Underwater and Out-of-the-Way: Exploring Xcalak and the Banco Chinchorro

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By Bobbi-Jo Dobush

Spring 2017. I was searching for a truly tropical week: warm water diving and a beach to savor the dozen books I had pending.  With only seven days to spend, the South Pacific was out of reach from San Diego. I ruled out Belize  – I was looking for some tranquility that the easily accessible spots don’t provide.  I considered Cozumel, but I wanted something new. So began my lifelong obsession with the village of Xcalak and the surrounding seas (I’ve only been once, but I know I will go back). 

Xcalak sits a stone’s throw from Belize, at the south-easternmost limit of Mexico, and at the center of the Mesoamerican reef system.  Incredible in its own right, Xcalak also serves as a gateway to the Banco Chinchorro, a UNESCO biosphere reserve since 1996.  The world underwater has been recognized as spectacular: the Mesoamerican reef is a Mission Blue Hope Spot and in 2016 the Mexican government established the Mexican Caribbean Biosphere Reserve, a 5.7 million hectare, largely underwater, protected area which covers almost half the length of the Mesoamerican reef.  Robust dive communities in places like Cozumel, Ambergris Cay, and the Bay Islands are a testament to the exceptional nature of the reef.

Lesley Buckerfield

But I wasn’t looking for a thriving dive scene – or any scene – what I was looking for was some rest.  Xcalak is less than 30 miles from busy San Pedro in Belize, but it is another world.  It is the oldest town on the Mexican Caribbean coast and was a bustling port in the early 1900s.  After a hurricane in the 1950s, its population never rebounded.  Today, the approximately three hundred residents depend on small-scale fishing and, to a lesser extent, eco-tourism. 

Travelers go to Xcalak for fly-fishing, bird watching, kayaking, and tours of the mangroves, but what mattered to me is that diving is magical.  The surrounding sea has been protected as the Xcalak Reef National Park since 2000.  Because of this, schools of tarpon, rays of all kinds, and corals as glorious as any I’ve seen in the Caribbean thrive in abundance, even within the confines of the reef.  I went diving locally in Xcalak as well as at the Banco Chinchorro with XTC Dive Shop, a local dive shop with the perfect combination of uncompromising professionalism and beach-life attitude.  (As well as some incredible murals, one featuring an Anais Nin quote, “I must be a mermaid.  I have no fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living”).

Bobbi-Jo Dobush
Mikaela McCarthy

Xcalak is literally at the end of the road, and visitors rarely make it past the cruise port town of Mahajual, forty-five minutes north.  Because of this, Xcalak is quiet, and any tourists are there on purpose, one of the highlights of my time there was getting to know other tourists (which I’m quite sure I have never said before).  Many of the visitors were coming from their own off-the-beaten-path locations; I heard my new friends tell different variations of the same story: a move somewhere slightly out of the way, followed by something even farther afield.  I met dedicated environmental advocates, people who grow their own food and make their own wine, and folks who had travelled all over the world.  The diverse group shared a love for nature and outdoor adventures of all kinds.   

Local Dive Sites

Xcalak boasts more than a dozen very local dives sites.   At La Poza (“the puddle”), one of Xcalak’s best-known locations, I settled in the sandy bottom to watch giant schools of tarpon circle overhead.  I arrived in Xcalak on the first diveable day after a week of high winds – perfect conditions for La Poza.  The choppier the sea, the more tarpon and groups of eagle rays you can expect to find at the site because both take shelter close to the reef and my group saw an abundance of both on the days I dove.  I learned that La Poza is famous in certain circles – one of my dive companions was in Xcalak specifically to photograph the tarpon en masse.  Because the eagle rays and the tarpon are so outstanding, no one seems to mention that the wall itself is incredible, and La Poza would be a great dive even without the pelagic life.

XTC Dive Center
XTC Dive Center
XTC Dive Center

My personal favorite dive in Xcalak was La Chimenea (the chimney).  At La Chimenea, our group passed under an overhang reminiscent of diving a cenote while another group of newly certified divers wound through a complex world of canyons and channels.  We reached the dead end of a beautiful swim-through only to ascend – completely vertical – through a cylindrical chute just big enough for a diver and her tank.  Floating upward as slowly as possible in order to savor the moment, I emerged atop a glorious forest of coral and found the other group of divers waiting at the top.  Our combined group was lucky enough to share our last swim through with a nurse shark and we surfaced talking all at once about how much we had loved the dive.

The Banco Chinchorro

The big day finally came and I joined XTC on a trip to the Banco Chinchorro.  The Banco Chinchorro is a small atoll hosting a string of dive sites in the middle of one of the ocean’s biggest Hope Spots.  It is as remote and wonderful as it sounds, and we only had to brave a bit of open sea to get there from Xcalak.   After a bumpy but exhilarating two hours, the first sign that we were arriving at the Banco Chinchorro was that the water changed from deep to electric blue.  Someone noticed dots of green on the horizon – Cayo Central.  Heading in, we cruised past houses on stilts that looked as though they had survived a tropical storm or two, some with satellite dishes still intact. 

A population of fishers, organized into cooperatives and dependent on seasonal fishing, lives on the atoll on and off throughout the year.  The whole area is tightly regulated and XTC operates with a special permit to take visitors to dive Banco Chinchorro.  On our surface interval we ate lunch (protecting it from the resident populations of pink iguanas, which target the dive groups for their snacks) and took turns laying on a precarious platform looking down at the crocodiles that populate the island’s inner lagoons.

Mikaela McCarthy

Banco Chinchorro is known for its wreck dives (there are over a hundred wrecks in the area, although diving is allowed only in specific locations).  The wrecks lay on the windward side of the island and I was there on a rather windy afternoon, so my group was unable to dive them.  However, during our dives some of the healthiest corals I’ve seen towered over us, including a giant purple fan and a perfect dark green circle so big that without a tank I could have swam through it.  The visibility felt like being on land and, because everyone could see one another at all times, there was plenty of space for exploration.  Our group spotted several different rays and caught the interest of two nurse sharks that stuck with us for most of our dive.   It was wonderfully overwhelming – so much so, in fact, that I slept the whole way home, bumps and all. 

XTC Dive Center
XTC Dive Center

Back on the mainland, the fact that the Xcalak’s waters have been protected for a decade and a half is evident in the sea, on the land, and in the attitude of the residents. To be clear, Xcalak is not immune to the challenges faced by many small coastal towns, including increasing resource pressure as tourism develops and population expands and plastic pollution.  Plastics are ubiquitous on any beach that is not meticulously tended, and – as in much of the region – recycling and disposal options are limited at best. 

In the face of this, many residents and local businesses are taking matters into their own hands. Many of Xcalak’s small businesses are DIY environmental stewards, innovating and sharing solutions to their conservation and disposal challenges.  For example, XTC discourages the use of all but reef-friendly sunscreens, recycles what they can, avoids straws in their restaurant, and collects rainwater for their hotel.  I stayed at the bed & breakfast Sin Duda Villas, run by Lesley and Dave Buckerfield who made it clear – through their actions and steady stream stories – that they have the utmost respect for this little slice of paradise.  Best of all, the beach right in front of Sin Duda is a prime example of Xcalak’s world class walk-in snorkeling.  The joyous Lesley makes the experience complete: she knows every coral, every fish and every eel and will show you the most likely places to see an eagle ray (hint: it’s the place she calls “eagle ray alley”).

Xcalak is a 5-6 hour drive from Cancun airport and a 2-3 hour drive from Chetumal airport (flights from Mexico City, Cancun, and Belize City).  Although most people rent a car, a bus serves Xcalak twice daily, and if you stay in town, you can get around perfectly without a car.  XTC runs variety of local trips and trips to the Banco Chinchorro.  They can also organize bird and manatee watching, boat transport to Belize, dive instruction, and technical training.

Bobbi-Jo is an ocean-obsessed diver, writer, painter, and budding marine conservationist.  The world’s wild places bring her joy and awe and she hopes to inspire respect for and protection of those places.  Relentlessly curious, Bobbi-Jo has an insatiable appetite for travel, art, and hot sauce. Follow her @BobbiJo_Dobush.