Place of the Turtle

Akumal on the Riviera Maya

by | Mar 30, 2016


Akumal stretches from Caribbean beaches to inland jungle, creating an opportunity to see a wide array of tropical flora and fauna. In the Mayan language, Akumal means “place of the turtle”, and the green sea turtles are hard to miss here.    The jungle is full of palm trees, bromeliads, and orchids, supporting animal life and providing the local population with many resources. The Mayans have long utilized these plants for food, medicine, and building materials. Akumal is located on Mexico’s Riviera Maya 100 km (62 miles) south of Cancun, between Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Rainy season here runs June through August.


The pueblo of Akumal was officially founded in 1958 as a scuba divers community by wreck explorers, and still retains that flavor. It is a former coconut plantation only accessible by boat until the mid 1960’s. It’s interesting to note that Cancun was founded in the late 1960’s, which focused attention on this isolated and exotic Mexican coastline, and it has been in intensive development ever since. Yet Akumal still maintains its tranquil way of life, with beautiful beaches and world renowned coral reefs.


One of the many things that excite me here, Akumal is an ecologically conscious community. There is a recycling program in which much of the community participates. I’m delighted to report that many houses and condominiums in the area actually have constructed wetlands that act as a filtering system for the gray water that comes from septic tanks. Contained in gravel filled enclosures, these wetlands are planted with native flora. The roots of these plants utilize the nutrients from the effluent, in turn cleaning the water. These wetlands are an effective way of treating the water so as to not pollute the local water supply. As is true everywhere there are coral reefs, biodegradable sunscreen is recommended.



The diverse plants support an amazing variety of animal species. Mammals of the deep jungle habitats include spider and howler monkeys, coatimundis or “tejons” (a furry brown relative of raccoons with a long nose and a striped tail), foxes, opossums, raccoons, tapirs, anteaters, porcupines, armadillos, deer, and jaguar. There are occasional sightings of foxes, tejons, opossums, and raccoons on the road to the lagoon. As generally true everywhere, the best time to look for wildlife is after dusk or at sunrise.

Tarantulas, lizards, snakes, and crocodiles also call the jungle home. Fortunately these creatures tend to stay away from the beach and populated areas. However, you will see plenty of rock iguanas sunning themselves around Akumal. At night you might hear a chorus of geckos. These are harmless lizards that are usually found in pairs. Besides bats, geckos are one of the biggest consumers of mosquitoes and other small insects.


Many species of native birds depend on both ocean and jungle life for food, making Akumal an amazing place for bird watching. Some of the birds commonly seen in the jungle are the grackle, Yucatan flycatcher, Yucatan whippoorwill, orange oriole, the beautiful quetzal, parakeets and rare sightings of toucans. Over the ocean, seabirds include pelicans, frigate birds, plovers, gulls, sooty terns, and egrets.


The Caribbean supports a wide variety of sea life including lobster, octopus, stingrays, an assortment of parrot fish and sea turtles. These turtles lay approximately 70,000 eggs every year, of which only 1 percent (700) survive to adulthood. This is an area of primary importance for the turtles, and the people of Akumal take great pride in making sure the turtles’ nesting sites and beaches are preserved. The best time to view these turtles laying eggs or nests hatching is at night during the full moon in a tour guided by a turtle specialist. The shy hawksbill turtle also calls this region home, favoring areas near the reef. Turtles are beautiful serene animals that should be enjoyed from a distance and never touched. You can rent snorkel gear at a number of dive and snorkel shops at the beach, or bring your own.   Bring beach towels or chairs to sit on.  And stick around for the beautiful sunsets!  Lovely ocean views abound any hour of the day, and I always seem to doze off to the lullaby of the waves.


Don’t pay for a tour or boat excursion here.  Just waddle into the gentle surf in your mask and flippers and swim out about 50 yards.  Wait to hear the cry of “Tortuga” (turtle), which is what all the boat guides shout when they see one to get their group’s attention.  Just swim on over and enjoy, but don’t touch – remember, it’s a Mexican federal offense.   Also, since coral dies on human contact, you should avoid touching coral at all costs.  The red colored fire coral stings, producing an extreme allergic reaction.  Stay away!  The sandy bottoms in Akumal Bay are best for the turtles, who like to graze on eelgrass.  I’ve even had an up-close and personal with a spotted eagle ray in the sandy shallows. Best time to snorkel is early in the day before all the tours arrive.


Getting to Akumal is easy: You can rent a car, find good deals on taxis, or catch a colectivo, white minivans that shuttle locals and tourists around (generally without air conditioning). Colectivos are an inexpensive way to get around; you can catch them along Highway 307 or at one of the designated stops in Cancun or Playa del Carmen. When the colectivo stops, tell the driver where you are going and ask the price for the ride.  Walk in off the highway (it is a short but very warm 5 minute walk) and you are on a beautiful beach. This makes for an inexpensive adventure.


It is not always clear that this area is actually a complex of five lovely white sand Caribbean beaches, each accessed through different entrances from the highway. All are great locations for swimming, snorkeling, diving, beachcombing, fishing, kayaking and socializing. “Las Bahias de Akumal” from north to south:


This beach area is just south of Yal-Ku Lagoon and embraces the waters of Half Moon Bay. Here the sea is wonderfully calm due to an offshore reef break.  It’s a great destination for colorful fish, corals and sea turtles.  Good for snorkeling, but rocky bottom and lots of sea urchins make foot protection a must. The favorite colorful and very quirky ex-pat/locals hangout on this bay which is both a restaurant and hotel is La Buena Vida (The Good Life).  It’s the best place to watch the sunset and enjoy happy hour followed by a delicious dinner.  Be warned, you’ll want to move here after a few days’ visit!  To get there, take the main Akumal exit off Highway 307, head toward the ocean, go through the arch (don’t worry, you can’t miss it and you have to drive through it), bear left and follow the winding road toward Yal-ku Lagoon.


As the central and best known beach, there are many beachside shops beneath palapa roofs, restaurants, dive shops and homey accomodations. Again, take the main Akumal exit off Carretera 307 and park your car in an attended lot just before the arch for $4 to $10 USD all day long.

This beach is more sandy than the others so foot protection not needed, with a bottom of eelgrass, a favorite food of both sea turtles and spotted eagle rays.  I think it’s the best place to see these species.  Other tropical fish and corals are not terribly abundant due to the largely sandy bottom, so it’s northward to Half Moon Bay if that’s your passion.  Turtle Bay Bakery is great for morning coffee and breakfast, but there is just no competing with the open-air Lol-Ha Restaurant on the beach here for snacks, lunch or dinner.  Best food on the beach.


The Centro Ecological Akumal [CEA] was established in 1993 and does a great job educating the public about conservation of the environment. Their focus is on Green and Loggerhead Sea Turtles that frequent the area. They offer a number of programs, and some are even extended-stay volunteer programs (minimum 2 months). These programs are geared toward protecting nesting female sea turtle and their hatchlings.  A number of studies are under way and you can frequently see the staff tagging and taking blood samples from sea turtles right on the beach (well actually,  in their boat on the beach).  CEA offers nightly turtle walks here during nesting season (May to October).  You can sign up in the morning at the CEA center.  They only take ten people at one time.  You will be provided with red film to cover your light and the guide will inform you when it is safe to take pictures.

Their hours are Monday to Friday 9:00am – 1:00pm & 2:00pm – 6:00pm

Directions: After going through El Arco arch, head right toward the beach. When you see the beach there will be a dive shop on the left. The Ecological Center is on the left right after the dive shop.

Learn more about CEA.

For the many scientists in our readership, here’s an alarming article:  Rapid tourism growth contributes to declining coral reefs in Akumal.


These beautiful beaches are lined by fine residential communities where beach walkers love to stroll. South Akumal’s entrance from the highway is separate from the main road into Akumal and has a large gate indicating the entrance into this more remote beach destination.  It’s not really possible to walk the entire length of the five beaches due to rocky outcrops and privately owned areas. It would be a very long walk, anyway.


Very quiet, a little rocky but still good for swimming.


The waters at this beach can get choppy and murky. Also, if you’re not in snorkeling fins, wear beach shoes to protect your feet.  There is a lot of boat traffic as the day progresses, so snorkeling here is best in the mornings.  You can still see lots of sea life and more corals than central Akumal.  This is the area where CEA leads their turtle walks at night to watch the egg-laying process.  It is important not to try this on your own, because if disturbed the female will dump her eggs in the ocean, with disastrous results for future population numbers.  The Akumal area is a major nesting site for sea turtles May through November.  As more and more tourists visit to witness the turtles, more potential harm may result. Therefore it is VERY important to help protect these ancient magnificent creatures by going into the nesting areas only with a qualified guide.


To get there by car, take 307 Highway south from Cancun for about 62 miles. When you see the Akumal bridge main exit, stay on the Highway another mile until you come to the Gran Bahia Principe Hotel.  Make a U-turn back onto 307 north, take the next exit to the right, just passed the Bahia Principe/Hacienda Doña Isabel.  Aventuras Akumal has a big blue entrance wall at the Highway.


For other great snorkeling opportunities in the vicinity, be sure to check out Yal-ku Lagoon. It boasts a mixture of both fresh AND saltwater, which means a variety of fish that’s simply unparalleled.  Mornings and late afternoons are best for families to enjoy this calm, protected lagoon. Just follow the North Akumal Bay road to the end and you will see the entrance.

If you haven’t already visited Akumal, does this post make you want to go?  We hope so.  Let us know what you think below.

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