Yal Kú lagoon
Quintana Roo, Mexico
An inlet where fresh water from cenotes escapes to the sea. So you get three in one: a cenote, a lake and the sea. You will find it in Akumal bay.
Akumal (Place of Turtles in the Maya language) is formed by several bays. The beach where everybody goes swimming with the turtles is the Bay of Akumal. To the South there are the Bay of Jade and the South Bay (with residential villas). To the North is the Bay of the Half Moon (also with a residential community). This is where you will find the lagoon. Akumal was the first tourist destination of Quintana Roo, founded by Pablo Bush Romero in 1958, with the aim of setting up a snorkelling base. And he certainly succeeded.
People come to Yal Kú mainly for snorkelling. And they love it. I came here for a picnic and swimming, with my friends, in April 2019, as I don't snorkel. It was on Thursday, just before Easter, so there were quite a few tour buses and individual visitors as well. Luckily, there are two entrances and the lagoon is rather large, so the crowds spread out. We did not reach the mouth of the lagoon where the water joins the sea, that would be about 1km of swimming. We were also told that the currents there are rather strong. We just stayed close to the cenote springs. As the water is brackish, be prepared for cooler waters than the sea, but warmer waters than the cenotes. My guess is about 26°C.
The turquoise waters are home to sea turtles, tropical fish and manta rays. The water is truly calm and clean, it felt like swimming in a natural aquarium. There are a lot of fish around, some of them visible with the naked eye, even if you don't snorkel. You would expect fish here, as the name of the place suggests it. Yal Kú caleta (bay) gets its name from the cenote spring called Yal Kú Cai. And you can actually see the water stream coming out of the cenote springs. Yal refers to baby, ku means a hole; and cai refers to a fish. So the entire reference is to the small fish in a hole (cenote). And indeed, all cenotes in Yucatán have small fish. But the lagoon itself has even more fish, as it mixes with the sea waters. A real abundance.
We saw (without snorkelling) a school of sergeant major and blue parrotfish, as well as fire coral, lettuce coral and staghorn coral. Look up and you’ll see herons, seagulls and pelicans. Look around and you will see palm trees, gumbo limbo, black poisonwood, sapodillas (chicle tree) and many iguanas. Five of them joined us when we had our picnic, they just crawled down from the trees above our heads. If you are lucky, you may spot a badger.
It is difficult for me to recommend which of the two entrances to use as I only tried one of them. Also, it is possible to reach them from two ends, so I can't suggest which one is 'the first' and which one is 'the second one', as it depends from which end you will arrive. They are both at the end of Akumal residential area but the road at the end circles, hence the confusion.
However, they are next to each other and the distinction can be made by the price. At one of them you have to wear life vests and the entrance is 292 pesos and compulsory vests are 116 pesos. At the cheaper place you don’t have to wear vests and the entrance is 265 pesos. Locals and children get discounts at both.
It may be a coincidence, but we asked first at the most expensive entrance and the staff were rather grumpy. They were unwilling to tell us what the difference was between the two places and why they charged different fees. We later found out that the more expensive one has palapas (open cabins) with hammocks, which the second one does not offer. We opted for the cheaper placer. We had our own beach chairs so we just chose a shady area under the trees, with some benches to serve us as a table. We also had our own 'noodles' for floating but we were not allowed to use them. We were offered life vests but did not take the offer. The staff here were very pleasant, by the way.
Both places claim that you can't bring your own food and drink. We did and nobody scolded us. There was no restaurant or shop in our place in any case so I don't see how you can't bring our own refreshments. The services include bathrooms, changing rooms, showers, lockers, rental equipment for snorkelling, life vests, benches in the shade and by the water there is a wooden platform with steps for access to the water. This last area is not shady and people just sunbathe there.
Once you enter, you will be given a bracelet, so if you want to leave and come back, that is fine. There are some nice restaurants around, for example Buena Vida (my favourite in this area), on the beach, so you can pop over for lunch and swim in the sea, and come back.
How to get there:
If you are driving here you will enter the main entrance to Akumal. You will pass through the main entrance arch and then follow the road to the left as it parallels the beach. From the arch it is about a 10-minute drive until the end.
If you take the colectivo (minivan) from Playa Del Carmen or Tulum, you will get off by the main entrance and walk into Akumal. You will need to take a taxi to the lagoon because it is a long walk, about 25 minutes (in the heat of the day). The taxis are standing at the fork (one leads to the main beach, the other to the residential area and the lagoon).
Mix & Match:
You can combine with a beach stay, either at the Bay of Akumal, where you can swim with the turtles, or the Bay of the Half Moon, in one of the beach restaurants.