A beach in Akumal, Mexico

Sustainable Akumal: Turtles, Tourists, Cenotes, & Coral Reefs

  1. Program Details

    This program explores indigenous environmental knowledge, coastal marine ecology, and water resource management through an interdisciplinary approach.

    This program is administered by the College of Food, Agricultural & Natural Resource Sciences' Office of International Programs. Applications are processed by the Learning Abroad Center.

    Location Akumal, Mexico
    Term May Session (Spring Semester)
    Housing Hostel, Hotel
    Credit Type Resident Credit
    Sponsor College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences

    Program Eligibility

    GPA 2.5
    Student Type UofM Students
    Student Year Freshmen, Sophomores, Juniors, Seniors
    Language No Language Prerequisite
  2. About Sustainable Akumal: Turtles, Tourists, Cenotes, & Coral Reefs

    Spend May term on the sunny shores of the Mexican Riviera learning about sustainable tourism and coastal ecology. Akumal, a small town an hour south of Cancun, means “the place of the turtle” in Mayan, and its bays with crystal clear waters are a favorite spot for sea turtles to nest. The Mexican Caribbean, particularly the Riviera Maya, has experienced 70 times an increase in tourism over the past 30 years. This rapid increase in tourism has disrupted the nesting turtles as well as plants and other animals native to this area.

    This program explores the complex problems of the impact of tourism and development on coral reefs, marine life, water quality and other habitats. You will learn about responsible tourism and sustainable development through field based projects and experiencing the water, land, flora and fauna firsthand. You will learn and experience coastal and marine ecology in the context of tourism and development. Observe sea turtles in their nesting and feeding habitat while working on beach habitat restoration. Test the water quality in lagoons and cenotes to understand complex issues surrounding groundwater and freshwater in this region. Snorkel the crystal blue waters to see the coral reef ecology and identify species of fish. Visit mangroves, seagrass communities and hike into lush tropical forests. Experience Mexican history and culture by visiting Mayan ruins and spending time in local communities.

    Listen to Ray Newman, program leader, talk more about this program here.

    COVID-19 Modifications 

    The program will comply with local public health recommendations as well as recommended standards of the University of Minnesota. This may include modifications to the program calendar, weekly schedule, classroom environment, course delivery, housing arrangements, transportation policies, and/or in-country travel restrictions. Below are some of the current program specific changes, but know that these modifications could change at anytime as we get more information:

    • Excursion destinations/plans may be modified to comply with health guidelines.
    • When instructed to do so, students will be required to wear a mask. No exceptions will be made.
    • Enrollment on this program will be capped at 16 students in order to allow for better distancing within the group.

    Housing & Meals

    Students will stay at the Tortuga Escondida Residency Center, located in the jungle several km outside of Akumal. A pool, internet, study areas and air conditioning are provided; housing is dormatory style. All meals are included within the program dates. 

    Application Deadline

    January 1, 2021

    Program Dates

    Depart from Minneapolis-Saint Paul: May 15, 2021
    Arrive in Mexico: May 15, 2021
    Depart from Mexico: June 5, 2021

    These dates are subject to change.


    Students are required to take 2 courses as part of this program.

    CFAN 3422: Introduction to Sustainable Akumal (1credit; Spring B term 2021).

    This is a required prerequisite course. It will introduce students to the literature, concepts, and skills (including snorkeling) needed to thrive in CFAN 3522. The course will be held from 3-5pm starting March 19-May 7, 2021.

    CFAN 3522: Sustainable Akumal (3 credits; May 2021)

    The aim of this course is to introduce students to coastal systems and coastal ecology, the effects of tourism and development on these systems, and potential strategies to promote sustainable development and tourism and mitigate impacts.  Specifically, we will cover the karst geology, underground rivers, and cenotes of the region, their connection to and ecology of lagoons and mangroves. We will assess coastal beaches and sea turtle nesting habitat and the near shore sea grass communities that support juvenile loggerheads and green turtles. We will study near shore and deeper reef systems and how these are affected by increasing development and tourism, directly and via nutrient input and strategies used to reduce and mitigate development and waste impacts.   Finally, we will introduce students to ancient Mayan history, ruins and culture, and how these relate to contemporary development in the region that attempts to capitalize on that history; resultant conflicts between established entrepreneurs, ecologically minded ex-pats, local Mestizo worker communities, a long established ecological center and recent tourism developments will be explored. Students will also learn how to conduct projects that address issues of concern to local researchers, managers, and the community. Working in small teams you will tackle a specific topic related to your interests and expertise and present the results to colleagues, and local scientists, managers and community members. 

    Students interested in sustainable development, responsible tourism, marine biology, conservation, environmental management, water quality, coastal ecology, and/or similar topics will really enjoy this course. Students interested in developing their disciplinary expertise (e.g., water quality, marine biology, GIS/landscape mapping, social science, fisheries) in an interdisciplinary context are especially desired.

    Program Leader

    Raymond Newman Distinguished Teaching Professor, Marine Biology Undergrad Minor Coordinator, Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology 

    Florencia Pech Cardinas PhD Candidate, Natural Resource Sciences and Management, Department of Forest Resources


    Excursions include visits to Xel-Ha National Park, Tulum and Coba archeological sites, Yal Ku Lagoon, Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, several bays and beaches, wetlands and cenotes.  

    This program is a great fit for students interested in field based learning and requires a moderate level of physical activity. You must feel very comfortable swimming in open water as snorkeling in the ocean and cenotes is a regular part of program activities. Prior snorkelling experience is a plus. Scuba diving is an option for students who are SCUBA certified (at an additional cost).

    Program Fee

    Cost of Participation Forthcoming 

    The program fee includes tuition for CFAN 3522, group flight airfare, airport transfers, in-country program related transportation, housing, most meals, entrances to course-related excursions and site visits, program administration, and international health insurance. 

    The College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences offers grants for study abroad programs; learn more here. Students can learn about financial aid and scholarships through the Learning Abroad Center here

    Programs operated by the CFANS Office of International Programs follow the Learning Abroad Center Cancellation Policy. Before you apply to, or confirm your participation on this program, review the cancellation policy to inform yourself of the timeline and financial obligations for canceling.

    If you are registered for less than 13-credits or if you are a non-UofM student or a UofM graduate student, you will be charged tuition for this course in addition to the program fee.  Notify the Learning Abroad Center if this applies to you.  


    More Information

    Contact the CFANS Office of International Programs at ipglobal@umn.edu.

  3. Prepare

    Complete pre-application advising.

    Be aware: All programs require a $50 application fee. This fee will be charged to your student account upon submission of an online application.

    To complete the online application for this program, you will need to select or provide the following information on the online application:

    Center Name TC Learning Abroad Ctr
    Education Abroad Term May Session 2021 (Spring on campus course)
    Program Name Sustainable Akumal: Turtles, Tourists, Cenotes, & Coral Reefs
    Track Name Sustainable Akumal: Turtles, Tourists, Cenotes, & Coral Reefs
    Country Mexico


    University of Minnesota Student—apply

    Use your University of Minnesota internet ID and password to log into the Education Abroad application system. Your student account will be charged a $50 application fee.


    When you submit your online application, you will be assigned an application checklist that includes:

    • First Step session
    • University of Minnesota Student Release and Waiver Form

    Detailed descriptions and instructions for submitting each checklist item are included on the application checklist.

    Next Steps

    1. You will receive an automated email message indicating your application was received.
    2. Follow the instructions on your application checklist to submit the Student Release and Waiver Form.
    3. Your application is not considered complete until the form has been received and you have completed the First Step module. Your completed application will be forwarded to the program leader in the sponsoring college/department for review.
    4. The program leader will notify the Learning Abroad Center of acceptance decisions. If accepted, you will be notified via email and assigned a confirmation checklist, which includes:
      • Health Information Form
      • Confirmation and Payment Agreement
      • Online Health & Safety Orientation
    5. Login to the online application to review the confirmation checklist and submit the required items.
    6. Once you submit all items, your participation will be confirmed and your student account will be billed for the program deposit.
    7. If you decide not to continue with the application process, log into the online application and submit a Cancel Request. You must also notify your program leader of your cancellation.