Akumal in Maya means “Place of the Turtle,” soon to be changed to “Place of the Tourist.” Located on the Yucatan Peninsula, some 60 miles south of Cancun, Mexico, and less than 20 miles north of Tulum, Akumal used to be a lovely, quiet, undiscovered place with a beautiful bay and beach that’s a refuge and nursery for giant, seagoing turtles.
Those who go for a week or 10 days generally are blissfully unaware of what’s really going on there, and see only the white-sand beaches, stunning turquoise water, giant turtles, friendly locals, tangy margaritas, and charming cafes. Having stayed for three months this past winter I had the unpleasant experience of seeing the dark underbelly of life in Akumal, and Mexico in general.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Mexico and the Mexican people, and my love affair with both has persisted since the 1980s. And I still love Akumal, but like all romances, reality kicks in at some point and the undesirable aspects of the beloved become apparent.
It’s hard to explain exactly what’s going on there, since those in the midst of it don’t really understand either. And everyone you talk to has a different story and interpretation of reality. One problem is too many tourists are now overstressing the once-pristine bay, causing pollution from bodies, sunscreen, and other natural and unnatural chemicals. Some of the turtles have developed tumors, which local marine biologists believe are from these chemicals.
The other problem is too many people are trying to make money from Akumal’s beauty. This includes resort owners, local people trying to make a buck, and developers trying to make big bucks by exploiting the area even more — like the brand-new, 3-pool, 400-room, all-inclusive resort adjacent to Akumal Bay — wedged in between other large resorts already stressing the fragile environment. There are future plans for destruction of the mangrove jungle from the highway to Half Moon Bay (the bay just north of Akumal Bay) for even more development.
Sewage is a major issue in this community where in wretched Akumal Pueblo, across the big highway and relegated to the Mexicans, there is virtually no system at all. People have dug makeshift, septic systems — basically a hole in the ground — where raw sewage goes and eventually ends up in Yal Ku Lagoon or the other lagoons, bays, mangrove swamps, and ultimately the sea. To top it off, various resort owners are on the board of the Centro Ecologico Akumal (CEA) — the environmental center. Uh, a slight conflict of interest?! Some of these very resort owners and environmental board members are themselves the biggest polluters. Then there’s all the crap that washes up on the beaches from who knows where.
Driving the potholed road into Akumal, visitors are beset by official-looking people, some in uniforms, who accost cars informing them that they need guides, tours, parking, directions, snorkeling equipment, and various things provided by them. They are in direct competition with two local dive shops and various resorts offering snorkeling tours and other services — not to mention hordes of snorkeling and diving operations from up and down the coast as far away as Cancun, Tulum, or beyond. And the situation is generally unregulated.
Then there’s the issue of beach access. Although all beaches in Mexico are public property, “Zona Federal,” on which anyone is allowed to go, solid walls of condos, villas, and resorts block public access. Although I stayed across the main road from the beach, just 100 meters away, I had to sneak through a condo or walk a block or two to one of the only undeveloped lots to access the “public beach” — a very annoying situation when you’ve rented a place long term to enjoy the beach.
The beach access issue came to a head this past winter — and continues now — with the local snorkel “cooperatives” creating a blockade on the main highway so that no one could enter or leave Akumal! This happened the week before Christmas 2015 at the height of the season, creating chaos and consternation for resort owners, local workers trying to earn a living, and various tours and tourists arriving and departing. The blockade did draw attention to the greater problem, and also had the added benefit of emptying the usually crowded beaches. The issue continued to heat up, culminating in more demonstrations and toppling the historic Mayan statue near the town square.
So what does the future hold for Akumal? Former CEA director and long-time environmentalist Paul Sanchez-Navarro Russell offers solutions in his astute piece in the Mexico News Daily — http://mexiconewsdaily.com/opinion/akumal-suffering-from-unsustainable-growth/. Since his article, the federal government has declared Akumal a Sea Turtle Refuge, but a management plan still needs to be created and implemented, with actual enforcement of regulations. Russell is the director of the Mexican Organization for Environmental Conservation. In the meantime, one can only hope that proper stewardship will prevail in this still-beautiful refuge for both turtles and humans.