Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Escaping the Polar Vortex in Akumal

Happy 2014 Everyone!

It's been extremely cold here in Maryland this winter, but as luck would have it, Bill and I had planned a winter get-away just in time to avoid the "dreaded" Polar Vortex! They say timing is everything, and our flight was scheduled for Sunday morning, just hours before the deep freeze arrived in the Mid-Atlantic.

After traveling to the Riviera Maya last year, we decided that we wanted to spend a bit more time in Akumal -- the place of the turtles. Mid-way between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, Akumal is a quiet tourist destination with white sandy beaches, plenty of sea turtles, and the impressive coral structures of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef are just a short swim from the beach.

Originally a coconut plantation, Akumal was officially founded as a scuba diving community in 1958 by Pablo Bush. It wasn't easily accessed by road until the 1970s when Highway 307 was built, though it still maintains a sleepy charm that has been replaced along most of the coast by the development of the mega-resort all-inclusive hotels that dominate the terrain between Cancun and Tulum.

Technically Akumal comprises 6 different bays (from north to south): Yal-ku lagoon, Half Moon Bay, Akumal Bay, South Akumal, Aventuras Akumal, and Jade Bay. We spent all of our time in the three northern bays.

There is only one road leading into Akumal from Highway 307, and the white archway of Hotel Akumal Caribe, which is still owned/operated by the Bush family, lets you know you've arrived in the "town." Much of the Akumal's commerce and activity takes place near this archway, where you'll find two small grocery stores, a handful of stores, most of the local restaurants, two dive shops and access to Akumal Bay.

The archway leading to Akumal

Statue of Gonzalo Guerrero, Spanish sailor turned Mayan lord and father of the Yucatan Mestizas

Super Chomak -- the largest grocery store in Akumal

El Pueblito has a smaller selection of groceries but has ATMs that pay out in either US dollars or pesos
Local farmer's market every Wednesday and Saturday near the arch and just outside of El Peublito

Akumal Bay seems to be the most popular beach, with no shortage of soft white sand to walk along, and an abundance of sea turtles feeding close to shore. Last year Akumal Bay provided excellent snorkeling -- we saw several turtles, the biggest parrot fish we've ever seen (more than 6 feet long!), several barracudas and schools of cuddle fish. The beach has gotten more popular in the past year, and they now have a buoyed maze to swim through and keep you away from the boat traffic but also some of the best coral structures.

Akumal Bay in 2013

A few buoys, but a serene scene in 2013
The new buoy system for snorkeling in Akumal Bay

Navigating the buoy system

It was pretty windy this year with relatively strong currents, and the fine sand in Akumal Bay made the water too milky for great visibility. Between the crowds and lack of visibility, we spent more time lounging on this beach in Akumal Bay than snorkeling here this year.

Many people rent cars, golf carts or bicycles to get around, but we opted to explore the area on foot this year.

Bill checking out the local golf cart rentals
About 1 km north of Akumal Bay is Half Moon Bay, and our condo at Playa Caribe was right in the middle of this bay. A little less sandy than Akumal Bay, Half Moon proved to be a snorkeling haven during the week -- hardly any crowds to wade through, very impressive coral structures, and much better visibility than Akumal Bay. Half Moon Bay is pretty shallow, and at some points you're snorkeling in about 2 feet of water. Some of the most impressive coral structures are in about 8-10 feet of water. With the strong winds and weather systems coming in while we were there, the currents were pretty strong so you had to be careful not to get pushed into the staghorn coral. From what we were told, March and April are the calmest months there, so while it's hot, the visibility and calm water would make snorkeling much better.

Half Moon Bay

View from the northern part of Half Moon Bay

North Half Moon Bay

The view from Playa Caribe Condo
 Travel another kilometer north and you arrive at Yal-ku "lagoon". There is a $14 USD fee to enter this fish sanctuary, but the entrance fee is well worth it. Here cold, fresh water percolates through ground limestone, mixes with the warmer ocean salt water and creates a brackish thermocline-like haze amidst extremely calm water that is teeming with smaller tropical fish, mangroves, and soft coral.
Yal-ku Lagoon
We bought an Easy Shot Clip video camera with underwater housing and dive mask clip that we played with on several swims, but we need a bit more practice before we're ready to share the video here. When we did our test recordings on land the picture and audio is great and we think it will get some great sailing shots! Scuba diving video should be pretty awesome too. But perhaps because the currents were strong and/or the snorkeling so shallow, the camera kept popping up out of the water even though our masks were submerged.

Our Easy Shot Clip HD video camera with underwater housing that clips onto your mask strap

We spoke with people snorkeling with the more expensive GoPro cameras, and they had the same problem... But with a bit more practice I'm sure we'll get some good underwater video to share!

The Akumal area has plenty of great restaurants and watering holes to visit when you're not in the water. Lol-Ha, which is right on the beach in Akumal Bay, has a great happy hour from 5-7 with half price drink specials and free chips and pico de gallo.

Turtle Bay Cafe is a popular breakfast and lunch spot, with a great happy hour from 4-6. You can get beers for 20 pesos, 2 for 1 margaritas, tacos for 70 pesos, and flatbread "pizzas" for 80 pesos. The ahi tuna tacos are certainly not authentic, but absolutely delicious!

Turtle Bay Cafe

La Buena Vida on Half Moon Bay also has a great happy hour drink specials from 5-7 and beers are 15 pesos each. The food left a bit to be desired here, so we stuck with the libations.

La Buena Vida
If you're looking for the best and most affordable ceviche in town, look no further than La Cueva del Pescador.

La Cueva del Pescador
When you're in the mood for more authentic Mexican cuisine at a great price, head to La Cocina Economica de las Tres Acapulquenas. Teri and her family will prepare pretty much anything you crave -- salbutes, tacos, quesadillas, costillas, fresh squeezed juices, salsas, you name it!

Me with Teri and her family at Las 3 Acapulquenas
Lionfish are a big problem in Mexico too, and one local restaurant owner is doing her part to help curb the problem. Every day they dive for and spear between 20-30 lionfish, which are prepared at Gynn'ak as filets, ceviche, or fish tacos. Gynna'k offers an unique blend of Mexican and Thai cuisine, and the lionfish filets are delicious. I can't wait for Bill to try his hand at cooking some up once we get Phoenix down to warmer waters!

Gynn'ak restaurant

A fusion of Thai and Mexican cuisine and decor at Gynn'ak
The locals tell us that the lionfish population is dwindling at least inside the reef, but we saw this guy washed up onshore during one afternoon stroll along the beach.

Lionfish washed up on the beach. Note the size compared to the 6" long Bic pen

As with any vacation, the time flew by way too quickly, and now it's back to the snow and bitterly cold temperatures. But at least we're rested, rejuvenated, and refocused on the work we need to do to really get Phoenix going this year. 2014 will be busy, but there should be plenty of progress and sailing to write about!

Phoenix on our frozen creek. The ice eater is getting a workout this winter!