Just thirty kilometers from the sandy shores of southern Quintana Roo lay an aquatic oasis ripe with adventurous appeal. An hour and a half boat ride (on a calm day) from the quaint coastal fishing village of Xcalak will take you into the middle of blue water, with no land in sight; and, it is from these intense depths of over a thousand meters that the glorious atoll, Banco Chinchorro, juts straight up from the ocean floor. Known locally as a cemetery for ships from centuries past, this 46 km by 15 km elliptical atoll is the largest in Mexico. Covering over 800 square kilometers, Banco Chinchorro is comparable to the overall size of Cozumel; however, with less than 1% of its mass above water, it is the sub aquatic magnificence that calls out to divers and snorkelers worldwide.
I will never forget the first time my eyes fell upon the Banks. As if drawn into a trance, I could not move my gaze from the brilliant blue patch piercing the middle of the sapphire waters of the open ocean before me. The intensity of the turquoise color was a tribute to a very shallow, very large sandy area reflecting the mid-morning Caribbean sun. One of the three famed islands of Chinchorro came into view as we motored closer to the shallow waters.
Capitan Tito told us that we were seeing Cayo Centro. As this was said to be the largest of the three by far, weighing in at 5 square kilometers, the tiny land mass before us accounted for a majority of the 1% terrestrial composition of the Banks. Just to the north of us though still beyond eyesight was Cayo Norte, which is actually comprised of two islands, less than 1 square kilometer each, separated by a canal 300 meters wide. Later that day, we would pass the final of the three, Cayo Lobos, which housed a whopping four palm trees and took less than five minutes to walk entirely around.
Cayo Lobos, or Wolf Cay, earned its name from the now extinct tropical seals that used to inhabit the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. The Monk Seal (Monachus tropicalis) was known as the “dzulá” or “tsíulá” by the Maya but were later nicknamed the lobo marino (marine wolf) by the Spaniards. Last sighted in the second half of the 20th Century, the monk seal became widely hunted in the 16th Century during the Spanish Conquest for its skin and oil and was declared extinct in 1975.
Banco Chinchorro earned its reputation as a “ship cemetery” during the 16th century among the sailors maneuvering their ships from Cartegena, Colombia toward Havana, Cuba before embarking on the trip back home to Spain. The currents and dominating winds would force close passage of these wooden vessels to the great reef of Chinchorro. Remains have been found of at least 18 ships that met their watery grave between 1600 and 1800.
More recent additions to the nautical obituaries include the British cargo ship, the Glenview, which sank in 1960. She went down close to Cayo Centro, not far from where the Ginger Scout sank just four years prior. The Cassel, The Firestar, El Tropico, El Huba, and El San Andres are a few more of the countless boats – known and unknown - strewn along the windward side of the Banks. Long time divers in Xcalak tell stories of snorkeling the windward side on a super-calm day and floating over wreck after wreck; some hardly recognizable, some coral encrusted, and some still sticking above the water. There is even rumored to be a German U-boat lying motionless on the ocean floor after a non-victorious encounter with the atoll, a slender spike out of the ocean floor in the middle of nowhere.
This sought after windward side is only accessible on days of extreme calm, but the rest of Chinchorro offers divers and snorkelers immense forests of healthy, vibrant corals separated by fields of sandy bottoms, which are riddled with little garden eels poking their timid heads out of their holes. Colorful schools of Caribbean fish, clusters of black coral, sponges large enough to accommodate a small family, conch, lobster, turtles, rays and anemones are a few of the riches you can expect to see. And, with a majority of the atoll between 3 and 5 meters, snorkelers see as much sealife – if not more! – as their scuba diving companions.
Banco Chinchorro is one of the few remaining undiscovered treasures of the Quintana Roo coastline, and Sac-Be wants those looking for a place “that only a handful of people have been before” to have a shot at visiting this marine masterpiece for themselves. This is not a venture for the faint of heart for it does require a 3 to 4 hour drive from the Riviera Maya, the weather is not always cooperative, and most of Xcalak’s fine accommodations rely upon solar and wind for their electricity. But, this up and coming Costa Maya vacation destination is truly a gem, especially if you long for what it “used to be like” here in the Riviera Maya. Also, as readers will learn in a future Sac-Be article, the local diving of Xcalak is superb! It alone is worth the drive.
Check out our Xcalak map as well as our Xcalak advertisers on these pages for directions, ideas for accommodations, and dive shops to help you along your way. Just be sure to tell them Sac-Be sent you.
By Dani Knod