The Mexican Caribbean is known as a scuba divers paradise because of its rich fauna and for being home to the world’s second largest barrier reef. Jacques Cousteau, the famous French explorer, put this area on the map with his sea life documentaries in the 1960s. He described this region as one of the most beautiful scuba diving areas in the world. However, what is less well known is that this stretch of water is also the site of an 18th century shipwreck which can be found close to the Grand Oasis Tulum.
The story goes that the ship named Nuestra Señora de los Milagros (Our Lady of the Miracles), nicknamed Matanceros because it was built in Matanzas, Cuba, was making its way from Spain to Mexico when it crashed into the coral reefs off of the Akumal coast on February 22, 1741.
Pirates and privateers
At this period of time Spain was at war with England, largely over trading opportunities in the Caribbean, and its waters were full of English privateers. Nonetheless Captain Juan Bacaro and his crew of 69 men set sail from Cadiz, Spain on November 30, 1740 with a ship packed full of goods to sell in the colonial city of Veracruz, Mexico, its intended port of call. The ship – 73 feet long with 16 cannons and four swivel guns – contained nearly 300 tons of merchandise, including metals, household items like cutlery and glassware, jewellery and 21,200 bottles of wine and brandy; goods that would return a small fortune when sold on arrival.
Once in the Caribbean, it is believed that Captain Bacaro decided to sail between the island of Cozumel and the mainland to avoid any privateers or British Royal Navy warships that might have been in the area. The ship would then make its way up the Mexican Caribbean coast to the tip of the Yucatan peninsula before sailing west towards Veracruz in the Gulf of Mexico. Things did not go as planned though. The Matanceros came unstuck trying to navigate through the large coral reefs that inhabit this area as breakers smashed into the ship running it aground.
It wasn’t until 1959 that a group of ex-World War II Mexican frogman, led by Pablo Bush Romero (considered the founder of Akumal), decided to
explore the Matanceros shipwreck. The cannons found at Akumal Bay pointing towards the sea are just some of the artefacts that were recovered. Other items including necklace crucifixes, coins and gems can be found at the small CEDAM Museum in Puerto Aventuras, just up the coast from Akumal, where entry is free.
There are regular scuba diving trips to the site of the shipwreck that leave Akumal Bay run by the Akumal Dive Shop, who also have a shop at Grand Oasis Tulum where you can find out more information. But even for beginners, the crystalline waters of the Mexican Caribbean are a joy to snorkel as you mingle with colourful fish; and who knows, you may even find your own piece of maritime history!