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The Insiders Guide to Akumal Snorkeling
Akumal snorkeling is the #1 reason why Akumal Beach is so popular. Reviewed by 13,000 people, Akumal Beach ranks #1 out of over 850 outdoor activities in the Riviera Maya on TripAdvisor. So, its popular! To make it an experience of a lifetime read our Insider's Guide to Akumal Snorkeling. Find out how to avoid paying parking and entrance fees. And avoid the crowds of tourists. As well as find out how to distinguish between the three different species of sea turtles and dozens of types of reef fish, that make Akumal their home. Also make sure you watch the videos I took snorkeling in Akumal with a huge Green sea turtle, and a Stingray!
Getting to Akumal
Akumal is located between Playa Del Carmen and Tulum on the Mayan Riviera of Mexico. Driving 30 minutes south of Playa Del Carmen, or 20 minutes north from Tulum, along highway 307, you’ll arrive in Akumal. On the ocean side is the beach town, and across the highway is Akumal Pueblo.
Getting to Akumal Beach is pretty straightforward. Collectivos (the white vans that travel up and down highway 307) will drop you off on the highway at, or opposite, the entrance to Akumal Bay. It’s about a 5-10 minute walk from the highway to the beach.
If you’re driving south from Playa Del Carmen take the retorno and drive back north, turning right to head into the bay. There are several parking lots as you head from the highway towards the beach. Each one costs about 20 pesos an hour to park. However, your first insider’s tip to your Akumal snorkeling adventure is NOT TO PAY for parking!
Akumal Snorkeling Insiders Tip #1 – Don’t Pay for Parking
While you can pay for parking, you also have a couple of options to avoid that cost. Instead of pulling into a parking lot, keep driving until you are past the OXXO Store. Then make an immediate right turn. You’ll be at the start of an alley with a small rope that runs across the alley (see picture on the right). You’ll also find an attendant there. And here are where your 2 options come in.
If you are going to take a snorkeling tour, or rent equipment tell the attendant that you are going to the Akumal Dive Center. If you already have your snorkel gear and aren’t going to take a tour, then tell the attendant that you are going to Lol Ha Restaurant and Snack Bar. As long as you either rent equipment or take a tour from the Akumal Dive Center they will let you park for free during your stay at the beach. Similarly, Lol-Ha Restaurant and Snack Bar will let you park for free if you buy a drink, snack or lunch etc., at either their restaurant or the snack bar.
Inform the attendant where you are going (Lol-Ha or Akumal Dive Center) and he’ll let you through. Drive down the alleyway until you have to turn left and keep winding your way around. Watch for signs to both the Dive Center and Lol-Ha. Another attendant will likely point you in the right direction as you go. You will arrive at the Akumal Dive Center first, and then a few yards further along, is the parking for Lol-Ha Restaurant and Snack Bar.
Set on the former site of a coconut plantation Akumal is a quaint Mexican beachfront town. It was first founded in 1958 by Pablo Bush Romero. Because of the exotic coral reef surrounding the bay, it was set up as a community for scuba divers.
Akumal beach is actually made up of several different coves along the coastline. These include Half Moon Bay and Yal-Ku Lagoon to the north. South of these is Akumal Bay, Jade Bay and Aventuras Akumal. But, where you’ve arrived right now is Akumal Bay proper. This is where the best of the Akumal snorkeling occurs, and is also the main beach hub. Located here within a few hundred yards of the beach are many restaurants, stores, local artisans selling their wares, and a couple of ATM’s.
Akumal Snorkeling Insiders Tip #2 – How To Access The Beach For Free
In Mexico all beaches are public. But, the land leading to the beach is another matter. If the land in front of the beach is privately owned then the landowner is not required to allow access across their property to the beach. As a result, this can result in small fees landowners charge to access the beach. For example, in Akumal access to the beach is a $5 USD per person charge.
Yet, to access the beach for free you have a couple of options. Firstly, if you are taking advantage of our Tip#1 above then you will also receive free access to the beach. However, what about if you are walking to the beach? Fortunately, you can still access the beach for free by walking along the alleyway as long as you are using the facilities of the Akumal Dive Center or Lol-Ha Restaurant.
If not then you have one more option. Walk past the OXXO store and towards the Akumal Gate (see picture right). On the right, you will see the Hotel Caribe Akumal. Entering the hotel entrance continue walking through the little office area and the set of doors opposite. This brings you out to the left of Lol-Ha Restaurant.
Personally, I usually always access the beach for free via either the Akumal Dive Center or Lol-Ha Restaurant. It really isn't a hardship to sit under the beachfront palapa at the Lol-Ha snack bar with a refreshing drink or a spot of lunch! Also, by frequenting Lol-Ha you get to use the bathroom facilities for free. Otherwise, if you’re on the beach you will be charged a few pesos to use the facilities.
Walking out to the bay you will see the fabulous powder white sand beach stretching north and south along the coastline. To the left, the beach stretches around the bay and the next headland around which you will reach Half Moon Bay. To the right, the beach stretches a long way south and to Jade bay. Right in front of you are the azure waters of the Caribbean ocean. A few hundred yards offshore is the 2nd largest barrier reef in the world, and one of the reasons Akumal is so renowned for its snorkeling.
MesoAmerican Barrier Reef
The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System is also known as the Great Mayan Reef. It stretches over 1000 km from northern Yucatan down the Riviera Maya coast into Belize, Guatemala and to Honduras. The reef system is home to more than 65 species of stony coral, 350 species of mollusk and more than 500 species of fish. It also includes sea turtles, rays, manatees, and sharks that all contribute to the complex ecosystem.
The reef provides incredible snorkeling and diving experiences. But it also provides protection for the beaches. Akumal Beach is one of the more protected beaches with the barrier reef actually consisting of 2 reefs. Dazzling arrays of different types of coral form in this underwater wilderness. The coral provides homes and food to hundreds of fish species, marine turtles, and sharks. Along the shores, the mangroves provide habitat for fish and shorebirds too. As well, the mangroves protect coastal areas from damage from strong storms.
Conservation and Environmental Protection
Protection of Akumal Bay, the reef, and ecosystems and watercourses are an important aspect for locals and ex-pat residents alike. For example areas of the reef are cordoned off to prevent erosion and allow regrowth. Several other conservation programs exist that are supported by local businesses. Many of these are initiatives of the Centro Ecológico Akumal.
AKUMAL SNORKELING INSIDER’S GUIDE – TIP #3 ON ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AND CONSERVATION
Use only biodegradable sunscreen
Packout what you bring
Respect the areas prohibited from swimming or snorkeling
Don’t wear flippers close to shore – you don’t need them as the bay is very protected and they damage the coral
Don’t get too close to sea turtles – stay at least 10 feet away
Centro Ecologico Akumal (CEA)
CEA is an organization focused on sustainability and improving ecosystem management around Akumal. They have many programs. These include
To protect and conserve the coral reef some areas are prohibited for you to swim or snorkel. The map on the right, courtesy of CEA, shows the areas prohibited. These are shown by the black lined shape. However, there are two circuits where snorkeling in Akumal is allowed, besides close to shore.
The two areas marked by the pink-lined shapes, circuit 1 and circuit 2 are the official areas where you can snorkel. Along the bottom right-hand corner of the map, you can see a portion of the barrier reef. You can also snorkel in this area of Akumal Bay, but certain restrictions apply.
Akumal Snorkeling Insiders Tip #4 - Akumal Snorkeling Tours
One way to go snorkeling is to sign up for a tour. There are many vendors that will offer snorkeling tours and it is definitely buyer-beware. I would advise going with a well-established dive center or similar organization. An extra advantage of entering via either Lol-Ha Restaurant or the Akumal Dive Center, is you avoid being harassed by the many vendors along the way.
Instead, you can sign-up, for example, with the Akumal Dive Center, to rent equipment (from $5 USD), or to take a guided snorkel tour. There are 2 tours that you can buy. The first is to take a tour of the circuits noted on the map. This costs $50 USD. This is in the area closer to shore. As a result, lots of people often snorkel here. So, the sand after mid-morning can get stirred up and can reduce the visibility. As well, as these areas are closer to shore, they are easy for you to snorkel along by yourself. But make sure that you don’t stray from the circuit and don’t venture into the protected area, or the boat channel. The boat channel runs either side of the protected areas before the circuits.
My recommendation though is to take the snorkel tour a little further out from the bay. This costs $35 USD and includes a short Panga boat ride. Here you’re more likely to see more sea turtles and more species of fish. If you have 2 days in Akumal my advice would be to take this tour the first time so you get the lay of the land. Then return on another day (preferably a Monday, see below), and do circuit 2 yourself. This circuit is closer to shore and inside Akumal Bay.
Akumal Snorkeling Insiders Tips #5, #6, #7 – When To Snorkel To Avoid The Tour Groups
As snorkeling in Akumal is such a highlight it is also very popular. So below are 3 tips to avoid the large crowds. Allowing you to have an exotic experience of a lifetime – you the sea turtles, stony coral and dozens of species of fish.
Tip#5 – Early Morning Snorkeling
The earlier you go in the morning the better it is for 2 reasons. First, there are fewer people so it's less crowded. Second, the sand isn’t as stirred up so the visibility is better. If you are going on a tour then book the first one which is usually at 9 AM. If you are doing it yourself then you’re only limited by the sunrise!
Tip#6 – Snorkeling on Monday’s
For the protection of the barrier reef, on Monday’s guiding companies are usually prohibited taking tour groups to snorkel in the bay. Thus, if you want some alone time with a turtle, then Monday morning before 10 AM is the time to go!
Tip#7 – Avoid High Season
The busiest time of year in the Mayan Riviera is usually mid-December to the end of March. This coincides with winter in North America, and there are often lots of American and Canadian snowbirds here then. But, one of the best things about the Mayan Riviera is that it’s a year-round vacation destination. Also, turtles are around most of the year as well as many other species of marine life. So, coming here from May to mid-December there’s often a lot fewer tourists in general and the snorkeling is just as fabulous.
So the very best time to go snorkeling in Akumal, is early on a Monday morning, between May and mid-December! That is if you want to avoid the crowds and also get the most affordable accommodation rates too.
Snorkeling With Turtles
By far the biggest attraction of snorkeling in Akumal is being able to swim with the sea turtles. In 2019 nearly 1,000 turtles nests were counted in the main bays of Akumal. With the rich seagrass for the turtles to feed on and the protected bay, it’s no wonder that the turtles love it here. When finding a turtle stay at least 10 feet away from it at all times, and never try to touch it. The video on the right is of a green turtle coming up for air after feeding on sea grasses on the ocean floor. This was one of 4 turtles we saw while snorkeling in Akumal that morning.
There are three types of turtles that you can observe when snorkeling: Green, Loggerhead and Hawksbill. But how do you know which type of turtle you are seeing?
Akumal Snorkeling Insiders Guide Tip#8 – How To Identify The Type of Turtle You See
Only 2 inches long when born Green sea turtles can grow to 5 feet in length. While weighing up to 700 lbs making them the largest hardshell sea turtle in the world. They have 2 large ‘paddle-like’ flippers. Interestingly their name does not derive from any particular green external coloration of the turtle. Its name comes from the greenish color of the turtles' fat, which is only found in a layer between their inner organs and their shell.
The video above is a good example of a large green sea turtle I saw surfacing for a couple of breaths before returning to feeding on the seagrasses on the ocean floor. When feeding these turtles only bite off the tips of the blades of seagrass, which keeps the grass healthy. It’s quite an experience having one these majestic ocean creatures come swimming towards you.
Near the coastlines, the Green sea turtles live within shallow bays and protected shores. In these protected bays, the turtle habitats include coral reefs, salt marshes, and nearshore seagrass beds. The coral reefs provide red, brown, and green algae for their diet and give protection from predators and rough storms within the ocean. These are all conditions provided by Akumal Bay – hence why the turtle thrive here.
With a lifespan of 50 years or so, Loggerheads weigh in at about 250 lbs and 3 feet in length. They feed on a diet of jellyfish, molluscs, and crustaceans. Their name comes from the ‘large log’ of a head and they have a reddish-brown hardshell and pale yellow underbelly.
Unlike Green turtles, Loggerheads feed on bottom-dwelling invertebrates. Using its large powerful jaws on its prey. Similarly, to Green sea turtles, female Loggerheads also come ashore to nest and lay eggs. But, unlike Green turtles, after laying eggs for an average of four years they stop producing eggs for a few years.
Loggerhead turtles spend most of their lives in the open ocean and in shallow coastal waters. They rarely come ashore beside the females' brief visits to construct nests and deposit eggs. Hatchling Loggerhead turtles live for a period of time in floating mats of Sargassum seaweed.
Hawksbill sea turtles are critically endangered and are much less common to see than Green and Loggerhead turtles. They are distinguished from Green and Loggerhead turtles by the sharp, narrow head that is reminiscent of a bird’s beak. They are also considered the most beautiful of all sea turtles due to their colorful shells. These shells amazingly can change color depending upon the water temperature.
Adult Hawksbill sea turtles are primarily found in tropical coral reefs. They are usually seen resting in caves and ledges in and around these reefs throughout the day. They feed mostly on sea sponges and as one of the smaller sea turtles, weigh up to 200 lbs and 2-3 feet in length. They are less common to find when snorkeling in Akumal than both Green and Loggerhead turtles, however, in recent years they have started to mount a comeback.
Best Time of Year To Snorkel With Turtles In Akumal Bay
The best time for snorkeling with turtles in Akumal Bay is May through November during their nesting season (great lodging options then too). However, there are usually turtles all year-round. Ninety percent of the time I have been snorkeling here I have seen at least 1 turtle and usually several more. This includes during the December to April period too. So, really, there isn’t a bad time of year to go Akumal snorkeling.
Other Marine Life To Observe While Akumal Snorkeling
Akumal snorkeling, however, isn’t only about sea turtles. The crystal-clear Caribbean waters of the Riviera Maya team with sea life. Some scuttling along the seabed, others darting in and out of the coral reef. There are literally hundreds of species of fish. Families of fish that you can observe snorkeling around these waters include Angelfish, Butterflyfish, Surgeonfish, Parrotfish, Hogfish, Pufferfish, Snapper, Grunt, Boxfish, Triggerfish, Grouper, Barracuda, Jack, Porgy, Tarpon, Damselfish, and Hamlet.
As well, rays are common here including several types of stingrays.
Angelfish are common reef fish in this area. Many species of Angelfish are fearless and will approach snorkelers boldly. Fortunately, they are harmless beautiful creatures so you should be able to get some close-up photos! Most species of Angelfish restrict themselves to the shallows of the reef making them easy to spot when snorkeling.
Butterflyfish are smaller versions of Angelfish and are plentiful reef fish. Like Angelfish, they are brightly colored with striking patterns and also prefer shallower water. They are territorial in nature and can often be seen defending their piece of coral!
Another brightly coloured reef fish that are fairly small in size (15-40 cm). Their distinctive characteristic is that they have scalpel-like scales on either side of their tail. Often they are found feeding in large schools.
Named for their parrot-like beak which they use to scrape algae from the coral. These can be colorful fish with most species reaching 30-50 cm in length. Parrotfish species often start as females and then change to males in older age. You are quite likely to see Parrotfish while snorkeling around Akumal Bay.
Another reef fish characterized by a compressed body and an elongated, ‘pig-like’ snout. Hence the name, Hogfish. The presence of a black spot behind the pectoral fins differentiates between males and females.
As a carnivore, it feeds on molluscs, crabs and sea urchins. Similar to the Parrotfish it is a sequential hermaphrodite (changes from female to male during its life). Hogfish have been known to live up to 11 years and can weigh in at 11 kg and 91 cm in length.
One of the neatest fish to observe are Pufferfish. The majority of the species are toxic and among the most poisonous fish in the world. However, unless you are planning on catching and eating one they are harmless while snorkeling! Their toxin lies in their skin, liver and other internal organs. These are really interesting fish to observe and I have seen them several times while Akumal snorkeling.
Named for the snapping way these species of fish open and close their jaws, these are common fish. While mostly found around coral reefs they can be found at deep depths too.
Reaching up to 85 cm in length, Snapper fish, such as Yellowtails feed on shrimp, crabs, worms and other smaller fish.
Another fish that is often brightly colored and found most often in relatively shallow coastal areas and coral reefs. Triggerfish have oval-shaped, highly compressed bodies, with a large head and a small but strong jaw with teeth for crushing shells. As a protection against predators, Triggerfish can erect two dorsal spines. Feeding mostly on bottom-dwelling crustaceans, molluscs and sea urchins they use their teeth to break open shells. Triggerfish males are known to be very aggressive in their spawning sites and are very territorial. These are often located on a sandy sea bottom or on a rocky reef. Their territory usually encompasses more than one female in the area with which it mates.
Closely related to Pufferfish, Boxfish also have a toxic defense. Under stress, they secrete a toxin through their skin to deter predators. While occurring in different colors they are notable for the hexagonal, or honeycomb, patterns on their skin. Their scales are made up of these hexagonal, tough, scales, which protect the fish like armour, from potential predators.
Groupers typically have a stout body and a large mouth. And they can reach lengths of over a meter and are not uncommon to weigh 100 kg. Grouper eat other fish, octopuses, and crustaceans by swallowing, rather than biting, their prey. Their powerful mouths and gills can suck their prey in from a short distance.
A Barracuda is a large, predatory fish known for its fearsome appearance and ferocious behaviour. While reaching up to 165 cm in length, they reside near the surface of the water, near coral reefs and seagrasses. Snorkeling close to shore in Akumal Bay you can often see large schools of, fortunately, small barracudas.
In appearance, they are snake-like, with prominent sharp teeth, similar to those of a Piranha. They have large pointed heads and many species have an underbite. Barracudas feed on an array of fish by biting them in half. They are fearsome predators relying on surprise and short bursts of speed up to 43 km/hr. Although young barracudas congregate in schools, adults are mostly solitary.
Small Tarpons are found close to the surface in warm waters before migrating to tidal pools, creeks and freshwater rivers as they age. Tarpons can grow to as long as 2.4 m and can weigh up to 127 kg. They have shiny silver scales that cover their bodies except for their heads. A carnivore they swallow their food whole and hunt nocturnally.
Most Damselfish have bright, starkly contrasting colors. Many species live in tropical rocky, coral reefs making Akumal a perfect habitat for them. They spend the majority of the daylight hours foraging for small crustaceans, plankton, and algae. Similar to Triggerfish they are very territorial and will defend its food and reproductive sites vigorously.
Hamlet fish are a common fish found around the coral reef in Akumal Bay and come in many colors. Adult Hamlets are one of the few vertebrates that have both male and female sexual organs at the same time. When they find a mate, a pair takes turns between which one acts as the male and which acts as the female through multiple matings!!
There are over 200 species of stingrays and they are common in the tropical waters of Akumal.
Stingrays employ are a large variety of feeding methods. Some have specialized jaws that crush hard mollusc shells, while others guide plankton into their mouth. Bottom-dwelling stingrays (common in this area) are ambush hunters. They wait until their prey comes near them with their fins pressed against the seabed they raise their head creating a suction force that pulls their prey underneath their body. Fortunately, stingrays are not very aggressive and only attack humans if severely provoked. While an injury from a stingray stinger can be very painful, it is very rarely life-threatening.
Akumal Snorkeling Insiders Guide Tip # 9 - What To Bring With You
When going snorkeling at Akumal Bay or elsewhere there are a few things you should bring with you, or rent from a local supplier. While in Akumal you don’t need flippers close to shore, and they are actually discouraged to protect the coral. However, if you are heading out of the bay to snorkel you will need them. Obviously having a mask and snorkel is important, and you may want a life jacket too, even if you are a strong swimmer. When snorkeling further out of the bay these are mandatory. You can rent equipment from a dive center if you don’t bring your own. At the Akumal Dive Center, the cost for these is $5 USD.
As well, you will also want to bring biodegradable sunscreen. Also, don't forget a t-shirt or rash guard or another garment to protect your neck and shoulders from the sun. A beach towel is often useful so you can relax on the beach afterwards. And don’t forget your sunglasses and a hat too, along with a bottle of water to stay hydrated.
If you go on a guided tour you can leave valuables and other items behind in a locker. But if you don’t go on a tour then you can also leave towels and other items in your car, or on the beach waiting for your return.
In Summary – Akumal Snorkeling
Reviewed by 13,000 people, Akumal Beach ranks #1 out of over 850 outdoor activities in the Riviera Maya on TripAdvisor. Hence, it's popular. And the #1 reason why its so popular, is the Akumal snorkeling. But, now you have 9 insider tips to make your visit an experience of a lifetime. As well you know many of the reef fish you are likely to see, and how to identify which type of turtle you are swimming alongside!
Exploring The Riviera Maya is Ocean Breeze Akumal's Blog. Here we explore the diversity of Mexico's best tourism destination to highlight the best beaches, cenotes, restaurants, attractions, Mayan ruins, etc., etc. We provide information to help you explore this spectacular part of the world and give you tips and tricks that only the locals know. Helping to give you the vacation experience of a lifetime.
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