Swimming with Turtles in Akumal, Mexico:
If you are reading this, than you are interested in swimming with the giant sea turtles of Akumal, Mexico. I have been to Akumal twice now to swim with the turtles over the years and both times I was not disappointed. The combination of white sand and shallow, clear water allows you to spot the turtles with unbelievable ease! The turtles tend to swim in groups close to the shore where there is seaweed for them to eat, so you don’t even have to swim too far out. Most of all, the experience can be done completely independent of tour groups (despite reported tour scams- see below)!
What to Expect:
I first visited Akumal 7 years ago, and wow has it ever changed since then. The beach was once quiet and secluded, but now you will find luxury resorts and tour shacks for guided snorkelling and fishing situated on the shore.
If you are seeking a peaceful experience without the hustle and bustle of tour groups and boating operations, I highly suggest going EARLY in the morning to have a private experience observing the turtles – otherwise you will be surrounded by many other tourists circling the same water and you will likely be approached to join a tour, rent snorkel gear or go deep sea fishing.
We arrived in Akumal at 7:00 am, just in time for the gorgeous sunrise! There was no one else there aside from another group capitalizing on the empty beach to do wedding photos. If you arrive early, you will beat the guides who haggle beach-goers to join groups and rent lifejackets, and arrive well before the other tourists. (Update: since writing this in January 2017, there have been reports of these scams becoming more aggressive – be aware!)
For example, by 7:30ish, the “snorkel guides” had shown up and one even followed us into the water to push lifejacket rentals on us, literally swimming along side us (super awkward and annoying). According to him, there is a new rule where snorkelers must wear life jackets while swimming beyond the roped off area, regardless of whether you do a tour or not, so his job was to guard the boarder of the rope (snorkel police?!).
The area is making huge strides towards turtle conservation so in all honesty, I do believe the tours are part of the plan to ensure tourists do not touch/ harass the turtles (though you shouldn’t need a guide to know not to do this). HOWEVER, this beach is PUBLIC which means you do not have to join a tour or rent a life jacket. If someone is forcing you to do this, it is a scam.
If you are not a confident swimmer or would rather just rent the jacket to avoid the hassle, come prepared with cash (USD or MEX). You can get the lifejacket, as well as a mask/snorkel and fins from the dive shop on site, or from vendors up and down the path to the beach (though if you come early enough like we did, the vendors won’t be set up yet). Alternatively, you could rent the gear prior to leaving Playa or Tulum and bring it with you.
We didn’t want to bother with the life jackets and had our own snorkel equipment, so we simply left the roped off area where the annoying man was following us and walked down the beach, passing the boat area and into the hotel resort’s ‘private’ beach to snorkel on our own. We had no trouble doing this and quickly spotted 3 turtles grazing on the bottom!
By 8:30ish we were just finishing up and multiple large tour groups were ready to enter the water. We were so happy we came early and saw the turtles without having to share any space with anyone else!
Getting to Akumal:
When coming from Tulum, take the collectivo headed to Playa del Carmen. The bus begins running each morning at 6:00 and will cost 35 pesos to Akumal per person, one way. You can simply stand at the road in Tulum and flag one down, and tell the driver to drop you off in Akumal. When arriving early, it will still be dark so when you will get off at the side of the highway, look for the large, white pedestrian bridge as a landmark. Take the pathway south of the bridge that veers east towards the water. It is approximately 5 minutes to arrive at the beach, and you will reach what looks like a resort entrance but continue through to the sandy path for beach access.
To reach Akumal from Playa del Carmen, simply follow the same directions but with the collectivo headed south to Tulum. You will arrive on the opposite side of the highway and need to walk across the pedestrian bridge to access the pathway to the beach. From Cancun, you will need to take a bus to Playa (i.e. ADO bus line) and then hop on a collectivo from there (or you could try to take an ADO bus to Tulum and see if the driver will drop you off at Akumal – but don’t quote me on this).
Alternatively, you can also take a taxi but this will be pricey, and uber is only accessible in Cancun at this time, so I highly recommend taking the collectivo bus; it was super quick and affordable!
This morning trip cost a total of 140 MEX (for the collectivo transport to/from Akumal from Tulum for two people) = approx. $6.50 USD/ $8.70 CAD. The memories and life experience of swimming alongside giant sea turtles ….. priceless.
Update on Scams:
Since I was there in January 2017, there have been reports of heightened tour and lifejacket scams. Allegedly, men are standing by the entrance to the beach area claiming tours and lifejacket rentals are mandatory to snorkel. While I didn’t experience this because I went so early and no one was there when we arrived, I did experience a man aggressively snorkelling along side me ensuring I did not cross the roped off area without a life jacket. We simply left the roped off area and went further down the beach to get away from him and saw turtles just past the ropes.
Note: This beach is PUBLIC. You do not need to pay for a tour or life jacket. There are also reports of scammers making tourists pay a fee just to enter the beach. Again, this is a public beach so you do not need to pay to enter the beach – just keep walking.