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I didn’t have to read any further than “Akumal means ‘Place of Turtles’ in Maya” in my Lonely Planet to decided that I needed to visit ASAP. What more did I need to know? I love turtles, turtles live in Akumal. Obviously I had to go swimming with turtles in Akumal. It was simple math.
…Hopefully, there was nothing about poisonous snakes or flesh-eating bacteria mentioned after that!
And that, my friends, is how I found myself in Akumal, Mexico one August morning, trying to restrain myself from coming to blows with an aggressive life jacket salesman on one of the most serene, peaceful beaches (minus the life jacket salesmen) in the Riviera Maya.
Fortunately, we had done our research before arriving and were prepared to be confronted by life jacket peddlers (thanks, other bloggers!), but certainly not to the degree that we experienced that day.
The beach hustlers in Akumal are NO JOKE, you guys. Typically I’m a pretty relaxed traveler, but I was NOT in the mood for such an intense sales pitch that morning.
I was already frazzled because Héctor and I had arrived 30 minutes late to the colectivo station in Playa del Carmen, leaving our friends (The Traveling Lovebirds) waiting on the street in the heat. I HATE being late for anything, and when I am, I get frantic. That particular morning I was starving, and we’d had to make a pit stop for granola bars to stave off hangry-ness for the 30-minute colectivo ride to Akumal.
I was concerned (foolishly) that there would be nowhere to buy snacks when we arrived, but of course, there was an Oxxo (Mexico’s version of 7/11, only better) 50m from Akumal beach. Because, Mexico.
We had already resigned ourselves to renting life vests in the name of comfort and convenience (why swim when you can float?!) and were just looking for a reputable place to rent them from.
“We want to rent them, but not from you!” I finally declared, turning my back on the man, in the midst of his emphatic sales pitch.
So off we went to rent the damn lifejackets.
We opted to rent from The Akumal Dive Shop. We figured we might as well choose somewhere that also offers access to bathrooms! They also have locker rentals, so you have somewhere secure to place your valuables while you swim.
Numerous blogs mentioned that locals on Akumal beach are running a scam to force tourists into renting life jackets in efforts to make extra money. This may have been a scam in the past, and the locals are indeed persistent, but life vests are now mandatory if you want to swim on the snorkeling route.
And to be honest, they’re completely necessary. The turtle snorkeling route is long- it took us nearly 2 hours to complete (had to stop for photos!), and there is no way that I would have made it without a life jacket, despite being a prolific swimmer.
Enough about life jackets, what about the turtles?
Swimming With Turtles
This was not my first attempt at swimming with sea turtles (though you wouldn’t have guessed that given my lack of snorkel coordination), but it was by far the most rewarding experience.
The turtles come to feast on the seagrass that grows on the ocean floor in Akumal Bay. They also nest on the beach. This equates to a consistent turtle presence in the area.
I attempted to manage my own expectations, promising myself not to be disappointed if I only saw one turtle, or worse, no turtles (thanks for nothing Hanauma Bay!). It turns out, this was an unnecessary act of preparation.
We spotted our first turtle about 10 minutes into our swim. It was kind of far off, and the churned up sand (go early in the day to avoid this!) made it challenging to see clearly. But it was a turtle nonetheless! Mission accomplished, I told myself.
Finally, we moved on from that first turtle… and encountered about a dozen more. At one point there were turtles in every direction, and I didn’t know where to look. One very bold turtle decided to cut right across the path of all the snorkelers, and we had to avoid crashing into him!
Check out this video of our turtle experience:
Swimming with the turtles was absolutely magical! It was by far one of the most awesome experiences I’ve had, not just in Mexico, but anywhere!
There’s something so incredible about seeing these creatures up close. I loved looking at their funny turtle expressions and admiring the colors in their shells. I left the snorkeling route with a warm fuzzy feeling in my heart, a big smile on my face, and no residual resentment for the pushy lifejacket salesman.
…It’s amazing how spotting a few sea turtles can change your entire mentality!
A few things to note when swimming with turtles:
- You should never touch the turtles. In addition to being traumatizing to the turtles, it is a federal offense.
- Wear biodegradable sunscreen to protect the delicate habitat …and wear a lot of it, because you are highly susceptible to sunburn when spending extended periods in the water — girls put a lot on your butt (trust me).
- Swimming with fins in this area is banned, but you don’t really need them
- You are not permitted to dive underwater on the snorkel route; hence the life jackets.
- Technically, you are not allowed to be closer than 9 feet (3m) from the turtles, but they may swim close to you on their own accord. Just be sure to give them space, so they don’t panic.
- Don’t swim overtop of the turtles — they need room to come up for air!
Eating in Akumal
After a delightful afternoon (or morning, if you’re more organized than me!) of swimming with turtles, you’re bound to be starving.
I recommend taking a picnic lunch with you. There is a restaurant called Lol-Ha on the beach in Akumal. But personally, I wouldn’t recommend it.
When we visited, it was extremely busy. Finally, we found an empty table and seated ourselves, only to have the waiter approach and inform us they weren’t offering service to that table at this time.
We moved to the bar. Moments later we saw the same waiter seat another group at the table we had been occupying moments before.
Um… what? Was the lifejacket salesman in cahoots with the servers at the restaurant?! Who knows.
The service was not great. When we did finally get some food, it was also not great, and kind of pricey (M$150-300 per plate).
It’s possible that we just had terrible luck with Lol-Ha that day, but given that it’s the only restaurant on the beach, you can count on it being busy (we were lucky to even find a seat!).
In my opinion, you’re better off packing a delicious picnic (which I did on my second visit to Akumal) and saving your pesos for beer from the Oxxo instead.
Take a Beach Walk
After a relaxing picnic lunch, I highly recommend mustering up the energy to take a beach walk along the bay. It’s fun to get a new perspective on the little snorkeling bay from down the beach. Plus, there are some very luxurious resorts you might want to scope out for a future visit!
Despite the fact that the sun sets over the land in Akumal, it still manages to have incredible sunsets! When the sun goes down, the whole bay starts glowing with beautiful blue and yellow hues. It kind of makes you wonder if the place might be something you dreamed up. But nope! It’s real!
If you ask me, a day trip to Akumal is a MUST if you are visiting the Riviera Maya. There are many beautiful beaches, but Akumal is a cut above the rest. The turtles are just a bonus.
What to Know Before You Go
Because the rules surrounding swimming with turtles are regularly changing, I would highly recommend that you do your research before visiting.
When I visited in October we attempted to enter the snorkel route without a guide only to have an aggressive man confront us (is everyone in Akumal super pushy??), insisting that we were required to swim with a guide. Allegedly the inspector was observing from the beach and if we proceeded without a guide, we would be breaking the law. Sure enough, the inspector was there, in uniform, monitoring the beach.
As you can imagine, I was frustrated. Just 6 weeks prior we had snorkeled guide-free with no problems. Disgruntled, we returned to our beach towel and waited until the inspector and the grumpy water supervisor left for lunch, before entering the snorkel route.
I don’t advocate going against the rules, but at that moment I felt that I was the victim of a high-level scam. Numerous other bloggers have reported this as a scam, and I figured they were likely correct. However, it seems the situation in Akumal has actually changed, and guides may be required.
So, Do You Have To Snorkel With A Guide?
According to my research, the number of visitors to Akumal Bay each year has been increasing. There is concern that the increased human presence is harmful to the delicate ecology of the region.
According to a 2014 study by the Akumal Ecological Center (AEC), the presence of swimmers within 5m caused stress to the turtle population while a parallel study showed that the number of turtles leaving Akumal Bay was directly proportionate to the increasing number of tourists present.
In an effort to preserve the health of the turtle population, the AEC, along with the Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) are attempting to introduce guidelines that will restrict the number of tourists in the water at any given time.
To my knowledge, a management program is not in full effect, and processes to manage it are not yet established. This is likely why communication around the actual laws and regulations is so unclear. However, it seems like these groups are making moves towards laws that require tourists to snorkel with a guide.
My advice to you, in order to avoid possible fines, is to purchase a tour or attempt to swim with turtles in a different location.
Additional Reading & Resources
These are some resources that I found while researching this post. It’s challenging to find anything conclusive, but they may be useful if you are preparing for your own visit.
- (Spanish) Bahía de Akumal ya cuenta con Programa de Protección – https://www.gob.mx/conanp/prensa/bahia-de-akumal-ya-cuenta-con-programa-de-proteccion
- About Centro Ecologico Akumal: CEA – http://www.hotelakumalcaribe.com/about/akumal-ecological-association-cea1.htm
- Centro Ecologico Akumal (Home Page) – http://www.ceakumal.org
- Ancient Mayan “Place of the Turtles” Copes with Modern-Day Tourism – http://seaturtlestatus.org/sites/swot/files/report/SWOT10_p28-29_Ancient%20Mayan.pdf
- The Future of Akumal Bay – http://communicationsceak.wixsite.com/ceaorg/single-post/2017/03/13/The-Future-of-Akumal-Bay
What To Pack For Akumal
- Reef Safe sunscreen will protect your skin AND the environment.
- A swimsuit coverup will keep you from feeling exposed in between swims.
- A microfiber towel is perfect for the beach- it is compact and will dry quickly.
- Flip flops are easy to slip on and off during a day at the beach.
Getting to Akumal
Akumal Bay is 38 km from Playa del Carmen and 27km from Tulum. This makes it the perfect day trip from either location.
To get to Akumal from Playa del Carmen, head south on the highway (towards Tulum). It will take about 25 minutes, to get there. Just follow the signs for “Akumal Playa.” Upon arrival, there are numerous parking lots to choose from. Expect to pay approximately M$20 per hour.
The most cost-effective way to get to Akumal is by colectivo (a public shuttle van).
In Playa del Carmen the colectivos leave from Calle 2 Norte between Avenues 15 and 20. Look for colectivos that say “Tulum” in the window and get in line. There are numerous companies to choose from, but they all offer the same service at the same rates (M$25 from Playa del Carmen to Akumal).
When you board just to tell the driver your destination is Akumal and they will announce when you arrive.
The colectivo will drop you off on the side of the highway outside of Akumal. You will have to cross the highway using the pedestrian walkway, then just follow the road to the beach. The walk will take you 5 to 10 minutes.
When it’s time to go home just head back to the highway. Colectivos frequently pass so you shouldn’t have to wait more than 10 minutes to encounter one. If it is full and you can’t board don’t worry, another will be along in a few minutes.
Personally, I haven’t used a taxi to go to Akumal, but I am sure any taxi would be happy to take you. The price of a taxi should run from $20 to $30 USD but prepared to negotiate. Taxis are always plentiful so you shouldn’t have trouble encountering one.
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