Trip Spotlight: Dive Mexico’s Manta Valley

“I’ve now swum with thousands of mantas, but each time I see one, it still takes my breath away.”

Dr. Andrea Marshall, National Geographic

Accomplished scuba diver, trip guide and underwater photographer Rodrigo Friscione was born into diving; his family has been in the diving business for as long as he can remember. An early passion for freediving and spearfishing later morphed into scuba diving and underwater photography, and involvement in research and conservation efforts through pelagiclife.org. Many more of his images can be found on his photography site.

Rodrigo, rumor has it you were one of the first divers to explore The Manta Valley. How did it begin?

Many years ago, I used to enjoy spearfishing, which is a freediving sport. While I was looking for new spots—and fish—I heard about some seamounts that were way offshore, supposedly good for fishing. This was in early 2008 and back then, the shrimping boats used to anchor out there overnight because the seamounts had created a shallow spot where it was safe. I took my first trip out there in March or April of that year. It’s over 100 km (60 miles) from Cancún, so you do need very good weather and a good boat to make the trip; it’s not easily accessible.

What did you find out there, on that first trip?

Not a lot of fish! But the moment we dropped into the water, we saw several giant mantas that were just resting on top of the sea grass, where the little fish were cleaning them. Because we had gone out there to freedive, we didn’t have the right gear to spend a lot of time in the water with them, unfortunately. After that, I started obsessing about the idea of going back and scuba diving with those mantas. But on the next trip, a few months later, we didn’t find any. No one else was doing this, so it was a lot of trial and error at first. It’s a long, expensive trip that takes lot of fuel and planning—not a location where you can just pick up and go on a whim.

“No one else was doing this, so it was a lot of trial and error at first. It’s a long, expensive trip that takes lot of fuel and planning—not a location where you can just pick up and go on a whim.”

Giant manta ray at a “cleaning station,” Manta Valley. Photo by Rodrigo Friscione.

 

When did you next see the mantas?

When I returned to the site in September ’08, conditions were perfect: We saw another 6 to 8 mantas in the same area. The rays were very friendly and docile—they had probably never seen a diver before.

“I got very excited about it and started to go out there to dive 3 or 4 times a year, just taking friends and family with me at first. I began to figure out the patterns of the weather, watching the moon cycles, tides and currents to predict the best possible conditions and the best times to see the mantas.”

Once I got it figured out, we had very good luck. By now, we’ve taken more than 30 trips to The Manta Valley, with about a 70 percent success rate—and it keeps improving.

Friendly local in The Manta Valley. Photo by Rodrigo Friscione.

 

Let’s talk about the rays! These are giant oceanic manta rays?

Yes! Aside from just being beautiful, amazing animals, mantas are really smart— they are the fish with the biggest brain. They have good memories; they recognize divers and patterns. And they don’t just swim by, they seem interested in us. They’re very curious and interactive—they enjoy the bubbles, make eye contact. I’ve seen them position themselves so the little fish can clean them better. They are fascinating. Oceanic mantas are the really big ones, while reef mantas are smaller. On average, these mantas have a 10- to 15-foot wingspan. They might even be a third species, which is what Andrea [Marshall] was really interested in.

Dr. Andrea Marshall is the world’s leading manta ray expert—National Geographic, right? How did you happen to connect with her?

Right—I had discussed the Manta Valley site with someone I knew and he recommended me to her. Andrea got in touch in 2015, and I ran an experimental trip with her. It was a short encounter, but the rays were out there and she got very excited about them. We then scheduled and ran a 15-day research trip so she could get some photo IDs.

Dr. Andrea Marshall and Janneman Conradie on a research trip in The Manta Valley, Mexico. Photo by Rodrigo Friscione.

 

Why was Dr. Marshall so excited about this particular manta population?

They might be a third species, potentially. Our rays here are slightly bigger than the ones she’s been studying in Asia. Their pigmentation is also different from what you usually see, and it’s a big population. I have personally documented more than 30 different mantas out there, and I think Andrea documented more than 300 individuals when she was last here—and that was just snorkeling. So, it seems possible to me that this remote population could have evolved with their own genetic markers. As I understand it, she’s working on some genetic studies to determine that.

Do the Manta Valley rays seem to stay in the valley, or do they migrate?

Well, we don’t know for sure, but it doesn’t seem like they go very far—this spot in the Gulf is so rich, they have everything they need within a few miles. The water is being pushed into the Yucatán Channel and the mantas seem to like that stretch of warm water; they can move within a small area for feeding and breeding. And it’s not easy for humans to get to, so they are fairly safe. We’ve learned that the best time to see them out there, in the best conditions, is between August and November.

 

Giant manta cruising the coral reef, Manta Valley, Mexico. Photo by Rodrigo Friscione.

 

What else might divers expect to see? What are the seamounts like?

Every seamount is unique because the conditions around it create it, eventually forming a micro-ecosystem. A lot of seamounts were formed by hot spots in the Earth’s crust, but this site is different—it’s mostly coral. The depth of it running north is about 300 feet, then the seamount comes up from 300 to about 70 or 75 feet. So, that remaining 230 feet was just formed by coral building on top of each other. It’s like an underwater mountain at a shallow depth.

“The Manta Valley is located right where the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea come together, so you get a lot of different types of fish from both of those environments—frog fish, nudibranches, toad fish, bat fish, big pelagics like African pompano, turtles once in a while, oahus. I’d say it’s one of the last pristine reefs in this area.”

And it’s remote. You won’t bump into other divers out there—it’s at least a 3-hour trip and it means getting up at 5 a.m., so that’s not a casual thing for most people. It’s amazing and well worth the effort, but it is a commitment.

Diving with mantas is a lifelong dream for a lot of people. How much experience does a diver need for this trip?

The depth is around 70 feet, so Open Water divers can do it, but it’s not a trip for brand new divers—it’s a long way offshore, with strong currents and other conditions that require some experience. We want people to have least 40 to 50 dives under their belts before they do this, so we know they’ll be safe and enjoy themselves.

How do the charters typically work?

We purposely keep it small. Our trips are designed for a maximum of eight people and they are only available by advance reservation, as it does take a lot of preparation and planning. As operators, our first consideration is safety, of course. Going out that far, you want a trustworthy, seaworthy boat in case the weather turns. The second thing is speed: As I said, it’s a long way, so in a slower boat you’d be looking at more like a 5-hour ride, and that’s just too long for a daytrip. Third, we want it to be comfortable. For a long daytrip like this, you need shade, you need space for tanks and for people to rest.

With all that in mind, the main boat we use is 42 feet, 500 hp, very comfortable, spacious, and fast—we get out there in 3 hours. We leave the dock before 6 a.m., so everyone is checking in at 5:30. We are at the site by 9 a.m. and diving by 9:30.

Giant manta investigating a bubble stream. Photo by Rodrigo Friscione.

 

What’s included in the trip?

We plan for two dives. For groups that have been out to the site before and know what to expect, we could add a third dive on request. We always have tanks, weights and air on board. Rental equipment can also be arranged, of course, and we can provide Nitrox for an additional charge. We include breakfast and lunch, and we always have plenty of drinks and snacks on board, too—I make sure of that, because I’m a big guy and I need a lot of food!

Understood! It always pays to be well provisioned—hungry divers are cranky divers. Is there anything else people should know before they sign up?

Just that it’s an incredible experience and worth the effort. And we also have a great fallback plan, in case the mantas don’t show—though like I said, most of the time, they do! There’s a nice tugboat wreck we can dive on the way back to shore, with a lot of life all around it.

 

Many thanks to Rodrigo Friscione for sharing his expertise and beautiful manta ray images. Yucatan Dive Trek is now offering private and small group charters to The Manta Valley, starting in August 2017. Space is very limited—please contact Yucatan Dive Trek for reservations or more information.

~ ~ ~

Yucatan Dive Trek is a full-service tour operator based in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, catering to travelers who seek authentic experiences and one-of-a-kind encounters. We specialize in unique diving holidays, organizing and customizing trips to the best destinations in the region—in and under the water as well as on land.

 

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Mexico, Off the Beaten Trek: Valladolid

Did you miss the introduction to Off the Beaten Trek? Diving the unspoiled reefs of Xcalak, meeting the crocodiles of Banco Chinchorro, exploring the jungle ruins of Calakmul and colonial Valladolid, diving in the “magical cenotes” and getting up close with the largest congregation of whale sharks in the world—these are just a few of the unique experiences that Yucatan Dive Trek can organize for small groups, families or individuals. This series follows a custom itinerary designed for Extratour, a specialty travel agency based in Germany.

Enclosed garden behind the 16th-century monastery, Valladolid, Mexico

Only a short drive from Mexico’s sparkling Caribbean coast (and the popular tourist hubs of Cancún, Playa del Carmen and Tulum), the colonial city of Valladolid remains a world apart. Its stone-paved streets and carefully restored historical sites offer a glimpse into the past, while Old World hotels and many fine restaurants ensure that every modern comfort is available.

Established in 1543 by Spanish friars, who in turn, built over an ancient Maya ceremonial center, Valladolid is the oldest city in Yucatán state. Today it has the comfortable, centuries-old air of a town in southern Spain, though with a growing cosmopolitan flair and distinctive cultural blend all its own. Part of its appeal may be due to its relative obscurity, though the city has been luring artists and expats from around the world for years. Since being designated a Pueblo Mágico (“Magical Town”) in 2012, Valladolid has come into its own as a destination—its colorful haciendas, unique artisan shops and relaxed vibe favored by couples and families more than package tour groups. Under the Pueblos Mágicos program, sponsored by a coalition of conservation-focused agencies, great care is taken to keep a town’s authentic look and feel. Tourist dollars are steered toward local businesses, and cultural and historic attractions that benefit the whole community are carefully maintained.

Brightly painted buildings line the streets of Valladolid in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula

“Coming straight from the jungle ruins in Calakmul to Valladolid gave a nice variety to our trip. Such a lovely city with so much history! It has a lot of character, with all the old colonial buildings, parks and churches. You really feel like you are in the heart of Old Mexico.”

– Kirsten Clahr, Extratour

A 16th-century church and former monastery, dedicated to San Bernardino de Siena, anchor the city’s very walkable downtown area, where artisans’ shops and quiet cafés are set amid lush gardens. A stroll along the wide (and traffic-free) “Avenue of the Friars” can easily take up half a day, with stops along the way to look at all the high-end crafts, and to sample local specialties like house-made chocolates and tequilas. Along with its many manmade charms, Valladolid is a natural beauty, built around several cenotes and surrounded by rainforest. Cenote Zací, just a few blocks from the main square, is a popular place to cool off on a hot afternoon, for locals and visitors alike.

Valladolid is also the perfect place to get acquainted with Yucatecan cuisine, a blend of flavors and techniques that evolved from the region’s many different culinary influences: Mayan, European, Caribbean and even Middle Eastern. From unique spins on the humble tamale to elaborate pibiles (marinated spiced meat, usually pork or chicken, slow-roasted in banana leaves) that take many hours to prepare; the food is very different from what most people think of as “Mexican” fare.

“Our Yucatan Dive Trek guide arranged everything for us: the best restaurants, a tour of the beautiful 16th-century monastery, and visits to places that you would never see in more touristy parts of the country—places we would not have easily found on our own. We visited hat-makers and perfume-makers who do everything by hand, and we stopped at a local tequila distillery for a tasting.”

An attractive destination on its own, Valladolid also makes a perfect base for exploring other parts of the region. Yucatan Dive Trek can organize daytrips to Izamal, Cobá, Mérida and more, as well as outings to lesser-known attractions, such as visiting Xkopek, a small farm and traditional apiary passed down in the same family for generations. The hosts offer a full tour of their property, set around a dry cenote in the rainforest, and Maya beekeeping demonstrations complete with honey tasting.

“I especially loved our visit to the Maya beekeepers! Such lovely people, and the dry cenote was so interesting to see, with all the native plants and insects.”

While hardly a secret anymore—The New York Times has called it “a city of Yucatán cool”—Valladolid remains a refuge from mainstream tourist centers, preserving its history and traditions while embracing a vibrant, multicultural future.

~ ~ ~

Many thanks to Kirsten Clahr of Extratour and photographer Beo Brockhausen, who contributed first-hand trip reports and images to this Off the Beaten Trek series.

 

Yucatan Dive Trek is a full-service tour operator based in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, catering to travelers who seek authentic experiences and one-of-a-kind encounters. We specialize in unique diving holidays, organizing and customizing trips to the best destinations in the region—in and under the water as well as on land. Extension trips to Valladolid can be scheduled year-round. Please contact Yucatan Dive Trek for more information.

 

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Mexico, Off the Beaten Trek: Calakmul

 “The Calakmul Biosphere Reserve represents a heroic effort to preserve the Mayan heartland: not a tree can be felled, not an animal hunted.”Travel & Leisure

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Who were the ancient Maya? Entire museums and academic departments have been devoted to the study of their complex societies, mythologies, art, languages and—perhaps the most compelling mystery of all—the sudden collapse of a once-powerful civilization (now believed to have been caused by rapid deforestation and drought). And while there are many places to see Maya ruins scattered across the continent, none compare to Calakmul.

Hidden deep within the Tierras Bajas, the second-largest tropical forest in the Americas, Calakmul is the largest site uncovered to date in the Maya lowlands. Yet, due to its remote location and protected status, it receives relatively few visitors—none of whom arrive by tour bus. One narrow road, only recently paved, leads into the vast reserve. Near the entrance is a small parking area, a ranger station and a restroom, but you won’t find food carts, touts or souvenir stands. For travelers interested in Maya history and culture, it offers a fascinating glimpse into a lost world. And wandering through the ruins undisturbed, except perhaps by the cries of a toucan or howler monkey, is like going back in time.

“Most people have only heard about the ‘famous’ ruins: Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Tulum. What’s wonderful about Calakmul is that it’s completely non-commercial, still surrounded by jungle and wildlife. It’s nothing like Cancun, where you have tour buses lined up in big parking lots…it feels like you are going out into the jungle to explore it for the first time.”

– Kirsten Clahr, Extratour

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Located in the state of Campeche, Calakmul is a both a protected Biosphere Reserve and an important archeological ruin—making it Mexico’s only “mixed” UNESCO World Heritage Site. The sheer scale of the place is impressive, though perhaps not obvious at first glance. Continuously inhabited by the Maya for more than 1,500 years, the city’s extensive, well-preserved ruins extend across a 70-kilometer stretch of rainforest. Remarkably, only an estimated 1 percent has been excavated to date.

Noted for its three massive stone pyramids and numerous stelae (large, carved tablets), Calakmul’s remains stand gray and silent amid the constant movement and murmur of the surrounding rainforest, alive with tropical birds and butterflies. Wild boar and Yucatán turkeys forage alongside the entrance road. Under the jungle canopy, it’s common to spot keel-billed toucans, lineated woodpeckers, Yucatán parrots and more. The reserve is also home to a variety of monkeys and six species of jungle cat, including jaguars, along with a variety of other native species—many of which are endangered or threatened.

Known as a seat of the Maya Snake Kingdoms and primary rival of Tikal, Calakmul is now believed to have been one of four regional centers of power during the Classic period. Calakmul’s Snake King commandeered a bloody war against Tikal for decades, sometimes gaining territiories and treasure, sometimes losing them. Those who venture to the top of its steep pyramids today are rewarded with a sweeping view over the treetops, giving a sense of how truly enormous the lowland empire once was.

 

“Walking around, you don’t realize how big it is at first. You have to climb at least one tower to get that endless view above the jungle—amazing! Imagine what it must have been like at one time, with the streets full of people, and now it’s empty. It’s like everyone in New York suddenly disappeared, and the city was overtaken by vines and trees overnight.”

– Joe Graham, Absolut Scuba

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Development is prohibited in the reserve and there is very little infrastructure in the surrounding areas, so it’s crucial to make arrangements for Calakmul well in advance, and to go with a knowledgable guide. The Extratour group included several photographers who were most impressed by the isolation of the site and natural surroundings. One guest reported: “It is definitely off the beaten track, within a dense jungle. I had not heard about it before and not many tourists come here, so you mostly have the pyramids to yourself.”

 

“Yucatan Dive Trek arranged for a local guide who told us a lot about the area and its history, which was so interesting. Our accommodations at Calakmul were also wonderful and unique. We were very cosy in our nicely decorated bungalows, with the jungle sounds all around us at night…it’s quite romantic!”

– Kirsten Clahr, Extratour

“We enjoyed the trip to Calakmul very much! It was great to break up the diving days with something different and cultural. Our guide also took us to visit a nearby bat cave on the evening of our arrival. I’ll admit some of us were thinking, ‘OK, some bats are going to come out…,’ but it was millions of bats, spiraling up from the cave opening at sunset, like a silent tornado of bats. I’ve never seen anything like it! And it just kept going and going. Our photographers had a lot of fun with that.”

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Thanks to Kirsten Clahr, General Manager of Extratour, and photographer Beo Brockhausen who contributed first-hand trip reports and images to this Off the Beaten Trek series. Many thanks also to photographer Joe Graham, co-owner of Absolut Scuba, for the use of his images and impressions of Calakmul.

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Extratour group atop the tallest known Maya pyramid at Calakmul (Campeche, Mexico)

Did you miss the introduction to Off the Beaten Trek? Diving the unspoiled reefs of Xcalak, meeting the crocodiles of Banco Chinchorro, exploring the jungle ruins of Calakmul and colonial Valladolid, diving in the “magical cenotes” and getting up close with the largest congregation of whale sharks in the world—these are just a few of the unique experiences that Yucatan Dive Trek can organize for small groups, families or individuals. This series follows a custom itinerary designed for Extratour, a specialty travel agency based in Germany.

Yucatan Dive Trek is a full-service tour operator based in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, catering to travelers who seek authentic experiences and one-of-a-kind encounters. We specialize in unique diving holidays, organizing and customizing trips to the best destinations in the region—in and under the water as well as on land. Extension trips to the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site can be scheduled year-round. Please contact Yucatan Dive Trek for more information.

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Mexico, Off the Beaten Trek: Diving Banco Chinchorro

Did you miss the introduction to Off the Beaten Trek? Diving the unspoiled reefs of Xcalak, meeting the crocodiles of Banco Chinchorro, exploring the jungle ruins of Calakmul and colonial Valladolid, diving in the “magical cenotes” and getting up close with the largest congregation of whale sharks in the world—these are just a few of the unique experiences that Yucatan Dive Trek can organize for small groups, families or individuals. This series follows a custom itinerary designed for Extratour, a specialty travel agency based in Germany.

 

Banco Chinchorro crocodile encounter with XTC Dive Center (video courtesy of Kirsten Clahr, Extratour)

 

The Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve is the stuff of legends among seasoned divers, best known for pristine reef diving and wreck diving, and more recently, for the crystal-clear lagoon that is home to a large population of wild American crocodiles.

Part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System (or Great Maya Reef) that runs along Mexico’s Caribbean coast, Chinchorro is the largest stand-alone reef in the Northern Hemisphere and one of the healthiest. Remote, isolated and challenging to access on most days, Chinchorro is considered one of the last unspoiled dive destinations in the Caribbean. This may be because the Biosphere Reserve can be accessed only by special permit from the Mexican federal government—and only when Mother Nature is in an agreeable mood. Fewer than one thousand divers per year get to experience it in person, so to call it “special” is something of an understatement: there is nothing else like it in the world.

Within its protected waters are miles of untouched reef, dozens of visible shipwrecks (many of historical significance) three small atolls and many endemic species, including the American crocodiles that inhabit the shallow, clear lagoon.

XTC Dive Center, Yucatan Dive Trek’s sister facility in Xcalak, Mexico, is the only dive operator with a private permit for Chinchorro. XTC was the first to organize skin-diving with crocodiles in Chinchorro, which is probably the best place to observe crocodiles in the wild, and remains the only one with an official concession to do so. These “Crocodile Encounters” are intentionally kept very small and conservation-oriented, often run to support researchers or documentary projects. A unique opportunity for underwater photographers and videographers (as you can see from these and additional images on the XTC Dive Center Croc Blog), Crocodile Encounters are available to any experienced diver with a sense of adventure—though naturally, the few spots on these trips fill up well in advance.

XTC's Matias Van Asch with crocodile friend, Banco Chinchorro
XTC Dive Center’s Mathias Van Asch with crocodile friend, Banco Chinchorro, Mexico

 

Smile! Extratour group getting up close with Chinchorro crocs
Smile! Extratour group getting up close with Chinchorro crocs in the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve

 

Extratour’s Kirsten Clahr, who took a small group to Chinchorro as part of a Yucatan Dive Trek trip, reported:

“We did not know what to expect in Chinchorro; I had no knowledge of the place at all. I had been told about the crocodiles in advance, but I didn’t realize that we would also be diving out there, among beautiful reefs and shipwrecks.”

“It was so nice to be with the crocodiles. We saw so many different characters and individuals. You can see in the pictures and video how close we were. Some people asked me later if I was afraid, but I was too excited to be afraid! I had seen one or two wild crocodiles before—you can seen them in Cuba—but this was completely different.”

Fear can be a very individual (and common) response, understandably so. But most of the people who take these trips return with a different view of the animals—namely, that they are not the mindless, vicious predators that television and movies have taught us to fear. American crocodiles are not known for attacking humans, and while being in the water with them requires constant vigilance and respect, as it should, they are generally more curious than aggressive. Both the Crocodile Encounter participants and XTC safety divers have called these crocs “intelligent” and even “playful,” reporting many distinct personalities among the group (see the XTC Croc Blog for more details).

XTC provides safety training and works closely with CONANP, a national conservation agency that oversees the Biosphere Reserve, to ensure that all participants—crocs included—are well protected. Divers who do the Crocodile Encounter typically spend 2 to 3 days in Chinchorro as part of a larger trip that, in Extratour’s case, included a mix of off-the-beaten track diving, trekking through Maya ruins and other cultural stops around the Yucatán Peninsula—all well away from mainstream tourist centers.

 

XTC dive boat approaching the fisherman's hut in Banco Chinchorro
XTC dive boat approaching fisherman’s hut in Banco Chinchorro lagoon, off Mexico’s Caribbean coast

 

Because there are no permanent settlements allowed in the Biosphere Reserve, accommodations for the Chinchorro croc trips are quite simple. Guests sleep in hammocks, strung from the roof in an existing fisherman’s hut-on-stilts over the crocodile lagoon. Meals, which are ample and included, are prepared by XTC staff who have master the art of “sea camping.”

“I loved it! Sleeping in the fisherman’s hut and just being immersed in nature every day. It’s like camping on the sea…I tell people it’s ‘a zero-star accommodation in a 5-star environment.’ The luxury of Chinchorro is the nature that’s all around you: the stars and the sunrise, and the animals. I don’t think there is anywhere else in the world where you can experience this—it’s really special.”

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“Diving Banco Chinchorro is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Some of our group told me it was the best thing they had done in 20 years of diving.”

– Kirsten Clahr, General Manager, Extratour

Many thanks to Kirsten Clahr, General Manager of Extratour, and her husband, underwater photographer Beo Brockhausen, who contributed trip reports, photos and video to this Off the Beaten Trek series.

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ydt_photo_map_no_picsYucatan Dive Trek is a full-service tour operator based in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, catering to travelers who seek authentic experiences and one-of-a-kind encounters. We specialize in unique diving holidays, organizing and customizing trips to the best destinations in the region—in and under the water as well as on land.

Day trips to dive Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve are scheduled year-round, and Crocodile Encounters (a skin-diving activity) are available in the summer months.

Please contact Yucatan Dive Trek for more information.

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Mexico, Off the Beaten Trek: Dive into Xcalak

Did you miss the introduction to Off the Beaten Trek? Diving the unspoiled reefs of Xcalak, meeting the crocodiles of Banco Chinchorro, exploring the jungle ruins of Calakmul and colonial Valladolid, diving in the “magical cenotes” and getting up close with the largest congregation of whale sharks in the world—these are just a few of the unique experiences that Yucatan Dive Trek can organize for small groups, families or individuals. This series follows a custom itinerary designed for Extratour, a specialty travel agency based in Germany.

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You’re Going Where?

It’s fair to say that many travelers, even those who’ve been to the Yucatán Peninsula, have never heard of Xcalak. It takes a little practice just to pronounce it correctly (try “ish-keh-LAK“), and a bit of extra effort to get there. The southernmost town on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, only a few kilometers from the border with Belize, Xcalak is a small, traditional fishing village that sees very few tourists. Perched on the narrow peninsula that divides Chetumal Bay from the Caribbean Sea, it is remote in the best sense of the word: just a few hours’ drive from the glossy resorts of the Riviera Maya, but a world apart in every other way.

You won’t find high-rise hotels, manicured beach clubs or nightlife there, and the locals intend to keep it that way—Xcalak’s protected status came about at the behest of the community and is the result of a cooperative, thoughtfully designed plan between the village, the federal government and several conservation-focused NGOs. In Xcalak, cell phones don’t work very well (if at all) and internet access is “intermittent” at best. Most of the lodging options are small, family-owned beach inns that run on renewable energy and thus, don’t offer amenities such as air-conditioning and cable TV. Why, then, would experienced divers travel from around the world to vacation literally at the end of the road?

As is often the case in travel—and life—the answer can be found just below the surface. Extratour’s General Manager Kirsten Clahr, who has been organizing dive trips across the globe for 20 years, took a chance in bringing a group to a place she had never been herself, trusting Yucatan Dive Trek to customize a “Best of the Yucatán” itinerary.

Diving with Tarpons. Xcalak. Mexico. from Alfredo Barroso on Vimeo.

“I did not know what to expect from diving in Xcalak, but the diving was so nice! The reefs are in beautiful condition. We saw many fish and creatures I had not seen before, like flamingo tongues. Also impressive was the topography of the reef itself, with hangovers and small tunnels that you swim through.”

– Kirsten Clahr, General Manager, Extratour

Located within the Xcalak Reef National Park, a protected and extremely biodiverse ecosystem of coral reefs, mangroves, rivers, lagoons and bays, Xcalak is an uncrowded, unspoiled paradise for nature lovers. It many not attract a lot of people, but those who do find it are usually the type that are happy it’s barely on the map: nature photographers, bird-watchers, kayakers, fly-fishing enthusiasts and, of course, divers looking for that last frontier. The park’s pristine, vibrant reef system is part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, second-largest barrier reef in the world, and home to dozens of unique, untouched dive sites. And if that’s not enough, the legendary Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve is less than 40 nautical miles away.

The sleepy village of Xcalak (pop. 400) may look like an unlikely hub for world-class diving, but the real hub is on a quiet beach just outside of town, at XTC Dive Center. XTC (which stands for “Xcalak to Chinchorro”) is a PADI 5-Star Dive Resort and Instructor Development Center, and the only dive operation running trips in both locales. Their state-of-the-art, self-contained facility is the only one of its kind on the entire coast. Due in part to the remote location, XTC is designed as a one-stop shop for recreational, technical and professional diving at every level.

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XTC Dive Center in Xcalak, Mexico, facing the Caribbean Sea

 

Xcalak Reef is one of the healthiest in the Caribbean, and many of its fantastic dive sites are only 5 to 30 minutes away from XTC’s private pier. One of the better-known sites is La Poza (see video above), also called “The Tarpon Hole,” where divers drop down the coral wall into an underwater highway of 3- to 7-foot-long tarpon, large schools of jack and snapper, and giant, midnight-blue parrotfish. La Poza is the only formation of its type in the entire Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System. Lining its coral wall are lobster holes, morays, schools of small fry, black corals and many other exotic inhabitants. At the end of the dive is a pinnacle called Piedra del Mundo that rises from the bottom of the trench to 15 feet below the surface—the perfect place for a safety stop.

 

Cave dive, Xcalak Reef National Park
Cave dive in Xcalak Reef National Park, Mexico

 

“La Poza was my favorite place! I think it’s the only place in the world to see a school of tarpon that size—they are 3 to 4 meters in length and there are hundreds of them! I went out there for 4 or 5 dives and it was excellent every time.

– Kirsten Clahr

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You can find out more about diving in Xcalak on the XTC Dive Center website. The Xcalak Reef National Park protects species of amazing biodiversity both under and above the water. Along with 31 species of listed land mammals, many of which are rare and/or endangered, there is a large population of manatees in the bay, some of which show up at the dive sites on lucky days. The Xcalak wetlands are also a designated Ramsar Site, making this national park one of the most widely and thoroughly protected in the region, with enough measures in place to ensure it stays that way for years to come.

Manatee in Xcalak Reef National Park, Mexico
Curious manatee in Xcalak Reef National Park, Mexico

 

“Our clients really did not know what to expect on this trip, especially in Xcalak. After one day, they understood completely! They constantly told me how unique this experience was for them. The trip was designed intentionally to show them something different, and people really appreciated it.”

– Kirsten Clahr

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Many thanks to Kirsten Clahr, General Manager of Extratour, and her husband, underwater photographer Beo Brockhausen, who contributed trip reports, photos and video to this Off the Beaten Trek series. Thanks also to Alfredo Barroso / Azul Oceano for the video of La Poza!

Tune in next time for field notes and pictures from Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve, home to miles of protected reefs, hundreds of shipwrecks, and the largest population of wild American crocodiles in the world….

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Yucatan Dive Trek is a full-service tour operator based in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, catering to travelers who seek authentic experiences and one-of-a-kind encounters. We specialize in unique diving holidays, organizing and customizing trips to the best destinations in the region—in and under the water as well as on land.

Please contact Yucatan Dive Trek for more information.

 

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Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula: Off the Beaten Trek

Dividing the Gulf of Mexico from the Caribbean Sea and encompassing Mexico’s three westernmost states, the Yucatán Peninsula offers much more than its famous white sand beaches and all-inclusive resorts.

Where else is it possible to skin-dive with a huge school of whale sharks, walk in the footsteps of the ancient Maya, swim in crystalline cenotes, stroll through colonial towns layered in history and tradition, explore pristine, protected reef systems and encounter American crocodiles in the wild—all in the same trip?

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Divers encounter a curious nurse shark in Banco Chinchorro’s protected waters.

 

Beyond the high-rises of Cancun, the Yucatán is geographically, biologically and culturally rich, home to the Maya Lowlands and numerous UNESCO World Heritage sites, as well as protected biospheres, marine parks and wildlife corridors. The second-largest barrier reef in the world, the Mesoamerican Reef, stretches along its western coastline, providing myriad diving opportunities—the best of which are not found in the well-known (and often overcrowded) tourist areas. Miles of underground river systems, accessible through cenotes, are hidden beneath the jungle, creating seemingly endless options for cavern and cave diving.

Kirsten Clahr, general manager of German travel agency Extratour, explored just a few of these places on a customized, small group trip she led recently with Yucatan Dive Trek.

“The whole trip was just amazing—such a big variety of things to see and do. Our company’s aim is to go off the beaten track. We take our clients to remote areas where they will experience something new, and that’s exactly what this trip was about.”

– Kirsten Clahr, General Manager, Extratour

 

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Shipwreck dive in Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve

 

Getting off the beaten track in Mexico requires local knowledge, connections and know-how. And although she is an avid diver and experienced world traveler with 20 years of tour industry experience, Kirsten had never been to any of the places on her itinerary previously—in fact, she had never even heard of some of them prior to reserving the trip. Yucatan Dive Trek and its sister operation XTC Dive Center arranged everything in advance, also providing end-to-end trip support.

Kirsten said, “When I was booking this trip, some of our guests told me, ‘we don’t need a tour guide,’ but I convinced them of the value.'”

“Our guide was there not only to drive us around and translate, but to show us the most interesting places and take us to the best restaurants—places we would never find on our own—so we could relax and enjoy the experience without worrying about the next stage. For me, it was a very relaxed trip—normally I am the tour guide!”

Even if it were possible to arrange some of the pieces independently, relying on local guides enriches the experience and smoothes out logistics, not to mention supporting the local economy—a value that should not be overlooked. Extratour’s trip focused heavily on diving of course, and their private dive boat was often the only one in sight. There were several professional photographers in the group, including Kirsten’s husband, Beo Brockhausen, and she reported they were “especially happy” to have access to pristine, uncrowded dive sites and unhurried encounters with wildlife.

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The untamed waters off the Costa Maya, just a few hours’ drive from Cancun, offer untouched reefs and abundant wildlife—but you have to know where to go.

 

The next few posts will follow Extratour’s custom itinerary “Best of the Yucatán,” from diving the remote reefs of Xcalak and meeting the crocodiles of Banco Chinchorro, to exploring the jungle ruins of Calakmul and colonial Valladolid, to diving the “magical cenotes” and getting up close with the largest congregation of whale sharks in the world. These are just a few of the unique experiences that Yucatan Dive Trek can organize for small groups, families or individuals.

Take a look at Kirsten’s trip highlight reel below (complete with mood-setting Caribbean soundtrack), and stay tuned for new posts featuring Xcalak Reef National Marine Park and Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve—both about as far “off the beaten trek” as you can get.

 

“Best of the Yucatan” highlight video courtesy of Kirsten Clahr

 

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Kirsten and Beo at Calakmul with Yucatan Dive Trek, looking over the jungle from the top of an ancient Maya pyramid.

Kirsten Clahr is the general manager of Extratour, a specialty travel agency based in Göttingen, Germany. An avid diver herself with nearly 20 years of industry experience, Kirsten is always looking for new and exciting destinations off the beaten track. She particularly loves underwater encounters with wildlife.

Beo Brockhausen, Kirsten’s husband, is an accomplished underwater photographer who often joins her on trips and shares his photography advice with her groups. His work has appeared in well-known magazines such as Unterwasser, Atlantis, and Tauchen.

Kirsten and Beo contributed photos and video to this series of posts, featuring a custom “diving-culture-adventure” itinerary operated by Yucatan Dive Trek.

 

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Yucatan Dive Trek is a full-service tour operator based in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, catering to travelers who seek authentic experiences and one-of-a-kind encounters. We specialize in unique diving holidays, organizing and customizing trips to the best destinations in the region—in and under the water as well as on land.

Please contact Yucatan Dive Trek for more information.

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