Updated February 2018
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.
- 1 Akumal snorkeling overview
- 2 Planning your own Akumal snorkeling adventure
- 3 Rules & Scams: Updated February 2018
- 4 Where to find the Akumal turtles
- 5 Respect the turtles
- 6 Leaving Akumal
- 7 Why not to visit Tulum and Akumal on the same day
- 8 Where to stay near Akumal
Akumal snorkeling overview
We set out from Playa del Carmen a little later than we had expected, arriving at Akumal around 10:45am. 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. It’s really pretty amazing.
After snorkeling, we parked ourselves in the Lol-Ha restaurant to enjoy the shade, the view of the ocean and some amazing lunch delights: chilaquiles and a cochinita pibil torta. There’s something refreshing about food and drink after spending a few hours in the salt water.
Our visit to 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 as early in the morning as you can, ideally no later than 9:30am. If you are going with a tour operator and they can’t get you there by 10:30 or 11:00 am, look for someone else.
How to get to Akumal
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.
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 life jackets. Just keep walking.
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. We wrote an in-depth guide about good snorkel gear here.)
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).
Rules & Scams: Updated February 2018
In March 2016, Akumal Bay was declared a marine protected area. Throughout 2017, various guidelines were put in place ostensibly to help protect the turtles, but they have caused a lot of confusion. The Akumal scammers are taking this as an opportunity to push their agenda, threaten people, and make money. 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.
Unless an individual produces 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.]
New guidelines that limit the number of tour participants, require life vests, and say that swimming is only allowed in certain areas apply ONLY to guided snorkel tours in Akumal. If you are an independent snorkeler, it is important to know the following:
- No matter what you are told at the beach by those trying to make money, snorkeling on your own in Akumal is still allowed for free—you do not have to be part of a guided tour.
- Entrance to the public Akumal beach is free.
- You do not have to wear a snorkeling vest or lifejacket—they are only required for those on a guided tour. However, wearing one may make it easier to snorkel and may reduce the potential for harassment.
- Wear short fins or no fins at all. If you have long fins, go down the beach near Akumal Bay Beach and Wellness Resort.
- Do not enter the buoyed areas,
- People report having better luck (i.e., a smoother visit) if they arrive closer to 9:00am.
Where to find the Akumal turtles
If you are snorkeling independently, your Akumal snorkeling adventure should be outside the buoyed section. Look for where the ocean looks darker to find 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. 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.
Respect the turtles
We’re scuba divers, and the very first thing you learn in diving is that you are a guest in the ocean. Do not take this for granted. Many of the Akumal turtles are endangered, and the area they swim in is their feeding area. This should be sacred for all those who love wildlife.
What does this mean? First of all, keep your distance. It is best to stay at least 10 feet away, and do not hover immediately above a turtle while it is feeding. If you pay attention to the turtle’s actions, you’ll have no doubt about its behavior when it’s feeling threatened or harassed. Respond accordingly. Secondly, be very mindful of your feet. Fins aren’t necessary, but if you wear them, make sure you know what’s nearby so you’re not kicking sea grass, turtles, or other snorkelers. Also, do not stand in the sea grass, as that destroys the very reason these gorgeous animals visit Akumal. If you plan to snorkel for a long time and feel that you may need a break, bring or rent a snorkel vest or life jacket that will help you stay afloat. Thirdly, just use common sense.
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!).
Where to stay near Akumal
One of the most common questions we get are for hotel recommendations. The biggest town in the region is Cancun and there are a ton of places to stay in the Cancun hotel zone. We’re big fans of the coastal town of Playa del Carmen with its quiet streets, nice beaches and fantastic food. When we’re in the area, we usually stay in Playa del Carmen.
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