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Diving the Chinchorro Reef

The Chinchorro Reef Underwater National Park, about 30km (19 miles) off this coastline, is by most accounts the largest coral atoll in the Northern Hemisphere, at 38km (24 miles) long and 13km (8 miles) wide. Its coral formations, massive sponges and abundant sea life are certainly among the most spectacular. The oval reef is as shallow as 1m (3 1/3 ft.) at its interior and as deep as 900m (2,953 ft.) at its exterior. It's invisible from the ocean side and has doomed scores of ships. Contrary to popular misconception, diving the 30 or so shipwrecks that decorate the underwater landscape is prohibited -- they are protected by the Banco Chinchorro Biosphere. However, the reef offers at least a dozen stellar dive sites. And most wrecks, including the famous 40 Cannons on the northwest side, are quite shallow and can be explored by snorkeling. The west side of the reef is a wonderland of walls and coral gardens.

The number of divers who have tried to dive Chinchorro Reef and never got there is kind of a running joke along the Costa Maya. It can be a challenge to get to the reef, partly because of fickle sea conditions and partly because of the strict limit on permits. XTC Dive Center (tel. 983/839-8865; www.xtcdivecenter.com) in Xcalak specializes in trips to Chinchorro -- the company's name stands for "Xcalak to Chinchorro." XTC also offers a lineup of dives to local reefs and cenotes.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.