have too much food to bother with anything larger than a fish.

Adult price: £850

Min age 16

Good for age: 16+

Duration: 3 days

Logistics

Price from: £100
Minimum age: 13
Age suitable: 13+
When: All year around
Duration: 2+ hours

Getting there & doing it

For spectacular coral walls and drift dives head to Cozumel, for wrecks the best location is the remote Banco Chinchorro atoll in the far south off Xcalak village. The reef off the mainland offers easy novice diving, and pretty, turtle-swum coral gardens.

Then there’s the more specialist and adventurous stuff. This includes diving with whale sharks, crocodiles, sailfish, nurse sharks and even apex-predator bull sharks; and cave-diving in the Yucatan’s spectacular cenotes and underground rivers. And not all activities require certificates beyond the basic PADI Open Water.

Diving is easy to organise. There are high quality, English-speaking dive shops on every corner in Cozumel, Cancún, Playa and Tulum. Most offer PADI and other internationally-recognised certification – including in Cave Diving, and ocean diving up to instructor level.

Dives are always cheapest when booked as part of a package, often including accommodation. These are easy to book ahead through dive shop websites.

When to do it

Diving is good all year round, with water temperatures ranging between 24-29C (75-85F) depending on the season. Cenotes are colder and some require wet suits. However, some speciality dives are seasonal.

Bull shark diving (around Cozumel and Playa del Carmen) runs from November through March; Whale Shark season is from June through September. Scuba dives with sailfish run from mid-December to mid-March.

The rainy season from May through October sees the fewest visitors and dive sites are tranquil. The dry season – November through April, can be very busy, especially around Christmas and New Year. June through October is hurricane season.