With it being over 2 years since we last put on a snorkel (in the Florida Keys), the timing seemed right to turn our attention underwater yet again. Just offshore from the eastern Mexican coast is one of the largest coral reefs in the world, so there is no shortage of places to explore. However, we knew that fighting waves or strong ocean currents would not give the kids a good experience out in the water. Five Spice did some research and found an ideal place to snorkel as a family: Akumal Bay, a sheltered cove about 40 km south of our rental in Playa del Carmen.
In addition to calm waters, the bay is also known for its sea turtles. Akumal, which means “Place of the Turtle” in Mayan, provides the sandy beaches sea turtles use for their nests and also plenty of sea grass just offshore to provide the turtles with food. Tens of thousands of loggerhead and green turtles hatch from the sandy nests each year here. The conservation and monitoring program is run by Centro Ecológico Akumal, a nonprofit whose headquarters is just steps from the water.
Knowing that the turtles are closer to shore in the early morning, we set the alarm for 5:30 A.M. to start our adventure at Akumal. We were all a bit bleary-eyed as we made our way to the colectivo stand to catch a passenger van from Playa del Carmen to Akumal, but the anticipation carried us forward one step at a time. We soon settled into the van, and after about a 30 minute ride we arrived at the stop for Akumal Beach right along the main highway.
From the side of the highway, we made use of the elevated walkway over the traffic and headed toward the beach. We had heard it was kind of a long walk, but we didn’t find it bad at all. There was a pedestrian sidewalk (much of it paved) heading from the highway and into the little community that has sprung up close to the beach. From there we went under the arch and followed the sidewalk to the beach.
We arrived around 7:30, about a half hour before the dive shops open for gear rentals, but this was a wonderful time to explore the surroundings. The beach was practically deserted, and we enjoyed learning about the reef ecosystem and sea turtles through the informative displays in the Centro Ecológico Akumal building.
When 8:00 arrived, we were the first ones in line to rent snorkel gear. The anticipation was running high, and soon Five Spice, Five of Hearts, and Five Ball ventured out into the roped-off area to take a peek underwater. They didn’t have far to go before they spotted their first group of turtles eating sea grass below. The turtles are fascinating to watch. They usually have an entourage of fish accompanying them and cleaning bacteria off their shells, and it is intriguing to watch them come to the surface, take several deep breaths, and then plunge underwater. In addition to the turtles, there were a large variety of colorful fish in some of the small stands of coral reef close to shore. The reef is larger and more intact a little further out, but the diving area off of the beach, with its proximity to shore and relatively easy swimming, made it the ideal place for us to experience the turtles and the reef.
As the morning progressed, so did the number of visitors. The small beach and water were feeling quite crowded by about 10:30, and after a final snorkel and swim along the beach, we rinsed off and walked back to catch the colectivo back to Playa del Carmen. The only drama on the return trip was a thunderstorm that crossed our path, combined with the fact that the driver was going a bit too fast for comfort. Walking back to our rental from the center of town, we found a watery obstacle course as many of the streets were flooded knee-deep with rain. We took our time to slowly pick our path home, making use of a few impromptu bridges along the way. It’s times like these that we wouldn’t mind having a shell of our own and being able to just go with the flow :)
Fives’ Facts about Akumal Beach
*Transportation: There are several options for getting to Akumal Beach. From Playa del Carmen or Tulum, you can catch buses or colectivos heading between the two endpoints of the route, and either will drop you off on the side of the highway at the road to Akumal Beach. Be sure to ask for Akumal Beach and not the town of Akumal. The cost of the bus and colectivo are about the same. The colectivos run about every 10-15 minutes from 5:00 A.M. to 10:00 P.M. and have no set schedule, which was more appealing for us. The cost from Playa del Carmen was 35 pesos per seat used in the van, one-way. The colectivo stand is located at Calle 2 Norte between Av. 15 and 20, which is 2 blocks north of 5th Ave. Taxis are also available, but run a minimum of 600 pesos one way.
*When to Visit: The dive shops open every day of the year at 8:00 A.M. and close at 5:00 P.M. We found arriving before 8:00 was ideal, as the beach was practically deserted. Getting out into the water right at 8:00 gave us about 2 hours to explore before big tours and crowds arrived.
* Renting Gear: There are several options on the beach for renting both snorkel and scuba equipment, and they all seemed about the same to us. We went with the Akumal Dive Shop, the original shop on the beach. The combination of snorkel set (mask and breathing tube) and life jacket (mandatory) was $12 USD per person, and kids and adults are the same price. Flippers and other gear are extra. We decided to snorkel in shifts, so we only rented three sets of gear instead of five. There are definitely places in Playa del Carmen that rent gear for cheaper, but we didn’t want the hassle of lugging everything around with us all day.
* Turtles: You are most likely to see loggerhead and green turtles out in the waters of Akumal. They are about the same in size (1.2 meters) and weight (100-200 kg), but the loggerhead turtles feed on shellfish (crabs and snails) while the green turtles feed on sea grass. We saw at least a dozen green turtles during our morning in the water, and they were a blast to watch!
* The Reef: The Mesoamerican Reef (extending 700 miles from the tip of the Yucatan down through the Honduran Bay Islands) is the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. The reef is home to 60 types of coral, 500 species of fish, and 5 species of marine turtles. One of the biggest threats comes from tourism and the staggering number of people who visit the reef (ourselves included). There did not seem be to any efforts to limit the daily number of visitors, as we have seen in other places. At very least, be sure not to touch or step on the reef and wear reef-safe sunscreen (if it’s on your skin, it’s on the reef).