Although I have traveled in the Caribbean and Central America for over 20 years now, I never attempted snorkeling for most of that time. A self-taught swimmer (we had a large backyard pool during my teen years), I was always wary of my own abilities and so steered clear of this underwater pastime. 7 years ago, when my then 14-year-old son and I did a cheap ($375.00 per person all-inclusive, taxes in!) and dirty (okay, not really dirty) week at the 3 star Club Amigo resort in Guardalavaca, Cuba, we decided to utilize the provided snorkeling equipment and give it a shot as we were told there was a small reef right in front of the hotel. We made it slowly out on the surface seeing only sea grass and the occasional sea urchin and I began to think, “What’s the big deal?”…then we hit (not literally) the reef and my life changed. Dozens of colourful fish surrounded me as I circled the small coral outcropping, floating on top and gazing in amazement at nature’s beauty unfolding before me. A calm I had never felt before washed over me and I never wanted to come back in. After breakfast every morning, I went back out to the beach, donned the gear and went to my calm place. I couldn’t get enough.
When I got home, I went right out and purchased my own gear, knowing that I would be doing it again…and I have. In the ensuing 7 years, I have snorkeled in Cuba (many places), Mexico (on both coasts), Dominican Republic, Barbados, Costa Rica, and Antigua (and this month I will do it again in Cuba and Panama). I have a ‘bucket list’ of places that I want, nay need to get to, places that fellow snorkelers tell me are the pinnacle: Belize, Honduras, Isla Mujeres, Cozumel, Grenada, Virgin Gorda, St.Lucia…and that’s just the Caribbean area. There’s also the Red Sea, Thailand, Australia…
Below are simply the best that I’ve personally experienced, by no means a definitive list and in no particular order:
One of the most beautiful and untouched reefs in the Caribbean is located on the southeastern end of Cuba. This beach is 5 kilometres from the popular resort area Guardalavaca and 45 minutes from the 3rd largest city in Cuba, Holguin and has 2 hotels utilizing it, the 5 star, adults only Paradisus Rio de Oro and the 4 star all ages Sol Rio de Luna y Mares, however as all beaches in Cuba are public, you can use if you can find access to it. We stayed at the Paradisus which offers free scuba diving as part of their all inclusive package (one shallow half hour dive per day, if not certified you must take the introductory lesson in the pool…then you’re good to go!). Here is some video I shot (be kind, I just got the camera and it was my first opportunity filming in sometime wavy waters).
Only the calmer west coast is suitable for snorkeling in gorgeous and friendly Barbados and there are many great options along this 25 kilometre stretch but our favourite was Payne’s Bay. Walk 5 minutes north of Holder’s Hill, swim out 50 feet and you’re there. A large and stunning reef offers untold numbers of sea life.
At Stingray City Antigua you can swim with, hold and even FEED the stingrays! These are not stingrays in captivity living in a large pen rather these fellows live in the open sea but like most smart creatures, they’ve learned that if they come to the sand bar when the catamaran arrives in the morning, they might get a treat. The water is waist deep here and almost everything happens on the surface. An added bonus is a small, beautiful reef to one side of the sand bar with lots of sea life to look at with the provided mask and snorkel. As an avid snorkeler who shuns group snorkeling tours, I was a bit jaded going in but the professionalism of the staff and treatment of the stingrays made me a fan. I would highly recommend this excursion and at $50.00 US per adult, it’s a steal!
Located on the south-east coast of Cuba a couple of hours drive from both Varadero and Havana, this is probably Cuba’s biggest undiscovered treasure. Stretching 35 kilometres from Playa Larga to Playa Giron, it’s a snorkeler and diver’s paradise with untouched reefs all along the coast. There are a few sandy beaches but primarily the seaside is made of limestone coral (so wear those water shoes!). There are a few 2 star hotels as well as many casa particulars (Cuban bed and breakfasts) in the area offering basic amenities. Oh yeah, and there is a small historical museum here based on the infamous Bay Of Pigs incident of 1961. Here’s a video of my son being ‘attacked’ by fish (teaches him to bring a banana to a fish fight).
Along the Riviera Maya south of Cancun runs the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world along with the longest underground river system, and freshwater cenotes. The snorkeling is best around the Akumal area although you’ll have success virtually anywhere along this stretch. Akumal is a popular breeding ground for sea turtles so they will be plentiful (if you know where to look for them) but you’ll save time and aggravation if you hire or book someone to take you out as they know the nesting areas. There are hundreds of hotels and resorts in every price range in this region.