The entire coast of the Mexican Caribbean has been receiving an unwanted guest over the last few summers.
When I fist arrived to Tulum (2004-2006), I had never seen or heard of sargasso. There were a few crispy bits of seaweed on the beach now and again. Nothing floating in the sea except for turtles taking a breath and the occasional fishing boat.
There is widespread controversy as to what is causing the red invasion of these turquoise, crystalline waters and whether the unusual escalation of it, is actually good for the environment and marine life, or not.
Tourism and real estate agencies are speculating that it is just a passer by. A phenomenon that comes and goes and that is not here to stay forever. That it may or may not be present when you arrive to stay in your dream Caribbean beach cabaña and pay several hundred dollars for the privilege.
Recently, there have been many reports with scientific studies, opinions and counter-opinions from official and unofficial sources. Some say that the increase of sargasso is due to the increment of pollutants in the sea and subsequently becoming an ecological disaster. While others are stating that it is beneficial to marine life and a completely natural process.
This blog is not to discuss whether it is good or bad for the environment. We have decided to offer some outstanding alternatives so visitors can fully enjoy the beautiful Yucatan without even seeing a tuft of the stuff!
For those who visit the Caribbean to bathe in the sun and dip in the warm turquoise waters it is very unpleasant. Not only does it cover a vast amount of the beach, there is sometimes a thick soup of it from the shoreline to the first few sets of waves. Of course, there are “good days” and “bad days”. The sargasso may be present at a section of the beach one day, and move with the currents the next.
The “nortes” or northern weather systems that travel south from North America in winter (Nov-Mar) seem to be the only thing that moves this red mass away from the Mexican Caribbean beaches.
You may be thinking, “VanBalam, why shoot yourself in the foot? You also rely on tourism and you are pushing it away by writing this blog!”
Well, actually, NOT AT ALL! What people often forget is that this region is one of the most diverse in the world. There is so much more than just beaches!
The SARGASSO-FREE Top 5 guide to the Yucatan Peninsula
Cenotes (or sinkholes) of the Yucatan Peninsula make up the world´s largest network of aquifer systems. The meteor that is associated with the extinction of the dinosaurs, smashed in to the north-western part of the Peninsula approximately 66 million years ago. According to sources, there are over 6000 cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula alone. Cenotes may be fully collapsed creating an open water pool, or partially collapsed with some portion of a rock overhanging above the water. The stereotypical cenotes often resemble small circular ponds, measuring some tens of metres in diameter with sheer drops at the edges. Most cenotes, however, require some degree of stooping or crawling to access the water.
There are lagoon-type cenotes where people practice activities like snorkeling, stand up paddleboarding, SUP yoga, and free diving. Then there are spectacular cavern and cave type cenotes which are visited by thousands of tourists (mainly for diving) each year. There are many dive schools offering beginner courses to technical cave diving certifications. We recommend our friends at Protec Dive Centers, Easy Chango and La Calypso for courses and guided tours to the Mayan underworld (Xibalba).
Our friend and travel writer Anna Lysakowska wrote a blog in 2016 with information about some of the nicest known and not-so-known cenotes in the region. It was written 2 years ago, so opening times and rates may vary slightly.
Even if you are not interested in donning a mask and exploring underwater, you can still enjoy a refreshing cool down on a hot day and gaze at the exposed formations of stalagmites/stalactites.
IMPORTANT: NEVER ENTER THE WATER WHILE YOU HAVE SUNSCREEN, REPELLENT OR ANY OTHER LOTIONS ON YOUR SKIN.
2) Archaeological Sites
The Peninsula is full of Mayan archaeological sites to visit. There are off-the-beaten-track sites like Yaxuna with quiet cenotes nearby and there are popular sites likes Chichén Itzá, Tulum and Cobá. Chichén is the most well known Mayan archaeological site as it is now one of the wonders of the world. Due to that, every day, endless bus loads of tourists swarm the site. Tulum is also another outstanding site due to the spectacular backdrop of the Caribbean Sea. We recommend that you visit these sites as early in the morning as possible to avoid the masses. Why not take the breathtaking sunrise tour at Chichén Itzá? Book tickets before 5pm at the INAH office the day before. It costs 1440 pesos for up to 6 people.
Cobá is around 44kms from Tulum and definitely worth visiting. There is a sunset pass (4:30pm-7pm) which can be bought at the ticket office. At this time most visitors are leaving so you can enjoy a much quieter experience. And where better to watch the spectacular sunset, than atop the Ixmoja Pyramid!
In the south of the Peninsula there is the spectacular site of Calakmul (UNESCO World Heritage Site). Calakmul was one of the largest and most powerful ancient cities ever uncovered in the Maya lowlands and boasts one of the tallest Mayan Pyramids.
Whichever historical locations you decide to explore, you will be amazed by the architecture, history, culture and mythology of the ancient Mayans.
Our tip: dig deeper, look for the hidden gems as there are hundreds! Occasionally you will be the only ones there. Enabling you to drift back in time and share a special moment.
3) Bacalar: Lagoon of the Seven Colours
Located close to the Belize border at the south-eastern part of the peninsula is the beautiful Lake Bacalar. It is approximately 42 km long measured from north to south, and less than 2 km at its widest. The lake is renowned for its striking blue color and water clarity, partly the result of having a white limestone bottom. Like most bodies of water in the Yucatán peninsula, the lake is fed by underground rivers or cenotes.
There are many entrances to the lake from the highway with a variety of lakeside hotels, campsites and restaurants to choose from.
One of our favourites is Cayuco Maya. A peaceful, eco-conscious lakeside establishment with cabañas to rent, campsite and parking for RV/campervans.
Here are some wonderful activities to do on and around the lake:
- Bacalar sailing: Tours to several spots on the lake with lots of talks about history, pirates and hurricanes!
- Stand Up Paddle: Green Monkey Hostel offers an amazing sunrise paddleboard tour, equipment rental and tours to places such as Xcalak, Dzibanche and Calakmul.
- Magic Bacalar: Cabañas, camping, campervan parking spot, hostel, marina and tours. Really good customer service and competitive prices.
There are lots of good places to eat in Bacalar Town. We loved the seafood tostadas at La Tostada, breakfast in the beautiful garden at El Manatí and breakfast and sandwiches at Enamora. On the opposite side of the road of Enamora, there is a “barbacoa de borrego” diner offering tacos with earth-oven cooked lamb. So good!
The nightlife in Bacalar is fun. There is live music and good vibes at Ojitos La Catrina and El Galeon Pirata. Look out for Willie and his band playing reggae classics and Cenote Sam and his classic rock covers and wild guitar solos!
4) Holbox Island: Swim with the Whale Sharks
Holbox is a beautiful island located off the North-Eastern tip of the Peninsula. You can drive or catch a bus to the port of Chiquilá and cross over by passenger ferry. There are very few cars in Holbox as it has narrow, sandy roads. Tourists leave their cars in large, secure car parks at the port of Chiquilá (approx. 50* pesos per day) and walk a few metres to the ferry. If you have a lot of luggage, don´t worry, there are people there to cart it to the ferry for you for a tip. The ferry ride takes about 25-30 minutes and costs 140* pesos for adults (and children over 120cms / 4ft) and 90* pesos for children under 120cms. To get around on the island, there are golf carts, quad-bikes, golf cart taxis and bicycles.
*Pricing: June 2018
The best time I had in Holbox was when I took a tour to snorkel with the whale sharks. The whale shark season is from mid-May to mid-September. It is one of the most incredible things I have ever done. At the time, my son, who was 6 at the time, also snorkeled with them. So, yes, it is for everyone! The world´s largest fish is an absolute sweetheart. Despite it´s enormous size, it really is a gentle giant. When you see it from the boat, instinct kicks in and says, “hmmm, is this really safe?!” But once you are in the water, it´s like observing a giant aquatic angel. Gentle, graceful and simply beautiful.
Please take in to consideration that you may have to navigate for a while on choppy waters to reach them. So if you suffer from sea sickness, take some good seasickness pills. We had 2 people on our trip who suffered a bit but were stoked when we arrived to the whale sharks. We sailed for 2 hours from Holbox to find them.
There are many places to stay, beaches to chill out on, and tours to do. If you are going to stay, I highly recommend Marvin Suites for value for money. I have stayed there many times and seen Marvin and his family slowly develop their humble hotel. Real people, real service and they are always willing to offer you advice on where to go and what to do. Hotels on the beach are beautiful but, like in Tulum, you´ll be paying top dollar for the privilege.
As for tours, I highly recommend Vip Holbox Experience. You can find cheaper ones but these are proper tour guides with years of experience and place marine life before anything else. Our conscientious captain, explained to us that many years ago, the locals would fish absolutely everything. With an abundance of marine life, fishermen became insatiable. He talked openly about the past and how he too, was involved as a young man. He explained how the community started to change. They became aware of the importance of the natural balance of the sea. By keeping it balanced, it was beneficial for all beings. The marine life thrived and the tourists came to observe them. Over-fishing evolved to tour guiding.
On the way back from swimming with around 10 whale sharks we stopped by a small bay and swam with some green turtles. We were the only ones there and the turtles came right up close to have a good look at us and stayed for while! I had never seen such an abundance of marine life in all my travels.
Holbox is also known for millions of bright little stars in the sea. Bioluminescent plankton are found here in one of the highest concentrations in Mexico. The water is level is at around knee level until about 20 metres from the shoreline. This allows these little glowing animals to accumulate in large numbers during the summer. Truly magical!
For those interested in water sports such as Kiteboarding and Paddleboarding, Holbox is a paradise with it´s flat, warm waters and pumping winds during the season (Nov-June). Get in touch with Kukulkite for classes, rentals and information about kite spots and the wind forecast.
Holbox not so sargasso-free?
We have some friends on the island who are always monitoring the beaches, currents and wind directions as they own a kitesurfing school. So we asked them about how the sargasso has affected them this year. Sergio told us that very little sargasso has washed up on the beaches this season. And that during the “norte” season (Nov-March) large amounts sargasso wash up on the beaches. Which is interesting, as it´s the opposite of the coast facing the Caribbean Sea.
5) Wildlife Observation
So by now, you have climbed a pyramid while gazing across the jungle canopy. You have dived in to a cool cenote and had a taste of Xibalba. You have had a close encounter with the gentle giant whale sharks and you have traced the wake of the old pirates in Lake Bacalar. All without seeing a tuft of sargasso!
Now it´s time to meet some more of the residents of the Peninsula.
If you take a guided tour with an expert you can expect to observe an incredible variety of wildlife in their natural habitat. From toucans to flamingos, from fishing eagles to ocellated turkeys. From crocodiles to jaguars and from white tailed deer to spider monkeys.
Our top two spots are Punta Laguna (spider and howler monkey reserve) and Nojoch Keej (animal rescue sanctuary). They are both close to the archaeological site of Cobá and all can be visited in one day. For our RV/campervan folk, you can reserve a lakeside spot at Punta Laguna which has been a hit by campervanners so far!
Don´t forget that this guide only scratches the surface!
It is based on what we, our friends and clients love to do that is non-related to the Mexican Caribbean beaches.
There is SO much more…
…so ALWAYS keep scratching!