Mexico seemed the perfect place for a trip in February and we zeroed in on three spots for an 8 day trip: Tulum, Playa del Carmen & Cancún.
In planning this trip, I read a few stories about some recent troubles in the Riviera Maya area: The entrance of Uber into the marketplace causing tensions with Mexican taxi drivers, an uncontrollable Sargassum (seaweed) level on the beaches and finally the presence of the cartels in the area due to the demand from tourists for drugs. About a week before we left, the taxi drivers had blocked the entrance to the airport in protest and the U.S. State Department had issued a warning about the situation to US travelers. I read in the Cancún Sun (newspaper) that the government made a statement saying this situation would not be allowed to continue, and when we flew in to Cancun, we were relieved to see there was no evidence of a problem.
Upon arrival, it was a little crazy trying to find the company that was picking us up and the scene in front of us a little intimidating but he appeared after about 10 minutes and we were off!
We had decided to start our trip in Tulum (the southern part of the Riviera Maya) and work our way back to Cancun after a stay in Playa del Carmen. Tulum is 1-1/2 from Cancun airport by car. Arranging a private transfer through our hotel was $155 but was a big stress reliever in regards to safety & ensuring we make the most of our time.
We arrived at the Kimpton Aluna Tulum hotel and were welcomed with a complimentary Paloma (tequila cocktail) and a Mayan ritual. We were provided paper and asked to write down something we wanted to let go of during our stay. We then threw the paper into the fire and it went up in smoke! What a great way to start a trip! The hotel is an IHG property and I had jumped on an offer of 180,000 bonus points to open an IHG credit card. The points paid for our room charges and left us with 25k points to use elsewhere. It is a beautiful, open air hotel with natural fibers and stone throughout and a lovely pool. The lobby was guarded by Luna (below:)
The only downside for the hotel is its location, which is about a 30 minute ride to the beach on a bicycle, but the hotel offered bikes for guests at no charge. They also have a partnership with IKAL Beach Club so they can offer a beach front experience for guests. We headed off on bicycles the next morning and most of the way there was a wide sidewalk to ride on. Once we turned off the main Road (Coba Ave) we were riding with cars with no bike lane or sidewalk and it was a little unnerving, mostly because we didn’t know exactly where this place was and there was a lot of traffic coming in for the beach.
The beach club at IKAL had a very low key vibe with people doing yoga on a big outdoor stage, having coffee & enjoying a few boutique vendors. We were excited to get in the ocean and went for a swim and then wandered down the beach a bit and saw a place called Pocna. It was busy (a good sign) so we headed there for a huge portion of guacamole with chips & what would turn out to be the best margaritas & guac of the whole trip. Very reasonable too! Those are jicama (hee-kah-mah) sticks (a delicious turnip like root) poking out of the guac. After enjoying several hours at that beach we headed back on the bikes so that we would be sure to make it back on that road before dark.
Exhausted from our bike ride, we showered and headed by taxi to the hotel zone and had dinner at Arca. The wonderful thing is that all the restaurants, inns and shops everywhere are open air! This restaurant was in a really pretty outdoor setting! The smell of incense is everywhere in Tulum, and that includes restaurants. I’m guessing its part of a mosquito control plan in additional to the aromatherapy it provides
Now, Taraneh is a real foodie. She orders for us in places like this and we share everything we get. We tried the bone marrow (adventurous for me). It had a buttery, fatty taste & texture and was not something I really enjoyed (Taraneh did). Next was the Scallop Crudo with basil & coconut salsa verde, pickled onion flowers, scallop chicharron. This was very good. Finally, seared prawns in chili butter, plantain vinaigrette, green grosella and chile manzanita salsa and this was really savory & delicious!
After dinner we walked a bit along the hotel zone road, which is extremely narrow and crazy with people, bicycles and cars and caught a taxi home.
The following day we went to Amansala Beach Club with a day pass and it was a great experience! Comfortable and relaxed with great service! As we found everywhere we went, there were a few resident dogs there befriending the guests and living the good life!
We had taken a taxi there and decided to stay until evening. We cleaned up as best we could without going back to the hotel and walked a long way to Hartwood. This was one of the really great experiences on our trip made even better by our waiter Marco. Hartwood has a fresh menu each day with local ingredients and fresh fish daily and they cook all of their dishes in an open air, wood burning oven and grill. They pride themselves on a sustainable operation. Marco described all of the details of the entire menu to us, guided us with our choices and at one point brought 3 shots of Mezcal to our table and with a “salud!” we drank. He was so excited that it was my first time having Mezcal, and as you can see, he was adorable! Hartwood was expensive but one of a kind place and the food so fresh & delicious! We had grouper, prawns, beets, ceviche & mashed yucca.
Monday morning we were picked up by our tour company Mexico Kan tours for a day trip to Chichen Itza, Mayan ruins and one of the newest seven wonders of the world. It was about a 2hr drive there and we spent 2-1/2 hours at the site. Our Guide Luigi was a walking encyclopedia and also did a great job of looking out for us throughout the day. According to Luigi, the Mayan never used the inside of this colossal pyramid for tombs or anything else. The size of the pyramid was scaled only to show power and worship the god Kukulkan. The existing pyramid actually hides a smaller original pyramid underneath it. So, as they became more powerful they built right over the existing pyramid in order to appear even more powerful.
Into the nearby, algae covered cenote below, the Mayans threw the bodies of those occasionally sacrificed (human bones were discovered in it).
We had lunch at what was the Governor’s house in the colonial town of Valladolid and walked around the square, which was all we had time for.
The last stop on the trip was the X’ux Ha Cenote. There are hundreds of Cenotes (natural pools of fresh water in limestone caves) throughout the Yucantan and Riviera May and this one was pretty cool! Stairs take you down into it and you can swim in the beautiful blue water. This cenote is family owned and according to Luigi they have never explored the bottom of this one – here’s hoping there aren’t a bunch of bones at the bottom of it 🙂 It was an amazing experience to be able to swim in it.
Playa del Carmen
Tuesday we headed to Playa del Carmen early and were able to check into our hotel – the Marriott Aloft early and head to the beach. We stopped at a great store called Caravan with caftans, beach wraps and all kinds of interesting things. We decided to set up at Tata’s Beach Club for the day – you had a spend $60/pp in food and drinks, towels and we figured that would be easy with lunch, drinks & towels.
As you can see in this photo, the water in Playa del Carmen was really heavy with sargassum and you had to step through it on the beach and wade through it in the water. According to everything I read about it, it shouldn’t be starting until late March but here it was February and it was already bad. The following day I walked back down to the beach to check it out and there was a bulldozer picking up bucketfuls of the stuff.
We had a good day on the beach there until a few people decided to feed the seagulls on this crowded beach and a seagull pooped on my new hat so I had to go over and school them on seagull etiquette (haha).
This is the festive 5th ave in Playa del Carmen which goes on and on with stores, restaurants bars and street entertainers.
This photo was taken from a video I took of these dancers on 5th ave. Playa del Carmen, who were beautiful and fun to watch!
This was a small local place called Mariskinky who weren’t afraid to make a claim to be the best! And they were right!
Next Morning we enjoyed breakfast at this little spot – our waiter was great, so friendly! I just had a pancake (I couldn’t think about eating a Mexican dish that early). But Taraneh went for the Huevos Motunelos.
Our last night in Playa del Carmen we went up to the rooftop pool and were swimming for awhile and decided to stay and watch the sunset there. We started chatting with this couple from Canada and we just hit it off! We had a waiter Santiago who was all about the fun and who took this photo at the end of a few hours talking about everything under the sun and enjoying some tequila. One of the things I love about traveling is the people you meet. It was as if we had known them all our lives!!!
Our final destination awaited us next morning and we took a car to Cancun. We were hoping that unlike the water in Playa del Carmen the water in Cancun would be clear of sargassum….and it was!
We really enjoyed our time in Cancun – the most relaxing part of the trip – with gorgeous water, an amazing beach set up. We didn’t venture much out of the hotel – mostly because we couldn’t pull ourselves away from the water. We had a great stay at The Intercontinental Cancun and would recommend it. The huge hotel lobby is tailored more to a business client and very traditional and security is very tight, but the outdoor spaces are beautifully done!
Above: They built a wood fire and slow-cooked items for the evening.
Flying the friendly skies home. The small Cancun airport was CRAZY crowded with upscale stores & duty-free items, restaurants, just packed!
Trip ups & tips
-I had the IHG points so we booked the Kimpton Aluna which is a beautiful hotel and away from the fray. BUT, If that weren’t a consideration I might suggest staying somewhere along the hotel zone in Tulum. Tulum is UNDER CONSTRUCTION big time and I’m not sure how the area is going to absorb the number of visitors it is now and will be getting in the years to come. It is a very cool place though and definitely worth visiting.
-The Playa del Carmen Aloft (Marriott) hotel was perfectly situated. Close to the busiest part of the tourist area but close enough to it and the beach. I’d say this town is more about the festive 5th avenue than a pristine beach experience. The beach was eroded in several areas and the sargassum was really bad by time we left. Great shopping though!
-Cancun had the whole package…pristine beach & water and plenty of what looked like Vegas-like action. We didn’t go outside the hotel zone though-we decided to be cautious based on the things we’d read. If we had a larger group, it would be fun to explore Cancun more, but the hotel was great!
-I took the Mega bus from State College to 34th Street in NY, met up with Taraneh and we flew United Airlines out of Newark direct to Cancun. The Mega bus was comfortable and $69 each way so a perfect solution to driving and having to park there.
-If you are planning a similar trip, check the sargassum situation!!! I’ve read that December through February is safe, but both Tulum & Playa del Carmen had plenty of it and it was early February. January may be a better month to go.
-Mosquitoes are everywhere so if you are a person who gets bit easily bring as much protection with you as possible.
-There are less expensive public transportation options available that have the reputation of being clean & safe – especially the ADO (ah-day-o) bus system. Because it was just my daughter and I we stuck with hotel coordinated transport.
-We had such a great time talking to the staff and other visitors throughout the trip. So be sure to make connections to people along the way!
Adios Mexico & gracias!
7 responses to “Hola México”
Thanks for reading!
As always so well written Amy with so much gre
Thanks for reading Barb!
another good, informative post!!!
Thanks for reading Nan – next time you’ll be with me 🙂
Another great post with really good recommendations. Well done!