You like to dive? So do we!
Central America’s Caribbean coast has so much to offer the recreational diver — and at a reasonable range of prices. If you’re familiar with Border Tramp, then you know how to get around these parts on a budget — which is good, because diving is sure to be something you save your bills for. Whether you’re stopping over in Utila to get certified or dropping into some cenotes in Tulum, diving in Central America is a highly recommended experience. So we’ve showed you how to get around these parts on 20 bucks a day — now we’re going to show you where and how you could be spending those extra savings.
Dive: Utila — Get certified, then get advanced certified, then do your divemaster, then never leave. Ever. Seriously.
Isla Mujeres // Whale sharks
I had heard about the whale shark experience for years and never gave it much thought more than, “I’m sure it’s cool. It’s also $100.” Out of budget out of mind. I was wrong. YOU HAVE TO SWIM WITH WHALE SHARKS. It’s one of those skip-meals-take-out-a-loan-charge-it sort of expenses. IT WILL BLOW YOUR MIND. Do it. And you should probably do it from Isla Mujeres.
There are lots of places along the Caribbean coast that offer whale shark tours for upwards of $200 — that’s because they aren’t located near to the sharks feeding ground. Isla Mujeres is ground zero when it comes to these giants. The plankton that results from the algae blooms off the coast here appeals to the palate of the whale shark the way a plate full of succulent grilled meats and fresh vegetables at a summer barbecue would appeal to yours or mine. They love it, they crave it and they come in droves every May through September to skim the surface and eat it. And we get to enjoy and observe them extremely up-close and personal.
Sea Hawk Divers shop owner Ariel says the sharks have always come to these waters but the commercialization of their migration is a recent development over the last decade. A few of the sharks are tagged with a sort of homing device so the more than a hundred boats that come from all over the Mexican Caribbean coast can find them each morning. From Isla Mujeres, it is generally no more than 30-45 minute boat ride from shore.
IMPORTANT NOTE: If you want the best whale shark experience, locals say to come in August — that’s the best month.
Dive Isla Mujeres
Diving in Isla Mujeres is definitely a treat, and particular to the Caribbean diving experience. The Museo Subacuático de Arte is quite a site to see — a population of life-size statues under the sea, it’s hard not to be impressed. And it is something unique to the diving experience of Isla Mujeres. The reefs here are vibrant and something to enjoy — sea turtles, sting rays and loads of fishies to admire. There are several dive sites to explore here — although we missed it, Media Luna is supposed to be quite impressive with a series of tunnels and caves to penetrate.
Prices vary on the island when it comes to diving and whale shark touring. You’re likely able to get a whale shark tour for around $65usd at the low end of the spectrum. Things to consider are what the tour offers (Lunch? Wetsuit or life jacket? gear? Shade on the boat?) The ride out to the sharks can be 20 minutes or and hour depending on the day. And depending on the weather that day the ride can be enjoyable, or pure torture for those prone to sea sickness. Expect to spend time on the idle boat while your tour takes turns in groups of 2 or 3 entering the water at a time — rocking in the swells of the open sea can take its toll on a sensitive stomach.
Diving prices are comparable at around $70 to $100 for guided fun dives. If you plan on doing both, try to strike some deals with diving one day and seeing the whale sharks another day. You should be able to come up with some prices under $150usd total — food and gear included.
Tulum // Cenotes
If you’ve come to Tulum with the intentions of diving, most likely your diving designs involve the deep, dark and spooky cenotes — a geographical feature found mainly in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. The options are plenty for the certified diver — beautiful, crystalline waters punctured from top and bottom with the sparkling spires of stalactites and stalagmites, respectively. Slowly twisting your way through the labyrinthine maze of rock formations you’ll be amazed by your fascination with an underwater world that seriously lacks what likely got you hooked on diving in the first place — marine life! The ground-filtered waters of the cenotes are nearly void of any flora and fauna; there are some tropical fishies, snails and crabs to see — but that’s not why you’re there.
The Pit and Angelita are two cenotes in the area that boast a hydrogen sulfuric cloud, a dense and drastic change in opacity at about 30m caused by organic decomposition. In Angelita this manifests as an underwater river of sorts — with gnarled trees breaking through it’s wispy currents. And beneath the cloud there is another world of clear and high visibility salt water.
Ran by Paolo, a Swiss transplant, this shop is very professional and will take you diving even if you’re the only one in the group — as I was. Great divemasters and great lunches provided for the two-tank dives.
Two-tank guided cenote dive, transportation, lunch, equipment included (park entrance fees not included — range from $8-20usd/$100-250 pesos)
One-tank guided cenote dive, transportation, lunch, equipment included (park entrance fees not included — range from $8-20usd/$100-250 pesos)
Two-tank reef dive, transportation, guide and equipment included
Discover Scuba: $85usd
Open water certification: $375usd
Advanced open water diver: $335usd
tel: Paolo 984 131 27 67
Av. Tulum Mz 4 Lt 1 Esquina Centauro Sur
(in front of policia federal)
Mot Mot Diving
Located alongside a bakery under the same owner, Mot Mot is a professional outfit with savvy divers eager to help and guide you through your underworld underwater adventures in Tulum.
Two-tank guided cenote dive, park fees, transportation, lunch, equipment included.
Two-tank guided dive of The Pit and Dos Ojos — park fees, transportation, lunch, equipment included.
Three-tank dive of The Pit and Dos Ojos — park fees, transportation, lunch, equipment included.
(Note: Dos Ojos has two separate lines to dive: the Barbie line and the bat cave, each requiring a tank and therefore being two separate dives.)
tel: 984 802 5442
Av Tulum 570 entre Orion y Beta Sur
Kay Op Dive Club
Good gear, knowledgeable guides and friendly service — Kay Op is a great option for your cenote diving needs here in Tulum.
Two-tank dive in Dos Ojos — park fees, transportation, lunch, equipment included.
Two-tank dive, one deep dive (Angelita or The Pit) — park fees, transportation, lunch, equipment included.
Two-tank guided cenote dive (not The Pit or Angelita) — park fees, transportation, lunch, equipment included.
tel: 984 164 40 40
Located next to the bus station on Av Tulum
Caye Caulker // The Blue Hole
Home to the second largest barrier reef in the world and with numerous small cayes just off the coast — Belize is a veritable aquarium under the surface swell. Eagle rays, reef sharks, dolphins, and moray eels and barracudas as big as your brother — it’s unlikely you’ll be disappointed in these waters, in fact quite the opposite, I’m sure. Dive shops here don’t tend to be too competitive — all offer the same trips more or less for the same price. Finding one that suits your tastes is the best bet around here. However, if you came here with intentions of completing PADI courses, you may want to think twice. Citing increases in fuel prices and PADI course material, an Open Water Diver course on Caye Caulker now costs $450usd. Pretty unfathomable when you can complete the same course in Honduras for under $300usd.
There are more than a few shops to check out once on the island — Frenchie’s and Belize Diving Services being the two largest outfits, along with Big Fish and Scuba Sensations. Scuba Sensations is more or less a one-man show who does dives and courses on an as needed basis, for this the shop makes for great custom trips and a personalized experience.
The Blue Hole dive trip is the best deal you’ll get on the island. For $250usd you get three dives — one at the hole, one at Half Moon Caye and one at Long Caye. You’ll probably stop off at Half Moon Caye to have lunch and explore a bit. There is a red-footed booby and magnificent frigate bird sanctuary at one end and hermit crabs the size of your head throughout.
The Blue Hole dive, as you’ll surely hear from fellow divers along your journey, will likely not be the highlight of your SCUBA career, but the whole trip package is an undeniable pleasure (lunch and rum punch included). After the short, less than 30 minute, Blue Hole dive where you reach maximum depth of 40m you head over to the reef systems not far off. In the hole you can expect to see reef sharks gliding in and out of the deep dark abyss, some stalactite and cave formations and not much else. On the reefs you’ll see reef sharks and everything else. Halfmoon Caye has a great wall that drops off into depths that would shame the Blue Hole. Here there is a friendly neighborhood of barracudas, rays, sharks, large groupers and every little fish in between. The Long Caye site is equally impressive with all sorts of the marine life and incredible coral formations you were missing in the hole.
The boat ride from Caye Caulker to the hole is just around two hours and can be rough depending on the weather. And keep your eyes peeled for pods of dolphins in the deep blue — we were fortunate to be joined by a pod of somewhere near 100 dolphins frolicking in our wake on the ride home.
And if you don’t have the time, interest or money to devote to the Blue Hole dive, Esmeralda is another fantastic site to chalk up a couple fun dives in your logbook.
Utila, Bay Islands Honduras
Cheap diving with accommodations included
Parrot’s Dive Shop
This local-owned dive shop is the most likely culprit of why our five-day stay stretched to nearly three weeks. The owners, Alfred and Tatiana, are probably the nicest people you will meet on the island and their house parties are a must while you’re in Utila. It takes a special couple to invite hoards of international travelers to their incredible treehouse-style home for barbecue and unlimited beer.
But, the reason you’re really here is for the diving, and luckily Parrots provides just as stellar dive trips as they do parties. The prices are competitive with the other dive shops, and in most cases (on most days) probably the cheapest. You may even be lucky enough to get a free t-shirt and breakfasts out of the deal. The diving instructors are a perfect balance of professional and fun; and the regular crowd of dive masters are knowledgeable and a lot of fun under the water. Ask around to see which dive master would be best for your fun dives — some prefer the deep dives others like the tropical fish in the shallows — whatever floats your boat. Parrots offers everything from open water to dive master training and everything in between. The accomodations here are basic — but hey, if you’re diving with Parrots then it’s free! We could not have asked for a better experience in Utila — diving or just hanging out. Parrots was a perfect fit for us and we’d venture to say most other trampers would be impressed with this dive shop.
RATES (cash only)
Open water / Advanced open water / Rescue diver – $289usd
(Includes two free fun dives, accommodations and a free breakfast from Friendly Girls Cafe)
Dive Master – $950usd
As far as lifestyle on Utila goes — it’s hard to beat living on the Underwater Vision grounds. Great dorms, airy and clean, beach volleyball with daily matches (careful when going up against the instructors!), a bar and restaurant and of course, great diving on offer. As far as free accommodations with dive shops go on the island — Underwater Vision is very competitive.
Open water / Advanced open water – $278usd
(Includes free accommodations and two free fun dives upon completion)
Rescue diver – $286usd
(Includes free accommodation and two free fun dives upon completion)
Alton’s Dive Shop
When we say that Underwater Vision is competitive with their housing, Alton’s would seem to be the shop they are competing with. Depending on availability, you could even set yourself up in a private cabin for two right on the water. There is also a nice two story dock, fun for socializing and jumping off into the clear blue water below. Remember prices for dive courses on the island are competitive and being a walk-in can be an advantage when it comes to trying top fill in courses.
Open water / Advanced open water – $299
Little Corn Island
Those who know me know that I have long had the dream and goal to travel to the moon — or at least into outer space. And yes, I do think it will happen. But, if by some extenuating circumstances my life expires before realizing this goal, I know that my night dive in Little Corn Island will serve me as a comparable experience. If you’ve been on a night dive then you know the thrill and beauty of a sea illuminated only by the spotlight of your torch, and you know the tranquility of breaching the surface to a sky full of twinkling stars — night dives are a great and worthwhile experience. But good God — it is unfair to all other dives anywhere how inexplicably incredible a moonlit dive in the waters off Little Corn Island is.
For starters, I spotted a Hawksbill sea turtle nestled in a coral cove immediately after descending. Then, as we made our way along the reef we saw what seemed to be at least a hundred sleeping midnight parrot fish laying on their sides against the sand and stones. And just when we thought it couldn’t get any better and we were headed to the boat, our three minute safety stop turned into a 15 minute tour with an octopus scurrying about the sandy seafloor. And it was all so incredible, but it was the endless string of pearls bio-luminescence that make this the dive of a lifetime.
Once we reached a nice sandy patch, our dive master signaled for us to turn off the lights. We did. And as our eyes adjusted to the darkness, the skies above us would flicker with lightning from an approaching storm. The water was an absolute nothingness around us, blackout, and as though it were a piece of construction paper punctured and held against the sun — hundreds of stars surrounded us there under the sea. Of course they weren’t actually stars. They were tons of itty bitty ostracods flashing their goods hoping to get lucky for the night, because the night belongs to lovers, right? And just as the term suggests there seems to be an order to their presence as they are quite reminiscent of a string of pearls, swathed throughout the water around you. And then there is a disturbance in the patterns — movement. We begin to swim along the reef in the dark, able to keep in the group by seeing the movement of the little glowing crustaceans.
We spent half the dive with our flashlights off. You could make out your group simply by seeing what looked like hundreds of little Tinkerbell fairies fluttering throughout the water. I forgot I was even underwater — I was in outer space. Here I was, with some friends and a great dive master floating weightlessly through the galaxy. A quick flash of lightning from above quickly relocates me to the beautiful coral of Stanley’s Reef. How could it be that just hours earlier we had dived this site in the broad daylight? It was completely foreign to me now; just like I’ve always imagined floating through the galaxy.
Dolphin Dive Center
The most reliable dive center on the island, sometimes there is another shop opened about 100m down whose owners, instructors and reputation change with the wind. Dolphin Dive has some of the best guides we’ve dived with — fun, knowledgeable, passionate and understanding about people’s experience and what you want to get out of your dive. A really great outfit here.
1 tank – $35
2 tank – $65
5 tank -$150
10 tank – $280
Blowing Rock, 2-tank dive (amazing) – $95
PADI Open Water – $305
PADI Advanced – $240 / $250 with night dive
PADI Open Water / Advanced combo – $500 / $510 with night dive
PADI Rescue Diver – $230 / $300 with Emergency First Responder (required) included
PADI Divemaster – $850