A white-spotted moray eel

Having flown west, I have no trouble waking early on my first morning in Cancun. Plenty of time to sort out my kit and more before going diving.
I am spoilt for choice. There is a patio looking out over the beach that catches the sun, two TVs with cable channels, a well-stocked room bar and a walk-in closet with ironing board. Rather than ironing my wetsuit, I settle for reading the welcome blurb.
Dont drink the water Last night I had arrived at the Hyatt hot and thirsty and gulped down the bottle of water on the table. From the room bar tariff I find it will be charged at US $5. I could buy the same brand at $3 for 5 litres from the supermarket along the road, and cheaper still downtown.
I recover in time for a two-mile drive along the beach, and then its only a 20-minute boat ride to the wreck of the C58 General Anaya, a Mexican Navy minesweeper sunk as an artificial reef in 25m. On the way out dive guide Jaime tells me of the school of eagle rays we may find.
True to his promise, the eagle rays are gently flapping and wheeling in the current off the starboard quarter, frustratingly staying just too far away to photograph. I sneak up, but the rays are having none of it. I give in and concentrate on the wreck, keeping the occasional eye out for the eagle rays over my shoulder.
Its a nice wreck, about 50m long, upright, with lots of access holes cut in the deck and sides. It has been down only a few years, so there is no appreciable hard coral growth, just a good layer of thin encrusting sponges and a few small knobbles of hard coral that show the promise to come. The fish hovering in the current off the bow and super-structure dont seem to mind that their home is steel, not limestone.
In some places, local divers are well into the history of their wrecks. Here the locals tend to shrug and simply say: A nice dive - did you see the eagle rays
I think this wreck is from the same 625 ton Admirable class of minesweepers as the C53 at Cozumel and the C55 also sunk at Cancun. These were originally operated by the US Navy during WW2, then purchased by the Mexican Navy in the 60s to be used as coastal patrol boats.
Our boat drifts with the gentle current for an hour or so before gently motoring over to San Toribo reef. From the seaward side the limestone rises imperceptibly towards Cancun, then cuts back in a meandering 2-3m wall facing shore. Maximum depth is 14m.
I have been warned to expect lots of fish, but hadnt been prepared for the immense shoals of snapper and grunt we find. We could drift 100m or more in the gentle current, admiring the dark green, red and purple sponges and soft corals along the crest of the wall and all the usual reef fish, then for no apparent reason find that a few thousand fish have decided to make a particular point on the reef their home.
Sometimes it is a corner, sometimes an exposed rock, sometimes a cut or gully, and sometimes just plain old reef. What the fish see in any particular point escapes me, but Im not complaining.
As we drift away from the reef while surfacing, Jaime dips down three times to pick up weightbelts partly hidden in the sand. Some groups of divers, he explains later, are not very good. On New Years Day he found eight weightbelts on one dive, one with 15.5kg of lead!
Only back at the pier do I notice that the dive centres name is Solo Buceo, which, with my limited knowledge of Spanish, I translate to Solo Diving. Jaime explains that a more accurate translation would be Only Diving or Just Diving.
As a guest of the Cancun Visitors Bureau, I get to sample a fair variety of dive centres and diving. Next day I am back on the local reefs with Scuba Cancun.
Cancun is a purpose-built resort complex that stretches from one end to the other of an 18-mile sandbar and beach shaped like a number 7, the Caribbean on the outside and a lagoon inside. Scuba Cancun is on the north side of the 7, near a 100m flagpole flying a huge Mexican flag.
Only once outside the lagoon and heading away from the shore can I appreciate its scale. Multi-storey hotels look like Toytown beneath the green, white and red banner.
Both Grampin Reef and Black Tip Reef prove similar to San Toribo, though the shoals of fish are smaller. Dive guide Angel leads me up and down through some nice gullies and swim-throughs in the edge of the reef. I tend to swim along the crest looking for shots, while he prefers to shine his torch into cracks and holes closer to the seabed.
On Black Tip Reef he gestures me over and down. Peering into a crack, I can just pick out a whitetip shark with its tail towards me.
I enjoy reef-diving, but sometimes its hard to say anything other than good-quality Caribbean reef. This isnt being derogatory, just that often there is little to distinguish one stretch of reef from so many others. Looking at the big picture, Cancun is at the northern end of the worlds second-longest reef system, which stretches south along the Central American coast past Belize and Honduras.

But I have no problem picking up on something different on my third day in Cancun. Carlos and Marc from Scuba Cancun pick me up in a van and we head south for an hour or so along the coast highway. Carlos pulls in by a roadside cafà - last chance for a proper toilet -
before we continue down a gravel track into the jungle.
The track ends at a clearing with a few picnic tables and a sign pronouncing Cenote Chacmool. We are the first there and Carlos encourages us to kit up and get in the water before others arrive.
Even so, he does not let haste deter him from giving a thorough briefing that almost amounts to classroom lesson 1 in cave-diving.
Theoretically this is a cavern dive, never more than 40m from clear surface and the light zone. Carlos leads the dive round a set line that I suspect strays a little beyond that arbitrary 40m. As the guide, he wears a full cave rig while everyone else is wearing normal single-cylinder open-water equipment.
The cenote is magnificent: gin-clear water, fine cave formations and the occasional crack above with the green jungle framing a bright blue sky. I can see how divers get hooked on cave-diving in this part of the world.
Its a difficult dive to photograph, partly because I have little experience of such conditions, partly because I have to balance the good practice of following tight in the group and the photographers habit of getting ahead and to one side for a good angle.
As the dive progresses, I can see Carlos gaining confidence in me and this in turn makes me more confident. By the second dive I am aware that I have no idea where the line is, depending entirely on his bright cave light as a reference point. I know that if I were a real cave-diver I would be concentrating more on the line and less on my camera. A skull and crossbones sign warns those improperly equipped and qualified to go no further.
No matter how nice a hotel is, I always like to get out and at least have dinner somewhere else in the evening. On the beach, generally but unattractively referred to as the Hotel Zone, are all the usual American franchise chains and many more individual bars and restaurants.
On the first night my hosts from the CVB, Carlos, Carlos and Cesar (Carlos is a popular name here) had taken me to a nice Mexican restaurant in downtown Cancun. Customers were a mix of tourist and locals. Entertainment was a mariachi band wandering from table to table.
I love Mexican food and asked about local variations. Next night we dined at a more local pavement bar specialising in Yucatan food. One of the local dishes is a lethal pepper sauce that comes in green and purple varieties. Dont confuse the green variety with guacamole - you have been warned.
Tonight we get even further from the tourist restaurants and dine at a cantina. A pleasant basic atmosphere, really good food, and all for the price of a postage stamp. Over a few beers, Carlos says he will kill himself before eating at Taco Bell. Back at the Hyatt, the late movie on cable is Demolition Man. Every restaurant in that movie is Taco Bell, and that vision of the future does not bode well for Carlos.
Further down the coast road, the nature park of Xcaret (es-caret) is a sort of jungle-based combination of wildlife, beach and cultural park rolled into one. Diving options range from surface-supplied bubble-helmet walks in the bay for tourists to proper diving on the reef offshore.
The dive site is Tortuga Reef. I am suspicious. If a site is named after a marine creature, that is usually the last creature youre likely to see.
But 20m down on the gently sloping reef, we almost land on top of the first turtle. Midway through the dive I am rationing myself to one picture per turtle to save film. By the end of the dive I have to force myself to shoot the quite attractive sponge-covered reef and ignore the turtles. The name Tortuga Reef is completely justified.
Between dives, there is the whole park to explore, a lagoon with manatees, turtle pools, flamingos, parrots, pumas, jaguars, butterflies and a few small Mayan ruins. Xcaret is the Mayan name for a small natural harbour at the beach.
South of Xcaret are the more extensive Mayan ruins of Tulum, nicely cleared into a green park with a shallow cliff overlooking a perfect beach. The island of Cozumel is just visible on the horizon. The Mayans knew where to build their dive centres.
Cozumel is a destination in itself, but also a popular day excursion from Cancun. You drive to Playa del Carmen, then either travel across on a dive boat or catch the hourly fast-cat ferry and use a dive centre on the island. I take the latter option and arrive at Sand Dollar Sports in the early afternoon. My first dive is already dive three for the others on the boat.
Had I seen only the first half of Santa Rosa Shallow, I would have been very disappointed. It could have gone in my logbook as that familiar site called Scabby Drift. Then we reach a chain of coral outcrops along the top of the wall. With the group limited in depth I cant stray too far down, but I see enough to whet my appetite for some spectacular wall-diving.
Back on the boat, a chilly north wind is blowing. The group are shivering. I say I dont mind delaying my next dive to drop them back ashore and they take little convincing.
Now I have guide Abraham and the boat to myself. Its a slightly reverse profile, but I get to drift along just below the crest of a really nice stretch of wall, with Abraham staying a little shallower.
Unlike Cancun, Cozumel has no shortage of steep and deep. Mayan legend says that Cozumel was the home of Ixchel, the goddess of fertility. Mayans would venture across from the mainland for fertility ceremonies. They certainly knew where to go on a diving honeymoon.
On my last morning I am back with Scuba Cancun for two local dives, content to stay shallow as I will be flying home the following afternoon.
For some, the dive at Aristos Reef gets off to a bad start. The group is split into an experienced and inexperienced part, and to start with the two dive guides work together to get the inexperienced divers down.
I have been on the reef for 25 minutes before everyone is down and Angel leads the experienced part of the group away from the flapping zoo. On other days I would have been frustrated, but today its the best thing that could have happened. I have a macro lens and spend 25 minutes glued to one shallow bowl in the reef looking for little critters. My film is almost gone before the dive gets underway.
With that success behind me I stick with the macro lens for a 5m dive at Chitales Reef. There is plenty of little stuff, but if only I had changed back to wide-angle I could have captured some of the excellent forest of elkhorn corals and masses of fish that all but obscure the reef.
Before this trip I had my reservations about such mass-market tourist resorts. But its a resort, not a prison. Its only a 6 peso bus ride from the Hotel Zone to downtown Cancun, with its great home-grown Mexican restaurants and cantinas. The reef diving is good enough; the cenotes something else. And the sheer size of the resort has its benefits - jeans are only $4.99 a pair at Wal-Mart, less than a bottle of water at the Hyatt.

A jungle-covered entrance to Cenote
100m flagpole visible from Scuba Cancun.
Beneath the stern of the C58. The twin props and shafts were removed before it was sunk.
A white-spotted filefish with a smooth trunkfish
A green turtle on Tortuga Reef


GETTING THERE: John Liddiard flew with American Airlines via Miami to Cancun.
DIVING :Scuba Cancun (00152 998 849 7508, www.scubacancun.com.mx); Solo Buceo (00152 998 848 7070, www.solobuceo.com). Xcaret (00152 998 881 24 00, www.xcaretcancun.com). Cozumel: Sand Dollar Sports (00152 987 20793, sanddollarsports.com). Rates are between US $50-60 for a two-tank reef dive, with discounts available for multi-day packages.
ACCOMMODATION : The full range from economy motels in downtown Cancun to luxury beach resorts such as the Hyatt.
WHEN TO GO : Any time, though late August to early November is hurricane season and mid-to-late March is crowded with students partying through spring break. Water temperature is 24-28°C. A 3mm wetsuit is plenty, though 5mm is more comfortable in the cenotes.
DIVING SUITABLE FOR : Beginners up, though not necessarily on the same sites.
FOR NON-DIVERS : Mayan ruins, the nature park at Xcaret, golf, all watersports, shopping.
MONEY : Mexican pesos and US dollars are interchanged at the general exchange rate of 10 pesos per $. Take care, as the $ sign is used for both currencies.
COST : A seven-day package holiday to Cancun from a high street travel shop ranges from £750 to £1200, depending on accommodation. An equivalent package to Cozumel including diving costs £791 from Dive Worldwide (01794 389372, www. Diveworld wide.com) or £950 from Barefoot Traveller (020 8741 4319, www.barefoot-traveller.com).
FURTHER INFORMATION: Cancun Convention and Visitors Bureau, www.cancuncvb.org. Cozumel Hotel & Motel Association, www.islacozumel.com.mx