Akumal, Mexico: Swimming with Turtles

On our recent trip to Playa del Carmen in Mexico's Mayan Riviera, ATB#1 and I signed up for a day excursion that included swimming with the sea turtles in Akumal, and a chance to swim in two local cenotes. We were entranced by the turtles, stingrays, coral reef and the many beautiful and colourful fish and were delighted by the cool beauty and refreshing waters of the cenotes. The trip was arranged by our resort and only included resort guests, meaning that the van did not need to stop at other hotels and resorts to pick up passengers. Transportation, entry fees, snorkels & masks, life jackets, towels, water and snacks were included in the fee of $89USD per person.

Akumal means "Place of the Turtle" in Mayan. It was one of the first Riviera Mayan communities and has been attracting visitors since the 1960s. It is located about an hour south of Playa del Carmen.

Tourists planning their own budget excursion will go to HalfMoon Bay where there are fewer restrictions but also fewer turtles. It is free to snorkel here but any equipment, a guide, parking, and even use of the bathrooms require a fee. Some companies will only accept pesos.

The main beach, Playa de Akumal, attracts large numbers of sea turtles who feast on the sea grasses and nest in the area. The turtles are closest to the shore during nesting season from May to November. Tourist groups enter the water here.

Before beginning our snorkelling adventure, we were each fitted with life jackets, masks, and snorkels. The only people allowed fins were the tour operators. We were briefed on the routines, hand signals and rules (shower before entering the water, no fresh application of sunscreen, no touching the turtles, keep your feet floating and off the sea floor).

Full disclosure: I do not like snorkelling. I can't breathe through a snorkel. I am a strong and enthusiastic swimmer but snorkelling is beyond me. The others in the group were much more competent. As the group entered the water, it didn't take long for me to abandon the snorkel and continue for the rest of the swim happily taking deep breaths. The waves were fairly strong and we swam out almost a kilometre. Some of the weaker swimmers in our group were quite fatigued (but exhilarated) by the time we returned to the beach. There are rope lanes in the water to mark the area where snorkelling is permitted.

Turtles continue to grow through their long lives and the biggest one in this area is over 150 years old and almost a meter wide. When a turtle was spotted, the group would form a circle to watch as it made its way to the surface for a quick breath before submerging again. We saw more than a dozen turtles of all different sizes. We also spotted a tiny octopus, a stingray, and a barracuda. It was absolutely magical to watch these beautiful creatures swim.

As we moved closer to the reef, we began to see many different types of coral and smaller fish. Many of the fish showed absolutely no concern for humans as they swam very close to us. I spent a great deal of time just floating in the water, peering through my mask.

The turtles here are tagged and carefully protected by wildlife officials. The number of daily tours is limited and tour groups are not permitted on Mondays. We were in the water for about an hour. As we were exiting the area about 10:30 am, it was noticeably busier, with tour groups arriving one after another. I would strongly recommend arriving early before the crowds.

The next stop on the tour was the Tzalam cenote. A cenote (say-NO-tay) is a sinkhole where the cave ceiling has collapsed. Cenotes were once the only source of water in the jungle and are considered sacred to the Mayan people, who thought the cenotes were the entrance to the underworld where the Mayan gods and spirits live.

Millions of years ago, the Yucatan peninsula was a reef under the ocean. As water levels dropped during the last Ice Age, the coral died and the jungle grew over the limestone left. Massive caves were formed as the limestone eroded. Many of the caverns collapsed as the earth warmed and the caves became flooded. The upper water in a cenote is fresh water, while the deepest depths are sea water.

This particular set of cenotes used to be on private land but has now open to take advantage of important tourist income. The first cenote, The Great Cenote, is open with only a small part of the cave wall remaining. The jungle grew lush around. Little painted turtles and small fish could be seen. The water was cool and fresh. We all enjoyed our cool dip and thoroughly enjoyed having the cenote to ourselves for a while.

The second cenote is a short covered passage with open ends. We followed a dive rope from one end to the other. The way the sunbeams came through the opening and into the water was spectacularly beautiful.

We had started our day early and as we saw tour groups arriving, we realized that it was perfect timing. We had a full and interesting excursion and were back at the resort by about 1:00 pm, just in time for the afternoon activities to begin!

 

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