Just off the east coast of Central America lies the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System and it contains some of the best dive sites in Central America. It stretches over 1000 km from the tip of the Yucatan Peninsular in Mexico down to the Bay Islands in Honduras, and is the second biggest barrier reef in the world.
Home to a huge variety of marine life, including over 500 species of fish, endangered sea turtles, manatees, whale sharks, eagle rays and crocodiles, it’s easy to see why this body of water attracts so many divers.
But the reef isn’t the only attraction for divers in Central America. Other treasures include freshwater caverns, submerged sculptures and the world’s largest sinkhole.
Whether you prefer to backpack or rent a car, an epic road trip in this part of the world offers some incredible opportunities for scuba diving in locations that would not only be considered the best dive sites in Central America and Mexico, but the best in the world.
BEST DIVE SITES IN CENTRAL AMERICA AND MEXICO
BAY ISLANDS, HONDURAS
The three Bay Islands – Roatan, Utila and Guanaja – are all superb locations for scuba diving, not least because this is one of the best dive sites in Central America, or anywhere in the world, in terms of value for money. Of the three, Utila attracts a younger crowd of backpackers and is the best value for money. Pretty much every hostel, hotel or guesthouse doubles up as a dive school to the point that if you visit the island with no intention of diving, you might feel a little alienated. Alton’s Dive Center offers an Open Water course and certification for just $299 and ocean-front accommodation is free on any day you dive. In addition, you have free rental of snorkel equipment and kayaks and they organise some fantastic boat disco cruises and day trips to a beautiful uninhabited caye nearby.
Whale sharks are reasonably frequent visitors to these waters too, and if there’s any indication that they’re around, your dive crew will detour between dives so you can snorkel with them at no extra cost.
When people picture diving in Central America and Mexico, they usually think of coral reefs and clear blue seas, but one of the most fascinating dive experiences on earth is cenote diving in Mexico. Along the Riviera Maya are over 700 access points to underground river systems. There are thousands of kilometres of caverns and cave systems, and pits of over 100 m in depth.
The water clarity is exceptional and you have the chance to see some fantastic rock formations, abandoned artifacts, fossils and the calcified bones of prehistoric animals and humans. There are shafts of light that pierce the pits to astonishing depths, eerie layers of sulphur, haloclines and brilliantly reflective mirror-like surfaces. Efforts are currently underway to save the cenotes from human destruction, which is an even greater reason to experience them now and to help share their story before they disappear forever.
ISLA DEL COCO, COSTA RICA
The setting for Jurassic Park, this huge uninhabited island takes over a day to reach by boat because it’s over 550 km off the west coast of Costa Rica. Since Costa Rica is one of the more affluent countries in Central America and since the trip requires a liveaboard boat, this isn’t the cheapest of dive sites to visit, but it is one of the best. The pioneer of ocean exploration Jacques Cousteau described Isla del Coco as ‘the most beautiful island in the world’ and PADI has listed it as one of the best 10 scuba diving spots. It’s one of the best dive sites in Central America – and in fact, the world, for seeing hammerhead sharks, rays and dolphins, and with a marine landscape shaped from coral reef, volcanic tunnels, caves and massifs, it’s easy to see why.
Compared with some of the other islands off the east coast of Mexico, Cozumel is more built up and not as pretty. But what it lacks in character above sea level, it more than makes up for below it. One of the best dives in the area is called Paso del Cedral. It’s a drift dive with some forceful currents, but the visibility is so good you can easily keep track of your dive buddies, even when one person anchors themselves and the others drift on by. The sharks are very inquisitive, and the green moray eels hilariously snappy.
There’s also a very popular beach entry dive site southwest of San Miguel where beginners can build up their confidence in shallow waters and those on their advanced course can test their navigation and buoyancy skills. Keep an eye out for the statue of Jaques Cousteau, which was unveiled in 2013 by his son during the Cozumel Scuba Fest.
CORN ISLANDS, NICARAGUA
The Corn Islands are made up of Little Corn and Big Corn. Little Corn is a tiny island paradise. It can be a bit of a mission to get to, especially since most of Nicaragua’s other popular attractions are on the west side of the country, but most visitors splash out on plane tickets from the capital Managua to Big Corn to save time. Perhaps for this reason, it’s still a relatively undiscovered mecca for divers. The island itself has no roads or motorised transport and the reefs are teaming with life. On a dive, you’re likely to see reef sharks, hammerheads, dolphins, turtles and eagle rays, but rarely will you encounter another dive boat.
Blowing Rock is the island’s most famous dive site. A volcanic rock pinnacle reaches from the surface down to about 25 metres and is a popular spot for barracuda. Bring cash to pay for your dives as the nearest ATM is on Big Corn and to pay by card costs an additional 5%.
GREAT BLUE HOLE, BELIZE
Diving the great Blue Hole was voted one of the 10 most amazing experiences on earth by the discovery channel. This giant sinkhole is a National Monument of Belize and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The thrill comes from diving down to 40 m, weaving through ancient limestone columns and witnessing one shark after another emerge from the depths.
Trips from Caye Caulker and Ambergris Caye include dives on some spectacular nearby reefs and lunch on a virtually deserted island, making the Great Blue Hole and its nearby reefs some of the best dive sites in Central America.
MUSA stands for the Museo Subacuático de Arte, which translates to the Underwater Art Museum. Currently, it consists of 500 sculptures made by six British and Mexican artists that were placed on the seabed 12 metres underwater off the coast of Isla Mujeres on the east coast of Mexico. The plan is for the sculptures to attract coral and, over time, build up a reef that can sustain a huge array of marine life. It is hoped that this will also draw tourists away from the nearby Manchones Reef, which is under threat due to damage by anchors and the huge numbers of divers it attracts.
The collection includes sculptures of a car, underwater mines, houses and a group of business men with their heads in the sand. The idea is to represent humans interacting with the environment and having both positive and negative effects.
Take a dive with Mundaca Divers‘ awesome divemasters and they’ll keep you thoroughly entertained posing with the sculptures and miming silly actions beside them. The company also runs snorkel trips and, whether you choose Isla Mujeres or Holbox, the Yucatan Peninsula is one of the best places in the world to swim with whale sharks.
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Whether or not you’re into diving, you can still have an amazing time along the Caribbean coast of Mexico and Central America. To swim with manatees in Belize, whale sharks in Mexico and manta rays in Honduras only requires basic equipment that it’s easy to rent, and you can visit some of the cenotes without diving too. With such great bargains on courses, though, you’re much more likely to find yourself signing up to become a divemaster!
For more information on the best dive sites in Central America, check out the online magazine DIVE.in, which has features on top destinations and hints and tips to help improve your diving experience.