Riviera Maya Life: Akumal, Paamul, Xcacel and Cenote Azul

I’ve been so busy covering the big issues like blog redesign, topless sun-bathing and under-water anxiety attacks that I have fallen a bit behind on filling you in on what we have been up to the last few weeks.

Aside from a lot of floating in our beautifully clear-blue Caribbean front yard, we have actually done a few things, some of which have been with our Swiss friends and neighbours, Sabina and Phillipp (who we met at the infamous Spanish school). Since they were much more dedicated and bright than us, they continued on at the school, leaving weekends free for the odd sojourn out of Playa del Carmen to explore more of the Riviera Maya.

Our first outing together took us to Akumal, about half-way between ‘Playa’ and Tulum.  Akumal is famous for its sea turtles, who feed on the sea grass of its sheltered lagoon.

We caught a collectivo, one of the small mini vans that run regularly up and down the Cancun – Tulum highway. At just over $10 for all of us, we were willing to make the walk from the highway-side bus stop to the beach.

At Tyrhone’s insistence, we hired life jackets and fins for our snorkeling comfort. We had bought a couple of cheap snorkels and, of course, they leaked a little, so we didn’t want to work harder than we had to in order to stay above the water line while we emptied them. In the end it was a grand idea, the lagoon was rather large, and it was nice to have the extra buoyancy for turtle watching.

Tyrhone lookin’ cute in his mid-drift life jacket

Sabina rockin’ the life jacket

And watch we did! There were several large turtles in the bay the morning we arrived, including one old gal with several fish comfortably at home on her shell, feeding. After my freak out during diving, it was so nice to be comfortably floating above the reef as schools of fish darted through it. I was pretty impressed with the reef at Akumal. We haven’t seen much off the beach at ‘Playa’; people usually take boat trips out to the reef, but I love nothing more than snorkeling straight off the beach.

Tyrhone ruins a rare photo-op with both of us together by putting a snorkel in his mouth

Akumal is my kinda beach. Despite the fact that it does get quite busy later in the day, we got there early and secured a spot under one of the many palm trees jutting out of the sand. Huge white fish darted around in the crystal clear shallows, tame turtles fed just off shore and the reef was home to a resident barracuda who was very big and quite scarey! He hovered in a cove created by the reef, the sun shining off his black scaley skin. He didn’t look like a guy wanting to be disturbed as he bared his sharp, jagged teeth.

After we were all snorkeled out and sufficiently sun-burnt, we caught a $2 taxi into town for lunch. Happening upon a deserted, cool-looking restaurant, the friendly lady owner cooked up a feast for us whilst her grandchildren ran around on the shiny white tiles. The only other customer, a youngish Mexican guy, ordered a bucket of Coronas and stared at us as he systematically made his way through them.

We found out our hostess was only in her early forties, having had her first child at just fifteen. She was really sweet, filling us in on her penchant for partying now that her kids were grown up and she was ‘free’. She said fuck a lot which was quite amusing coming from the mouth of a petite Mexican woman. It made me like her more that she felt comfortable enough to be herself with us. She was quite a character. She talked Tyrhone into buying a Cuban cigar from her, and we all left happy and full. We promised to return, and she promised free pina coladas when we did.


Last weekend, we hired a old, somewhat beat-up car for $35, and did a mini-road trip down the coast, visiting a few spots we had heard about. The Canadian guy from the smoothie bar near the Spanish school had been kind enough to jot down a few places he thought we would enjoy.

Our first stop was Paamul, a quiet little beach with a small resort and a few residences. I had read somewhere that it is illegal to charge anyone to use a beach in Mexico, despite the fact that some do appear private. When we passed through a small security check point at the end of a dirt road in Paamul, I was beginning to doubt Lonely Planet’s fact checking skills, but after simply telling us we couldn’t take our own food and drink onto the beach, the guy at the gate waved us through.

We crossed through a small resort with a few caravans and cabins and past a pool filled with giggling children. We took up residence under a thatched umbrella on the beach. A lone yacht sat moored in the quiet bay, in front of a few simple white-washed villas. I wondered what more you could want in life than a place on the beach and a sailboat.

But obviously we did want more, because after a quick dip in the warm waters, and a photo shoot with the resident iguanas, we were off to our next destination: Cenote Azul.

There are a LOT of cenotes in this part of Mexico. Most of the locals haven’t been to them all, and people have different opinions as to which are the best, but this one came with a few recommendations so we thought we’d see it for ourselves.

It cost about $6 each to get in, and we were able to drive the car down a dirt road right up to edge of the freshwater lagoon.

We entered the crystal clear water, immediately invigorated by it’s icy tempeature. Checking out the hundreds of fish and rock formations through our snorkels kept us entertained for some time. I have never seen water so clear in my life; there was something surreal about being able to see across the entire pool, into the crevices of limestone caves. Thousands of fish make Cenote Azul their home, including a school of catfish that hang out under the wooden sun-bathing platform. It was a little creepy, staring into the dark and having dozens of grey catfish staring back, totally still besides their ‘whiskers’.

It was creepy okay!

But it was also really cool. Cenote Azul isn’t that big, an eight of the size of the one we went to outside of Valledolid, yet the clarity of the fresh water and the amazing display of life occurring in within its depths was far more impressive.

There was also a jumping-off ledge which the guys tested out for us:

I decided to give it a go, since it didn’t really look that high, which was of course bollocks once I found myself at the top looking down. But, scaredy cat little me jumped off with a shriek.  As I broke the water’s surface with an ungraceful slap, I was grateful that the water rushing up my nose was fresh, not salty.

Next we went off in search of lunch, turning off the highway towards a small town (rule of thumb in this part of the world: the beach-side of the highway has touristy, expensive restaurants, and the inland side is where the locals eat and live). We pulled into a small town and immediately found a lovely open-aired Palapa (Mayan style building) that was waiting for us to enjoy it’s culinary offerings.

The dip and chips flowed, shoveled down enthusiastically after a morning of swimming, so that when our lovely meals arrived, we were already half-way full. We mused that back home, it’s rare to get a free bread roll at a restaurant, yet here in Mexico the complimentary chips and salsas are often a meal in themselves!

Well, not quite…


Ready for a nap, we hit our last stop on our coastal road-trip, the rugged beach of Xcacel. A lot of places start with ‘X’ around here, including the theme and adventure parks of Xcaret, Xplor and Xel-ha, so we had mistakenly put Xcacel in the ‘expensive tourist spot’ category. We were wrong.

Xcacel is the most untouched, under-touristed beach I have seen in this area. There is next to no development, and we figured the 80 cents each the security guy charged us for entry was well worth it, even if he was breaking the law Lonely Planet made up.

It was really windy by this time, which meant big hulking waves rose up and crashed onto the shore in intimidating sets. I hate big waves, but the other three had lots of fun being dumped, having their faces smooshed into the sand and salt water rammed up their noses. This was not an activity I felt I was missing out on. If anything, this beach reminded me of the beaches of Western Australia, pristine, windy and rough.

I’ll take the calm bay full of turtles and fishies at Akumal, thanks.

Sabina got dumped one too many times and joined me on the shore whilst the boys had a blast in the surf, powerless against the strong current which pulled them down the beach.

A huge Iguana and a couple of his muchachos seemed to appear out of nowhere, unable to resist the lure of bread from a friendly young girl.

I’m definitely in Mexico,  I thought to myself, as though the salsa, ceviche, snorkelling and cenotes were not proof enough.

We finished our ‘tour’ at the cenote nearby. Following a sandy trail through lush green foliage, then wading through a water-covered rocky path that cut through a mangrove, we joked that we felt like characters on a bad teen horror movie.

The masked, knife-wielding axe-murder who erected the bogus sign would surely appear at any moment, feeling justified in murdering us due to our stupid belief that a jungle path covered in ankle-deep water would lead anywhere but to our deaths.

Obviously I hung back, waiting for either the ‘okay’ or the ‘Ow! I’m dead’. Hearing the former, I carried on, finding myself at the entrance to a rather underwhelming cenote, around which sat a group of  half-drunk creeps, proceeding to get fully-drunk.

Nah, they weren’t that bad, but one guy was extremely red-eyed, and the stale small of beer radiated from his pores. I went for an obligatory dip (you, know, I didn’t want to offend the drunk Mexican guy I would never see again), and whilst it was lovely and cool and quite unique to swim in a fresh water pool surrounded by mangroves, we were all pretty happy to skedaddle.

So we did.

As we flew along the highway in our little black ‘gangster’ car (it was quite old, hence the good price), cheesy dance music doofed through the crackly speakers. Sabina and Phillip would be leaving for Belize in a few days, and I hoped that the day had provided them with some good memories of Mexico’s Riviera Maya.

It certainly had for me.


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Riviera Maya Life: Akumal, Paamul, Xcacel and Cenote Azul — 18 Comments

  1. Looks amazing Sar. So many bits I didn’t see when I was in Playa! Are you going to go to Holbox at all? Man I just love reading your blogs. You’re an amazing woman and I’m so proud of you xxx

    • Ambo!!! So lovely to hear from you honey, have been thinking of you. I hope you’re well babe. Is Holbox worth going to? I would love to see it, unfortunately the whale shark season is over, but it sounds lovely. Xxx

  2. Everyone keeps telling me that the Philippines are paradise (and they are), but it really seems like you are living the good life in Mexico! The beaches look spectacular (and all for free!) and I am so jealous of your cenote expedition – I just found out about them a few months ago and now I am obsessed!
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..Unconvering ArashiyamaMy Profile

  3. Me too Steph! We’ll be leaving our apartment in a few weeks to travel around Mexico, and there is SO much to see it’s mind-boggling. Trying to go with the flow, but, you know it’s hard with so many wonderful natural and historic wonders to see!

  4. Hi Sarah, Thanks for bringing sunshine to my day; its a dreary day in NYC. I enjoyed my virtual beach and cenote tour with you. It looks lovely out there. Amazing how much natural wonder you covered in a day. Haven’t been to that part of Mexico; I’d love to check it out sometime.
    Marisol recently posted..New York City Halloween Parade: The CrowdsMy Profile

    • Hi Marisol, it actually pelted with rain today, believe it or not!! Yes, there is so much to see and do around here, we’ll never get to it all, but it was nice to check out a few quiet spots. I think you guys would love it here :)

  5. This post has got me all excited about our upcoming trip there! We have never been to Mexico (Im not counting our day trip to Tijuana!) but over the last 6 months have been reading so many wonderful posts about it that we decided to go! In 2 weeks we will be there.

    I see you have quite a few posts on the area so Im going to read every one of them to induce more excitement and to get ideas of what to do… so thank you in advance :)
    Suitcase Stories – Nicole recently posted..How we saved to become permanent travelersMy Profile