Things to Do on a Sargasso Day

by Mari Pintkowski  (Nov. 2015)

My daughter and her family, including two little boys, five and eight years old, were scheduled to arrive soon. Every year they spend the majority of their time at our favorite Tulum beach club, Zazil Kin, with its shady palms, white, sandy beach and clear, turquoise water of the Caribbean. Before their arrival, I had not alerted them to the massive amounts of sargassum lining the shore from one end of the Riviera Maya to the other. I was hoping it would magically disappear, or I thought that maybe this would be the year to introduce the boys to some other sights that they have chosen to pass up, due to their love of the Tulum beaches.

They arrived as scheduled and, even though we told them about the sargassum, they wanted to see for themselves. This was going to be a short beach day as we had promised the boys we would take them to Punta Laguna Spider Monkey Sanctuary late in the afternoon. We loaded our vehicle with boogie boards, snorkel gear, sand toys, beach mats, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and a car full of excited people and made our way to the coast.

Seaweed on the beach in the summer was not a new thing for them, as there was always some floating in the water to maneuver through. They said they just had to check out their favorite spot on the north Tulum beach, so we drove directly there. I waited in the car and formulated several back-up plans just in case. Within 20 minutes they returned with saddened faces. Rich had even run down the beach to a few other spots to see if there were better options and found none. They were ready to listen to my other ideas. I suggested that we drive north along Highway 307 about 15 minutes to Xcacel beach. (check out my archived article on www.sac-be.com on this interesting stretch of beach.) The sky opened up and drenched our car, but as we drove north toward our destination, the weather showed signs of clearing.

We kept our eyes out for the large sign north of the Xel-Ha overpass at the entrance of the road leading to the old turtle sanctuary. The rain had stopped and the sun was peeking out from behind the clouds. The road into the preserve is in great shape, and within five minutes we had arrived. All cars and visitors on foot are stopped at the gatehouse and are charged 20 pesos per person, including the children. The attendants quickly told us to park on the left for beach access or on the right side for the cenote. They showed us a sample of the wooden posts that indicate the location of turtle nests (nesting season is from May 1 to Oct. 31) and sent us on our way.  We fortunately arrived before the crowds and found a shady parking place under the palms. We decided to take the minimum gear with us this and approached the beach with anticipation. We smiled at one another when we saw that the water was clear with the perfect kid-size waves for boogie boarding.  Yes, there was some sargassum lining the beach and a huge mat of it off in the distance but, at this moment, the clear, blue Caribbean was calling us to the edge. This was a cause for celebration!

Xcacel is a protected area with several different ecosystems. Throughout its 362 hectares, you will find jungle, mangrove, coastal dunes, beaches, cenotes, coral reefs and reef lagoons. This is the most important nesting beach in Mexico for the Green and Loggerhead sea turtles. We wandered along the shore until we found just the right spot to settle in for a few hours. The boys were in the water with their boards before we could open up our beach roll-ups. The downside is that there is no natural shade whatsoever along this beach. We pushed the seaweed back and set up camp!  We sat with the sun in our faces and delighted in the comfort level these little boys, from land-locked Colorado, had with the rolling surf. Note to self: Bring an umbrella next time! This is the place to listen and feel all the "s" sounds of the beach: surge, suck, spray, sky, surf, sand, sun, sails, shore, slush, smooth, ships … it is hard to take the teacher out of me.

The northern end of the beach has an outcropping of coral rocks where the water is shallow and very calm. I went back to the car for our snorkel gear and took a walk down to explore this little treasure. It was definitely worth the walk along the angled beach to be able to snorkel in this protected area.

We could have stayed here for hours but, without any shade, it would be impossible for us, I was glad we had made plans to go to Punta Laguna this afternoon. We headed back toward the car to stash our gear, and discovered a shower to rinse off some of the sand that was lodged in every fold and crevice in our bodies. We walked quickly along the coastal dune path toward the open cenote as the sun was directly overhead and the sand had lost its normally cool feel. Before long, we reached a little bridge through the mangroves leading to the cenote. Many families were already enjoying the cool, jade-colored water. The young ones were the first to dive head first into the cenote, while I gingerly slipped in, adjusting to the cool sensation of the brackish water that was surrounded by lush tropical vegetation, and finally some shade. The sheer beauty of the two contrasting ecosystems we experienced at Xcacel was inspiring.   

After a quick shower, change of clothes, and lunch on the deck at La Selva Mariposa, we headed west on the Cobá Road until we reached the roundabout leading to Cobá in one direction, Valladolid in another and Punta Laguna to the right. We turned and drove 20 kilometers along a narrow, well-maintained ribbon of asphalt past Sendero Beel-Ja at Campamento Hedalgo. This is a walking nature trail around a little lagoon that I have yet to visit. We will have to save that for another day and continued down the road until we reached Punta Laguna Spider Monkey Sanctuary or Najil Tucha in Mayan. Everyone was excited as they piled out of the car and were greeted by a friendly group of Maya waiting for us beside a snack shack. We paid the 50 peso fee for each person, including the children, and another 250 pesos (this fee varies and is usually 350 pesos) for the guide. Some people go off on their own to look for the monkeys, but it is a much better idea to go with the guide. They know just where to find the monkeys as they radio between one another when they locate the animals in the trees. The hike through the jungle is a little rough in spots, especially after rain, so wear sturdy shoes and carry a stick if you are not sure-footed. Don't forget mosquito repellent in the warm, humid months. The guides speak many languages and are able to tell you about Maya customs as well as the names of all the trees and other animals that live in the forest. Their stories, which are essentially memories passed down from one generation to another, are their strongest link in the bridge that binds them to their Maya culture. This pristine jungle is just the place to see a battalion of ants marching by, a colorful wild turkey, or numerous tropical birds darting among the tree branches. We saw more than 25 monkeys, including babies, and even heard the Howler monkeys that live across the lagoon. The hike, along with the first day in the tropical sun and surf, contributed to lots of sleepy heads nodding off on the ride back to our little hideaway in the jungle, La Selva Mariposa.

Day 2

We had visited Xel-Ha more than  20 years ago and had avoided it as the prices escalated, but finally took the plunge last year and LOVED it. Local residents, with identification, get a huge discount which makes the experience even more cost effective. The grandkids were finally old enough to enjoy this experience, and this year, with the water activities in the sea limited due to the sargassum, we planned a day at the park. The price is all-inclusive, $90 for adults and children’s entrance fee is only $45. Children four and under are free. Everything is provided and is easily accessible, so the experience is perfect for a family. The staff is very friendly and speaks English, as well as other languages. The park is constantly being upgraded and new adventures are added each year. There is something for everyone, from the casual river float in the mangroves, to easy zip lines and challenging rope courses, snorkeling, jungle walks, a bike course and a very creative play area for children. The food entrees are a little different in each restaurant, so take your pick of the four different locations and return as often as you like. Be aware that the ice cream machines are often empty by the end of the day, but the bar is always open. No need to bring your camera along, as there are stops along the way for you to pose for photos, and at the end of the day you can purchase a USB memory stick with your photos and some of the Xel-Ha's professional shots.

Day 3

The Cobá ruins are delightful at this time of the year. This is a place to slow down and listen to the sights and sounds that surround you. There is plenty of shade and the guides are eager to show off the triumphs of their ancestors. The price is right at about 60 pesos and the guides charge from 250 to 350 pesos for a 45- minute tour. I recommend renting a bicycle for about 40 pesos or hire a Maya limousine for about 100 pesos. Climbing to the top of Nohoch Mul is a highlight for most visitors, and the children, being natural climbers, often lead the way. There are even cold drinks sold near the big pyramid, but no bathrooms are available inside the Maya city. When you finish your tour, don't hesitate to drive over to the three cenotes, 6 km. further along the road and cool off in the crystal-clear water. If it is the rainy season, Multun is the best choice for clear water. Rainwater seeps through the porous limestone rocks in the other two cenotes. If this is your first cenote experience, prepared to be stunned. There are many restaurants to catch a bite to eat as you pass back through Cobá on your way out.

Day 4

Visiting the colonial city of Valladolid is another option for a Sargasso day. It is very hot from April to November in Valladolid, but if you leave early and plan to attend the tour at Casa de los Venados to see the largest collection of Mexican folkloric art in the hands of individuals, you can avoid the heat. The results of the renovation alone that took eight years are worth the visit to this spectacular home with its tantalizing mix of old and new. There is a free tour each day at 10 am.  Casa de los Venados is conveniently located less than a block off the main square and there is free parking behind the town cultural center. Note to self: This is not a great field trip for little children. But for the kid in all of you, think about stopping at the corner ice cream store afterwards for a fresh juice bar (paleta). You won’t be disappointed!

Day 5

Since the best way to enjoy the Riviera Maya in the summer is to be surrounded by water or, better yet, submerge yourself in water, I have a few other suggestions that are off the beaten path. Head north on Highway 307 and begin looking for the signs for Blue Sky boutique hotel or Pavo Real and turn right. Head down the sandy road toward Tankah Bay. Pass through the security gate on the right and tell the guards you are going to Casa Cenote or Manatee Cenote. This beautiful open cenote is across from the hotel Casa Cenote. You can find a parking space in the lot just before the bridge or beyond the cenote on the left side of the road. This is a very casually run spot where you pay the attendant 50 pesos a person. I am not sure if you have to pay for children. They rent vests and snorkel gear and the one- and two-person kayaks are only 100 to150 pesos to rent. (At La Buena Vida restaurant and dive center in Akumal, they were charging $65 USD for an hour rental!) The cenote is pretty long and makes a loop at the back end. The kayak is fun to take to the back of the cenote away from the crowds and pull over to the side and jump into the water to snorkel the little river at your leisure. There are often scuba dive classes going on and it is entertaining to watch the divers exploring the floor as you swim above them. The clear jade-colored water will take your breath away. Notice the baby fish feeding on the mangrove roots at the edge of the cenote. We even saw a family of tejones with eight babies cross over the mangroves a few feet in front of us.

We remember when the little restaurant, Chamico's, at the end of the road in Soliman Bay, had just two tables and was open only when the caretakers had some freshly caught fish and lobster to cook. This was only a few years ago, but now this little hideaway is being found, especially on the weekend. There are 20 or more tables scattered in the palm forest on this white-sand paradise. Blue hammocks are strung between the trees and a cluster of casitas toward the back of the property serves as the kitchen, bathrooms and caretakers' home. Brilliantly white huipiles, towels, and other clothing strung on lines tied to the palm trees let us know this site was more than a tourist restaurant. There is no written menu, but the fried fish, mixed ceviche, shrimp cocktail and grilled lobster are fresh and delicious and very reasonably priced. (Do check on the price of the lobster tails before you order). There is plenty of cold beer, refrescos and cocktails served by young waiters. Chips and a delicious fresh pico de gallo are served with your food and drinks. This end of the bay was literally free of sargassum, but it was piling up in front of the villas that lined the north part of the bay. There is a little path from the shore out into the bay beyond the turtle grass for easy access for snorkelers and swimmers. This is a very relaxing spot to spend the afternoon along the Rivera Maya.

I have not mentioned all of the eco-parks along this stretch of the Riviera Maya, because there is lots of info on the Internet to read already about them. All would be great choices at any time of the year.

If you prefer to be the explorer and discover your own off-the-beaten path adventure, turn into any one of the bumpy unpaved roads leading to cenotes off Highway 307 or the Cobá Road. There are many choices and each one has something different to offer.

Think about going out to the restaurants on Tulum beach for a romantic dinner like our kids did, and you won't even notice the sargassum that floods the turquoise water.

My last suggestion is the most obvious of all: enjoy the amenities at your hotel, including the spa, and know that Mother Nature has a purpose for this overabundance of seaweed, and maybe it will pass or maybe it is here to stay. There are so many things to do on the Riviera Maya that you will not have a dull moment, BUT you may have to look beyond the typical vacation of just soaking up the sun before diving into the surf to cool off, and perhaps you will walk away with memories of the best vacation EVER. When we asked the grandchildren what they enjoyed most this year about their vacation in Tulum, they said nighttime jungle walks along the paths at La Selva Mariposa looking for spider eyes and of course Xel-Ha.

Mari Pintkowski and her husband, Lou, own and operate the #1 B&B in Tulum, La Selva Mariposa, and it isn't even on the beach. Located 20 km from Tulum in Macario Gomez. Read more of Mari's stories in the Sac-Be archives or order her books on www.amazon.com.


Sargassum seaweed by Mari Pintkowski


Hotel Akumal Caribe