Backwaters: The Yucatan Peninsula

By Rebecca Parsons

Tulum’s coastline. Photo by Jonathan Kemnitz

By Rebecca Parsons

Sometimes you book a vacation in hopes of lounging on a tropical beach for a week, drink in hand. Other times you seek out a trip jam-packed with adventures that leave you with battle scars and tales of close calls and foreign foods. And although it may sound like an oxymoron, sometimes you want both. After scavenging the web and negotiating sky-high Thanksgiving prices, my boyfriend and I squeezed onto a jam-packed plane, the turquoise waters and dense jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula calling our names.

After two flight transfers and a 17-hour layover, we taped down in Merida, the capital and largest city in the Yucatan. Merida is Mexico as you may imagine it: run-down houses, crazed taxi drivers and mouth-watering tacos, cheap as dirt. We spent some time navigating the colorful outdoor markets, oohing and ahhing the historic cathedrals, sampling questionable street food, conversing with the locals in broken Spanish, and exploring the cenotes unique to the Yucatan.

The Mayan ruins of Tulum. Photo by Jonathan Kemnitz

If you aren’t familiar, cenotes are natural sinkholes, thousands of which are dispersed throughout the Mayan jungle. Under the Yucatan peninsula run a series of underground rivers—when a portion of the limestone bedrock collapses, the groundwater is revealed. In Mayan, cenote means ‘sacred well’ and the Mayans believed them to be a portal to the underworld.

After wrapping up our time in Merida, we hopped on a bus to Tulum, in search of more cenotes and white-sand beaches.

Tulum is every paddler’s dream complete with turquoise waters, Mayan ruins hugging the coast, a bustling offshore reef and a wide array of cenotes. Being of an indecisive nature, we decided to spend two nights at an Airbnb in town and two nights camping on the coast, which proved to be the perfect balance. Some days were spent lounging on the beach, ordering drinks and fresh-caught fish at beachfront bars, while others were spent exploring the town, ruins and local cenotes. And of course, a good amount of time was spent standup paddling.

While an open ocean paddle was tempting, the wind was not in our favor the majority of the trip, so we opted to explore the local cenotes on our boards. Standup paddling isn’t widely popular in Tulum yet, meaning you’ll probably be the only ones on the water, but also meaning your boards won’t be super high quality if you choose to rent. I tend to favor traveling light, so we left our boards at home and decided to experience the glory of run-down Tulum paddleboards.

Cenotes are absolutely breathtaking. The brackish water is impeccably calm, making it the ideal setting for every level of paddler. Our paddle strokes took us through mangrove forests and over schools of tarpon and scuba divers exploring the underwater world. Once we reached the end of the cenote, we donned our snorkeling gear and dove beneath the mangrove roots, exploring cave entrances and experiencing the crystal clear waters of the cenote from a new perspective.

After an enjoyable time snorkeling and a newfound love of cenote paddling, we decided to escape the hustle and bustle of it all and made our way to Akumal, a town twenty minutes north of Tulum. There we stayed in another Airbnb gem, a private casita on Half Moon Bay, a stone’s throw from the beach. Akumal is widely known for its diving and snorkeling and upon swimming out, we quickly learned why. Once below the surface, we found ourselves face to face with green sea turtles, colorful parrotfish, nurse sharks, and purple sea fans swaying with the tide. Again we rented low-quality paddleboards to further explore the shallow reef and again we found ourselves to be the only ones on the water. While Tulum was loud and busy, Akumal was quiet and calm, making it the ideal location to wrap up our adventure.

Welcome to Akumel, where you can swim and SUP with sea turtles. Photo: Jonathan Kemnitz

The Yucatan has a little something for everyone: beautiful beaches, beachfront yoga, breathtaking cenotes and delicious food, making it an ideal SUP-vacay destination for adventure seekers and lounge-chair tanners alike. It’s also ideal for any price range; lodging ranging from high-end beachfront resorts to colorful hostels and Airbnb’s. We spent eleven-days exploring the beautiful peninsula and only scratched the surface of what it has to offer. With time the tan lines will fade, but the memories we made won’t.