Mexico’s First Caribbean Destination Keeps Its Archaeological Treasures Hidden

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Akumal is known primarily for Scuba diving and being Quintana Roo’s very first tourism destination. Back then, the remote community was only accessible by boat.

An aerial view of an inlet full of hotels in Akumal’s spectacular Caribbean coastline. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But unlike Cancún, which was very purposefully developed in the 1970s as a tourism mecca, Akumal grew organically in the late 1950s, attracting mostly scuba divers to its then-untouched reefs full of exotic fish and sea turtles.

In the Yucatec-Mayan language, Akumal translates as the place of turtles. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

These days Akumal’s coastline is full of hotels, eco-theme parks, and all the trappings that come with being a Caribbean destination — though on a much smaller scale than the nearby resorts of Tulum and Playa del Carmen. 

The town of Akumal is small, but has some real charm and is particularly friendly. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yuctatán Magazine

Aside from the resorts along the coast, a small community of the same name has developed on the other side of the Quintana Roo’s coastal highway.

The town of Akumal has a location of just over 2000 people, with most working in the tourism and hospitality sector. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

But of course, the history of Akumal dates much further back than the late 1950s — to the time of the Prehispanic Maya. 

Before tourism began to take off in the region, Akumal had a population of just a couple dozen folks, who according to locals there today, were the descendants of the same people who built the ancient port. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Given the fast-paced development of the region, much of the ancient architecture of the Maya has been destroyed over the decades, especially up until the 1980s. If you know where to look, there is still evidence of the ancient past to be explored. But you will find no signs or tourist maps pointing out this fact. 

A Maya temple within a wooded area, right in the middle of the modern-day town of Akumal. Photo: Carlos Rosado vans er Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Though the amount of surviving ancient architecture that survives in Akumal is limited, the richness of its nearby burials suggests it was once an important port, not unlike Xelha or El Rey

In the Prehispanic Maya period, high-status individuals were often buried with precious goods such as jewelry, and Akumal was no exception. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The surviving archaeological complex in Akumal comprises one main temple with a second structure in its interior, along with a handful of elevated platforms which likely housed structures made out of perishable materials. 

A secondary structure within the main complex, which given its size, was likely of a ceremonial rather than residential nature. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Though the Prehispanic architecture at Akumal is standard for the region, on the facade of the interior chamber, it is still possible to observe vivid remains of red and Maya blue paint. 

Maya Blue was made primarily from a small-leaved plant known as anil that, when combined with a special type of clay found in Mesoamerica, allowed for the creation of a stable blue pigment — which was a rarity in the ancient world. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The Costa Oriental architecture which dominates the ancient structures of Quintana Roo´s coast, are with a few exceptions, fairly small in size. That is likely due to the hurricanes which routinely batter the region. 

Protruding molding is a common architectural motif in Costa Oriental, and can be seen in most archaeological sites in Quintana Roo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

Though the colors and patterns which survive at Akumal are interesting to observe, to get a real sense of what this structure would have looked like it’s a good idea to check out the main temple at the nearby archaeological site of Calica.

The main temple at Calica is La Tumba del Caracol, which translates as the Tomb of the Shell and features a remarkably preserved facade. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine 
Illustration of a temple at Akumal by Steve Radzi: Courtesy

The only way to get into the archaeological site of Calica is by requesting an appointment, but even then, access is not guaranteed. 

Like their Maya ancestors, locals in Akumal today are very much into art,  as evidenced by the many murals painted on the facades of just about every structure in town. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

If you go

Getting to Akumal is easy either by car or public transit, as it lies almost exactly halfway between Tulum and Playa del Carmen on the busy Chetumal – Cancún highway. 

Akumal’s archaeological site is across the highway from the coastline. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine

The one thing to keep your eyes open for when visiting the town of Akumal is that you will need to take a turn on an overpass that does not have particularly good signage, presumably because not too many tourists venture that way.

The overpass that connects the resorts and scuba diving areas of Akumal from the town itself is divided by an extremely busy highway. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht / Yucatán Magazine
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy, and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway.
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