There are many outstanding locations for scuba diving all around the world, but when it comes to diversity, one place that’s unbeatable for diving is the Riviera Maya. The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, which is the second largest coral reef system in the world after the Great Barrier Reef, stretches for over 1000km all the way from Mexico down to Nicaragua and there are many beautiful islands and atolls all the way along.

This reef system hugs the Riviera Maya coastline all the way down from Puerto Morelos to Tulum and there are many beautiful diverse dive sites along this region, with the chance to see all sorts of different species. Good conditions mean that there’s diving all-year round (give or take the odd windy day or storm) and there are dive sites suitable for both beginners and experienced divers alike. The great thing about this area is that even when it’s rainy or stormy and there are no boats going out, there is always another option for diving – in a cenote!

There are hundreds of natural sinkholes in the area, called cenotes, which are filled with fresh water, usually crystal clear, providing a beautiful alternative to scuba diving in the ocean. Each one is slightly different and some of them are gateways to huge sprawling underwater cave systems, with hundreds of kilometres of passages. With a qualified cave diver to guide you, it’s possible to experience these beautiful and serene waterways, marvelling at the remarkable rays of light and incredible formations.

Following are some of the best places to dive along the Riviera Maya and why:

Puerto Morelos

The picturesque little town of Puerto Morelos is only half an hour away from the international airport and the shallow reef is so close to the beach that it’s even possible to go shore diving from here. It’s especially fun at night where octopus and squid come out to play. There’s an amazing wreck dive here too, called the C-56 Juan Escutia which is covered in coral and surrounded by marine life. You’re likely to see barracuda and snapper and in the winter it’s often surrounded by spotted eagle rays.

C-56 Juan Escutia Wreck submerged in the ocean

C-56 Juan Escutia Wreck

Playa del Carmen

The biggest town in the Riviera Maya, it’s no surprise that there are so many dive shops in Playa del Carmen. The pretty shallow reefs are just five minutes by boat from the shore and are perfect for beginners because there’s usually not much current and some spots are only 5 or 6 metres deep. The deeper reefs are great for more advanced divers, with faster currents for a more exhilarating dive and there’s also a small wreck called Mama Viña; a shrimp boat sunk originally for snorkelers but which the ocean decided to relocate to a deeper spot for divers to enjoy instead. The reefs around Playa del Carmen have abundant varieties of tropical fish and you’re likely to spot a turtle or two; often hawksbills but sometimes loggerheads and green turtles as well.

Female bull sharks come to the waters surrounding Playa del Carmen every year around November time, for the last few months of their pregnancies. They enjoy the cooler wintertime water temperatures and are a joy to see underwater. Most dive shops offer trips to go out and see them, but even if not on an organised bull shark dive, it is common to see them, especially around the deeper reefs. They glide around elegantly looking ominous but they’re not interested in humans and there has never been an attack. They’re the reason a lot of divers come to Playa del Carmen between the months of November and January, which is the best time to guarantee being able to see them.

Bull sharks at Playa del Carmen

Bull sharks at Playa del Carmen

Cozumel

A short ferry ride across from Playa del Carmen is the island of Cozumel which has some of the most beautiful diving in the area. The coral formations and colours are out of this world and the variety of shallow and deep reefs make it a perfect destination for any standard of diver.

The shallow reefs tend to be interspersed with channels of pure golden sand between coral structures which makes for a stunning contrast, and Cozumel is known for its amazing visibility meaning you can enjoy the colours and expanse of the reef even more. For more advanced divers there are also some great swim-throughs on dive sites like Palancar Gardens and Devil’s Throat.

As regards to wildlife, you can expect to see nurse sharks, eagle rays and turtles. The area is protected from fishing so the lobsters and crabs grow to the size of small dogs! If you check under little crevices in the coral, next to the sea bed, you might be lucky enough to spot a splendid toadfish which is a grumpy looking but spectacular species of fish found only around the waters of Cozumel.

Girl diving with a lot of starfish

Snorkeling in Cozumel

Akumal

The beautiful little seaside resort of Akumal is a great place to stay if you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of Playa del Carmen. It’s a nesting site for turtles and you’ll often see one within a few minutes of snorkelling from the main bay. There are a few really pretty dive sites where you’ll likely spot turtles too. Many of the sites have impressive fingers of reef and tunnels to swim through and there is even a sunken motorbike resting in shallow water and surrounded by soft corals which means it’s a great place to spot feeding turtles.

Image of a turtle swimming

Turtle in Akumal

Tulum

The trendy town of Tulum is lined by one of the most stunning stretches of sand in the Riviera Maya. Although there are a few beautiful ocean dives in this area, it’s where the majority of the cenotes are located so a lot of people come here purely for cavern and cave diving.

All the cenotes are very different but a good place to start is the beautiful Dos Ojos where you can dive two different routes around the cenote and experience the beautiful colours and formations at very shallow depths. The Pit is nearby and a completely different experience. The name sums it up; it’s a deep eerie pit which you’ll descend into, gazing at the sunlight beaming in and projecting a beautiful beam of light from the jungle above.

Cave diving Tulum

Some of the cenotes have haloclines which is where a layer of salt water sits between the layers of fresh water. When you swim through the layers the water becomes blurry and you’ll see strange effects from your bubbles. There are also some with other cloudy layers which can cause the cenotes to look more like you are flying above clouds rather than diving. Some of these layers are so thick you need a torch to see when descending below them. Next to the ocean, Casa Cenote is a lush green pool full of mangroves and with a resident crocodile who might make an appearance if you’re lucky. Cenote diving is a unique and incredible experience which every diver visiting the Riviera shouldn’t miss out on.

Wherever you choose to stay on your trip to the Riviera Maya, the diving options are many and diverse, and it’s only a short bus (or ferry) journey between each of the places above. This and the combination of year-round diving, beautiful reefs, plenty of sea life, great visibility and also the opportunity to try cavern and cave diving in the cenotes, makes the Riviera Maya stand out as one of the best places to dive in the world.