Banco Chinchorro

Last Updated Jun 5, 2024

The Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve is one of these hidden Mexican gems nestled on the white-sand beaches of the Riviera Maya, right off the chill coast of Mahahual in the state of Quintana Roo.

The Reserve is a unique reef system tucked away in the municipality of Othón P. Blanco and it’s definitely one of the top natural attractions in the region. It will offer you a mesmerizing experience if you’re one of those who value adventure and tranquility at the same time.

If you’re staying in Cancun or Playa del Carmen, you must add it to your calendar. Believe me, it’s bound to be a memorable part of your vacation!

Sunsets in Banco Chinchorro

What is Reserva de la Biosfera Banco Chinchorro?

The Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve is spread across 356,721 acres located in front of the coast of Mahaual. When you have a look at the map you will see a shape similar to a peanut drawn in the ocean with little cays.

Officially, the Reserve is a false atoll or a platform reef. It contains seagrass beds, open waters, and sandy areas, no deeper than 5 meters. You will find four types of habitats and apart from the seagrass beds and sandy areas, there are coral reefs and mangroves. It is the largest coralline atoll in Mexico—an impressive 43 kilometers long and 28 kilometers wide! Just imagine!

The atoll is comprised of three small, low-lying islets – Cayo Centro, Cayo Lobos, and Cayo Norte. However, remember that the land area of the reserve is only 0.6% so don’t expect lots of solid land to step on.

Still, Cayo Centro is the biggest cay out of the three, and Cayo Norte has a nineteenth-century lighthouse, a historic beacon, that not only safeguards ships from coral collisions but also sets the scene for a unique retreat.

The Reserva de la Biosfera Banco Chinchorro is a very well-preserved natural ecosystem. The coral islets form a circular strip, hosting an astounding 95 coral species and providing a diverse habitat for marine life.

Beyond the turquoise waters, seagrass beds in Cayo Norte, and the lagoon of Cayo Centro, Banco Chinchorro serves as a vital refuge for economically important species like the Caribbean lobster and the conch. It is also a habitat for many other species, including algae, rays, turtles, snails, sea sponges, dolphins, various fish, and even iguanas and crocodiles. Crocodiles seem friendly, as much as crocodiles can be, and are often waiting for some fish that local fishermen throw at them.

Birdwatching opportunities also abound, and you will be able to appreciate migratory and endemic avian species. A total of 128 bird species and one bat have been observed in the Reserve.

If you try to be environmentally conscious, you’ll be happy to know that the biosphere reserve's transition area actively involves local communities to ensure a sustainable balance between tourism and traditional fishing activities. Companies that organize tours to Banco Chinchorro need to have a special government permit and these are limited.

If you want to know more, there is a movie, Alamar, that has this Biosphere Reserve as the main setting. This semi-documentary tells us a story about a 5-year-old boy, Nathan, who visits his father, a Mexican fisherman on the Banco Chinchorro. It’s a good watch to prepare for the trip.

Cocodiriles in Banco Chinchorro

How to Get to the Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve from Cancún or Playa del Carmen?

Although it’s not a stone’s throw from Cancun (352 km/219 miles) or Playa del Carmen (286km/178 miles), it’s not so difficult to get to the Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve.

Of course, the easiest option is to drive a rental car and stop whenever and wherever you want during your trip. You just take the Federal Highway 307 southward towards Mahaual . Once there (after about 5 hours) you can arrange a diving or snorkeling tour of the Reserve, either in Spanish or in English, and get to the atoll by boat. To make the most of your visit, it's advisable to book your tours in advance, to make sure there are spots available especially in high season. Remember, that there are not that many companies that are allowed to enter the Reserve to protect the ecosystem.

If you opt for public transportation, you will use the ADO, a reputable Mexican bus company that operates on this route. However, be aware that public transportation has its obvious limitations in terms of frequency. Booking the tickets online is a nightmare and the easiest option is to go to the bus terminal in Cancún or Playa del Carmen and get them directly there. Don’t forget to check the hours of the return trip!

You can also get a shuttle from Playa del Carmen as many operators ofxfer this option.

Since 2010 you can do overnight or multi-day trips that were illegal before, which means that you can access some areas of the Reserve impossible to visit during only a one-day trip.

Banco Chinchorro

Activities at Reserva de la Biosfera Banco Chinchorro

You might be wondering what can you do once you get to the reserve after the 2.5-hour boat ride. Have a look at the detailed descriptions below to be surprised by the number of options:

Diving and Snorkelling

Scuba diving and snorkeling emerge as the top activities at Banco Chinchorro as the water areas constitute 96% of the Reserve.

The crystal-clear waters reveal vibrant colors of the local flora and fauna, with surprises awaiting at every turn. If you’re not afraid to go into the depths, reef diving is wonderful here although more shallow dives are also available for example in an area called Aquarium I or II.

For those who prefer the safer surface pleasures of the sea, snorkeling is a perfect choice. Snorkel along the shorelines to witness the vibrant marine life also thriving in the shallows. The clear waters provide a perfect opportunity for snorkelers to observe the underwater wonders without venturing deeper. Remember that snorkeling is also a wonderful option after you come back to Mahahaual. Many companies have beach diving in their offer.

Banco Chinchorro is known as the 'ships graveyard' to local fishermen. While numerous ships have sunk here over the years, only about nine are still identifiable. Notable vessels, including a passenger ferry stranded after Hurricane Wilma, and two Spanish Galleons. Take a snorkeling adventure to explore the site, featuring 40 cannons. Keep in mind that due to their shallow depth, snorkeling is the only permitted activity around these wrecks.

I would strongly recommend that you check if the tour you want to book is a diving tour or a snorkeling one or offers both options. If you’re interested only in one, you’d better choose a boat excursion that is exclusively for the activity you prefer.

Sailing to Banco Chinchorro


Yes, you can also book special fish-flying tours that usually go towards Cayo Centro and if you’re a fishing enthusiast you will have a blast.

Beach Bliss in Mahahual

I know it’s not the Banco Chinchorro Reserve, but Mahahual is your starting and returning point and it’s very recommended to enjoy Mahahual’s pristine beaches. After your aquatic exploration, a bit of terrestrial delights might be tempting. You probably didn’t know that Mahahuals boasts the longest beaches in the Mexican Caribbean, longer than the ones you can enjoy in Cancun or Playa del Carmen.

Just spread your towel on the warm sands, bask in the sun, and take refreshing dips in the turquoise waters. Mahahual also has a vast offer of restaurants and bars so it’s worth hanging around for a couple of days.

Explore the Mayan Culture

If you are visiting the Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve, you can also make a cultural stop at Chacchoben, an archaeological site featuring ancient complexes. It’s very close to Limones where the bus to Cancun stops, less than one hour away from Mahahual. It’s one of the most popular archaeological sites in Southern Quintana Roo, with three very well-preserved pyramids. Definitely, worth a stop after or before your visit to the Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve.

Boat in Banco Chinchorro

Best Time to Visit the Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve

The period from November to April is generally considered the dry season in the Banco Chinchorro region, and it coincides with the high tourism season. During this time, there is less rainfall and more stable weather conditions, leading to calmer seas and improved water clarity. This is the preferable time for diving and snorkeling although get ready for more people booking the tours at the same time as you. Prices can also go higher in this period.

On the other hand, the rainy season occurs from June to October, with the peak of rainfall typically in the late summer months. During the rainy season, there is a higher chance of storms, increased rainfall, and potentially rougher seas, which can impact water visibility. This period is generally less favorable for water activities but you will encounter fewer people and it might be more accessible if you’re traveling on a budget.

When the sea is rough the tour operators will refuse to go into the sea, as nobody wants to join the sunken ships…


Some Practical Tips Before Visiting the Banco Chinchorro Biosphere Reserve

If you’re still hesitant if you should visit the Banco Chinchorro Reserve, here are some practical tips to make sure your trip is an amazing experience:

Book a Reputable Dive Operator: Research and choose a reputable dive operator with experienced guides. Ensure they have proper safety measures and equipment for diving and snorkeling.

Reserve in Advance: Especially during the high season, it's advisable to book your diving and snorkeling trips in advance to secure your spot with a preferred operator.

Pack Essentials: Make sure you have swimwear, ecological sunscreen, and ecological mosquito spray.

Don’t forget sunglasses and something to cover your head while on the boat. A good waterproof camera or a GoPro is also a good idea to capture underwater adventures.

You should also bring cash, as some local businesses and operators may not accept credit cards. It's also good for tipping guides and service staff. Invest in a waterproof bag to keep your valuables dry while on the boat or near the water.

In terms of diving and snorkeling gear, all the operators provide equipment, but if you have your snorkeling or diving gear, consider bringing it for comfort and familiarity. At a minimum, bring a well-fitting mask, snorkel, and fins.

Don’t Forget Your Dive Certification: If you plan to scuba dive, ensure you have the necessary diving certification. Some sites may have specific requirements.

And last but not least, respect the environment and follow eco-friendly practices. Avoid touching or damaging coral reefs, and do not disturb marine life.

Embark on Your Banco Chinchorro Adventure

The time has come to turn your travel dreams into reality. Start organizing your trip to Banco Chinchorro, where every dive reveals a new chapter! Let the allure of Banco Chinchorro cast its enchanting spell on you, and create memories that will last a lifetime.

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