It’s without argument that the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico holds claim to some of the most beautiful beaches and fascinatingly deep history than most of the planet. Between roughly Isla Mujeres and Tulum is the coastline coined Riviera Maya, within the state of Quintana Roo.
An easy trip from Canada or the eastern corridor of the States; I got my direct United Airlines tickets a week prior to my departure for $250 on airlineconsolidator. Clutch. Now, let’s bare a few things in mind:
- Riviera Maya is quite possibly one of the most abhorrent touristy areas I’ve ever seen
- Vacationing in January is the apex of the season
- Buying flights a week in advance is not something I typically do, but somehow it worked out seamlessly
Before a few friends were to meet me in Playa del Carmen, I had two days to acclimate myself into this cosmopolitan, boho, loud, colorful town.
Dias Uno y Dos – Meanderings
After stumbling through 1.5h at Cancun Int’l Airport, I breathed in the salty air outside Terminal 3 for a few delicious moments. Then opened my eyes to the cacophony of Mexican men vying for everyone’s transportation needs – I got pushed to the side by a family of five looking tensely for their hotel minivan and rammed my head into the side of a small, handheld blackboard with the words Greene Family in, green chalk. I ducked around the pop-up Margherita station and eyed the tiny ADO Bus company | bus travel in Mexico is top-notch | vendor. 178 pesos later | $8 | I was on my way in the AC to Playa.
I lost count of the immense golf resorts we passed on the highway. All I could think of was the amount of wasted water that must be happening behind those walls…but, that’s neither here nor there. I walked from the ADO station to the airBnB I’d be sharing with my amiga, Chelle. Most of this day, I meandered aimlessly around town to get a feel for the energy and see what was about. There was A LOT going on. 5th Avenue is the main drag and one can find all the things:: Starbucks, Italian food, Greek food, authentic textiles from Chiapas, dead-skin-eating-fish, massages, tiny hostels, big hotels, bars bars bars.
Once my feet swelled, it was time to wrap it up at my to-be favorite spot, Ah Cacao.
Dia Tres – Cozumel
Shocker. This place annihilated all my preconceived notions. Since it’s only a 45m ferry ride away at 100 pesos | $5 | round-trip, we figured it should be on the list. One may or may not know that this island is heavy on the cruise ship itineraries, and if you’ve ever been to a city that caters to this tourism, you’d know that it’s flooded with humans between the hours of 0900 and 1800. Restaurants, shops, streets, cabs, and beach clubs are packed. Naturally, the assumption was that quality beaches must be close to the docks, so Chelle and I did little further investigation. However, after the obligatory Cozumel sign photo, foot pain from the combo of water retention/possible dehydration and stomping around for over an hour, we decided it was high time to get that wifi back on and poppin.
At the very relevant suggestion of a friend, we found ourselves in a basically empty scooter shop. Manuel was holding down the fort and at 1400, we asked how much it would be to rent a scooter until the sun went down. $25 cash or credit, 5m tutorial and I was driving us FAR out of town. Authentic Mexico was groping our senses that we had to stop about every 15m to get a better taste. Beach clubs dotted the coastline for about an hour in, until those were simply no more and even the terrain changed. Suddenly it was splashing waves of 50 shades of blue, salt on the rearview mirrors, and coconuts in the distance. This is by far, the ONLY way to travel Cozumel. In retrospect, I wish we’d taken an earlier ferry and had more hours on our wheels!
Dia Cuatro – Playa del Carmen Beach Clubs
Chelle & I waited for two more to join our party of happiness and birthday bliss while sipping fresh juices at Indigo beach club. On one of my aimless days, I was approached by a Venezuelan transplant that now lives in Playa. She and I got to chatting over chocolate consumption | obviously | and mentioned this particular beach club. After further research, I found that every shoreline hotel had a beach club where there were cabanas, chairs, umbrellas, food & bev service and a semblance of privacy. They wanted at minimum 400 pesos | $19 | worth of stuff to be purchased by the patron, to warrant their chair and umbrella usage. Nah. I asked the guys at Indigo, at the farthest reaches of shoreline before entering Playacar territory, in whispered-embarrassed Spanish if I could take a seat and have a bottled water. No problema. Chelle & I layed up under the umbrella, one drink each, untouched for a few hours before V & Ali popped up. Indigo, is lit.
Ali eyed the volleyball activity going on at the bright yellow resort in the distance; so we packed up and walked a few minutes to the other side. Me and V were able to finagle some Dutchmen to let us borrow their unused ball at an equally unused, droopy net. We were about to play two on two when some homies from Delaware jumped in with the quickness. Suddenly we were five on five and things were competitively sweaty. Passersby stopped to watch and take pictures. We had an excellent time. No matter where you go, the food is very good. But Chelle had done digging in advance and had a list of places she wanted to hit up — so we ate a lot of meat 🙂 Finished up at Ah Cacao and planned to meet up at 0800 the following morning for a full day of Mayan adventure, food, ruins, & colectivos.
Dia Cinco – Cenotes | Tulum | Akumal
These are natural sinkholes that occur when the limestone collapses and exposes the freshwater that was housed underneath. Not all are the same as some are still within caverns, are completely under water, or are completely open. They’re stunning and have ancient myths attached to them — which typically makes things way cooler. Snorkeling & diving are totally doable, as well as just sitting while allowing the little fishies suckle the dead skin off your feet and legs | fo free |.
We headed to Cenote Azul via a cab for 40 pesos each | one can also take a colectivo from Playa, for between 30 – 40 pesos, it’s often chucked up five to ten pesos for foreigners |. We got there by 0845 and no one was there yet. It was magic. We jumped off a plank, let the fishies do their thing, swam, used the GoPro heavy, and bounced once the people started to roll in at about 0915. This cenote is pretty big, so there could be a lot of humans and you’d still feel secluded in certain areas. The light walk to the sinkhole is through a bit of forest and it adds to the allure. The entrance fee was 80 pesos. Then we walked to Cenote El Eden, which came heavily recommended by everyone we came into contact with. 100 pesos got us in and a 20m walk in the sun got us to the lip of the cenote. In all honesty, I’d have stayed at Cenote Azul longer and skipped any others. If I had more time, maybe I’d have seen more cenotes, simply for the comparison. But, I’d recommend Azul to any and everyone over El Eden.
35 pesos got us to Tulum from the cenotes on a colectivo. There are two stops for Tulum: Ruinas & Pueblo. We should have gotten off at Ruinas for both the ruins and easier beach access, but we didn’t We found food and dropped things off at a local hostel for liberation of the limbs. Then it was back on another 20 peso colectivo to the beach, where we walked directly in the sun for about 30-40m to the public beach. I’d now recommend taking a cab! Nonetheless, we walked onto the beach around 1430 and it was pretty packed. Tops were off and seaweed was abundant. Luckily, we snagged a palapa and got some shade, but the wind was real and the sand was in every orifice within minutes. The water was warm, but a bit rough with the waves and lots of damn seaweed. I’m sure the beautiful part of Tulum that everyone talks about was farther down the beach, but at this point, we were tired of schlepping. Besides, Chelle & I still wanted to hit Akumal. Tulum does have ruins that provide access to the beach, so if one didn’t want to go to Chichen Itza or Coba, here’s another shot |although I’ll always recommend Tikal in Guatemala |.
Strange. Again, we must have missed it or the hype is hubris. Granted, we got there pretty late from Tulum on the colectivo for another 40 pesos | we were getting tourist duped left and right |. We wanted to see some turtles in their natural habitats, but it seems as though it’s become mandatory to wear a life vest into the water beyond the buoys, which are of course where the turtles live. Vests are 100 pesos and are until 1730 – we got there at 1700. Not paying 100 pesos for 30m of anxious swimming. So we walked to the farthest end, up to the border of Secrets resort and Chelle got out her snorkel gear. Came back having only seen an errant yet terrifying sting ray. The day was kind of tumultuous emotionally, so we just packed up to head back to Playa. Ate mucho chorizo, drank the Mayan hot chocolate and finally felt like a job well done.
We left the following day on the ADO bus that we thought was a little more express than it turned out to be. Regardless, Riviera Maya was a very cool place that I’m glad I had the chance to reevaluate. I understand why there’s a thriving expat community and ya might just catch me returning there very soon!
Lastly, Food Map by Chelle©