“Okay, today is the day. Let’s go!” After several days of wind and high waves, the weather was finally perfect for a boat trip.
We would be traveling from our home base on Isla Mujeres to the nearby Isla Contoy National Park, located in the Caribbean Sea on the eastern side of Mexico.
Captain Tony hopped into our boat to give us a rundown on the rules; wear your lifejackets, don’t touch the underwater critters and stay with the guide when snorkeling the reef. His brother Alberto and his nephew Noah were our captain and first mate for the day.
Leaning over towards one of the other passengers I said, “Hi, I think we’ve met before. Is your name Kevin?”
“No, my name is Joe, but I can be Kevin if you want me to,” he quipped. His response elicited good-natured laughs from everyone, easing the strangers-meeting-strangers awkwardness. By the time we had been fitted with lifejackets, flippers, goggles and a snorkel we were chatting easily.
We left the docks promptly at nine in the morning and arrived at Isla Contoy shortly after 10. Tucked into a crescent-shaped bay was a clean sweep of white sand, a handful of palm trees, two or three communal outdoor grilling areas, plus a few National Park service buildings.
That’s it. Wild and relatively untamed, the island is home to thousands of nesting birds, plus a few boa constrictors and crocodiles in the jungle areas.
Our crew suggested that we explore the island pathways, keeping an eye out for the meaner residents, or go for a refreshing swim in the bay while they cooked up a meal for us. They chopped, and peeled, and sliced, and diced, creating a scrumptiously fresh meal of grilled chicken, grilled fish, pineapple and tomato salad, plus guacamole. The guacamole was so good “Kevin/otherwise known as Joe” and I were reluctant to share with anyone else.
It was a bit early in the adventure for a meal, but when the crew explained the reason it made sense. Captain Tony likes to ensure that his boat is the first into the dock, and the first out to the reef, allowing his customers an hour of quiet bliss in paradise before the arrival of the other tourists.
Sitting on rustic wooden benches under a cool palapa we enjoyed our delicious meal, finishing as three more boats arrived at the dock. The new arrivals spoke a profusion of European and Asian languages, each with their own multilingual guide. We much preferred our easy, no-structure, explore-at-your-own-pace experience.
After lunch we floated in the refreshing ocean while the guys packed up the remaining food and beverages. We then headed out to the nearby reef for a bit of snorkeling. Alberto secured the boat to a mooring buoy just a short swim away from the reef. Puffing and splashing I struggled to catch up to the group, and then realized that I had forgotten my waterproof camera on the boat.
Swimming back, I could hear my fellow travelers babbling excitedly about the huge black and yellow grouper that Noah had located.
“Hurry up. Get your camera!” Yeah, yeah. Easy for you to say, but I have two speeds when I swim: slow and slower. I never did see the grouper. At the speed I was swimming he had plenty of time to relocate to another reef or perhaps even another island.
I did, however, see beautiful conches, starfish, angelfish, butterfly fish, a barracuda and a whole school of yummy looking dudes that were floating under me. They didn’t appear to be worried; perhaps they know they are protected by the National Park.
And then it was time to return to the boat. Thank goodness for the availability of a good sturdy swim ladder to help us reboard. It’s always such an awkward exercise removing swim fins, balancing on the ladder and trying to sling a leg over the side while the boat bobs and dips in the waves. Jacques Cousteau I’m not.
As we puttered along the shore of Isla Contoy, Alberto slowed the boat to show us a magnificent manta ray. The muscular wing-span of an adult ray can reach up to seven or seven and a half meters across.
This Manta Ray cruised around in the sandy shallows of Isla Contoy slurping up his food of choice, tiny inch-long krill, through a wide forward-facing mouth. Impressive and beautiful, they are endangered in many countries due to commercial fishing of krill, pollution, entanglement in fishing nets, and recently the demand for their gill rakers for some types of natural medicines. We didn’t disturb him, but we did try to capture the beauty of his enormous wing-span with our cameras.
Our second stop for snorkeling was located on a small part of the nearby Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world. It runs along the Mexican coastline from the state of Yucatán 220 kilometers south to the Gulf of Honduras.
The jagged coral beds slow down the rougher ocean waves, but the swimming is considerably more challenging in the resulting currents. We stayed on the boat, enjoying the sun, and let our hardier companions experience the surf. Here the major excitement was the discovery of a nurse shark lounging in the lee of the coral reef, resting.
Perfect. She can rest there, and we’ll rest here on the boat.
Then we were homeward bound, bouncing through bumpy seas. The waves slapped the bow and splashed over the port side of the panga. One of our boat-mates wore his snorkel and mask as the warm water splashed over him. It was a very wet and laughter-filled ride home.
Sun-baked and tired we disembarked on the beach, waving goodbye to our new acquaintances. Time for a shower, and a cold drink, and a nap!
The writers are Canadians who have been full-time residents of Isla Mujeres for nearly 10 years. You can read their blog here.