Worried about your vacation in Mexico being spoiled by seaweed? Don't be. While it is true that sargassum washed up on some of Mexico’s most well-known beaches in 2019, there are still lots of beautiful places to swim in the Riviera Maya and across the country.
Sargassum, a type of seaweed that floats on the surface of the ocean, is a normal part of the ocean ecosystem. The seaweed hasn't been a problem for Mexico in the past, as its growth was mostly limited to the northern Atlantic Ocean. Over the last five years, however, sargassum has slowly expanded across the Caribbean and into the Gulf of Mexico to become a seasonal presence on the beaches of the Riviera Maya. (Mexico's Pacific Coast is completely unaffected.)
Experts theorize that the explosion of seaweed in 2019 could have been driven by fertilizer washing into the sea or winds disrupting the ocean floor, but the exact cause remains unknown. Despite these developments, the sargussum is only an issue during the warmer months.
Peak sargasso season lasts from around April to August, although levels can change dramatically from week to week during this time. Beaches in the southern part of Quintana Roo, including around Puerto Morelos and Tulum, are considered the most at risk.
Although it is impossible to predict ocean conditions with certainty, local businesses and the state government now have systems in place to clear seaweed off the beach if it does appear. For this reason, it is advisable to stay at a more-established resort or hotel if you're worried about seaweed.
Due to their west-facing beaches, the islands around Cancun are some of the best places to visit over the summer. Even if ocean currents change and unexpectedly bring seaweed to an area, you are likely to have multiple choices for swimming and sunbathing around the island's coastline.
Isla Mujeres, for example, is a great spot for snorkeling and scuba diving a short ferry ride away from Cancun. At Playa Norte, on the northern tip of Isla Mujeres, you'll find a gorgeous stretch of white sand lined by palm trees, restaurants and bars where you can enjoy the best of the Mexican Carribean.
Cozumel is another island with west-facing beaches, just off the coast of Playa del Carmen. This large island remains mostly undeveloped and is known for its scuba diving, as well as the underwater sculptures of the Museo Subacuático de Arte.
Cozumel is also home to some impressive Mayan ruins, plus as a couple of world-class resorts and restaurants. Some sargassum has been recorded on the east side of the island over the past year, but the west side has been almost completely seaweed free.
Unlike the other islands on this list, Isla Contoy can only be reached as part of a day trip from Cancun or Isla Mujeres. Here, you'll find deserted beaches and clear blue water, as the only human inhabitants are biologists studying the local wildlife.
This lush paradise is a national park and acts as an important nesting ground for seabirds and sea turtles, so make sure to pay attention to signs and tread carefully if you do choose to visit.
On the northern side of the Yucatan Peninsula, Holbox escaped the worst of the summer sargassum. In contrast, the island experienced an influx of seaweed during November and December.
Throughout the rest of the year though, Holbox is known for its pretty beaches, the bioluminescence in the sea off the island's western tip, and the laid-back pace (there are no cars allowed). From June to September, you can even swim with whale sharks in the waters around Holbox.
The northern-facing strip of beaches between the Hotel Zone and the Cancun city center was the least affected by sargassum during 2019. The Cancun Underwater Museum is also located in this area, along with plenty of hotels and resorts.
Beaches along the section east of Punta Cancun, like Playa Langosta and Playa Tortugas, were largely protected by their northern orientation, offering golden sand and sparkling clear water throughout most of the season.
This peninsula can be found an hour's drive north of Cancun. It often escapes the seaweed that hits further south, with a lagoon on one side and the ocean on the other providing a welcome escape for travelers. The lagoon is a popular kite-surfing site for water sports enthusiasts,
Isla Blanca is mostly undeveloped and the last section of the road is unpaved, so many visitors choose to rent a car or take a tour. Tour companies will also be able to advise about sargassum levels during your visit. If you're making the trip alone, there are umbrellas and loungers for rent and food and drink available at the beach club.
Cenotes, or sinkholes, are some of the Riviera Maya's most incredible natural wonders. Created by the collapse of the limestone above, these freshwater swimming holes are dotted throughout the jungle, with many easily reachable from Cancun, Playa del Carmen, or Tulum.
Cenotes can be shallow or deep, completely open or partially covered over, making some better for snorkeling or diving and others more suited to a lazy swim.
At Parque Dos Ojos just north of Tulum, you can experience the best of both worlds, with five cenotes and a variety of different tours available. If you're feeling adventurous, you can explore an underground river that connects a cenote system at Rio Secreto.
When visiting a cenote, make sure to shower before entering the water to remove any sunscreen or other products that can contaminate it. Almost all cenotes are privately owned, so you will need to pay a small entrance fee.
If you can't make up your mind between visiting a cenote or a lagoon, Kaan Luum is the perfect compromise. The shallow lagoon is ideal for swimming, while the 200-foot deep cenote in the center is a scuba diver's dream.
Kaan Luum is surrounded by dense jungle meaning there's no sand or grass to sunbathe on, but there is a dock leading out to the cenote for when you want to jump in or dry off. This hidden wonderland can be found only a half-hour drive south-west of Tulum.
Síjil Noh Há
An hour south of Tulum, this sandy lagoon is a community-run eco-tourism destination. The facilities are rustic, but Síjil Noh Há lagoon is an oasis of calm, blue-green water that is well worth the trip.
You can rent a kayak, jump off the dock, or just relax in the shade by the water, as well as checking out the small cenote nearby. There are also solar-powered cabins and camping spaces available, and a restaurant serving traditional local fare.
This small fishing village is located in the far south of Quintana Roo, not far from the Belizean border. There's no beach here, but the town is nestled on the breathtaking Lagoon of Seven Colors, where you can swim, snorkel, and explore secret coves in a kayak.
You can also discover the historic fort of San Felipe, built in the 18th century to protect against pirates, along with the cenotes and Mayan ruins just outside of town. All-inclusive resorts are not the standard here, instead Bacalar is home to unique B&Bs and boutique hotels, many of which have a focus on eco-friendly stays.