Quintana Roo, Riviera Maya, Mexico
On some days, up to 50 turtles can be seen in the bay and you can swim among them. The bay is shallow and the beach is secluded, with plenty of shade from the tall palm trees. But there is more to Akumal than that.
Akumal in the Mayan language means 'Land of turtles'. This is what most people come here for: swimming with green sea turtles.
Akumal is a Mayan village, 37km south of Playa, on the right-hand side of the highway. That is where the local Yucatec Maya live. It was built on the site of a former coconut plantation. On the left side, 1/2 km down on the beach side, there is the beach town of Akumal with villa residences, a few hotels and restaurants. The beach town was built in 1958 as a community for scuba divers by Pablo Bush Romero - a Mexican businessman, diver and archaeologist. His family still owns a portion of Akumal, including the Hotel Akumal Caribe.
The first foreigner who set foot on this coast (near Akumal, the exact location is unknown) was Gonzalo Guerrero, a would-be Spanish conquistador who was shipwrecked here in 1511 with his crew. He did not have a chance to enjoy the beach, as the crew were captured by the local Mayans. Some were sacrificed, some died of disease, only the Franciscan friar Jerónimo de Aguilar remained alongside Guerrero alive as slaves. At some point in his captivity, Guerrero met and fell in love with Zazil Há, the daughter of the local Batab, or chief (from the Mayan area now called Chetumal). While de Aguilar remained a slave, Guerrero married and had three children, the first mixed race Mestizos. Then, one day, everything changed. De Aguilar served as translator for Hernán Cortés who came here to conquer the country in 1519. But Guerrero refused, as by this time he had been promoted to the rank of nacom (war chief) and was known as Lord of Chactemal; he led the Mayan resistance against his former countrymen. He died in battle. You will see a sculpture of Guerrero, his wife the mother of modern Mexico (behind him in the photo) and the first Meztizo children just before entering the beach.
Today, Akumal stretches across three bays: Akumal Bay, Half Moon Bay and Yal Ku Bay. Most people go straight to Akumal Bay, also known as the Turtle Beach, with lots of palm trees, the huge and popular Lol Ha Restaurant, a craft shop and diving centres. Here you can find Pablo Bush's bronze bust. The statue of the restaurant's Patron looks very different. He could be a saint but he looks like a fisherman to me (well, Akumal used to be a sleepy fishing village) and he always holds a bottle of alcohol, perhaps indicating that you are surely going to have a great time here! When I was here last time with my friends Chris and John, we certainly did just that.
Half Moon Bay is a bit further along the village road and offers a few more restaurants. I was in this part only once with my husband and sister-in-law in the restaurant La Buena Vida (The Good Life!). A hippy set up, plenty of hammocks hanging from the palms, children splashing in the pool, fabulous shrimp fritters. And then they brought us Coco Loco! A fresh-cut coconut with its juice, mixed with pineapple juice, grenadine and rum!! We did not want to leave!
The third part of the Akumal coast is an inlet from the ocean and the salt and fresh water mix here. This is where you can find the Yal Ku Lagoon. You will need a whole day for this park; it is a separate adventure. It is a natural park, with some bronze statues around, palapas to rest under and a cenote connected with the sea. There are rental cabins, lockers and rental equipment for snorkelling.
As for the Turtle beach, the ocean floor is covered with sea grass, the turtles’ favorite food. They linger for hours in the bay, munching on the grass, and giving you a chance to get up close. For snorkelling, you can buy a tour from one of the dive shops (the prices vary, up to 50USD). You can also rent or bring your own equipment and swim out alone. It is easy to spot the turtles, you don't really need a guide, just swim around, a few metres away from the shore. I personally don't agree with hordes of people descending on poor turtles, and in particular in big groups. I did snorkel with them once by myself but on reflection I regret it. I don't do it anymore. I just go for a swim and relax on the beach under the palms. My friends Orsolya and Elena loved it here on our visit a couple of years ago and since then I have been here many times with friends. They always swim towards the reef by themselves and spot a turtle or two. No need to go in groups.
One thing is for sure: the ecosystem is now fragile here. Akumal is recognised as a protected area, its Ecological Centre does a great job educating about conservation of the environment. Sections of the reef are closed to the public due to severe overcrowding by humans (the reef also suffered in the past from destruction by hurricanes).
In an effort to address the conservation issues, the government authorities closed the beach in spring 2017 for a few days (and not for the first time). Apparently the local tour groups are violating the recent agreement, which is very clear: groups can only snorkel between 9am-5pm, maximum 6 people per group and they have to keep 10m from each other. The crackdown was also aimed at the unlicensed tour operators. In addition, there was a local protest (see the photos below) against a hotel obstructing public access to the beach. I understand from the locals that this situation has now calmed down and the solution is being sought through a civil trial process (from autumn 2017).
Once on the beach, the rules are simple. There are a few hotels, they have their own deckchair areas and there is a separate small palapa section where the public can hire a deckchair. Otherwise, you just spread your towel under the palm trees. The areas with no access are now clearly divided by ropes. Swimming alone, without the tour groups, is the better option. Alternatively, you could be observing fish and manta rays. And the bay is good for bird-spotting too. Since coral dies on human contact, avoid touching it. And if you see any raised mounds of sand on the beach, they are to be avoided too as they could be turtle nests.
How to get there:
The cheapest way to get to Akumal from Playa del Carmen is by colectivo (minibus) from Calle 2 Norte between Av. 10 and 15. It costs 35 pesos. Get off at the highway and walk about 1/2 km towards the beach. In the beach village you will spot an archway. Walk through, pass Gonzalo Guerrero's statue and you are on the main beach.
Public beach access is free but if you come by car, you will need to pay the parking fee. Take the first or second car park on arrival; they are 50 pesos for the day. If you go further up, closer to the beach, the parking prices go higher. Half Moon Bay restaurants have their own free car parks. The entry fee to Yal Ku is 280 Pesos (prices as of 2017). There is a separate car park there.