When booking beach vacations, many travelers seek days of indolence in a setting where everything is on offer and nothing is prescribed. But there are also those who need to venture beyond the sand and the pool. On our recent trip to Mexico’s Riviera Maya, we discovered a number of attractions for which it’s well worth leaving the cocoon of the resort.
Set between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, this shallow U-shaped bay — designated as a part of the Mexican Caribbean Biosphere Reserve in 2017 — offers warm turquoise waters, colorful coral and, most notably, a thriving population of wild sea turtles. Akumal, meaning “place of the turtle” in Mayan, is a superlative destination for snorkelers wanting to encounter endangered green and loggerhead turtles in their natural habitat (visitors must maintain a minimum distance of 10 feet from the animals). The coral reef sheltering this small bay creates a microclimate that allows seagrass, these turtles’ main food source, to thrive. The reef also tends to exclude predators.
Within 15 minutes, our guide spotted a massive green turtle. Effortlessly propelling itself through the water, the gentle giant seemed entirely undisturbed by our presence. He settled down on the sandy bottom to casually munch on seagrass, and we were able to observe him for several minutes. We also spotted a sleek manta ray, a large barracuda and colorful parrotfish and butterflyfish. I recommend skipping fins here, as the bottom sand is very fine and any kick-up limits visibility. And if possible, opt to wear a rash guard or wetsuit to protect yourself from the sun rather than applying sunscreen (even the reef-safe biodegradable cream takes one to two weeks to dissolve). Lounging in the shade on Akumal’s beach after a day of snorkeling with wild turtles is a memory I’ll long treasure.
There are over 6,000 known cenotes in the Yucatán and probably hundreds more yet to be discovered. Because groundwater filters through porous limestone bedrock before flooding these naturally occurring sinkholes, the dark blue pools tend to be clear and ideal for swimming. Labyrinthian passageways formed by limestone erosion dating back millions of years connect over 200 cenotes in the state. Maya cities were often constructed around them, because they provided sources of clean water. Every local we spoke to had a different opinion about which cenote in the area was the best. Cenote Caracol came up the most often, so we decided to investigate.
The more touristy cave complexes in the Yucatán, including the Gran, Azul and Suytun cenotes, are easy to get to, have parking lots for tour buses and may come with amenities such as restaurants, changing rooms and scuba equipment rentals. Caracol, on the other hand, is reached via a rugged 5-mile-long dirt road (4WD vehicles are recommended) and its visitors are primarily locals. Part of the Sistema Sac Actun, one of the world’s largest underwater cave systems, this sinkhole is especially popular with scuba divers. Nestled amid thick jungle, the outside of the cenote looks simply like a hole in the ground at first sight. Initially, you may feel intimidated by the narrow entryway and rickety-looking wooden stairs leading down, but the destination is worth the journey. Once in the cave, natural light illuminates the space and impressive rock formations beneath you appear to glow. Bring a waterproof flashlight for admiring the dramatic stalactites. On our trip, the weather was hot, and cooling off in Caracol’s waters was a wonderful treat.
A collaboration with PROFEPA, Mexico’s federal environmental protection agency, the Akumal Monkey Sanctuary & Rescued Animals is first and foremost a conservation center funding rehabilitation and reintroduction programs. The facility provides shelter for more than 200 animals that have been injured, abused and abandoned, or that are endangered. Though the primary focus here is on protecting the critically endangered Mexican spider monkey, the reserve is also home to ostriches, macaws, foxes, ring-tailed lemurs and zebras (donated by a passing circus company). Guides know the backstory of every animal and demonstrate deep respect for their charges. It was inspiring to learn how the reserve’s residents are rehabilitated after time as circus animals or pets illegally sold by animal traffickers. The sanctuary also promotes awareness of animal abuse and works to preserve biodiversity through research projects with universities across the country.
In addition to regular visits, it is possible to book three-hour tours of the reserve and its on-site cenote (swimming is not permitted); five-hour tours include jungle excursions by ATV. We had heard complaints about the $55 entry fee, but considering that the center relies mostly on donations and tourist visits, we did not find the cost exorbitant.
I recommend applying bug repellent prior to your tour, as the jungle setting attracts mosquitoes. And note that since the goal of the center is rehabilitation and reintroduction, the range of species in residence changes constantly. This sanctuary is ideal for any lover of wildlife, as the animals look truly happy, healthy and at home.