The Mexican Road Trip
Quintana Roo e Yucatan
We spent a few days in Mexico, or on the Caribbean side of Mexico. Driving around, visiting a few cities, enjoying the amazingly friendly people, delicious food, and awesome giant margaritas. Oh, and the beach!
To get there, and leave. International airport, car rental. That's it. I don't recommend this place. It's almost anti-Mexico, a place for American tourists, miles of coastline taken over by mega hotels, all made for the all inclusive gang, and everything that comes with it. Traffic, and nothing, or close to that, from Mexico. You could be at any other beach, or country, on the planet. If you're looking for Mexico, and travel in Mexico, grab a car as soon as you land, and move on.
Not far from Cancun, already facing south, you'll find Puerto Morelos, ideal for a first margarita with guacamole, while looking at the sea. Small town, not a lot to discover, but already a world away from the caos of Cancun. You'll find convenience stores to get all the essentials for the trip, restaurants, ice cream and assorted shops. Also an ATM where you can get some dollars, you'll need them. And some peace and quiet.
We stayed here twice, on arrival and just before leaving. We wanted a place close enough to the airport, but not Cancun. When we got there we stayed at Casa del Puerto, north of the town, a nice hotel with huge rooms. When we left we picked an apartment, dead in the center of town, on the other side of the main road. If I went back again, I'd pick the hotel. The price was about the same and, although it was a cool house, the hotel sits on the beach, and had a cool pool. The area around the house was not that special either.
We visited Taco.com, as it was the one thing open and full of people, and ordered a giant margarita and guacamole. Then a delicious ceviche and a giant margarita. The important bit is the giant margarita!
Akumal is known for the turtles. It's quite easy to go for a dive and come face to face with a happy turtle. As far as beaches go you can pick from busy, or lonely. There's an area by the hotels, where you'll pay a fee to get in, and another one, further south, where a fee is also requested to gain entrance. But, on this one, the money goes to a turtle protection program. Near the hotels, as expected, you'll find the usual 7-Eleven, bars and restaurants, and in the protected area there's nothing at all except the beach, and the turtles. Bring PLENTY of water and, if you're lucky, you'll have the beach to yourself. Remember to take your trash back with you. As far as turtles go, we met them near the hotels but, strangely, none at the protected area.
We stayed at an hotel that's more like an apartment. A luxury development where the owners have mostly turned their apartments into a sort of Airbnb, managed by this hotel company. Very comfortable. Akumal is tiny, the apartment is in the middle of nowhere, we ended up having our meals at Tulum, half an hour drive south. Playa del Carmen is about the same distance when you head north, but it's a mini-Cancun, tons of tourists, and restaurants and shops. We went south.
Tulum is still a nice and cool place, despite what it has been in the past, and what could have been. Broadly speaking it's two different places: Tulum the city, and Tulum the beach. Separating them is a 15 minute drive. I'd say you get an hotel at the beach area, and eat and shop in town, where it's more affordable and there's a bigger offer. Tulum is a great place to use as base for further exploration.
A road crossing a city, with side roads. That's it. Oh, and a lot of shops, restaurants, coffee shops, diving centers, bakeries, clothing shops, beachwear shops, taco shops, bus station. Everything you might need, you'll find in Tulum. The best tacos we had in Mexico (Taqueria Honório) and, almost next door, fancy places with mediocre food. Tourist traps, mixed with very original places. You'll have to shop around, as one normally does.
A narrow road with hotels on both sides, set in a field of palm trees. Of course you can't see the ocean from the street, as the hotels are in the way, but they're much smaller than in Cancun, and way classier, most of them. You'll also find the clothing shops, and ice cream places, and restaurants, but they're all instagrammable here, design, and gourmet. You can walk along the road, but mind the traffic. They drive slower here, but still...
If you're driving around the country, try to book an hotel with parking space. In most other places you can always find a place to park near the hotel, here it's trickier. They will tow the cars if you're not on an assigned place, and they're hard to come by. We managed to find a spot on the hotel next door (yay, low season), and we were happy to pay for the privilege.
We stayed at Amor Rooms, a sweet and very small place. Small number of rooms, but comfortable ones, in cement and wood. The staff was very helpful. An advantage of this place: it's close to Taqueria Eufémia, where you can enjoy the sunset with delicious snacks and the ever present giant margarita. We could also smell weed in the air. Very much so.
Beach wise you'll have two ways of doing it: you're either at one of the hotels on the right side of the road (we were not), and you're set, or you'll drive south for a while and get to the part where there are no hotels. You can also, of course, pay and help yourself to one of the beaches from the hotels. You'll get a chair, a bar, food and drinks. The money you pay to get in can, most of the times, be converted into food and beverages. Not a bad deal.
There are a lot of things you can do while in Tulum. There's the archeological complex, small and unimpressive when you're comparing it to Coba or Chichen-Itza, but sitting on top of the sea. There are dozens of Cenotes. All kinds, and prices will vary wildly. Also, more money doesn't always mean better, and that applies perfectly here. I think we found a nice one. It had caves, open pools, places to dive, and some underwater attractions. Some others will have one of these, this one (Cenote Casa Tortuga) had it all. You'll take the tour with a small group, and a guide, and then you're free to spend as much time as you want in the natural pool, a big beautiful area. As usual, there's also food and drinks. If you're into diving, the cenotes are even better. You can find places to go down to 40+ meters in crystal clear water (awesome!), others will be cave diving adventures. It's really amazing, and an experience you'll have trouble finding elsewhere.
The famous Bacalar lagoon. 60 kms of sweet, beautiful water. We drove down from Tulum, a day trip. Would not recommend, it's FAR. We didn't spend a lot of time there, so there's not much I can say. I can, however, tell you that you can swim without paying. If you're not looking for a boat trip (and there are more than a few gentlemen selling these in town), just go to the pier where the boats leave from in town, keep telling them you're not interested in the ride, and dive off the pontoon. That's what we did. The pier has swings, and loads of people will be there. Very much worth it. It was raining a lot too most of the time we spent there, we had rather bland tacos at a hole-in-the-wall place, and drove down to the lagoon. The city was flooded by then.
Izamal looks like a set for a mexican soap opera. Beautiful.
Everything happens near the central square, monastery on one side, shops and restaurants on the other three. Carriages with horses line up in front of the church, ready for tourists. On the opposite side you'll find an amazing ice cream shop. Best coconut ice cream ever, and I REALLY enjoy coconut ice cream. If you're looking for a panama hat, you'll also find a nice shop selling those. Not cheap, but very well made.
Next to this square there's another, smaller, one. There you'll find the market (intense smell alert) and some stalls on the outside. Very nice too. The whole town looks as sweet as a postcard, the one you're dreaming of when you think about Mexico. In a nice way.
Valladolid is a medium sized town, with a picturesque central square, where you'll find music and people dancing into the sunset. A great place to use as base for a visit to Chichen-Itza, or for a lazy day at Hacienda Oxman (I'll get to this one in a minute).
The hotel we picked for Valladolid (Origen Colonté) turned out to be great too. Small pool, but close to the main square, a 5 minute walk and we were there. Easy to park the rental car, and walk everywhere. Go out, have dinner, take a walk on the square, watch the couples dancing, have a mexican desert, and go back to the hotel. Perfect. There's a street close by that's worth a visit, with the cool Barbearia Valladolid barbershop, the Coqui Coqui hotel and SPA, and a perfume shop you just have to visit. Down the road there's Gran Chan Café, with a great espresso.
World wonder. It is. The Chichen temple complex is a must on a visit to Mexico and, as such, it's bound to be crowded. Get there early, take it all in in relative quietness, and leave when the packed buses are just arriving.
Cenote San Lorenzo Oxman Even if you've visited the cenotes elsewhere, this is worth a visit. It's awesome. A 10/15 minute drive from the hotel, on a road that seems to be going nowhere. Make sure you plan to stay there for a whole day. The entrance fee is very reasonable, and it's worth splurging on the pricier ticket. You'll get a table by the pool, and you'll get your money back in food and drinks. Get there early. We had the most relaxing time here. Go down to the cenote and dive in, come up to the pool and dive in. Have a beer and a bite. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat again.
We only spent a couple of hours only in Merida, on a day trip from Valladolid. The heat was unbearable, but we were told the city is known for that too. We only lasted that much, before going back to the air con in the car, and made our way back to the pool in Valladolid. We walked around the main square, saw the market, and the hustle of a bigger city. No further tips, we weren't there long enough. I would say it's wise to drive to the main square, find a parking lot, and walk around. That's it.
The drive up to Rio Lagartos, a very small town, is a nice one. The city has a bunch of seaside restaurants where one can have lunch after the visit to Las Coloradas, the real reason to drive all the way up there. A salt mine, with pink water. And I mean PINK! You pay the guides (it's private property) and they'll show you around. You cannot go in the water, not even if you mention Instagram.
On the way to Rio Lagartos make sure you stop at Cancunito. The best looking beach around (if you forget about Holbox). The sea is not as still on this one, and you can have a great swim. We discovered this by chance, following a sign on the road. Glad we did.
Holbox is unique. An island with no cars, everyone walks or rides a golf cart (taxi). You can walk almost everywhere, but maybe take a cart to get to the flamingo beach.
The ferry leaves Chiquilá, where you'll leave your car. There's a bunch of parking lots where you can safely leave your vehicle while you're at the island. You'll buy the ferry ticket on the harbour, wait a while, and in 30 mins you'll be there. The ferry is new and comfortable and, at the end of it, paradise.
You should book in advance, as the island is not that big, and can get crowded. There are a few places, but if you're looking for that one special place by the sea, it might be worth booking before you get there. You'll be spoiled when it comes to food. We loved Painapol, where all breakfasts were taken. For other meals we picked from the dozens available. There's the usual sushi places, burger joints, on top of the Mexican places. We went, and enjoyed, Viva Zapata and La Isla del Colibri. You'll also find supermarkets and convenience stores around.
Painapol is owned by a happy Italian, and there's next to nothing Mexican about the place. But the food is yummy.
Viva Zapata Mexican, cooked with care, and... yes, giant margaritas. The whole north side coast, opposite the ferry pier, is beach. Shallow water, and bats. You'll pay to get a place where you can lay down. Some offer drinks with the fee, others do not. Shop around. If you walk, or take the cart, to the left side, you'll arrive at the beach where the flamingos are. It's beautiful.
Playa Punta de Cocos, Flamingo beach. Less crowded than the beaches closer to town. Some stalls selling fruit and drinks. You can talk to the cart driver and set a time for him to pick you up later, or just wait for another one dropping someone at the beach. We did make an appointment, the driver was (very) late, so we just went with another one anyway... You can also go shark-whale watching, if you're lucky enough to be there when they're around. Not a cheap program, and it can take hours. They told us seven hours on the boat was not unusual. Bumpy ride. We skipped that.
Playa del Carmen
Not a lot to say about Playa del Carmen.
You've probably heard about this place already. When someone comes to this part of the country, they'll talk about this and Cancun. Big city, packed with tourists. I prefer smaller, quieter, places. You might like this one, a lot of people do. The issue is mine, not the city's. I just don't like crowded beach towns.
On the Road
Renting a car is the way to go, as far as I'm concerned. The nice folks at the agency will pick you up at the arrivals, drive you to the stand, you'll be out of there in no time. At the end you'll drop it there, and they'll take you to the departures. Easy. The car was also super cheap. Roads are safe and comfortable, doing the same tour on a bus would be a very different affair. Distances are huge compared to my home country, and you have to drive to get everywhere. We came upon a couple of places that we would never visit if not driving. The coolest one was a cow auction, complete with mariachi band, in a tiny village. We stopped for a beer and soon we were having a lot of fun, talking with everyone, as intrigued about the whole thing as they were about us.
Dollar is king. You can get it from a ton of ATM all over the country. There's no use in getting pesos, the price is the same in both currencies, and you can take your dollars with you and use them elsewhere when the trip is done.
Booked everything, car included, with Booking. Got a few discounts and perks because we have used it for a while, and were promoted to Genius status.
A bit of music, collected during that day we spent at Hacienda Oxman, to get you in the mood.