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  • 2000-06 On the Road to Chinchorro
    By Brad Doane
    Descending quickly in an attempt to stay together, it becomes readily apparent that we are doing a lot more than drifting.

    The river of water quickly begins to split the group up as we try desperately to reassemble our party, but to no avail. The dive is aborted. Ironically, with a total bottom time of only 10 minutes, I surface beaming. In those brief moments, flying along sloping white sands dotted with lush reefs, I have been given a first glimpse of the fabled reef system known simply as, Chinchorro.

    Seaside watering holes, dive shacks, docks and the other haunts of nitrogen junkies have long echoed with tales of deep-sea adventure. Throughout the years, wide-eyed audiences have sat transfixed, listening in awe to stories about encounters with denizens of the deep and rumors of mystical, far away places with names no one can pronounce, let alone spell. Chinchorro is one of those places.

    A biosphere reserve off the Mexican State of Quintana Roo on the eastern edge of the Yucatan Peninsula, Banco Chinchorro (Chinchorro Banks) is a reef system the size of Cozumel. However, unlike her island cousin 150 miles to the north, Chinchorro has seen scant few visitors. Lying about 20 miles offshore, and with poor roads to the adjacent coastline and long bumpy rides in pangas from ports far to the south, Chinchorro has historically been relatively unattainable. All that changed a year ago with the construction of a dive resort at Costa Maya, the closest accessible point to Chinchorro. Now I was getting my chance to dive a legend.

    About 18 nautical miles off Costa Maya, we have arrived in the lee of Chinchorro’s reefs. There are only two other divers with me on this first day. We chat excitedly about our wild ride on the first dive as we look for a break in the currents. Sprawled out before us, as far as the eye can see, the deep blue of the Caribbean abuts the emerald green reefs of Banco Chinchorro. Finding a respite from the swirling waters, we eagerly dive again.

    Barrel sponges taller than a man jut skyward, while swarms of fish take refuge behind massive seafans that vibrate in the onrush of the changing tides. There are enormous, velvety, Orange Elephant Ear Sponges that look like cozy, undersea beanbags. Hard corals compete vigorously for real estate in the flow of the planktonic soup bathing the reefs. Many species of corals exceed the maximum sizes I’ve seen listed in identification books. Sponges, same species believed only to grow at much deeper depths, flourish in shallow waters. Dive after dive, I am mesmerized by the size and scope of Chinchorro’s treasures. Everything is big and beautiful and untouched.

    In two days of diving, we never see another boat. It is a magical step back in time. To see things the way they had appeared to the first divers in the Caribbean is a moving and unforgettable experience. No other boats or divers. No scars from anchors or errant fins. Everything here is as nature intended, and all I can do is smile. Chinchorro has delivered.

    The next day I venture to the Yucatan’s interior, deep in the Mexican jungle. There, from a hotel perched on a hilltop, I swap my tanks and reg for a mountain bike and race down rugged paths that wind through thick foliage to the mythical ruins of Kohunlich. After exploring the ruins, I spend my afternoon sailing leisurely along the shores of nearby Bacalar Lagoon. In the evening, the full moon ignites. Crimson with the setting sun’s last light, it’s as if the jungle itself has opened its great canopy to release the moon into the night sky.

    The following day finds me on the road north. Highway 307 cuts through the jungle from the Belize border to Cancun, and is the main artery feeding the coastal areas with money-laden tourists and other supplies. For hours, the green wall of the jungle whizzes by, the pavement becoming hypnotic in its unwavering course. I break the spell with a short visit to the seaside Mayan ruins of Tulum, before continuing my migration northward. Numerous small roadside towns host large signs touting diving and snorkeling in the crystal clear cenotes, natural openings to the labyrinth of flooded cave systems honeycombing the karstic, Yucatan peninsula. Unable to deny my gills any longer, I pull off just south of Puerto Adventuras and join a guide to dive the Taj Mahal cenote.

    Descending through a crack in the earth, daylight quickly fades. Looking about, I feel as if I’m swimming in an ant farm! Narrow tunnels suddenly bloom into massive chambers. Stalactites and stalagmites cast eerie shadows, while small fish flit about indifferently. A merging of fresh and salt water causes a halocline, which momentarily blurs my vision. As I surface in an air pocket, my light finds a few of the local cave dwellers, hanging by their feet only a couple of feet above my head. Down to the predetermined “turn around” tank pressure, I trace the guideline back to the skylight in the jungle floor.

    Finally I return to Cancun, where my journey through Mexico began. I opt for one last day of diving and some Cancun nightlife before heading home.

    In one week, I have dived the fabled Banco Chinchorro, explored the crystal water and eerie stillness of the Taj Mahal as well as as the warm waters off Cancun. I have visited ancient Mayan ruins on the coast and deep in the jungle, mountain biked, hiked, sailed, swum... One would think that I would be content with all I have experienced in such a short span. I am not. There were still so many things left to do here.

    As the plane banks to the west, I gaze out the window. Watching the pale blue waters of the Caribbean give way to the white sand beaches and then the thick Mexican jungle, I hear the words slip from my lips, “I’ll be back.”