Tulum was one of the most highly recommended places in Mexico owing to its white sand beaches and picturesque oceanside ruins. I enjoyed both as well, although they each had their own negatives too. The beach was great for an afternoon swim, but unfortunately was overrun with seaweed during my time there, which clouded its typically turquoise color. The ruins were beautiful, but by 11 am they were brutally hot and overcrowded with tour groups.
My real highlight of Tulum was the cenotes. There are plenty of these natural sinkholes around the peninsula, but Tulum was the only place I went diving in them. The first day Karim and I snorkeled in one and discovered the appeal of its crystal clear water and fascinating cavern formation. We also saw how much more the divers were able to explore. So we checked out a couple of dive shops in town and decided to go for it when we found one that would let me dive in two too (Karim is advanced certified but I am not certified, so finding one that would let me do two cenote dives was tough since technically it’s not allowed).
We started in Casa Cenote, where they take all introductory and refresher divers since it’s always possible to surface in case anything goes wrong. We barely got any lessons before the dive started, something that was fine for me having done this a couple of times already but surprising given how Discover Scuba dives are supposed to go. The point of this dive was to test our buoyancy control; cavern diving requires a much more controlled, even dive style than open water does because there are rock formations above, next to, and below us. The first moment we went into a cavern I had to check myself mentally. “Oh right,” I thought, “this is what we’re doing, diving in a cave, with solid rock around me.” Luckily my next thought was, “This is so freaking cool!”
Our guide judged that we all did well enough on our first dive so he took us to Gran Cenote. This time we would really be in the caverns. Air was never too far away, but most of the dive we were surrounded by stalactites and stalagmites and frequently had to use flashlights to light the way. It was awesome. There’s something so uniquely cool about exploring caves in water. It’s another world down there. It’s not about reefs and wildlife like open water diving is, it’s about natural architecture under the earth’s surface. When we got back on land we were all stoked about what we’d just done, and I personally vowed to return once I’m certified to do more dives like this.
The next day Karim dove in El Pit, a huge deep cenote where advanced and cave certified divers can go down to 40 meters. Visibility is 100 meters and light rays that penetrate the water looked like something out of a sci-fi movie. One day I will go back and do this.
From day 1 I knew I wanted to scuba dive the Great Barrier Reef. On Wednesday Nov. 5th that day had finally come. And then I fucked it up.
Let me rewind for a minute. I booked my boat and 2 introductory scuba dives through Poseidon, a company that had been recommended to me by my kayaking buddy Martin; it had good reviews and reasonable prices in comparison to some other places (this is not a cheap adventure) so I went with it. Error 1: if I’d booked it through my hostel they could’ve given me a discounted price and I would’ve gotten a free night accommodation. Things I didn’t know. But I’d been anxious to book this tour since it was the only thing I knew I wanted to do for sure. Oh well.
The day before they called to tell me that the Poseidon boat had to be serviced, so was I ok with being put on Silversonic, an identical trip that was actually a little bit better; newer boat, more time in the water, better food included. I’d looked at this one too but the dives were more expensive; they said they weren’t going to charge me more so I said ok.
I was picked at 6:30 am from Asylum; for an extra AUD 24 the package came with a ride from my hostel to the pier in Port Douglas and back. Maybe this early departure is why I wasn’t thinking clearly when I boarded the boat and filled out the medical information form for scuba diving.
“Do you ever get dizziness, loss of vision, blackouts, or faint?” Yes, this happened just two weeks ago. In truth, this happens to me all the time – I frequently lose vision for a few seconds when I stand up, but I don’t usually faint (minus the one time when I woke up on the tiled bathroom floor of my childhood home happy that I hadn’t seriously injured myself). I always figured it had something to do with dehydration or my awful circulation, even though I’m not always dehydrated when it happens, but now that I know it’s not as common as I thought maybe I should get it checked out… I recover quickly though so I never thought it was a big deal.
Australia thought it was a big deal. Why did I check this box? I don’t know. I had a momentary lapse of judgement and told the honest truth. They didn’t let me dive. I tried to protest, saying it really wasn’t a problem, I’ve scuba dived before, and I shouldn’t have even checked the box. It was too late. My dream of scuba diving the GBR was gone and I was stuck with just snorkeling for the day. At least they promised me a refund for the dives.
I sulked upstairs and took a seat at the back of the boat, watching the ocean race by underneath us as I listened to my iPod. What the hell was I thinking? How could I let my dream go like this? I stewed for about 10 minutes, letting myself be angry at myself, and then I let it go. I was going to be refunded over $100 that I could use for other parts of my trip. That’s a lot in backpacker money. And I still had the chance to snorkel at three different locations. I’d heard snorkeling was actually better here than diving, so maybe it would be ok.
It was completely ok. Not just ok, but it was actually an absent-minded blessing. At our first location of the day I eagerly jumped into the water, determined to make the most of my snorkel time, and within seconds was inches from the reef and its inhabitants. We had an hour and a half at this location and I spent almost all of it in the water paddling around the reef. I also used this opportunity to teach myself to dive without inhaling snorkel tube mouthfuls of water. As I did this, I caught sight of the introductory divers. They were nowhere near the reef; they were over by the boat holding onto a rope, practicing breathing and clearing their masks.
I realized something: the reef is not a place to introductory dive. The point of the day was to see the GBR, and the introductory divers had just a fraction of the time that the snorkelers had to do this. Between going through the learning process of how to use the equipment and only having 20-30 minutes of air in their tanks, their time to see the reef was minimal. I, on the other hand, had well over an hour in all three locations to see the coral, fish and one shark. The reef was my playground while the scuba divers were in class. (If you are certified though it’s probably worth it; you don’t have to go through the lessons and get to actually swim around the reef at a lower depth. Although really most of what you want to see is so close to the surface that I’m not sure it’s even better as a certified diver.)
So how was the reef? Expansive, interesting, full of a variety of coral and its residents – fish, giant clams, sea cucumbers, anemones, starfish, at least one shark, and apparently turtles, although I wasn’t lucky enough to see one. The three locations that we explored all offered something different, the third being my favorite due to it being the most colorful underwater landscape of the day. All in all though, I admit, I was a bit disappointed.
The GBR is supposed to be breathtakingly gorgeous, and it didn’t quite have that effect. It was beautiful and I’m so happy to have seen it, but this section of outer reef honestly wasn’t my favorite diving site (something I would discover in the Whitsundays). And the fish weren’t nearly as numerous and vibrant as I expected them to be either.
So in the end, with the impression I got from the GBR and the realization that learning to dive is better done not at a Natural Wonder of the World, my lapse in judgement to say I get blackouts ended up saving my day.
And it didn’t hurt my budget either. Remember how I said I’d booked through Poseidon, which had cheaper dives, but was actually sent out with Silversonic? Well they refunded me for the Silversonic prices, so I actually ended up with a cheaper day than they even offer just to snorkel. I’d count that as a win for me.
Some of the best advice I’ve gotten so far was to go to the Caribbean coast of Colombia. The variety of scenery I saw and activities I did combined for a fantastic week that made me quickly love this country. More than once I thought: “This is it, I found paradise on the Colombian coast.” I was tempted to stay everywhere I went for longer.
It was also a relaxing week where I was able to disconnect and really just travel alone. As much as I’ve loved having friends for most of this journey so far, I was looking forward to some me time, and I definitely got it and enjoyed it.
It started with Taganga. Taganga itself is not much to write home about; it’s a small village that doesn’t have too much to offer, but it’s a great launching point for everything else. I spent my one full day in Taganga doing the one thing it does have to offer: scuba diving.
I played with the idea of getting scuba certified, but it doesn’t make sense to spend the money and days doing the full certification during this trip. Still, I’d never been scuba diving, and Taganga is one of the cheapest places to try it, so I did just a half day “Discover Scuba Diving” course with Aquarius to see how I liked it. Of course, I thought it was great.
The day started with an instructional video before going out on the boat and into open water. Our first dive was short, only ~25 minutes and 6m, and we learned the basics of breathing under water, swimming with the gear, how to clear our masks and recover our breathing devices if they fall out, how to equalize, etc. Then we had lunch on a beach before our second dive. This dive was the fun one: we went down 12m for ~40 minutes and were able to freely swim and take in the scenery while our guide pointed out wildlife and took pictures. Once I really had the chance to swim around, the potentially scary fact that I was breathing through this device in an environment that could drown me faded away; it started to feel normal and I was able to just enjoy my surroundings. I’m hooked, and will definitely be diving again on this trip. One day I’ll get ceritified.
The rest of my time in Taganga was mostly spent hanging out at the excellent hostel Casa de Felipe. With hammocks and outdoor tables everywhere, including a roof deck, it’s a great place to decompress and read, write, or just watch the sun set. And when the French chef is there, it’s a great place to splurge on a filet mignon (and by splurge I mean about US$11).