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July 2001 Vol. 16, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Maya Ha, Yucatan Peninsula

A remote outpost for eco-divers

from the July, 2001 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver,

Seventeen miles off Mexicos Yucatan Coast, about halfway between Cozumel and the northern reefs of Belize, lie the Chinchorro Banks, an atoll six miles by thirty. With little population and virtually no tourist development on the coast, Chinchorro has seldom been dived. So, it carries an aura of virgin reefs, wrecks and unexplored territory.

A couple of years ago Maya Ha Resort opened, with an eye toward diving Chinchorro. Reviewing Maya Ha Resort is a test of Undercurrents objectivity. You see, its owned by John Shobe, who as John Q. Trigger edited Undercurrent for several years, after founding In Depth (a newsletter which we folded into Undercurrent). Last December, when I learned he would be at home in Austin, Texas, I visited Maya Ha, making reservations under a friends name and charging in advance on his credit card.

Maya Ha is a great place. But I lost a day because of the trots (picked up elsewhere) and two more days because both dive boats were broken down. I didnt see enough underwater to write about, but what I saw was pretty, yet ordinary. I did learn that while the diving may be virgin, the banks have been fished forever, as has nearly all of the Caribbean. Fishermen live in stilt houses near small islands. How many, Im unsure. However, I saw nearly 150 join a colorful Christmas religious flotilla.

To get a review, one of our anonymous Undercurrent correspondents, whos kicked across more Caribbean reefs than he can remember, traveled to Maya Ha in late March. He filed this report.

--Ben Davison

Maya Ha, Yucatan PeninsulaNestled on a 60-mile strip of undeveloped coast lies the small -- 18 duplex units -- and modern resort of Maya Ha. A four-hour drive from Cancun -- its not yet served by air -- the very isolation attracted me. Pepe, the knowledgeable and friendly driver who picked us up at the Cancun Airport, made the journey seem like a Sunday drive. The first half was on a double-lane highway, with small towns along the way. The adventure began the last 75 miles, when the road narrowed and we were waved through the first of two military check points. Along the way we passed through a few butterflies, then hundreds, then thousands, then millions! Wow, we were in the middle of a Pipevine swallowtail butterfly migration. We turned east through the Sian Kaan Biosphere Reserve, where giant Jabiru storks stood tall in mangrove swamps, birds of prey dived for tesquintles (a bushy-tailed rodent), and a grey fox, a coati-mundi, and even a small deer scampered across the road. At the last military checkpoint, we stepped out of the car so Federales, looking for drugs and guns, could conduct an unthreatening search through our luggage. Then onward to a severely pocked sand road leading through the jungle to Maya Ha -- and its high-arched brightly colored entrance.

Inside, a spectacular white stucco four-story Mayan-style pyramid housed the restaurant and bar. The Mayan theme didnt carry to the beachfront cabanas, which were identical comfortable duplexes with porches facing the ocean. (The ocean view was blocked by thriving sea grape trees -- theyll save the beach come hurricane season.) My spotless and comfortable unit contained -- as they all do -- two firm double beds, a private bath with a roomy tiled shower, plenty of shelf space, and potable tap water, thanks to a reverse-osmosis purified water system. Outside our window several chachalakas (kinda like a Mayan wild turkey that makes sounds like its name) inhabited a tropical berry tree, which brilliant mango orioles occasionally visited. Once, even a toucan appeared. So, I had a great landbased nature tour. But, would nature underwater measure up?

Getting to Chinchorro Banks is no slam dunk. In the winter, winds can make the crossing impossible. [Note from Ben: When I visited in December, some guests had missed several days of diving.] They make it about 75 percent of the time, but some days the wind kicks up schmutz from the reef, reducing visibility. When they cant make the crossing, they dive reefs off the hotel. Maya Ha, Yucatan PeninsulaSince I dove Chinchorro daily, I can only report what two Wyoming divers who dived the coast said: The visibility was better than Chinchorro and they saw more fish. They even swam with some dolphins while diving.

My Chinchorro dives varied from shallow ho-hum, low-visibility, when-isthis- dive-going-to-end? kinds of dives, to some gin-clear drifts on a pristine coral reef accompanied by schools of iridescent blue tangs, adult midnight parrots (the largest almost three feet with a bumphead silhouette) and turtles. A couple Id rank among my best of the Caribbean. One day the boat had engine trouble, so we did an exploratory dive where we were. I was enjoying the swim, when suddenly Adolpho, our guide, furiously flapped his arms. I looked out to see a beautiful ray winging along. Then, 18 more came gliding by. As I hovered in awe, the lead ray slowly turned and swam toward me. He seemed to look me over, then banked like a hang glider to lead his squadron again. Soon, the cruisers made an encore and I felt like a teenager in love. If you want to try your luck here, ask for Bad Engine Oil Reef, the name Adolpho christened it with.

I had one lousy dive. We wanted to see a wreck so Adolpho set out to show us the tip of a large old copper ship. We swam against a strong current, some divers pulling themselves along the 60-foot sandy bottom with their dive knives. Once at the site, I thought, What, this? For a couple strips of metal debris? We continued against an even stronger current to a coral head. As we started back, the current had changed and I was swimming back into it. I even saw a small waterspout spinning in the sand. When we surfaced, Adolpho jokingly told us that we passed the test. Having sucked my tank to the bone, it occurred to me that I hadnt come here to pass tests.

Typically, however, I dropped to 60 feet where the mini-wall started, drifted along at 60 to 90 feet for about 40 minutes, then eventually surfaced and signaled the boat to come get me (once a diver got separated from the group during bad visibility and a strong current, and it took nearly an hour to retrieve him). Visibility ran anywhere from 25 to 90 feet (and the water 78-80o). The mini-wall gently sloped down to about 110 feet, with cuts and overhangs. You could fit your dive gear in the large barrel sponges. Beautiful orange elephant ear sponges were bigger than real elephant ears and there was plenty of black coral, mounds of star and brain coral, and healthy deep maroon and purple sea fans. I saw pristine honeycombed plate coral and ivory tree coral at one spot. Yellow and purple sponges were longer than my arm. And watch out for the blade fire coral. One of the three daily dives would be in 20 to 50 feet of sandy patch, with coral heads mixed with mustard hill mounds, boulder star and brain coral, and often healthy elkhorn coral and stag horn coral in deeper waters.

Fish? Sure I saw great barracuda, schools of southern sennets, giant puffer fish, morays, stingrays, nurse sharks, angels, spotted drums and plenty of others. But, just like the rest of the Caribbean -- and before long, the rest of the world -- fish that have market value, conch included, are farmed and loaded on the boats from the mainland that periodically come to collect them. Its not a very fishy place. But, there were millions of thimble jellies. Their sting was mild, but when surfacing through a swarm, they can ruin your afternoon. One diver without a wetsuit, was stung repeatedly and was not a happy camper.

Between dives one day, we visited a small key where eleven small wooden stilt houses harbor local fisherman. We piled into one shanty for a prearranged lunch of barracuda and tacos, pickled onions and peppers. A saltwater crocodile popped his head up when he heard the ruckus, then swam over for scraps. (Watcho, the schmoozer diveguide told me that thousands of salt water crocodiles once roamed these waters, but have succumbed to fishermen, who shoot them for meat and skins.)

Don Higbie, who spent several years at Cayos Cochinos in Honduras, runs the dive operation. The crew of local dive masters served us well. They dont volunteer to help with gear, but just ask if you want help. The 48-foot Pro 48 jet drive Kai - Ha (the other boat is a Pro 42 jet drive) is a beautiful 1320 hp twinengine equipped with GPS. It can hold 60 tanks comfortably for 20 divers. The boat is equipped with a sun deck, shade area, camera table, rinse tank and a working head. Maya Ha, Yucatan PeninsulaOn a good day, the closest part of the reef is an hour, but in rough seas more distant points can take up to two-and-a-half hours of real rock n roll.

The boat lunch included Dagwood sandwiches, potato salad, hot peppers, ice-cold mangoes, lots of cookies, and cold juice or water. During dive intervals there was plenty of time for snorkeling, where in the shallows I saw frisbee-sized starfish, barracuda, stingrays and psychedelic reef fish. (The guides engaged in a little spearfishing.) After a third dive, we headed back to the hotel and arrived around 4:30 p.m. [Note from Ben: In the winter they may rush the third dive or cut it short so that the boat can get back before the early sunset.]

After sunset, divers gathered in the upstairs bar and pool table room over a cold cerveza or a fresh and potent margarita made by Daniel, the chef, bartender and resident shaman. Unlike most dive resort bars, this isnt a particularly appealing room, with barren white walls, small windows, and no deck off the bar. But the air conditioning is welcome. When dinner is announced, guests amble downstairs, usually joining others at one big table. Daniel and his kitchen staff prepared delicious meals with a different native flair nightly. He uses whatever is fresh to invent dishes from the ingredients at hand. The meal started with either a fresh salad with homemade dressing or a delicious soup, usually a light cream of veggie of-the-day with exotic spices to intrigue your taste buds. The main course was fresh kingfish, sea bass, or dolphin, grilled to a moist and tender texture with a light sauce, ranging from a mango salsa to a veggie chili. Grilled local lobster was a real treat. It was topped off with superb desserts ranging from fresh flan to mango shortcake. Not your average dive resort meals, definitely a cut above. (Amazingly, the service was actually too fast. When I put my fork down there was someone from the staff asking if I was finished.) They can also satisfy special requirements, such as a delicious peanut stirfry and pasta primavera for vegetarians. The breakfasts consisted of fresh pineapple, watermelon, cantaloupe, then fantastic French toast, scrambled eggs, fresh squeezed juices, coffee or tea, or a full Mayan breakfast at the buffet.

The staff ate at adjacent tables, coming and going at will. In fact, one nice feature of Maya Ha is a genuine family feeling, with friendly kids about, different people helping everywhere, even Todd, the manager, clearing tables. Pony-tailed Daniel, whose father was from Spain, is a special guy. One night the sound of ancient drums drew us to the pyramids observation deck, where he was saluting the jungle sunset on his congo drums. Another time he prepared a full Mayan sweat lodge ceremony, heating ceremonial rocks till they glowed red. With a pitchfork, he carried them into the sweat lodge and dropped them into the center pit. Then, he invited us in, and began the two-hour ancient sacred Mayan ceremony. Steam filled the air as the water was splashed on the hot rocks. Herbal potions splashed over our bodies and chanting and dancing prepared us for the next adventure dive. The magic continued when we finished and headed to the dining room for a late dinner. Todd came into the dining room, his face full of surprise. He had just seen two adult Jaguars run across the road, he said, and by the size of his eyes, he was spinning no shamans tall tale.

Theres even more adventure here. One day, after a 45-minute drive, we kayaked a mile to Ibis Island, a bird sanctuary in the Bay of Chetumal. I saw thousands of birds, including frigates, pelicans, sensational roseate spoonbills, and young ibis in their nests. [Bens note: I toured the small ruins at Kohunlich, where few tourists roam. With much of the area still covered by jungle, these nearly deserted ruins appear more mystical than larger, well-known ruins in the Yucatan. On the way back, we had an excellent lunch at Cenote Azul, then made a dive down to 150 feet in the fresh water cenote where a few small fish swam in green, murky water. Nothing special, but it gives one an opportunity to brag about being a cenote diver.]

Some people who come to dive three-a-day every day, will be disappointed in the absence of big fish, wrecks to penetrate, and walls to cruise. I think the Belize outer islands have a notch better diving. But, folks, this is the only true divers eco-resort in the Caribbean. Dominica has great hikes. You can split three days diving and spend three days in the jungle in Belize. But, Maya Ha sits among nature. Its a fine venue for people who want variety (see sidebar). However, Ill be damned if theyre not building a cruise terminal in the middle of nowhere a few miles away and expect to transport guests to Maya Ha to dive. Youve still got a while to enjoy the area. But see it soon. Remember what Joni Mitchell wrote and sang: They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

--Sid Hartha

Maya Ha, Yucatan PeninsulaDivers Compass: The best time to dive Chinchorro is June, July, and August, when seas are flat and the waters are calm and clear. September and October can be excellent -- as long as theres not a hurricane. In the winter, its subject to the same northers that blow into Cozumel, Belize and the rest of the Caribbean, and because of the long journey to the Banks, you may not get there for 2-3 days at a time ... You can contact the Maya Ha Resort through Karen Farley, U.S. Office, 2206 Forest Bend, Austin, Texas 78704 or call 877-443-1600 or 512-443-2977; fax 512-443-2977. E-mail: mayaharesort@aol.com. Karen was extremely helpful -- ask if there is any availability due to cancellations and you might save a few dollars. Visit their website: www.mayaharesort.com. If you want to use a full-fledged travel agency, contact Island Dreams (800) 346-6116, 713-973- 9300, www.islandream.com ... Pay the few extra bucks for the oceanfront rooms ... Good ScubaPro and Oceanic rental gear, but let them know ahead if you want to rent - - a divers computer battery died and Don volunteered to get him one while he was in Cancun ... While the little store has souvenirs and a few drugstore items, bring everything you need ... Photographers Burt and Maurine Shimlock (Secret Sea) own a house on the beach nearby ... No E6 developing; 110v for recharging, available 24 hours/day ... A passport may help you through the checkpoints more easily -- theyre more serious about checking your stuff, since drugs head north, not south ... The snorkeling in front of the Resort was fun; the reefs are storm damaged but there were schools of southern sennets, lots of stingrays, barracuda and angels, turtles and more.

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