The sugar-soft sand was a muted creamy hue. The warm Caribbean paradise water lapped at my feet. From the shoreline, I could see 10 feet out into the shallows, as clear as if looking through glass. I loved that beach. And as the sun stretched into the early morning sky, I had it almost entirely to myself.
Akumal is a special kind of place. From north to south, its gorgeous beaches encompass five breathtaking bays, each with its own distinct characteristics. There’s Yal-Ku Lagoon to the north, which teems with tropical fish—a snorkelers paradise. Half Moon Bay, a semicircle of haciendas, villas, and dive shops. North Akumal Beach, with its manicured perfection, a perfect spot for beachside dining. And south past Jade Bay, Akumal Sur, you’ll find Aventuras Akumal, my personal favorite. And the spot where I found myself drawn back to again and again over the course of my stay.
Of course, I’m not the first to have felt the deep draw of Akumal’s shores.
After all, Akumal in Mayan means “Place of the Turtle.” Loggerheads, hawksbills, and green turtles have been returning to nest here for millennia. It’s said that they travel thousands of miles before the earth’s magnetic field draws them back to the place of their birth.
Perhaps it was the same magnetic draw that led a Spanish merchant ship and its crew to run aground here in 1741.
And perhaps Akumal’s mysterious pull was the reason writer, adventurer, businessman, and big game hunter Pablo Bush Romero decide to buy up land here in the 1960s, establishing the Riviera Maya’s first resort. Of the entire shoreline of the Yucatán Peninsula, he choose Akumal as the most spectacular spot. And in a twist of faith, this early commercialization of Akumal is what saved it from the same overdevelopment as Riviera Maya mega-resort, Cancún. Because the land in Akumal was locked down early, it kept the area boutique and low-key and helped preserve the areas impressively diverse ecology.
Watch between the jungle palm trees, bromeliads, and orchids and you can spot all kinds of creatures. Coatis, tapirs, anteaters, porcupines, and armadillos are often sighted. In the quiet morning light, you’ll sometimes hear the distinct call of howler monkeys in the jungle canopy.
But the real treat of Akumal is what you’ll discover under the warm Caribbean water. Dive into Akumal Bay with some basic snorkel gear and you’ll enter another world. At the sandy shallows, you can get up close and personal with turtles grazing on eelgrass. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot octopus, stingrays, and parrot fish. But be warned, the gentle lulling of the waves is enough to put you to sleep.
The community in Akumal is aware of the value of what they have and are determined to preserve it. In the Airbnb where I stayed, I was encouraged to keep the lights low at night, to prevent the turtles mistaking it for the glimmer of moonlight hitting the waves.
Many of the expats here are amateur conservationists. At night, during nesting season, many of them volunteer on the beach, helping the hatched turtles find their way to the sea. You’ll spot them by the red lights they use in their lamps.
Many of the houses and condominiums in the area have even constructed wetlands that act as water filtration systems, which prevent pollution entering the water.
This is a true nature-lovers’ community. It’s laidback but adventurous. The folks here prefer to live away from the hustle and bustle of Playa del Carmen, or the boho-chic glamour of Tulum. But located approximately 30 minutes from each, they can enjoy the best of both worlds.
During my stay, I took a taxi to Tulum to visit the Maya ruins and take a wander down its delightful beach road. In a hip beach club, I sipped on tiki cocktails and admired the mesmerizing white sand. My fellow patrons were young and impossibly beautiful—European honeymooners or fashionistas on a weekend break from New York.
Heading the other direction, to Playa del Carmen, the vibe was more local. Busier. With the air of a town in perpetual celebration. From the early evening, bars and restaurants along Fifth Avenue spilled over with revelers. (I walked for what seemed like miles and didn’t get to the end of it.) Brand stores and colorful craft shops beckoned. There was little you couldn’t find. And to take a break from it, the beach was always just a couple of parallel blocks away.
As much as I enjoyed my time in the town, it wasn’t long before I missed the gentle hum of mangroves and the serenity of Akumal’s pristine beaches. Away from city lights, I could sit under its night sky and watch the Milky Way. And if I got lucky, I’d cross paths with a mother loggerhead turtle, drawn, just like me, to the heart of the Riviera Maya.
The article A Caribbean Paradise for Nature Lovers by Paul O’Sullivan first appeared on International Living.