In the blue-green haze, a black silhouette emerges in the distance. Swimming closer, the clear form of a green sea turtle begins to take shape. The goal of our self-guided Akumal snorkeling adventure was to encounter these graceful creatures in the wild. The Akumal turtles did not disappoint and it was the highlight of our trip to Mexico.
We’re no strangers to encountering see turtles in the wild. We got to see them in the Bahamas in 2006 and again last year in the Galápagos Islands. But we learned that you should never pass up a chance to see sea turtles. Each experience is mesmerizing.
While planning our trip to Mexico, we’d heard about the Akumal turtles and how you could swim with these guys in the wild for FREE! But we also saw a lot of pricey tours being offered. Always up for an adventure, we sought out to do this on our own and will share our secrets with you. As it turns out, you can do your own Akumal snorkeling tour cheaply and easily.
We set out from Playa del Carmen a little later than we had expected, arriving at Akumal around 10:45. In retrospect, we should have gotten there earlier. The layout was pretty obvious, except for figuring out where to access the beach (hint: you go through the dive shop; see instructions below).
Snorkeling at Akumal is easy. The small bay is protected by a reef. Big waves can’t penetrate the bay, so it is perfect for snorkeling.
The Akumal turtles are plentiful and used to the presence of humans. You can get close to the turtles (while still respecting their space!). As they get used to you, you can appreciate their strong front fins that propel them through the water. As they come up for air, you can look them in the eye and see the strength and grace they project.
After snorkeling, we parked ourselves in the Lol-Ha restaurant to enjoy the shade, the view of the ocean and some amazing lunch delights: chilaquile and a cochinita pibil torta. There’s something refreshing about food and drink after spending a few hours in the salt water.
Akumal was a wonderful day in the sun and sea from our base in Playa del Carmen. Of our entire trip in Mexico, snorkeling with the sea turtles at Akumal was the highlight of the trip.
Planning Your Own Akumal Snorkeling Adventure
The Most Important Thing to Know About Akumal
The small bay at Akumal has a sandy bottom comprised very fine sand. It gets stirred up as the day goes on, cutting visibility significantly. When the tour groups start arriving in the mid-morning (often with very inexperienced snorkelers), the bottom can get stirred up very, very quickly.
Therefore, we recommend arriving at Akumal no later than 10:30am. You should really try being there around 9:30am, if possible. If you can’t get there first thing in the morning, our recommendation is to try on a different day. If you are going with a tour operator and they can’t get you there by 10:30 or 11:00am, look for someone else.
How to Get to Akumal
Akumal is located 23 miles (38 km) south of the hotel zones in Playa del Carmen and 65 miles (104 km) south of Cancun. Akumal is about half-way between Playa del Carmen and Tulum (however, we do NOT recommend doing both in the same day).
There are several ways to get to Akumal, but there are really only three good ways: rental car, the colectivo (the shared local mini-vans), or a private tour.
The easiest and best way is by rental car. If you’re spending any time in the Yucatan, consider getting a rental car. If you are going to lots of different places (Tulum, the cenotes, Xcaret, etc.), you’ll ultimately save money with a rental car versus booking tours, and you’ll save time over the colectivos. Rental cars in Mexico are very inexpensive and high quality (we had a brand new Volkswagen Jetta).
If going to Akumal by rental car, head south and follow the signs for Akumal. The road to the town and beach is on your left (you’ll go past it about 200 yards, take the “returno” back and then make a right down the road to the beach. It’s only about a half mile to parking. You won’t go very far before people will start waving you down offering tours, parking and “information.” Pass them by.
There are two parking lots on the right (yes, you can park there). However, we suggest passing those by, going an extra 50 feet and turning into the first parking lot on your left (marked by a small guard shack and a heavy metal gate, which will be open). The prices are the same for all the parking lots (50 pesos; less than $3 for the full day), but the parking on the left has the bonus of having spots in the shade if you head to the back. (See next section for Once You Get To Akumal instructions)
The second way to get to Akumal is the colectivo (the shared local mini-vans). Basically, you’re on the local bus. The colectivos depart Playa del Carmen from Calle 2 Norte at Avenue 15. Look for the white vans heading in the direction of Tulum. The cost is supposed to be 35 pesos per person (less than $3), but some drivers may quote a slightly higher price. Tell the driver where you are going (“Akumal, por favor”).
The driver will leave you off on the side of the road at the base of footbridge. Head up the footbridge and cross over to the other side of the road. Walk down the road approximately a half mile. You’ll know you’re in the right place because you’ll soon be accosted with offers for guided tours and lifejackets. Just keep walking. (See next section for Once You Get To Akumal instructions)
The third and final way is by going with a private tour. All over Cancun and Playa del Carmen, you’ll be approached by people offering you tours to Akumal. You certainly don’t need a tour and you will pay a significant premium for the convenience. If you do want to go the private tour route, you’ll save some cash pre-booking your half-day snorkeling trip online.
Once You Get To Akumal
Orient yourself so you’re looking at the large white gate welcoming you to the village of Akumal. If you need any sundries and beverages, the Oxxo store on the right side is where you should stop.
Head through the white gate. You are looking for the Akumal Dive Shop. The road will almost immediately fork. To the right is the Lol-Ha restaurant. Follow the main road as it goes slightly to the left. You’ll see a car park on the left. The parking here is pay-by-the-hour. We do not recommend parking here. Just past the parking lot on your right side, you’ll find the Akumal Dive Shop.
Walk up the steps of the dive shop on the left side (see photo below) and head out to the beach. We recommend leaving your gear/towels on the rocks on the left. Do not bring any valuables with you! If you did not bring your own snorkel gear, you can rent it at the dive shop. OR, you can rent from one of the many vendors with plastic tubs on the beach. There is no shortage of opportunities to rent snorkel gear (going rate is between $10-15 for the day). (Note: We strongly recommend buying your own snorkel gear. There’s something about putting your mouth on a snorkel that thousands of other people have used that we don’t love.)
If you get hungry, head to the Lol-Ha restaurant, where you can sitting in comfy plastic chairs and drink the beverage of your choice while enjoying some pretty decent food. If you need a toilet, Lol-Ha has a pay toilet (5 pesos).
A Note About Scams at Akumal
At some point, you’ll be approached by someone offering to rent you lifejackets. They will probably tell you that lifejackets are required, however, that is not true. If you are not a strong swimmer or snorkeler, you may want a lifejacket, however it is not a law and it is not required.
You may also be approached and told that it is required to have a guide. This is also not true. It’s easy to find the turtles. There’s absolutely no need to have a guide.
UPDATE: January 2017
After receiving a significant number of comments and e-mails from people about the ongoing scams at Akumal, we’ve looked into this further. Here is a comprehensive update. The con-artists are becoming increasingly aggressive and, in one instance reported to us, physically pushing people. Our recommended approach is to just keep walking. If someone asks you about life jackets, don’t respond and just keep walking. If someone asks you about a tour, the same thing.
In March 2016, Akumal Bay was declared a marine protected area. The Akumal scammers are taking this as an opportunity to push their agenda. We have contacted Centro Ecologico Akumal (CEA) (the ecological center in Akumal) for clarification. Unless an individual can produce a valid photo ID from PROFEPA (Procuraduría Federal de Protección al Ambiente; the Mexican Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection) they have NO legal standing. Period. They can wear any color vest they want or act as threatening as they possibly can, but they have no official or legal authority. [Note: If you are approached by actual police officers in uniform, that is a different matter.]
We are recommending all independent travelers to Akumal print out this article. We are also recommending you print this page and this page from the CEA in Akumal. These clearly state: “It is free to swim in this area and you do not need to wear a life jacket…” and also “As an independent tourist, do I need a permit to snorkel? Permits apply to businesses who conduct commercial/tourist services, not to the independent individual.”
Finally, as of January 2017, a third scam has begun appearing at Akumal Bay. The con-artists are now trying to get people to pay a $50 fee to access the free public beach and swim/snorkel in the bay. Again, Akumal Bay is PUBLIC. There is no charge to access the beach or swim in the ocean here.
The single best way to combat these scams is to just keep walking. Don’t talk to them. Don’t answer their questions. Don’t make eye contact. Just keep walking.
Where Do I Find The Turtles in Akumal?
Start your Akumal snorkeling adventure within the buoy section of the beach. Look for where the ocean looks darker, this is because of the sea grass on the bottom of the bay. This is where the turtles feed and where you should head.
The easiest way to find turtles is to look for the small groups of other snorkelers. Where you find a group, you’ll find turtles. After a time, the guides from the tourist agencies will move their groups on and you’ll have time with the turtles all by yourself.
Once you feel comfortable, you can swim out beyond the buoys and then work your way to the right down the beach. Be careful of the boats which leave immediately to the right of the buoys.
As you head through the dive shop, you’ll see a sign with rules and a map of Akumal beach. It is worth your time to study the map for a few minutes before you head out.
You’ll be accosted with offers for other tours (Xcaret, Tulum, etc.). You may even be offered special souvenir photos. We recommend avoiding these offers.
To leave Akumal by rental car, reclaim your vehicle and head back out to the highway. Head right for Playa del Carmen or Cancun. Cross over the highway make a left for Tulum. (Note: We do NOT recommend trying to do Tulum and Akumal on the same day.)
To leave by colectivo, walk back up the road (it’s a gentle uphill) to the road and flag any colectivo heading your direction. The price is the same.
Why Not to Visit Tulum and Akumal on the Same Day
The problem with visiting Akumal and Tulum on the same day is one of timing. Visibility in Akumal Bay is compromised as the sandy bottom is stirred up during the morning and makes it very difficult to see the turtles at all later in the day.
Theoretically, you could visit Tulum after Akumal, but there’s just one problem: heat. Tulum is very exposed. There is almost no shade at the archaeological site and it is extremely hot. Both sites should be visited first thing in the morning to have the best experience.
If you are going on your own by rental car, you can do them on different days. If you are doing a group tour, you might be pulled into doing both of them on the same day. It’s possible, but we don’t recommend it. If you absolutely must do them both on the same day, we recommend the turtles of Akumal first (so you can see them) and then suffer through the heat at Tulum (bring lots of water!).
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