Playa del Carmen is famous for its shops and restaurants on 5th Avenue (Avenida 5 or Quinta Avenida). For us, it is the perfect place for an evening stroll on this pedestrian-only thoroughfare. While not quite the same as a nice hike through a forest or up a mountain, there is always something to see and do while ambling down 5th Ave.
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).
It’s hard to believe we’ll be heading to Italy in just over 2 weeks, and we’ve been trying to find time each day to learn and practice a little Italian. Whether you’re looking to learn Italian or another language, the following sites provide hours of family-friendly, engaging lessons (and for the most part, they are free).
Duolingo is a wonderful, free program that gets you listening, speaking, reading, and writing a new language. You can learn Spanish, Danish, Irish, French, Italian, German, Portuguese, or Dutch. The program automatically tracks your progress, and even awards you “Lingnots” which can be used to unlock bonus lessons. If English is not your first language, Duolingo allows you to take the courses above in your native tongue (there are dozens supported).
Muzzy, the intergalactic traveler created by the BBC in 1986 to teach foreign languages, has gotten a makeover for the digital age. While Muzzy still offers traditional language videos (on DVD instead of VHS), there is now a Muzzy Online program that gives you access to all the videos as well as 165 interactive games. The cost is $9.95 per month for lessons in English, Spanish, French, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, German, Portuguese and Italian (you get access to all 8). The interactive games, however, are only available in Spanish, English, French, German and Italian.
Italiano in Tre Minuti
This is a great video series (to learn Italian only, though) that gives very useful lessons on everything from counting to ordering in a restaurant. The first 8 videos are free, and then you can sign up for a one week free trial to access the rest of the 22 videos in the series.
This free site has some good interactives for learning English, Spanish, French, German, and Italian vocabulary. Our kids enjoyed clicking on the labeled parts of each section to hear the word pronounced for them. The lessons cover all the basics, including parts of the body, colors, animals, letters and food.
Digital Dialects offers vocabulary lessons and games to learn over 70 languages. It provides opportunities to read and hear the words in each lesson first before practicing with a game.
Do you have any favorite resources for learning a foreign language? We welcome your comments!
Over the course of two years of travel, we have worked hard to develop a pretty flexible routine that allows us to keep some semblance of work, school, sleep, and food normalcy as we pack up and go every month or so. As we arrived this week in Playa del Carmen, however, we’ve had to seriously rethink our normal routine. The reason being that our rental for the month is just a few short minutes from the beach by foot, and it is part of a condo complex with its own swimming pool. The call of the waves and water have made us all want to throw our routine out the window.
As if the draw of the ocean itself wasn’t reason enough for the kids to want more beach time, they discovered two boogie boards in the apartment closet the first day that we arrived. Since then Five of Hearts and Five Ball are all about boogie boarding. They would happily spend all day riding the waves, and we have to literally drag them out of the water each day. As parents we know that balance is key, since sunburned, exhausted children do not make for a happy family. However, it is hard to say no to more beach time, and since we are only here for the month we are trying to take advantage of swim time while we can get it.
So, for now we are basing our daily routine around the water and spending a little less time cooking big meals (sandwiches anyone?), and more in-depth home school lessons (practicing multiplication facts and spelling words is so much more fun while jumping waves!). As we head to a cooler and darker climate in a few short weeks we know that we have to take advantage of this amazing beach experience while we can. We have no doubt that our memories of our time here will remain long after we leave Mexico. And with the inevitable wipe outs we’ve all experienced in the waves, so will the sand hiding deep in our swim apparel.
What You Will Need:
* Supply of Coconuts (i.e. from tree in backyard)
* Cup or Other Drinking Vessel
1. Have an adult repeatedly jab the coconut with a screwdriver. Any onlookers should not stand around the coconut, as the adult’s aim is not steady and toes might end up getting jabbed instead.
2. Keep jabbing despite questions of “Do you know what you’re doing?” and “Shouldn’t you use something other than a screwdriver?”
3. Peel back the outer husk. Have an onlooker pat you on the back; you are making progress!
4. Attempt to pour out the refreshing coconut water. Realize that the said liquid is still safely sealed in the inner seed. Act like you knew that all along.
5. Repeat Step 2.
6. Rejoice as the screwdriver sinks to the handle into the inner seed. Make a note to tend to blisters on your hand later.
7. Pour coconut water into your drinking vessel of choice. Build expectations of how wildly refreshing the first taste will be.