Hola! as they say in Mexico, a new destination for me and an eye opener on many levels.
We spent nearly two weeks in this beautiful country, diving and shooting and............eating. Can't forget the eating bit, which for me is a vital component of any foreign excursion.
We had divided the trip up into two halves, the first section at the small island Islas de Mujeres ( Island of Women) and the second half on the mainland on the Mayan Riviera about an hours drive from Cancun.
After landing in Cancun, and being whisked through baggage and customs, very friendly bunch and efficient, even though I had been plucked from the queue for a search, it was conducted in good humour and very politely and without intimidation. Take note other countries this is how it should be done.
An hour later we were efficiently transferred in air conditioned comfort to the ferry port for the Island. Did I mention it was hot? Very hot, and quite humid unlike Egypt with its drier heat. You were left in no doubt that this was a more jungly and green sort of place rather than an arid desert locale, so the AC in our people carriers was very welcome.
The ferries across to the island are half hourly, so we didn't have long before we were on deck being cooled by a gentle sea breeze for the short journey to Islas de Mujeres.
from there it was a 5mins taxi ride to our hotel the Marina Paraiso, a small and very friendly hotel slap bang in the middle of the island.
Islas de Mujeres is only 4miles long and less than half a mile wide, so nowhere is far away.
Playa del Norte is a lovely beach area off the main town, and on a few of the evenings we went there to watch the sunset over huge cocktails served in 16oz cups!
A perfect way to start the evening before embarking on a mammoth Mexican feast, suitable for all vegetarians and meat eaters alike. Usually followed by lovely ice creams before getting the taxi back to our hotel.
Marina Paraiso Hotel is a small hotel with a selection of room types, with either a view of the pool or a small individual garden. It's basic clean and tidy.
You share the hotel with lot's of wildlife too, birds with amazing calls, and dozens of lizards, mostly Green Iguanas, who vie for your attention with the hotel cats working the tables.
After it rained one day we were also pleased to see emerge from holes in the ground huge land crabs, sadly too shy for me to get close enough for a picture, so you'll have to settle for a couple of shots of the Iguanas who were my personal favourites.
Ok, onto the diving and photography now.
Just beyond the cocktail bar at the Marina Paraiso, there is a small jetty which is where we departed each morning after home made Cinnamon Rolls (to die for) and Eggs Benedict.
See, I warned you I like the food aspect of this trip.
Brad one of the owners is a baker by trade, and aided and abetted by Tyfanny he overseas the food production, and the breakfasts were a highlight for sure. Although don't be in a hurry as this is not fast food, so allow at least an hour for brekkers.
This was irksome at first, but actually was no great hardship as our boat wasn't going anywhere without us, and I learnt that time is even more of a flexible construct in Mexico than it is in Egypt.
As we were a whole group of 11, we had had an entire boat hired in specially for us. Normally Ivan who deals with the diving side of things usually only has a couple or at a maximum 6 divers to deal with at any one time, so he also had laid on another dive guide Dario, a gentle and quiet Venezualan chap, and a perfect foil for Ivans more over the top and excitable demeanour.
We left for our first dives on the Musa, a purpose sunk artificial reef with a difference.
Jason de Caires-Taylor an English sculptor and artist,has made some amazing artworks with a difference. Groups of people, individuals, and all apparently modelled on real people are laid out on the sea bed to allow coral growth and marine life to slowly take them over. They've been down a few years now, and Jason keeps adding to them with new ones as an ongoing project.
There are also one off pieces, One Man and his Dog, a Volkswagen Beetle, and also some cheeky ones hidden amongst the main displays.
Jason likes to keep you guessing, some of them are visual puns like Head In The Sand, quite playful. And some are more contemplative allowing you to make up your own mind.
They are in very shallow, 4 to 8m depth water, which means shooting available light white balance is a very straightforward affair, allowing all abilities and camera types equal shooting rights. Perfect for those just getting to grips with underwater photography in fact so much so I fully intend to plan another trip here, but next time round plan it around beginners, shooting with compacts, and entry level mirror less cameras.
The place is a win-win for all comers really though and although the majority of our group had some experience there was plenty to occupy all abilities here.
This place is no one hit wonder though, and Ivan and Dario also showed us an exciting fast drift with the option of seeing mating Turtles often stacked three high, which although didn't deliver us an orgy of epic proportions, everybody loved nonetheless.
There are also some lovely untouched reefs resplendent and healthy, with schools of blue line snapper a bit like the ones in the Maldives.
We also visited a lovely little half wreck, half because one half of it has been washed away in the hurricane a few years back. This had easy swim throughs and was a haven for small schools of fish.
There is a good variety of diving to suit all types and abilities on Isla de Mujeres. And something for all you underwater toggers, either macro or wide.
We normally left around 9ish ( it's Mexico ) and did two dives before returning for lunch.
Oh, back to the food again, lot's of choice, from healthy salads to huge portions of nachos and guacamole, and very nice desserts. Be prepared for slow service though, after a while you realise that's just the way it is. As although slow and often chaotic, it's served with a big smile and friendly chat.
Mexicans are very friendly people, and like to take things slowly, I mean after all it is damn hot, and there is no need to rush around you're on holiday ;)
Our last day on the island which we had all grown quite fond of, was spent taking a Whale Shark excursion.
A few years ago, the locals realised that there was a regular and fairly predictable congregation of Whale Sharks feasting on an upwelling of plankton right on their doorstep so to speak. So lot's of enterprising operators have organised day trips out to see these marvellous creatures.
It's snorkelling only, so perfect for an off-gassing day.
Nature being nature the sharks move around quite a lot, and daily reports dictate where the boats have to go to. Listening to our skipper on our super fast twin engined boat, co-ordinate via radio, was a lesson in local co-operation.
On our day the sharks ended up being quite far out, around 90mins away, but sometimes they can be half that distance. As I said it's nature and it doesn't work by our rules.
The whole setup is very well organised with park rangers and the coastguard overseeing proceedings to make sure that the sharks aren't harassed and that their normal behaviour suffers the minimal of intrusion. And we were thoroughly briefed by the skipper as he could have lost his license if any of us had transgressed the park rules.
So if as on our day the sharks are thin on the ground (or water) then every boat has to take it's turn, with only two people with guide from each boat in the water at any one time.
This meant that over the course of our few hours out at the feeding grounds every one on our boat had had a couple of goes in the water. The day before there had been around 80 sharks apparently along with dozens of Manta, and I have it on reliable authority that this is often the case, so as with most real wildlife encounters that don't involve manipulation by human intervention and feeding then there is an inevitable healthy dose of luck involved.
This presented me with a situation in that I had to pre arm our photo trippers with the best advice I could re the successful shooting of large marine animals in a short space of time.
So I advised everyone to set up their cameras using shutter priority, my reasoning being that although whale sharks are quite languorous and appear to be quite slow moving.
The combination of being tethered to a choppy surface, and also the excitement of the situation would mean that our folks pictures could be marred by camera shake rather than subject movement. I am doing a blog post next on this type of shooting so will post the link here very soon with more specific photo advice. UPDATED here is the link
After the adrenaline and crazy finning to get shots of the sharks, we were quite exhausted so the skipper stopped off on our return and gave us a treat of home made Ceviche, Guacamole, tacos and beers to wash it all down with. A perfect end to a lovely day out.
Sad to say goodbye to our hosts at Marina Paraiso, we embarked on the second leg of our journey, via the ferry back to the mainland and onto the Allegro Playacar hotel.
As it only took a couple of hours all in for the transfer here, and some of our rooms weren't ready. We decided to avail ourselves of the all you can eat, in twenty different styles, buffet, that this hotel provides.
They even have a free frozen Margherita (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) drinks dispenser in the hotel lobby!
Fully replete we decided to use our time checking into the dive centre run by Pro Dive a short walk along the beach front.
Very efficient, polite and friendly staff, got us checked in, with the final arrangement being for 8.15am the next morning to meet.
After dinner at the hotel, and a walk around sampling the numerous bars, it's an all inclusive, we all retired to our beds.
The next days diving was very pleasant, on the local reefs, via a hard boat that you board in the surf line.
I don't think that they get a huge amount of photographers, and definitely not those with larger rigs, as there wasn't a great deal of room for too much kit. However we managed and they did kindly lay on extra rinse tanks back at the centre which was only 10mins away, so no major hardship really.
We only did two dives here, although some opted for thirds. The staff are multinational with a couple of Brits, and also some Mexicans and South Americans.
They were all very friendly and efficient though, and they handled from there our Cenotes excursions for the two following days, and then our Chitsen Itza tour for our non diving day.
Ok onto the Cenotes. What exactly are Cenotes? Well prior to the Cenotes excursions, I thought that they were just big interconnected holes in the ground in the middle of the Mexican jungles, filled with mostly fresh water. Which they are of course, but after a really informative talk by one of our guides CJ, I now know that they are geologically a relatively
recent phenomena. Caused by carbonic acid etching their way through the limestone bedrock. Caves are formed by this water, resplendent in places with the usual stalactites and stalagmites.
The water table rises and falls and being near the coast there is an underlying layer of salt water that can be reached whilst diving. This causes one of the more unusual aspects of cavern diving, where the fresh water floating on top of the salt water meets and forms a Halocline, with a very marked delineation as the visibility suddenly turns strange as if you are looking through treacle.
Being filtered rainwater one of the things that strikes you most about the Cenotes is the incredible clarity and visibility, apart from the aforementioned halocline.
Anyway I digress, the guides at Pro Dive are really informative, and after the info comes a thorough safety briefing, delivered in a great way and combined with huge dollops of fun.
This imbues you with a sense of confidence in them and their abilities, and also you are filled with excitement and also respect for the environment, which whilst not without it's dangers, is made to seem a very achievable thing.
I must confess to getting a little bit claustrophobic at times, but this was a great way to get into this fascinating off shoot of our great hobby. So much so I now want to do more and get properly trained, and am going to visit again and repeat this experience, and do a course I'm certain.
Ok, onto the actual photography and diving itself. Having never been into a Cenote before, I wasn't really sure exactly what to expect photographically, so I was going to have to learn on the job so to speak. I could however prepare myself and more importantly our photo trippers as best as I could with what I did know about the environment based upon great Cenotes shots I had seen before.
Our guides knew that we were all toggers and having experience diving with our sort before, recommended Chac Mool as our first foray underground. Well to be fair my colleague Caroline had suggested Chac Mool based on her experiences a year previously, and the Pro Dive guys endorsed this choice, a) because its a good first time Cenote, and b) it has lots of the characteristic curtains and beams of sunlight that pierce the caverns with such spectacular aplomb.
Now there's darkness and there's photographic darkness. Upon entering the first cavern, and even though we all had torches ( our guides had a few) your eyesight very quickly grows accustomed to the gloom, so much so, most of this first system you could see easily unaided by torch light.
This is not the same as being enough light for photography and it is often one of the things that causes problems for first time underwater photographers. i.e. what they can see unaided, and what the camera is able to record.
For your camera to record easily in those situations that you are "experiencing" you really need to crank up your ISO's. Even more so than I had first realised before we went under.
I am not going to make this an instructional post, but just like the whale shark shooting post thats coming, I am going to write a blog post about how to shoot in Cenotes, based at the beginner level, and also using simple cameras. Luckily my guesswork paid off, and the advice on using exposure lock with the auto cameras and shooting using high ISO's seemed to pay dividends as our group showed me lots of successful shots, even after our first foray.
Our second day at the Cenotes was based upon a suggestion by the guides. We had planned to do Dos Ojos, but our guides had had a confab, and consulted me to see if another site may be better for our needs, I love these guys, they really wanted us to succeed.
They suggested another site called Taj Mahal, but this was based upon us getting the dives done before, 1pm, this wasn't so they could finish early for the more cynical amongst you, but was based upon, where the sun was going to be and how they would plan the dive, dedicated eh? They'd delivered the previous day so who was I to doubt their integrity.
They were bang on, and this site was even more photogenic than Chac Mool, but they also said that if we had come any later,then we would have been underwhelmed, as the sun wouldn't be in the best position.
Another surprise was we had an impromptu lunch guest called Jose. He was a Coati a fun wee friendly creature. Friendly because he has learnt to associate us aquatic troglodytes with food. He was apparently released here a while back, he was originally a pet, but the local government here had outlawed keeping a lot of the native creatures in captivity, hence him making the changing area around the Cenote entrance his hangout.
He can bite though and was very greedy but he made for an interesting little lunchmate.
Our two days at the Cenotes didn't feel like enough and I wished we could have stayed longer, the mark of a good trip though is wanting more I suppose.
It wasn't over yet though, and we had a trip to Chichen Itza, one of the main centres for the Mayan people in the Yucatan, how do I know that? Well just like the informed bunch at Pro Dive Cenotes, we had been supplied with Ingrid a Mexican/German girl, only 24 but spoke 6 languages, four of them fluently, and in all of them she was well versed in the history of the area. Nor did she miss a beat when one of our party a keen twitcher, asked her an ornithological question, and she not only answered but corrected him, impressed?
We set off extra early to avoid the bulk of the crowds, and it was a two and a half hour journey from our hotel.
We learnt all sorts of info about the Mayans and their fascinating culture, whilst I inserted photo hints and tips to those not wilted by the heat.
The three hours tour really flew by, and after dispensing factoids, many of them quite grisly, one of which involved a punishment dished out to men to hurt them but not kill them, involving sharp thorns, had us blokes recoiling in horror, but which some of the girls seemed to find amusing!
All I can say is drink lot's of water, wear a hat and slather on the sun cream, most of my tan that I returned home with came from this outing.
Amongst the ruins and history, I couldn't resist have a bit of Monty Python-esque fun. If you look closely at the shot below I have accidentally managed to get a shot of the mythical Quetzalcoatl, or Kukulkan a mythical bird important to the Mesoamericans and also coincidentally the name of the pyramid itself, and if you stand in front of the steps, an acoustic effect means that you get an echo that is supposed to sound like the bird itself!
After lunch, we stopped off on our way back, at a Cenote for some snorkelling which was welcomed by those of us needing to cool off in lovely clear freshwater.
This place was straight out of an Indiana Jones movie with a huge cavern pierced by a single shaft of sunlight that seemed to be emanating from a chandelier like Stalactite formation. Here's a shot.
Our 12 day trip flew by, and was packed with interesting adventures and escapades. It was a first time venture trying this sort of trip out, and on the whole we ticked all of our intended boxes, and made up a few more boxes to be ticked along the way.
Now where is the nearest Mexican restaurant to me here in North Yorkshire?
p.s. If staying at Marina Paraiso in Islas de Mujeres then you must pop next door and have a Margarhita or four at Soggy Pesos, a great bar, well more of a whole body experience than a bar its fair to say. Freddy the barman is one of those unique characters that can only work in this environment. His measures are always calculated with a very generous eye, and he believes in getting the customers involved in the drinks mixology. All the time regaling you with dodgy stories. Fab place.
Here is a short slideshow giving a little flavour of the trip.