Playa Del Carmen, Mexico, May 2002

After my experiences with Airtours not bringing my luggage back from the Maldives, I vowed never to go on holiday with them again. However, this trip was already booked, so I didn't have much choice.

When the tickets arrived, I found that the name of the airline had changed to MyTravel, so technically I was sticking to my principles. The plane was a new Airbus 330 and it had all the latest features, including personal TV screens in the back of the seat in front of you and a lower deck area with toilets. Amazingly, the flight even left on time, though the food was reassuringly terrible.

After 10½ hours we arrived at Cancún airport. There are two terminals at the airport. We arrived at the older one. Our seats were near the front of the plane, so we got through Immigration quite quickly and then faced the chaos of the luggage reclaim.

The first set of luggage went on one carousel, and then they decided to use another one. Next, they started removing suitcases from the carousels before they had even been around once and stacking them on the floor. Only the suitcases were removed. All other types of bags, such as holdalls were left on the carousels. So in order to find your luggage, you had to check two carousels and three different piles on the floor.

Beach Picture
Beach in front of Viva Azteca Hotel
Eventually we ended up with a farcical situation of everyone standing right at the beginning of the conveyor belt so that they could get at their bags before they were removed. When you finally got your bags, you had to go through customs. They stopped every single person and went through at least some of your bags. So there was a huge queue. This is just the sort of aggravation that you don't need after a long flight.

Playa Del Carmen is about 45 minutes by road from Cancún airport. As this was a package holiday, transfers were included in the price. It was the second time I'd been to Playa. I backpacked around Mexico in 1990 for 4½ weeks. The place had certainly changed since then. There used to be just two streets; now the town was much bigger. We were staying at the Viva Azteca hotel, which is located in a private development called Playacar, which is south of the town. There are about eight all-inclusive hotels, assorted villas and apartments in the development and a shopping arcade with a bank and ATM. It's been quite tastefully done with tree-lined roads.

The town itself was about 15-20 minutes walk. There are plenty of shops selling souvenirs as well as various bars, restaurants and hotels there. The currency of Mexico is, of course, the peso, which is confusingly abbreviated as '$'. Most tourist places do take US dollars, but they were giving 9 peso to the US dollar. The money exchangers were giving about 9.40. I used my Visa card in the ATM machines and got closer to 9.75.

The Viva Azteca hotel is on the beach. It's an all-inclusive hotel and one of the nice things about it was that everything really was included. Unlike some resorts, there were no restrictions on which drinks you were allowed. If they had it, it was included, though they didn't have any expensive brands. There were three restaurants, one buffet style, one Mexican and one Italian. The only item on the menu that you had to pay extra for was the lobster meal in the Italian restaurant.

Snack food was also available at the pool bar during the day. So if you wanted to, you could eat junk food all day from 10am until 6pm. There were always pizzas, hot dogs and burgers available. There was an ice cream machine on the bar, and you could help yourself.

I was a bit disappointed by the food. I'd been hoping that we were going to have some spicy Mexican food, but the Mexican food that was served had definitely been toned down for the tourists. Even dishes like "albondigas (meatballs) al chile" were only slightly spicy. You certainly wouldn't have described them as hot.

Apart from the lack of fieriness, there was a reasonable selection. Pasta was always available, as were two different choices of grilled meat or fish. In the evenings, they also had a roast joint of turkey, pork or rabbit.

Typical Yucatan houses
In addition to the pool bar, there was also another bar with tables outside in a courtyard by a fountain. Above this bar were the theatre and the disco. There was entertainment every night, with various shows. We had been to Viva Fortuna in Grand Bahama the previous year. Unfortunately, many of the shows were the same. This wasn't such a big deal with the dance shows, but most of the sketches in the comedy shows were also the same, and they hadn't been that funny the first time around.

There was also some entertainment during the day including aerobics, water-aerobics, volleyball, merengüe classes, salsa classes and bingo. The bingo got a bit tedious as every number was read out in Italian, Spanish, English, French and German. Fortunately, the PA system wasn't too loud, so you could avoid it if you wanted to.

The rooms had a bathroom with bath and shower, A/C, twin beds, satellite TV, a safety deposit box and a fridge. The fridge was restocked with bottled water, a bottle of Coke and a bottle of Sprite every day.

The Viva Diving centre wasn't at the hotel. It was at the Viva Maya hotel, which was about ten minutes walk along the beach. So, I wandered down there and filled out the paperwork. I handed over my CMAS 3* card and was asked if it was the same as PADI advanced. After explaining it was a slightly higher qualification, I booked myself in for the following morning. I was told to be there at 8:15am.

The next morning, the wind had picked up and so the sea was quite choppy. On arriving at the dive centre, they explained that they couldn't dive from the beach, but I could go to Cozumel if I wanted. Cozumel is an island off the coast and most of its dive sites are on the west side. So they are sheltered from the prevailing winds.

I decided that I would go, so I packed my gear into a bag they lent me. They gave me a packed lunch, a ticket for the ferry and then they dropped four of us by the ferry terminal. The ferry itself was modern and air-conditioned. It took 45 minutes to get to Cozumel. We were met at the ferry jetty and ushered onto a smaller dive boat, which held about eight of us.

Ik Kil
Ik Kil Cenote
Looking at the tanks, I was glad that I had packed my A-clamp converter just in case. Viva Diving had DIN tanks, but all these tanks were A-clamp. We set off at a fair rate of knots and it was quite a bumpy ride. When we were about halfway there, we were told to put our gear together whilst everything was bouncing around. Quite why we couldn't do this before we left, I don't know.

I'm not entirely sure what the first site was called. I think it was Santa Rosa wall. The wall itself was interesting and there were plenty of swim-throughs. Cozumel can be subject to strong currents, but this time there was hardly any. The water temperature was 28ºC and the visibility was at least 30m. However, whilst the coral was nice, there wasn't a huge amount of fish about. There were some smaller fish and some grunts and snapper. Out total dive time was 51 minutes, including a 3 minute safety stop and we went down to 27m.

At the end of the dive, the DM put up his delayed SMB. It made me feel quite at home. Getting back on the boat wasn't as easy as it should have been. The ladder was terrible. Once you'd climbed up it to deck height, there was nothing to hang onto with your hands. The crew had to hold onto you as you stepped in. It was just as well that it wasn't at all rough.

For our surface interval, we were dropped off at Santa Rosa beach for an hour or so. Then we set off to dive Cedral Pass. The DM told us that this was the best dive site in Cozumel, but they always say that, don't they? It was good. The reef itself was quite flat, though healthy, and the DM still managed to find a swim-through for us. The fish life was much more prolific than the previous dive. We saw loads of grunts, yellow tailed snapper, white spotted filefish, various cowfish and some big barracuda. Then, right at the end of the dive, we came across a couple of nurse sharks asleep on the bottom. All in all, a good dive, with a 55 minute dive time and a depth of just over 18m.

We got back to the jetty at 2.10pm, missing the 2pm crossing. Unfortunately, the next one was 4pm, so we had rather a lot of time to kill. As I hadn't originally planned to come to Cozumel, and hadn't had time to go back to my hotel, I didn't have any money or shoes on me. The town itself was full of jewellery shops and overpriced bars catering for cruise ship passengers. I wasn't impressed and was quite relieved when it was time to leave.

My next dive was off Playa. We went to a site called Tortuga, or Turtle Reef. We went down to about 25m and drifted along in the current. The bottom was covered in sponges, with quite a lot of weed. There wasn't much hard coral, but there were plenty of turtles. I saw at least 15. There was also a large shoal of tarpon. They were all about a metre long and there were at least 60 of then. They made an impressive sight. Our dive time was 44 minutes and our maximum depth was 27m. We spent most of the dive at around that depth, so it was lack of no-deco time that finished the dive. Getting back on the boat wasn't too bad. The ladder was reasonable, if not in the best state of repair.

Our second dive was a site called Sabalos. It was quite a pretty reef with lots of grunts, porkfish, several large barracuda and another turtle. The viz was 25m and we stayed for 45 minutes with a maximum depth of 14m.

A couple of days later, I went back to for another morning's dive. This time we went to a place called Tarpon Deep. The boat was a bit fuller, and most of the people were Italian. One in particular sat up at the front of the boat posing in his sunglasses and hat. I got in the water and descended with my buddy to the sea bed in about 15m. Some of the others took a lot longer to descend, and the guy who'd been posing on the boat didn't manage it at all for some reason.

Pyramid, Chichen Itza
Pyramid of Kukulkán at Chichén Itzá
The sea bottom looked a lot like Tortuga reef. We set off swimming towards the deeper water at 90º to the current. We'd got to about 23m, when the dive guide turned around and started heading back to the shallows to around 15m. One of the Italians had somehow managed to get low on air in less than 20 minutes. The guide sent up his delayed SMB, but fortunately didn't make the rest of the group ascend. He escorted the diver up to 6m, did the safety stop and the re-descended to the rest of us. We did the rest of the dive at about 15m. The dive was much the same as the previous one on Tortuga reef. I saw 5 turtles and the tarpon were there again, though this time they'd split into two groups. Total dive time was 40 minutes and the viz was around the 15m mark.

The second dive was at Chunzubul. We jumped in and hung on a rope out of the back of the boat waiting for the rest of them. The current was just strong enough to be annoying and some of the rest of the boat seemed to take an inordinate amount of time to get ready. Eventually we descended and the whole group made it to the bottom this time. The current on the bottom was much less and we made our way between some nice reefs separated with patches of white sand. There were shoals of grunts and pork fish, a couple of morays, including a small, honey combed one plus various trigger fish and file fish. It was a pleasant and easy dive with a maximum depth of 15m and time of 45 minutes.

The next day, I was going cave diving. The entire Yucatan peninsula of Mexico is limestone and it is riddled with caves. These were formed when the water levels were much lower, allowing structures like stalagmites to form. As water levels have risen, they are now completely flooded. Access to the caves is via sink holes, where the roof of the cave has collapsed. These are known locally as "cenotes", which is the Spanish for well.

Cave diving requires extra training. It's very different from open water diving, and there have been over 300 fatalities over the years. To prepare myself, I'd done an Intro Cave course with Martyn Farr in Wales back in March.

I'd then booked to do some guided cave diving with Protec Diving. Karin picked me up from the hotel and drove us down to Dos Ojos. We followed the main road down to Akumal and then turned off down a rough track through the jungle for 15 minutes.

I'd brought most of my kit, but was hiring a wetsuit and dive light. We were using manifolded twin aluminium 80s and I attached them to my Dive Rite Transpac using stabilising plates. Normally when I dive in the UK with twins, I use a stainless steel backplate and this was the first time I'd used the Transpac with the stabilising plates. I was pleasantly surprised about how comfortable and stable it was.

The wetsuit supplied was 6.5mm. This made the walk down the steps to the water's edge a bit warm, as the air temperature was in the low thirties. The water temperature was 25ºC, so the suit was probably slight overkill for me.

Ruins at Chichén Itzá
Our plan was to first set off along the cavern line to make sure that I was comfortable with everything. Dos Ojos means "two eyes" in Spanish, and it gets its name because there are two entrances to the cave system. The cavern line took us on an interesting dive in a circle around both of the entrances, with the light always visible. There were some nice rock formations and some small fish that followed our torch beams.

Eventually we came to a plastic crocodile with a Barbie doll in its jaws. At this point we reeled off and joined the main cave line. It was at this point that the dive became a cave dive rather than a cavern dive, as we quickly left behind the natural light and pushed on into the dark depths. The water was crystal clear, so with the bright torch I could make out different rock formations, such as stalactites and stalagmites. The little fish were our constant companions swimming in and out our torch beams. One thing was for sure, as a dive site it certainly beat the Welsh silica mine hands down.

The bottom of the cave was clay and there were big piles of silt on the ledges of the honeycombed limestone walls. The cave itself was never particularly narrow, and sometimes opened into big rooms. Without the line, it would have been difficult to tell exactly which way the cave went as it often seemed to go off in many directions.

I was getting near the limit of my gas, so caught Karin's attention with my torch and we turned around. It was now my turn to lead. The cave seemed an awful lot darker now that I was at the front, which made me a bit apprehensive initially, but before long I was enjoying the scenery on our way out. Our total dive time was a substantial hour and 25 minutes, but we never went any deeper than 7.4m.

After lunch, we got ready for our second cave dive, but unfortunately had a primary light failure. We still had 5 lights between us, but that wasn't enough to do a full cave dive, so we did a cavern dive instead. This time we followed a different cavern line which took as through to a bat cave. This had a very small hole in the ceiling, and so the whole dive was very dark, even though we rarely far from an air gap. There were some nice rock formations and we went a bit deeper this time though still only to 9.8m. It was a shame I didn't get to do a second cave dive, but these things happen, and I was refunded the difference between the price of a cave dive and a cavern dive.

The next day, we'd planned to get some culture. We booked a bus tour through the hotel for US$55 to go and visit the Mayan ruins at Chichén Itzá. The ruins are near Mérida, so the trip there takes over 2 hours. There were a number of stops along the way.

The first stop was at a handicrafts market, which sold various souvenirs including wood carvings, chess sets, T-shirts and Mexican blankets. The second stop was at the Ik Kil cenote. The water level is much lower in this part of the peninsular, so the water is about 15 metres below ground level. Steps have been tunnelled down the side of the sinkhole, giving access for swimmers. We only had a 30 minute stop hear, so most of us didn't bother to go swimming, but it was a pleasant spot and worth a visit. We then stopped at a restaurant for lunch. The entertainment was a bit odd. There were dancers balancing beer bottles on their heads.

Next stop, were the ruins themselves. The city of Chichén Itzá was founded in about 700AD and at one time it was probably the largest city in the world. However, by the time the Spanish arrived, it had been abandoned following a joint attack by the Mayan cities of Uxmal and Mayapán.

The most famous building is probably the Pyramid of Kukulkán. This had 91 steps and you are able to climb it. It's not recommended for those without a head for heights. Rather than the usual 45º angle, the steps are actually at 65º and it looks a bit daunting when you look down. There are also a lot of other impressive buildings including a ball court, smaller pyramids and lots of carved hieroglyphs. Since the place was long abandoned when it was discovered, the names given to the buildings probably don't reflect their real use.

We had a guide for the first hour or so, and then another hour and a quarter to wander around for ourselves. It was hot, with the temperature in the low thirties Celsius, but the site is reasonably flat, though there isn't much shade.

Observatory
The Observatory, Chichén Itzá
The tour left at 7am and didn't get back until 9pm, so it was a long day, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and thought it was good value for money. It wasn't the cheapest tour we could have found, though it wasn't as expensive as the tour offered by Airtours (US$67) either. The guide certainly knew her stuff, and we were looked after well. Every time you got back on board the bus, you were offered water or a soft drink.

I decided to dive from Cozumel on the Saturday, so arranged things through Viva and caught the ferry over. We were met at the pier again, and shown onto a larger boat owned by Palancar Divers. Our DM, however, was working for another company whose name I didn't catch.

The boat was much bigger, had drinking water and a toilet on it, and had probably the best dive ladder of the trip. The only disadvantage was that we were sharing it with a group of snorkellers. During the brief, we were told that we couldn't roll in off the sides of the boat, because they were "too high". It was about a 3 foot drop. We were also told the we shouldn't even think about climbing up the ladder in all our kit. Instead we were to take off our weightbelts, pass them up and then do the same with the BCDs.

The divers got in first. There was myself, a German couple, the DM and an American guy who was a DM, and I think was helping out. The German woman hadn't dived for a year, so wasn't very happy with the 25m projected depth limit. The DM said he'd stay shallower and we got in. The American guy paired up with the German woman, but she had various problems and we eventually left the pair of them on the surface.

The site was called Palancar Bricks and consisted of large coral heads and then a drop off. We saw in between the heads and saw plenty of small tropicals, a couple of lobsters and several barracuda, including a large one which was lurking in a hole. At the end there was also a small swim-through. The viz was at least 30m, and my dive time was 48 minutes with a maximum depth of 28m.

Unlike all the other dive guides, this one did not use a delayed SMB, so we made a blue water ascent. Given the amount of boat traffic, I don't think this is particularly wise. I made sure that he broke the surface well before I did.

When we got to the surface, the boat was some distance away, still picking up the snorkellers. We had to wait about 15 minutes before it finally came over to us. During this time, a couple of other boats came over to check that we were OK. When the boat finally came over, the dive guide rather ungraciously got out first by climbing up the ladder in all his kit. So I did likewise. There didn't seem much point in messing about getting undressed in the water.

We then had some lunch. Although Viva had given me a lunch pack, lunch was being provided for the snorkellers, and we were welcome to join in. The snorkellers then went in for a second time, while we had a decent surface interval between dives.

After the snorkellers had come back, we moved off to Paraiso Reef. The guide jumped in first to check the current and then we all descended. There didn't seem to be much in the way of coral, so we came back up again. He'd misjudged which way the current was going and we'd missed it. During the two minutes my computer showed we'd been underwater, the boat had moved away and started putting in snorkellers in the distance. Two boats came to check on us and eventually the second one managed to get our boat on the radio. As we didn't really have a problem, it was just inconvenient, but I wasn't that happy about basically diving with no boat cover.

On our second attempt, we found the reef and drifted along it in the current, which turned around during the dive. It was a pretty reef, with lots of grunts and snapper, butterfly fish, grouper, morays and some hermit crabs. There were also ocean triggerfish swimming around in the blue. Our dive time was 53 minutes and our depth was 12m.

The Temple of the Warriors, Chichén Itzá
My last day's diving was back in the caves. This time we went to Tajmaha, which is much nearer to Playa. For the first dive, we followed the cavern line to a bat cave and then reeled off to the cave line. It was narrower than Dos Ojos, and darker, with more silt. At one point we were swimming down a tunnel, and there was a lot of fine, brown leaf mould silt on the floor. I remember thinking uneasily how it would take with just one careless fin stroke. and the viz would be reduced to zero. As there was no discernable current, it would then take days to clear. The source of the leaves became obvious as a small hole appeared in the roof through which the sun shone.

This cave is deeper than Dos Ojos, and nearer the sea, so there was a halocline with a small layer salt of water at the bottom. When the boundary between the fresh and salt water layers was disturbed, the effect was to make the water seem almost oily. So whilst the viz was at least 50m, it was greatly reduced if you followed directly behind another diver. Our dive time was 1 hour 12 minutes with a maximum depth of 14m.

After lunch, we chose another cave line to follow. There were at least three different entrances that I saw. The cave system there is like a spider's web of tunnels. We swam past the sign warning of the dangers of cave diving and joined the main line. This tunnel was bigger than the other one, with big rooms and lots of stalactites and stalagmites. At one point the cave got shallower and shallower until I felt my fins break the surface. There was an air gap, but no entrance to the surface, so it was pitch black, with tree roots poking through. The cave seemed lighter on this dive, with less silt. Our dive time was 57 minutes with a maximum depth of 12m.

They were two good dives, though I don't think I saw the best the cave had to offer. Several times, I could see other lines going off to the side, and usually towards some really interesting looking stalactites. A gap is left between the main line and the side lines, so that you can't inadvertently follow the wrong one. As an Intro Cave diver, I'm not qualified to jump to these gap lines, but it was still very enjoyable.

On the last day, we had to once again face the chaos that is Cancún airport. Our bus picked us up at 11.45am for a 4pm flight because of the security checks. This involved hand searching everyone's hold luggage. The most annoying thing about it was that it was so pointless. They made you open your bag and then felt down sides of the contents. You could have hidden anything you liked by just putting it at the bottom of your case.

MyTravel had reverted to their old ways on the flight. We didn't start boarding until 3.55pm, so we sat around in the departure lounge for several hours. When it finally came time to board, the airport staff set up some more tables and started to search hand luggage. Fortunately they didn't stop many people otherwise we would have been even later. Quite why they couldn't have done this in the previous two hours, or at the X-ray machine, I don't know.

The flight eventually took off about 45 minutes late. MyTravel obviously didn't think this was worth a mention, much less an explanation or half-hearted apology, because they didn't say anything. Only two-thirds of the entertainment channels were working too.

Apart from the airport, it was a good holiday and I really enjoyed the diving. It was good to have such a variety. The cave diving was brilliant, but then it is one of the best places in the world for cave diving. I really must do my Full Cave course, so I can get the most out of it, but even the Cavern dives were well worth doing.

The diving off of Playa Del Carmen wasn't bad. The turtles and the tarpon were well worth seeing and the shallower reefs were quite pretty with plenty of fish life. Viva Diving weren't the cheapest, though they did do package deals. My 8 dives worked out at MX$308 per dive. Dive shops in town were advertising two tank trips for MX$550, but by the time you've paid for a taxi both ways, there's really not much in it.

Cozumel was well worth visiting for the diving, if not the town. Viva charged an extra $30 for the Cozumel trip which included lunch and the ferry. I think I would probably organise this myself next time. Diving on Cozumel was a bit more expensive, but the ferry was only MX$80 for a return ticket, and I wasn't that impressed with the dive operation I used on Cozumel.

I didn't experience any strong currents, though the area is renowned for them. There was a current on most dives, but it was never really an issue. The standard of some of the other divers on the boat left a fair bit to be desired. Some of the shops were advertising Open Water courses in 3 days. Some of us believe that 4 days is rushing things, so I can only imagine the standard of someone who's done a 3 day course. Some of the DMs were also quite young and didn't give the impression that they were very experienced. Or maybe I'm just getting old.

It certainly won't be another 12 years before I return. As a Caribbean destination, Mexico is hard to beat. The people are friendly and they don't hassle you to look at what they're selling. You also don't get offered drugs every time you walk down the road. Most of them speak some English, but any effort you make to speak Spanish is definitely appreciated. Mexican Spanish does have a lot of different words to Castilian, but compared to Spain, they speak quite slowly, which makes life easier.

The price of the holiday was about £890 per person for 14 nights all-inclusive. The brochure price was much more, but there were the usual "discounts", which in this case were about 20%.