Hey There Everyone! I haven’t wrote a Getaway Guide in so long which makes me extremely sad because it’s one of my favorite topics to discuss and share with you! Anyways, I went to Mexico in the beginning of October 2017 and it was my first trip to Mexico outside of the cruises I’ve done in the past. I was really looking forward to this trip because of all the rich history the Yucatan has to offer along with beautiful views that looked oh so Instagram worthy! Thanks for always reading!
First Things First…Resort or No Resort?
One of the first things you should decide before finalizing your itinerary is deciding if you want to stay at a resort (all inclusive or not) or at a regular hotel.
First, let me be the first to say that this first part may be a little biased. I say this because 1. I don’t drink alcohol 2. I like to do “stuff” on my vacations rather than enjoy the art of relaxing. With that said you have to decide what kind of traveler you are. Are you the type that doesn’t mind lounging around a resort with all of the perks and benefits? Or are you the kind of person who hates to be in the same place for too long and needs new scenery?
Let me just tell you that if you’re the latter, then do NOT stay at a resort and instead opt for a boutique hotel or chain hotel that matches your price point. It was my first time staying at a resort, not even going to share where because I literally have nothing nice to say. The first thing I realized about resorts is that their designed for you to leave….like at all! It took us 30-45 minutes each time we wanted to get our car and drive off-site because anything that involves going off-site is just a nightmare. You have to take a shuttle to get to the parking lot of your car which only comes about every 15-20 minutes and there isn’t really a formal schedule they follow so it literally could be a toss up.
Not to say that resorts are not a great option because they are, especially for families and big groups. Mexico offers a great variety of resorts and resort options for GREAT prices and definitely worth the price point IF that is what you are looking for. However, I would not recommend a resort if you’re the explorer type. If you’re torn between the accommodation choices then I would recommend staying at a resort for the first half of the trip, and literally stay there and enjoy it. Then switching to a different hotel for the second half that better suits your explorer needs.
If you haven’t heard of Cancun before then you’ll definitely get familiar with the city because that is where the airport is located and where you’ll most likely be landing at. I was told in advance that I shouldn’t spend too much time in Cancun because it was either “Spring Break in Mexico” kinda vibes or being permanently confined to your resort and Cancun strip. So we only spent half a day in Cancun to explore the strip. Its mostly lined with shopping, restaurants, and other beach front amenities (lounges, pool parties, etc)- see map below.
Playa Del Carmen
So all of my “Mexico” travel experts told me, “Skip Cancun and head straight to Playa Del Carmen” which is known for their white sandy beaches and relaxing atmosphere away from all the hustle and bustle of Cancun. This is sorta true. However, I personally felt that Playa Del Carmen was not as nice as it had been originally described to me. With that said, I didn’t dislike it or have a bad time there but I did honestly did not feel the lazy beach vibes that I originally was promised. Tulum on the other hand gave me more of that feel, but I’ll dive there a little later.
Playa Del Carmen is known for their beautiful white sand beaches beautiful weather all year long. The Yucatan and Riviera Maya have a rich history intertwined with the indigenous Mayan populations who were eventually conquered due to Spanish Colonialism. Playa Del Carmen has a great mix of “new” and “old”!
Walking through Downtown Playa Del Carmen, you’ll find a mix of stores, restaurants, hotels, and tourists from all over the world. However, just adventure a little out of the city center and it feels like you easily could have stepped back into time.
There are several beaches to choose from in Playa Del Carmen. If you’re staying in one of the hotels in the area, I recommend getting one that’s located on the beach since you’ll already get your own private beach access. Playa del Carmen has a great mix of public and private beaches.
The private beaches don’t have as many amenities such as recreational play area, volleyball nets, etc. but they are significantly less crowded and typically only accessible from a beach-front hotel. However, the public beaches in Playa Del Carmen are very well maintained and the public beaches is definitely where the party is at! It is always filled with people of all ages and nearly half of the people there are tourists who opted to join the locals rather than confined to the hotel area.
If you’re in the area for a few days, I recommend checking out both!
This is one of the most, if not the most popular beach in Playa Del Carmen and can easily be spotted by the beautiful arc at the beach entrance. This is the largest of the public beaches in Playa Del Carmen and can get packed! If you’re in the mood join some of the beach goers in a game of volleyball or grab a ice cold drink at one of the many bars and/or restaurants nearby!
If you’re looking for a Spring Break kind of experience you don’t want to forget then head on over to Mamitas Beach! It’s equally as popular and famous as Parque Fundadores and the sound of electronic music and alcohol pouring can always be heard on this beach!
This beach used to be a private beach resort and was known as one of the most exclusive beaches in the area. However due to erosion this area was completely wiped out and now is available to the public. However, not a lot of people know about it so it’s often secluded!
Note: If you’re looking to snorkel in Playa Del Carmen then Coco Reef is your destination beach!
Downtown Playa Del Carmen
If you’re looking to do some shopping, eating, and checking out the bars and pubs in the area then head to downtown Playa Del Carmen, and specifically head to 5th Avenue! That’s where the array of shops can be found as well as the crowd. There’s a great mix of authentic Mexican products as well as many American and European stores (Zara, Sephora, etc).
They also have a great selection of restaurants, bars, and nightclubs. If you’re looking for more information on which spots to check out for nightlife head over to The Everything Guide and check out their Best Bars in Playa Del Carmen as well as their list of the Best Nightclubs in Playa Del Carmen. Don’t forget to look up and watch the Flyers!
OH MY GOD…where do I start! First and foremost, I freaking LOVED Tulum! I spent only about 36 hours there and it was the best 36 hours of my entire Mexico Trip! I rarely want to go back to the same place twice (except Japan, but that’s home) but Tulum is somewhere I could actually frequent once a year…EASILY! Tulum was everything I had expected Playa Del Carmen to be except better!
Tulum reminded me of being back in Bali or Thailand. Tulum is located along the coast, about an hour south of Playa Del Carmen but is also surrounded by the lush jungles to the west! The beach is lined with boutique hotels, not resorts! Many of which give you that green, environmental, tree-house feeling! I’m talking like vegan restaurants, organic fair trade coffee, and yoga- typa vibes!
We stayed at Ahau Tulum during our stay! I chose this hotel because the rooms were extremely affordable and they had villas and cabanas located directly on the beach. We stayed in their “Junior Suite A” and I’ve never stayed so close to the beach in my entire life. It took us approximately 4 steps to get to sand and about 25 steps to get to the actual water. The hotel also provides lounge chairs for hotel guests to use and offer a full menu with bar to enjoy while laying on the beach.
They also have an outdoor gym with no power machines and rarely used, but still looked fun! You can also get a massage on the beach from locals that have massage benches or from the hotel who hire their own masseuse. It was extremely relaxing just laying on the beach and listening to the sounds of the ocean and sand blowing in the wind!
We even got to see baby sea turtles being born!
If you’re visiting the Yucatan you’re either there for the beaches, ruins, or both! The great thing about Tulum is that you can literally get both without leaving! The most famous Mayan structure in the area is Chichen Itza, which I definitely recommend checking out and go more into details below! However, if you don’t have time to venture 2-3 hours inland, or scared (check travel warnings before you plan your next Mexico trip) then definitely check out the Tulum Ruins. It’s actually the only Mayan structure in the area that is on the water and as you can imagine the views are out of this world! The perimeter of the ruins actually marks the perimeter of the original city walls hence why when you’re walking through you’ll notice the large area it encompasses.
Historically, Tulum was used as a major trading by the Mayans. Goods were brought from all over Central and South America to Tulum and then distributed to the inland communities such as Chichen Itza and Merida. You can imagine how bustling the area must have been during the height of the Mayan Empire. Definitely plan to spend about 2-3 hours if you want to have enough time to walk through and see everything.
The Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico is known for their rich Mayan History so when one travels there one MUST go explore the beautiful ruins that still exist today. Chichen Itza is one of the most famous, if not thee most famous Mayan Ruin in the Yucatán Peninsula.
Anyways, Chichen Itza is absolutely amazing and a must see. The pictures you often see are of the main pyramid but the actual site is HUGE. It took us hours to see everything and walk through the entire site. Something I learned on my trip is that most of these Ruins functioned like cities. The elite and those thought to have spiritual powers lived within the walls of the ruins and visitors from all over Mexico went to Chichen Itza to pay homage to their Mayan Gods, as well as offer sacrifices.
Due to the Spanish Invasion of Mexico and the many wars that eventually led to the Mayan demise and decline there are a lot of unfinished areas in Chichen Itza. Legends and stories say that the Mayans were preoccupied with war and planned on finishing many projects once peace was restored. The area of 1000 columns was one of the most fascinating examples of this at Chichen Itza. There were columns scattered throughout the a whole portion of the site and you can see that something BIG and GRAND was going to be built there. It definitely makes the tour interesting trying to imagine what plans they had for the area!
Another hidden gem of the Yucatan are all of the Cenotes that are scattered about. A cenote literally translates to a sink hole and if you’ve been to one, well that’s exactly what it seems appears to be at first! However, once you enter, you will understand that this is not a normal sink hole. It is more rather a beautiful phenomenon of an underground water system that most likely spans for hundreds if not thousands of mile right below our feet.
The ancient Mayan tribes worshiped these Cenotes and even held sacrifices at these locations. In addition, they were a great source of fresh water especially given the hot and humid climate of the Yucatan. You will find Cenotes scattered throughout the Yucatan. We went to Xkeken and Samula which are located right next to each other but are technically two different cenotes with and look very different. I highly recommend these two if you want to see more than one and are limited on time!
Note: There are little black fish in the water, they will not harm you and will most likely swim away soon as the water moves. Don’t be alarmed!
If you do check out Xkeken, make sure you go in the afternoon when the sun peers right through the opening at the top! It will give you a beautiful view of the cenote with natural lighting. This cenote is also pretty shallow and has an “island-type” structure that makes it fun to swim to.
Unlike Xkeken, Samula is significantly darker but as you may be able to tell in the photos, there is man-made light provided inside. There are a lot more seats in Samula as well as more space in general for your belongings and guests who may not want to go in the water.
Other Nearby Cities
Headed towards Chichen Itza we stopped by Valladolid since itsclose by and on the way. I read about it and it was recommended that we stop by to check out this small little town with a quaint downtown. We only stayed for about 2 hours strolling through downtown and stopping in for lunch shortly after.
It’s close to a lot of the cenotes in the area so it’s a good place to stop on your way back towards the coast!
I did not get to check out Izamal because having started a new job right around the time of my trip, but it was on my list of places to see on my way to Merida. This city is most known for its colonial center which is in all yellow! The pictures of this place I’m sure do not do it justice. If you have some extra time, I would definitely suggest checking it out.
I just got a new job and had to cut our trip by half so we did not have time to go but if you have an extra day or two I would highly recommend going to Merida and checking out the ruins on the west side of the Yucatán. If you don’t have time to go to Merida and see some of the other ruins in that area, I would still recommend dedicating some time to visit the Coba Ruins. Most of the other ruins have sustained a lot of damage from wars, natural disasters, etc so in order to preserve them many of the ruins are only for viewing. Coba is one of the few ruins left that still allow guests to ascend to the top! How freaking cool!
Thank you all so much for reading and please share if you’ve been and have any tips for upcoming travellers!