After 10+ visits to the Yucatán Peninsula and much time spent in Playa del Carmen specifically, it’s time for a comprehensive overview of the region. I am not one for resorts or amusement parks, so if those are the recommendations you seek, this is not the article for you. Nor will I offer suggestions on hotels or restaurants. Y’all can surely utilize The Google.
For your island experience, go to La Isla Holbox
Where do Mexicans and expats living in Mexico go on vacation? Holbox, pronounced Hole-bosch, a slender island a stone’s throw from the northernmost, Gulf section of the Yucatán Peninsula. I refer to it as Mexican Fire Island though presumably it lacks an equivalent number of LGBT folk.
I hesitate to note this recommendation in a post as this island is bound to become increasingly overwhelmed by construction and tourists and that’s a damn shame. There are no cars on the island, except for ever-present construction vehicles. Dirt streets can turn to veritable mud pits after a heavy rain. There’s only one ATM and it’s frequently out of order. To me, these are Holbox’s charms, but it means you need to be well prepared.
The best way to get to Chiquila, where you will take a ferry to Holbox, is by bus. Buses in Mexico are comfortable, reliable and affordable. That being said, there can be hurdles. I landed at CUN in the early afternoon and discovered there were no buses leaving from the airport or Cancún city to Chiquila for the rest of the day. This necessitated a long taxi ride for about $100 USD with much hopefulness I’d arrive before the last ferry departed for Holbox. Whenever possible in Mexico buy bus tickets in advance and get an assigned seat. You don’t want to discover that all the seats are filled for the entire morning you were hoping to take the bus to Chiquila, for example, or when heading to the airport on the day you are to return home. There goes another $100.
Back to Holbox: Bring lots of pesos with you and loads of reading material. Holbox is a sleepy place. Rent a bicycle (about US$5/day) and ride daily to Punta Cocos on the western side of the island. Eat at Taco Queto every day. Holbox is a fantastic place to spend a few days. After boredom sets in, set out.
Cancún, Playa or Tulum?
If you’re not staying at a resort, you’ll likely be considering your options of staying at Cancún, Playa del Carmen or Tulum. Cancún is the one with the high rise hotels and beautiful beaches on a thin strip of land off the mainland. Cancún city proper is a nearby dusty Mexican town. This may appeal to those of you who are resort types, not particularly interested in having a very Mexican experience, shall we say.
Playa is about 1 hour south of Cancún and is a completely different animal. It’s a bustling, sprawling city where no building exceeds five stories, though certainly those will be forthcoming when officials are paid enough. The tourist heart of Playa is 5th Avenue, a busy and sometimes obnoxious pedestrian walkway with endless bars, shops, restaurants, vendors and fish pedicures. You’ll walk La Quinta, surely, but there’s so much else to do in the environs that there’s no need to walk it more than you can tolerate. (Runners take advantage of the wide open walkway in the cooler early mornings.)
Do not stay in a hotel on or right off 5th Avenue. It will be noisy. Heading to 10th Avenue to upwards of, say, 35th Avenue, you will still be within a 10 minute walk to 5th Avenue and the beach. It also gets quieter the further north you go on 5th.
A note about Playa beaches: The beaches along city center suck. They are eroded and often, but not always, draped with sargassum – unending amounts of seaweed, a blight on Caribbean beaches. However, beautiful beaches can be found nearby. Head just south to Playacar or north to 88th Street and beyond for some fabulous beaches where you will also have room to breathe.
‘Tis true that Cancún and Tulum beaches are stunning. If you are only traveling for beach time, you may wish to pick these locations over Playa.
That being said, I find Playa to be the perfect location for day trips. You can venture north to Cancún, south to Tulum, and inland to Maya ruins and the amazing city of Mérida. Cozumel is a ferry ride away. Playa boasts many expats and you can find French cafes run by French expats, Italian restaurants owned by Italians, and bread shops staffed by Germans. Despite its warts, many find Playa an easy place to call home.
Tulum? If you want to feel like Gwyneth Paltrow – a high class yoga vegan hippie – then Tulum may be right for you. Bring a high tolerance for mosquitoes. I prefer day trips to enjoy the massive pristine beaches, though confess I’d like to get to know humble Tulum center better. I find the prices on tourist and craft goods more reasonable and in some cases negotiable there than in Playa.
What about the cartels and all the Americans getting kidnapped, killed and decapitated?
Americans do not get kidnapped, killed and decapitated in Mexico. Refer to reputable news sources. Cartel violence doesn’t often occur on the Yucatán Peninsula, but sadly it is increasing. It is almost exclusively Mexicans killing Mexicans, usually in authentic Mexican, non-tourist neighborhoods and of course only select ones at that. Cartel violence is almost exclusively a Mexican tragedy, not ours, and boy, a mind-bending tragedy it is. Drug use in the US is one of the reasons why this is so, but I’ll save that rant for another day.
I’ve rented cars on the Yucatán Peninsula without problem, but you are advised to stay on major highways and not drive at night. I think that’s fair advice. Be a smart traveler. If you’re like me, you’ll find Mexicans to be perhaps the kindest, gentlest, warmest, hardest working, most family-oriented people in the world. But still, be smart, it’s better than being dumb.
Should I do a tour to see stuff?
Probably not, if you are a traveler like me. On 5th Avenue in Playa there will be limitless opportunities to sign up for cookie-cutter tours to Maya ruins or to cenotes for diving and snorkeling. I recommend seeing them on your own, arriving when the sites first open so you can enjoy a moment of solitude before the tour buses show up. Again, the best option is renting a car, but buses and the ubiquitous small shuttle vans (colectivos, super cheap) will also do the trick.
If you really want to go on a tour, at least pick a good one. Here’s one to consider, Agence Francophone Tours D’Excursions, http://www.delmundotours.com, email email@example.com. If you don’t speak French, ask which tours are bilingual. This company offers experiences that you will not find at other tour companies. Having just learned of the company before leaving Mexico this year, I had no time to partake, but they are the only tour company I’ve seen during 10 trips to Playa that peaked my interest.
Why you must head inland
So after all this nonsensical rambling, Irene, what do you suggest I do? Well, say I, plan a two-week trip to the Yucatán, flying in and out of CUN. Take a bus from the airport to Playa to your cheap, perfectly adequate hotel (I’ve never spent more than US$50/night), and enjoy some of what Playa has to offer – restaurants, shopping, beaches to the north and south, and at least one day trip to Tulum. Stay a week and then head inland.
You probably can’t experience everything on the Yucatán Peninsula you’d like to during the second week of your vacation, but you’ll make a nice dent. Stay in Valladolid and Mérida. Visit the Disneyfied but still stunning Chichén Itzá, breathtaking Ek’ Balam to the north (my fave), compact Mayapán, and the Three Cenotes (in Cuzamá – you are brought there by small horses pulling carts along mining tracks) near the yellow village of Izamal.
Mérida is a real Mexican city of one million souls that tends to draw fewer tourists. I found it to be dreamy; a breath of hot fresh Mexican air after the tourist enclaves of Riviera Maya. I drove north from Mérida to the Dzibilchaltún ruins and then on to the nothing/little fishing town of Progreso.
This you should do: rent a car and drive the Ruta Puuc to experience the magnificent Maya ruins of Uxmal, Labná, Xlapak, Sayil and Kabáh. If you are drawn to caves as much as I am, you have options: trek into Oxkintok cave or las Grutas de Calcehtok. (See my separate post about Calcehtok.) More caves are to be found at Loltún. Drive to the small town of Acanceh. So many quaint towns, crumbling ruins, dramatic cenotes and guano-filled grutas, so little time.
Honestly, I could go on, but… I found this article to be quite spot on regarding suggestions so check it out: https://www.roamingaroundtheworld.com/best-day-trips-yucatan-merida-mexico/
For me, next on the Yucatán to-do list is an adventure to Campeche and environs, including the Choco-Story Museum, the Haciendas around Mérida, and Celestún Beach with its flocks of flamingos. But I suspect even this will wait because on top of my list is a long overdue visit to San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato. And Mexico City. Damn you, Mexico!
Indeed I am a Mexico-phile. I hear about expats and retirees flowing to Thailand and Spain and Ecuador and Panama and all I can envision is expat or retirement life in Mexico. Mexico, in my eyes, is simply magnificent. The vast blue sky and scorching sun will rearrange your cells. Like the Maya, you will soon be praying to the Sun God (Ahau Kin) and Rain God (Chaac). Mexican gentleness and kindness will fill your heart, and Yucatecan food, culture and history will shift your very soul.
Get your little butt out there!