Some Thoughts on Cancun and the Riviera Maya, With Three (Unrevolutionary but Perhaps Helpful) Day Trip Suggestions

As the holidays loomed, my parents had some timeshare expiring and I had some use-or-lose vacation days, so, overcoming some mild trepidation on my part, we teamed up for a short-notice trip to Cancun. The vague, prejudicial idea I’d held of Cancun as a cliché or as a Mexidisney was quickly proven wrong. Having returned recently from a second visit (this time with my two eldest boys) yet feeling that I’ve barely scratched the surface, I suspect that the Riviera Maya is as engagingly diverse a destination as you’re going to find in this hemisphere — especially one within a few hours’ direct flight from any major airport between Boston and Seattle — with an array of superb, easy-access offerings sure to please everyone from sun worshippers to thrill seekers to shop-til-droppers to amateur archaeologists. Sure, you can have a Disney-like experience in the area, but if that’s your preferred travel style, you’re probably not reading this. So, in no particular order, here are a few thoughts for you to consider for your first (or next) visit, and if you’ve been, please feel free to share some pointers in the comments section.

BASE CAMP

  • I’ve stayed in both the Zona Hotelera and the southern beach and prefer the latter, primarily for its relative calm and its easy excursion accessibility. The 125km stretch from Punta Nizuc to Tulum offers a seemingly unending string of options for every taste and budget, from modest B&Bs to five-star all-inclusives.
  • Nothing along this corridor is undiscovered, and, despite what your guidebook may claim, there is no such thing as a “sleepy fishing village that time passed by” here. But if you’re looking for something antithetical to the cosmopolitan, beach-urban-chic feel of the Zona Hotelera, you can certainly have a quieter, more “authentic-feeling” stay (not to mention, a considerably less expensive one) within a stone’s throw of the water in, say, Akumal or Puerto Morelos. Or try a smaller, secluded resort such as the Belmond Maroma.
  • There’s a lot to like about Puerto Morelos, in addition to its cozy town square and cheerful, unpretentious beachfront marked by a leaning Pisa-proxy lighthouse. Its reef (a national park protecting the best coral I’ve seen other than Thailand, but I’m no aficionado) allows for guided and outfitted snorkeling within a minute’s boat ride from the pier, at $20 – $25 per person for two hours, booked at the “Coopertiva” booth at the northeast corner of the square. A small flea market offers exactly what you’d expect, and there’s a variety of dining options: Fresh tamales for a dollar each at Caribelos; fantastic, filling breakfasts at El Nicho; very good (not superb — a coulda sworn the pesto and mozzarella were both from Costco) pasta and engaging street performers at Mi Pequeña Italia; and perhaps the best empanadas I’ve had outside of Argentina (but disappointing pollo portugues and choripan — and it’s really hard to mess up choripan) at Los Gauchos. If you choose to stay in Puerto Morelos, contact the town’s exceptionally gracious and well-connected land baroness, Reina at City & Coast (998-257-8049, @CityAndCoastPM), who can set you up in anything from tidy functionality at $50 per night (such as Casa Zen) to bespoke luxury at $150 (the apartment adjoining her own, lovely home).

DAY TRIP 1: SOUTHWARD TO > COBÁ > AKUMAL

This trip can be done comfortably in a full day, provided you don’t end up behind a wreck in Playa del Carmen. Also, if this is your first time seeing Pre-Columbian structures, I recommend that you do this (and in this order, i.e., Tulum before Cobá) before you see anything else, so that Tulum doesn’t underwhelm.

First stop: The draw of Tulum isn’t so much the ruins, as it is their location perched atop cliffs overlooking the obscenely blue Caribbean water — water whose allure seems irrationally irresistible to the site’s visitors (including the author), despite the small beach being no more attractive and much more crowded than virtually every other parcel of sandy, sun-drenched felicity available on 200+ kilometers of adjoining shoreline. Excluding whatever time you spend at the beach (and you will, inexplicably, spend time at the beach), Tulum shouldn’t take you more than an hour or two.

Second stop: Turn right one stoplight south of the Tulum site and head northwest up 109, about 45 minutes to Cobá. I don’t know anything about the Gran Cenote you’ll pass on the way, but I can recommend that lunch (whether on your way out or back) consists of whatever you can grab from any given roadside grill in or around Macario Gomez. We inhaled a dozen or so tacos in several varieties from two different stands, each taco tastier than its predecessor, and I don’t think we spent more than $10 including drinks. Cobá contrasts nicely with Tulum and Chichén Itzá in that the jungle hasn’t been entirely cut back, and in fact several of the primary structures are still largely enveloped in foliage and only partially excavated. This has both the practical benefit of abundant shade (depending on the time of year and day, you will roast at Tulum — which itself may explain the lemming-like procession over the cliffs and to the beach) and the adventurous perq of making you feel maybe a bit more like Indiana Jones than you will at other sites. The ball court here is very well preserved, and its small scale allows greater appreciation of detail than, for example, its huge counterpart at Chichén Itzá. Subsequent to our visit on December 29, 2017, I’ve learned that we were unwittingly among the last to ascend the site’s primary attraction, the Nohoc Mul pyramid, which reportedly closed its perilous stairs effective January 1, 2018. But of course you should visit the pyramid anyway, and I recommend either walking out and hiring a trike-shuttle back for a few pesos, or renting a bike round trip so you can control your pace and stops the entire way.

Third stop: Your day ends in Akumal, a lovely beachfront town whose main attractions are its calm bay and the gentle residents that feed there on the seafloor grass, primarily Loggerhead and Green turtles. I have snorkeled here twice and both times encountered multiple turtles (this last time at least half a dozen individual turtles — maybe more, but some may have been repeats) within a few minutes and a hundred meters of the beach, but share here a comment from a well-traveled friend for your reference:

Akumal is great, but there’s a beach at Barceló Maya Hotel (not a private beach) where you can swim with turtles and not be cold. We are booking three nights at Barceló Maya just for the purpose of swimming with the turtles. Every time we went to Akumal, we’d have to swim out far and rarely saw turtles. At Barceló, we’d see one or two every time we’d go swimming. Consider going there for a day swim.

There are several dining options along the waterfront. We chose to explore the cluster of restaurants just beyond the north end of the bay, and enjoyed excellent squid, grilled chicken and whatever the unpronounceable catch of the day was at La Cueva del Pescador.

DAY TRIP 2: INLAND TO CHICHÉN ITZÁ > CENOTES > EK’ BALAM > VALLADOLID

Understand first that this is a very aggressive day even by my aggressive standards, but definitely doable from anywhere between Cancun and Tulum. (I’ve pulled off more or less this same itinerary twice, and remain on good terms with most people in those groups.) Plus you’re aided by the time change as you cross westbound from Quintana Roo to Yucatán, although the switch back toward the beach does make for a very late return. Your hard stop late in the afternoon is that Ek’ Balam stops selling tickets at 4 and closes at 5, after which you can enjoy a more relaxed evening in Valladolid.

The earlier you get started, the better. The caravans of tour buses from the coast are arriving in full force by 9, and for strictly logistical reasons (as it concerns this proposed itinerary) if you’re not burning gas by 8, abort, go to the beach, and try again mañana. Unless you’re a ways south of Playa del Carmen, take the cuota toll road, at least on the drive out. On my second return, I opted for the libre (free) highway 180, aka Two-Lane Jungle Deathwish Thrill Ride. I didn’t watch my clock closely (I was too busy watching for topes, the ubiquitous speed bumps that Damien Cave of The New York Times appropriately calls “suspension-killing wonders” that ensure that you’ll never make it to fifth gear), but figure that this route added something close to an hour to the drive. In fairness, I’ll note that this was very late at night, so I could only imagine the charm of the towns and the beauty and mystery of the machete-dense jungle that stretched in every direction beyond the reach of my headlights.

First stop: You have two hours or so at Chichén Itzá, which is long enough to see just about everything except probably the Sacred Cenote. (You’ll be glad to trade that for time swimming in profane cenotes later.) In an effort to help move your agenda along, I offer these practical tips:

1. Do not be intrigued by the idea of the evening light show. I already suffered through that for you once, so you don’t have to suffer through it for yourself.

2. If by the time you reach the dedicated Chichén Itzá road (meaning, after you’re heading southeast from Piste and fork right off of 180) it is gridlocked, don’t cross your fingers and hope that it’ll pick up, because it won’t, and you could languish there indefinitely. Either park roadside (directly on that road or back on 180 if necessary) and walk the rest of the way, or continue along 180 for another km or two then turn right into the complex of hotels at the park’s southeast side, park there (you may have to pay to park at a hotel — I don’t know), and go in the southeast entrance. One caveat about this second option: I have not actually done this myself, but we stumbled upon this (previously unknown to me) entrance as we were making our way from the unremarkable Cenote Iguana to the Thousand Columns and surrendered to the siren call of the Choco-Story store that beckons just a few places outside the park’s perimeter. (The bars are very good and my daughter loves the chocolate shampoo — yes, chocolate shampoo — but don’t stop here; you can ransack their Valladolid location in the evening when your time is at less of a premium.) People appeared to be buying tickets at the small booth and entering the park where we had exited for our choco-fix, and didn’t appear to be associated with hotels or tour groups, so I simply assume that this efficient, effectively lineless option is available to the general public.

3. Another approach, tested and proven to yield amazing results almost instantly: If you use the main, northwest entrance and the line is long (whereas in my first visit in 2010 we walked right up to the ticket windows, this time it was at least 50 meters), leave your group in the regular line as your fallback plan, then proceed alone past the main windows another couple dozen meters, where on the left you’ll see some much shorter lines (i.e., maybe a dozen or so per) of credentialed tour guides buying their group tickets at the windows called Caja Mayoreo (wholesale box office). Discretely and discreetly ask those in line if, for a small propina (tip; I offered 200 pesos / ~$10) in addition to cash for the regular public ticket price, they’ll add your party to their group purchase. It took me four inquiries until I found a willing counterparty, and those who passed did so because they were already facturado (documented) with advance tickets at a certain headcount. The guides win because they get both your tip as well as the difference between your tickets’ retail and wholesale prices (you pay them the retail face price, yet they pay wholesale), and you win because your time here is much more valuable than a few pesos. And as the final piece of indisputable evidence of the pure, unadulterated altruism embodied in this action, everybody who had been behind your group in the regular line wins because you are no longer there. Come to think of it, this maneuver is a gesture of such unfeigned love and perfect charity that it should be tax deductible.

Second series of stops: Now you have about three hours to sample three of the area’s cenotes ([say-NO-tays], water-filled sinkholes that riddle the region’s topography). The first, Ik Kil, is just a few kilometers southeast on 180 from Chichén Itzá, and differentiates itself from the other two on our list by being wide open to the sky, having the most extensive and updated surrounding infrastructure (including mandatory showers, options for a quick lunch, etc.) and featuring a jumping / diving platform several meters high. After the breathtaking first glance down into the cenote from above, the platform is the primary attraction here, and after a dozen or so jumps, you’ll probably be ready to move on to Dzitnup, half an hour east on 180 and home to the pair of cenotes called X’kekén [sh-keh-KEN] and Samula. Buy your ticket(s) at the booth near the parking area, before heading to the entrance(s). If for reasons of time or money or fatigue you can only visit one, it should be X’kekén (on the left as you drive in), whose stalactites and stalagmites make it the more interesting of the two both above and below the water’s surface, especially since the roots or vines that used to hang down through Samula’s oculus appear to have been pruned back. However, Samula will invariably be less crowded and more relaxing, if that’s your preference

(Note that I haven’t visited two of the area’s other well-known cenotes, Zaci and Maya, which are directly in and northeast of Valladolid, respectively. If you have, please leave a comment about your experience.)

Third stop: Dry off and head north (looping clockwise around the outskirts of Valladolid) about half an hour to Ek’ Balam, bearing in mind, as I mentioned, that its ticket window closes at 4 and the site at 5. On its small, isolated compound, Ek’ Balam offers for your free-ranging perusal a dozen or so major structures, the most prominent of these being the Acropolis, which features the most intricate and best-preserved / restored stucco work I’ve seen at this region’s sites or Tikal. To sit atop the Acropolis as the late-afternoon air cools and the sun drops in the west is to feel a rejuvenation that one might be inclined to attribute to the area’s reputed ancient mystical properties. In two visits to Ek’ Balam — both during holiday seasons — I’ve encountered a total of maybe thirty visitors, and five of those were with me. I’m confident that if you make it here, it’s certain to be a highlight of your trip.

Fourth and final stop: Valladolid is a charming colonial town with a troubling history — not unlike that of most colonial towns — of oppression and subjugation, which a couple of hours spent blithely soaking in the streets surrounding its main plaza (Parque la Mestiza) did wonders in helping me to overlook. The most prominent architectural features facing the plaza are the arcade of the Casa de la Cultura and the imposing facade of San Servacio cathedral, although its interior offers nothing as interesting as the altar at nearby San Bernardino de Sisal, which dates from 1552 as the first convent in the Americas. For dinner, you can try Maria de la Luz (we ate a good lunch there), but I recommend El Mesón del Marqués. I can’t quite tell what they’ve changed from our magical visit in 2010 (Fewer candles and more electric lights? Did they paint it white? Are the servers wearing different uniforms?) but for whatever reason it’s a little more like…I don’t know, Chi-Chi’s Cantina than it used to be. That said, it’s hard to beat the Mesón’s 17th century courtyard setting, and the food (we had shark burritos, arranchera steak and a local twist on chile rellenos) is still very good. Within a few steps on either side of El Mesón are two worthy options for souvenirs: Choco-Story and Librería Dante. The former, mentioned earlier, offers an array of artisan chocolates and chocolate-derived products (it closes at 7), while the latter gives you high-quality yet inexpensive Mayan-themed alternatives (such as dominos, jigsaw puzzles and a groovy 3-D puzzle of Chichén Itzá’s Castillo that my youngest is assembling as I write) to the dust-gathering trinkets typical of vendor stands at the sites. If you’ve lingered too long after dinner in the lovers’ benches that dot the plaza and don’t want to make the drive back to the coast, Valladolid offers many good values for comfortable lodging, including the Mesón itself.

DAY TRIP 3: ISLA MUJERES

Isla Mujeres is accessed via a short ferry crossing from Cancun’s Puerto Juarez. Even accounting for mandatory and convenient valet parking in the ferry operator’s parking structure, it’s an inexpensive outing. On two visits to the island, we’ve enjoyed the basic itinerary of spending most of the day at the southern end, making our way up its rugged east coast late afternoon (perhaps they exist, but we didn’t find spots suitable for swimming on the rocky windward shore), catching the great vibe and brilliant sunset from Playa Norte (North Beach), and having dinner in town before heading back to the mainland. A few specifics:

  • Part of the fun of Isla Mujeres, especially if you’re traveling with kids, is to ride golf carts around the island, stopping for chilled coconut milk & meat here or a dip in the water there. If you are there during high season, reserve your cart in advance from any one of the numerous vendors. We had a good experience this last time with Rentadora Joaquin, primarily because they allow late-night returns (I forget the cutoff, but it was after dinner), whereas everywhere else we checked required returns around 5.
  • The best beach snorkeling is at the south end of the island, but if you simply want to snorkel and soak sun without excessive accoutrements, you don’t need to go to the pricier Parque Garrafón and can instead go to the more spartan Garrafón de Castilla immediately to the Parque’s northwest. It gives you access to the same snorkeling — which is quite good — and has all the amenities you need and some you may not, including showers, chaise lounges, umbrellas, etc. For lunch just across the street, the atmosphere at The Joint beats the food, but the food is still decent.
  • There are dozens of enticing dining options in town, so it seems hard to go wrong. For all I know, Casa Rolandi may be the Mexican Macaroni Grill, but their Pescado a la Sal (salt-encrusted baked fish) is a memorable spectacle for your table and a delight for your tastebuds, the calzone on par with the best we’ve eaten elsewhere, and the cream of potato soup was a subtle pleasure.

GRAB BAG

  • Mercado 28 seems to get fawning praise from guide books whose authors have evidently never actually been there, and more tepid responses from travelers (including me) who have. Skip it.
  • Despite several lessons I took with my daughter and, in an earlier era, the exquisite patience of my salvadoreña girlfriend, I have yet to succeed in coaxing salsa or merengue out of my Anglo hips and limbs. But I love the music and the energy, and found Mambocafé to be everything I’d hoped for in a tropical music club. (Although, for context, the entirety of my experience on which this hope was based was gained in South Beach, Cincinnati and Salt Lake City — and two of those things, as you may have noted, are not like the other. Havana will happen someday.)
  • I can’t tell what the original vision was behind Xcaret, which is a loosely-bound amalgam of marine biology, Mexican history, beach sport, tidied up Mayan fantasy-culture and other miscellany, whose closest U.S. equivalent is probably something like EPCOT. I’m not usually drawn toward things like this, but needed a day that didn’t require thinking or planning, and so we gave it a go. Through some combination of the low bar of my expectation and the exceptionally high level at which the place’s (indiscernible) vision was carried out, I came away thoroughly satisfied. Had I put even a token effort into charting out our visit around desired activities rather than following hunches ad hoc, we would have enjoyed it even more. (Translation: By the time we got around to the much-anticipated underground river swim, it was closed. If you go and it’s as-advertised, feel free to rub it in.) I’ll go so far as to say that this is a place that, notwithstanding its considerable admission fee, all but the snootiest 3% of travelers (or those with an entrenched ideological aversion to wild animals being used for human edutainment) will enjoy a great deal, young and old alike. A few specifics:
    • Be forewarned that although the park doesn’t close until 10, most things seem to shut down mid/late afternoon when the shows begin, so plan accordingly.
    • Unless you’re with very young children who can’t snorkel in open water, avoid the lame snorkel inlet on the green trail, our day’s only disappointment.
    • Similarly, unless one is repulsed by naturally-occurring meetings of land and water (such as, off the top of my head, the pristine shoreline that runs for miles and miles and miles in either direction from the park), I struggle to understand the allure of the faux beach area, given the not-inconsequential admission fee. It would be like hanging out at Disneyland’s acclaimed “Downtown Anaheim” attraction.
    • Succumbing to the Jedi-like mind-controlling powers of a nearby pair of puppy dog eyes, I splurged on the swim-with-dolphins upgrade for my boys, and it was worth every penny. Decades from now, it may be what they remember most vividly from the entire trip. (Note that I haggled a 2-for-1 from the “Extra Experiences” booth just outside of the park’s main ticketing area.)
    • A visit to Xcaret culminates in the evening’s marquee show, the “Mexico Espectacular.” Again, perhaps I was snobbishly especting really good community theatre, but this show was, well, espectacular. Sure, the Pre-Columbian segment could use some fine-tuning (The reenactment of Mayan “basketball” will be of interest to anyone who has visited the ancient ballcourts, but do we need to watch celestial fireball hockey for more than a minute or two?), and yet, even knowing next to nothing about the various Mexican states, I got chills throughout the second half when different pockets of the audience cheered as the traditional clothing, music and dances of their respective homelands were showcased in succession. In fact, I’m getting goosebumps recalling it right now. The dancing, while ensembles were perhaps imprecise here and there, was very good; the solo singers were absolutely top-notch; and the overall production quality, although expectedly more Atlantic City or Branson than Vegas or Broadway, left little to be desired.

In short, no opinion on its neighbors such as Xenses or Xplor, but I give Xcaret two thumbs up.

  • If you can swing it, New Year’s Eve on the beach at Playa del Carmen is exactly what you’d imagine. The food at Fusion Beach Bar & Grill was outstanding, the service exceptional, and the fireworks show and wandering entertainers completed the package. The pedestrian street, Quinta Avenida, has many helado/gelato options (e.g., Aldo, Häagen-Dazs, Bendito Pecado), and we were pleased with our choice of Amorino — although, having eaten hot Nutella-filled churros just before dinner, we had the good sense to limit ourselves to smalls.
  • Look forward to the quality, variety and price of the food, especially if you stay away from the big hotels and resorts. Lunch during our Denver layover, while fair by airport standards, was the most disappointing and most expensive of the trip.
  • Beware the changing speed limits along the Riviera Maya corridor, especially on the bridges that lift the carretera (highway) above the major urban areas. (For further details, watch for my forthcoming post, “How to Succeed in Bribing Mexican Traffic Cops, Twice, Without Really Trying.”)

QUESTIONS FOR READERS

  • If you’ve visited the Ruta de Cenotes west of Puerto Morelos, how do those compare to other cenotes in the region? As I drove past them late at night from Chichén Itzá, I found myself wishing I’d visited them, but that was our last night in the country.
  • Feedback on cave tours or what I’ll call “more commercial” cenotes such as Xel-Ha or Dos Ojos, in the southern area?
  • Does Cozumel add much for non-divers who have already visited Isla Mujeres? I’m somewhat intrigued but on the day I’d earmarked for Cozumel, we voted to keep it simple and veg on the beach instead.
  • Is Isla Contoy worth the visit from Isla Mujeres?
  • Any thoughts on the western Yucatan cities of Mérida and Campeche?