December 16, 2015: ¡Sí se puede!
Like we said, on Thursday things in Akumal got weird.
We walked to town relatively early on Thursday, just to stretch our legs and see how the main bay looked for snorkeling. It all looked good and everything was normal.
We came back late morning with our friends, pulling into an unusually quiet town and a parking lot where we were the only car…strange. Then we noticed that there was a long line of cars waiting to leave town (through the sole road giving access into and out of Akumal from the federal highway (307) that runs along the coast). Laura assumed that there was an accident, but asked the woman attending the parking lot what was going on. She reported that she thought the road had been closed down because of a protest over “closure” of the beach. Ok…
So we went towards the beach. First we were turned away from a path to the beach that those who know Akumal will understand is the entrance to Lol-Ha and the Hotel Akumal Caribe. This is not unusual these days; Akumal is getting more crowded, and they don’t want people walking through that area. So, we headed over to the central “public” path to the beach.
Interestingly, this path now has a high fence along it, as well as a gate. When we approached, we found the gate locked, and men guarding it. A man (let’s call him Mr. Unpleasant) approached us and told us that today they were starting a “new thing” and charging people to enter the beach. This was, he told us, due to the large crowds that have been flocking into Akumal, and the trash they leave behind. Or something like that. Anyway, we assumed that this was some sort of shakedown and kept walking north looking for a way to get to the beach.
Mr. Unpleasant followed us and kept harassing us, telling us about private property rights and other important concepts, so finally Laura asked him how much he wanted us to pay to go to the beach. He told us that he didn’t know, as this was the first day they were doing this. Now confident that Mr. Unpleasant was not a person of authority, we just kept walking to the beach, engaging in an increasingly strange conversation with our new friend. At one point, he said, “maybe you’re going to jail.” to which Laura responded, “Maybe you’re going to jail.” We walked past the man into and through the dive shop plaza at the north end of the beach.
We spent a great day on a very unusually empty beach, especially for the week before Christmas.
We stopped at the Lol-Ha bar for ceviche and cerveza, where we had 5 bartenders to ourselves, while 12 waiters milled around the vacant adjacent dining area.
When we left the beach for the day, there was still virtually no one in town. After talking to a number of people, we learned that the protest had closed the road entirely, and that the protesters weren’t letting anyone into or out of town except for workers entering and exiting on foot. The point was to call attention to the dispute regarding public access to the beach. Effectively, we were stuck in Akumal. (As one aging hippy on a bicycle shouted at us as he road by, “Ha Ha! We’re trapped in Paradise!”)
The protest deals with important and complex issues, some of which we likely don’t understand. More and more people visit the bay each year, in large part to see the turtles. It has become a major regional attraction to “swim with the turtles” (even though approaching within several meters of these endangered animals is illegal). Most of the people who come each day are not staying in the area, but arrive on buses from the mega resorts along the coast, and even from cruise ships docking at Cozumel.
As a result of this influx, the reef, the turtles and the beaches suffer from overuse. To add to the pressure, this year a new resort opened on Akumal’s main bay, part of the Secrets empire, with somewhere around 450 new rooms on what had previously been fairly low density development.
In Mexico beaches are federal land and are open to public use. Conflict arises however, as all of the land accessing the beach may be privately held. You can use the beach if you can get there, but you may not be able to get there. In Akumal there has long been conflict between the folks who own the land along the main bay and the people who live and work in the area who want to exercise their right to use this beautiful stretch of beach.
Over the past couple of years, we now know that there have been occasional protests, and some of those protests have closed down that sole road giving access into and out of Akumal. We are told that these prior protests have been relatively short and have never closed the road for more than 2-3 hours.
Those trying to control access to the beach claim purely altruistic reasons. They want to protect this wonderful natural asset. And that’s a concern with which we fully sympathize. One of the major players in this debate is the Centro Ecológico Akumal, an organization which does do work to study and conserve the sea turtles that reproduce on this beach. In fact, they own and maintain a section of the land right off the beach where the turtles lay their eggs. It is over this land that the public used to access the beach, until we found the new gate barring access.
While clearly a force for good in the conversation of the turtles, the CEA is also owned and controlled by the same people who just approved building the Secrets resort on the bay, and, in fact, sold them the land.
The CEA says they simply want to prevent their land being used for commercial access to the beach by those bringing people to Akumal, and they claim the protesters were essentially those locals who had a financial interest in bringing these tours in. The CEA claims it’s their private property, and they can decide who uses it.
The people, on the other hand say that the beach is theirs, they’ve been using the same path to access it for 40 years, and the CEA and the hotel interests are simply trying to close the beach to those unwilling or unable to pay an entrance fee. Tellingly, CEA doesn’t deny their intent to eventually institute an entrance fee for all those accessing the beach for recreational use.
Like the man said, being locked in Akumal isn’t really the worst thing ever. But, we had plans to be in Merida on Saturday, and didn’t have a place to stay in Akumal after mid-day on Saturday, so while enjoying the calm, we had a bit of nagging apprehension in the back of our minds.
In the evening, rumors swirled among both the tourists and the locals in town. Friday morning found the road still firmly closed. We decided to call the American consulate in Cancun to see if they were aware of the situation and involved in any way. Staff there was extremely polite and on top of things. We received a return call soon after making inquiry. We learned that local officials had met with the protesters on Thursday, but that they hadn’t resolved their differences. They were supposedly meeting again on Friday and hopefully getting to an agreement that would bring down the roadblock.
Not terribly useful information, but at least we knew that people knew what was going on. We had no choice, of course, but to enjoy another day in Akumal.
We also went out to the roadblock and talked to the protesters. They were very friendly and assured us that they bore us tourist no ill will, that the protest was about their right as locals to access the beach. We let them know we were in agreement and wished them good luck.
When we asked about leaving the next day, they told us we would be free to leave when the time came if we could produce a plane ticket or condo check out form showing our time in Akumal was up. Of course, as we have indefinite travel plans, we have no such document. One of the organizers of the protest told us to ask for him if we had difficulty, and he would be sure we would get out. It was also made clear that once we left, we wouldn’t be allowed to come back. They weren’t allowing day trippers to get back in.
By the end of the day on Friday, it was clear that that no agreement had been reached and the roadblock was still firmly in place. But having been assured that we would be allowed to exit, we felt at least reasonably confident that we would be allowed to leave on Saturday morning as planned.
Continuing to talk to other tourists and management for the condo building where we were staying, that confidence waned. We heard reports of tourists driving up to the checkpoint with plane tickets in hand who were not allowed to exit (we heard this from Canadians, Americans and Mexicans). Some folks ended up abandoning rental cars in town and walking their luggage out to the highway to catch taxis. There wasn’t much to do about the situation except get ready to leave and try to exit the next morning.
Saturday morning Laura walked into town again to see if the roadblock had come down overnight. It hadn’t. When she approached the roadblock, a local fellow was trying to forcefully exit in his car. He was being peacefully, but adamantly, detained by the guys maintaining the roadblock.
Again, uncertainty reigned, but there was little to do but make an attempt. We approached the roadblock with our house in the lead with Laura driving and our friends immediately behind us in their rental car. A different local was again trying to exit without success. A tourist told the protesters that he needed to get out to go to the hospital. The protesters told him to take a taxi.
The tourist then started taking down the roadblock himself. A local guy started helping and suddenly there was some kind of momentum to open a gap for those waiting to exit, and easy the tension, while maintaining the road block against those trying to enter. Quickly one tourist car ahead of us got through – our house approached and were waved forward. (One of the protesters told Michael something along the lines of “thank you for your understanding” as we drove past.) At the same time, the local trying to exit was blocked with a concrete tube as he tried to back up – it wasn’t apparent that the intent was to damage his car, but damaged it was.
One of the protesters apologized to us as we passed through for the inconvenience and thanked us for our understanding. We were out and our friends followed close behind!
And there we were, safely out of Akumal, with the revolution behind us.