Mexico Part I-- Exploring The Yucatan
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
This post will explore the Yucatan Peninsula and Central Mexico in the time frame of three weeks. We'll Cover Cancun, Valladolid, Las Coloradas, Rio Lagartos, Tulum, Playa del Carmen, Mexico City, Puebla & Oaxaca with optional day trips. Part I will focus on the Yucatan Peninsula, while Part II will focus on Central Mexico. For more on Central Mexico, please read Mexico Part II.
The Yucatan Peninsula is only a 4-hour plane ride from NYC, making this location the ultimate destination for a short or long term getaway. Whether on a girl's outing, solo escapade, or a romantic Impromptu trip, the Yucatan has you covered!
For the best prices with reasonably low crowds, November and early December are the best times to visit the Yucatan. During low season you can experience more of the culture.
We booked our flight to Mexico in late 2017 and traveled in early 2018. Before embarking on our journey, a rollercoaster of emotions rose up daily. Mexico seemed to be leading every newspaper headline daily with numerous cases of theft, crime, violence, shootings and even deaths. We could have just stayed at a resort in Cancun, worry-free about what was happening around us, but that's not the type of travelers we are. So, we rented a car and traveled like a local, and in all honesty, there was never a time we felt unsafe. Of course, we always thought about safety. No drinking and driving, obey all the speed limit laws, not renting a super flashy car (it's better to blend in), taking money out of a populated ATM machine, not leaving our personals belongings unattended. But that's nothing new, we always do that. As a traveler, I believe it's our responsibility to behave in a manner that will not offend the country we are traveling to, and Mexico was no exception. We had a fantastic trip! Here I'll be sharing with you what we did during our 3-week stay.
Currency: Pesos -- $1 usd = 19.39 pesos
Tipping: General tipping of 10%-15%
Hi / Hello = Hola
Thank You = Gracias
Please = Porfavor
Beer = Cerveza
Tacos = Tacos ;)
Bathroom = Baño
How much is this? = Cuanto Cuesta
The bill please = La Cuenta Porfabor
Day 1 -- Cancun
We decided to rent a car for our 9 days exploring The Yucatan, and it was the best decision we made! While transportation is easy via Collectivos (local busses), ADO (main bus line that travels between towns), taxis, and bikes, having our own car provided the luxury of moving at our own pace. Beating the tour busses (if you arrive early), and having the whole place to ourself. We could pack each day with things we wanted to do and found that driving/ navigating the roads was comfortable and safe. We landed in Cancun and rented our Car from Enterprise just outside the airport. They have a shuttle that picks/ drops you off from the airport, making it very convenient. When searching for car rentals, you'll find really low daily rates. Keep in mind that Mexico requires a third party liability insurance and a Collision Insurance (covered by most traveling credit cards, such as Chase Sapphire & Capital One). So the total cost will be a little bit higher with the add ons. Renting an Economy car, we ended up paying around $225 for 9 days... Totally worth it! If you decide to rent a car like us, I recommend bringing some car accessories such as a car charger (for your phone) and a car mount for navigation. They also have cars with a GPS system available for an extra charge.
After renting our car, we decided to grab lunch at The Surfin Burrito -- A perfect spot for an anytime meal or snack. This place is open 24 hours and has affordable local fresh fish /meat tacos. Its also located right by the beach in la zona hotelera. Their Coco loco (rum-based) is a must-try! 🍺They also have great Micheladas (Mexican Style beer infused with sauces). Our favorite 🌮 Tacos were: Surf & Turf and Shrimp & Mahi. After lunch, head on to the beach; after all, Cancun is known for its white-sand beaches. Try Playa Defines a top-rated beach in Cancun; it's also where the big Cancun sign is. If looking for a more quiet beach, check out Playa Tortuga. We spent half a day in Cancun and were on the road heading to Valladolid to end our day. Valladolid is about a 2hr drive from Cancun with a 1 hr difference in time between Cancun and Valladolid, which we did not know until we got there, so it was a pleasant surprise gaining an extra hour. We decided to stay in Valladolid for 5 days and
make it our hub for half our trip since
it was the perfect midpoint to all the places we wanted to visit, cutting our drive in half. We Stayed at a Boutique Artist Hotel called Zentik Project, and this place was one of the highlights of our trip! With its welcome tequila from a local farm-- that will turn a non-tequila drinker like me into ordering margaritas daily! An underground mineral heated cave pool--the only one in all of Mexico! An outdoor pool to cool off on hot days, hammocks for siestas, rooftop yoga on weekends, and the best breakfast included with your stay at their restaurant Naino; dinner is also excellent here! If you have an opportunity, I highly recommend checking this spot out.
Day 2 Las Coloradas & Rio Lagartos--
Visiting Las Coloradas while in Mexico was something I was very eager to do. I decided to visit the pink lakes of Las Coloradas on my birthday, and they did not disappoint! Pink water is real! Yes, this is not photoshopped- this water is actually a vivid shade of pink and one of the most stunning sights you'll find in the Yucatan. Las Coloradas is a privately own salt factory that's open to the public as long as you don't bathe inside the water (there's a beach nearby for bathing). The pink color in the water comes from tiny
marine microorganisms that contain beta carotene -- a reddish-orange pigment. The best time to visit is when the sun is at its highest. The direct sunlight will give the water its deep colorful shade of pink. Around the area, you'll also find an orange water lake, just as stunning! If planning a visit, I recommend making it a day trip as it's a long drive (2hrs from Valladolid) and there are plenty of activities you can do nearby. You do not need a guide to visit Las Coloradas. It's free and open to the public. At the entrance, you'll find "guides" offering tours and saying that
guides are mandatory to visit-- this is not true. You can simply drive past them (as long as they're not officials with the salt company), head to the end of the road for white sands and pink waters.
Beyond Las Coloradas-- Things to do nearby: *Grab lunch in San Felipe, a small colorful town. *Take a boat tour in Rio Lagartos, a fishing town 25 min away from Las Coloradas. This tour will take you searching for wildlife, flamingos, more colorful water, a deserted Mayan mud bath land, and a secluded beach to swim and rinse off. *Eat Ceviche at "Ria Maya" it was the best Ceviche we had in all Yucatan!!! Here you can also book your boat tour.
Day 3 -- Cenotes and Chichen Itza
Mexico is not just about the beaches. The best part is diving into a sinkhole "cenote" and swimming in cold water after a hot day exploring ruins and hiking pyramids. On day 3, we'll start our day traveling from Valladolid to Chichen Itza, but first ,we'll make a stop at Ik Kill, a very popular cenote due to its proximity to Chichen Itza. This cenote had a paradise
meets jungle feel to it. It was so much fun jumping from rocks into the water and finding little fish swimming around us! This cenote is open from 8am-5pm. I recommend visiting before 9am for a less crowded space and also best natural lighting as this cenote is a semi-open one. Cenotes became our favorite activity in the Yucatan. These nature-made sinkholes are great for swimming, snorkeling, diving, relaxing, and cooling off.
After visiting your first cenote, head on to Chichen Itza --One of the seven wonders of the world, Chichen Itza is only a 15 min drive from Ik Kill, making it the perfect day trip combo! Try visiting before 11:30am, afternoon Chichen Itza gets very crowded with tour busses arriving every 15 min. Also, I recommended having as much sun protection as possible as the area is an open field and can get extremely hot, with no shaded areas. We visited during spring and were burning up, so don't underestimate the seasonal weather.
After Chichen Itza, its time for lunch and a much needed cooling off at a cenote or two. For lunch, you can eat at the restaurant located in Chichen Itza or head into town and eat in Valladolid. When we were in the Yucatan, we went cenote crazy and preferred them over Mexico's beaches. They were so unique and stunning. I'll share with you all the ones we visited in this area and explain why we liked them. Choose your favorites from my list and see them. But first things first, let me give you a little intro on cenotes...
A Cenote is a natural pit, or sinkhole, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath. Cenotes were a significant part of Mayan culture, and it is believed that sacrifices of gold, jade, and humans were made here to honor the god of the underworld. There are four different types of cenotes: underground, semi-underground, those at a land level like a lake or pond, and open Wells. For more on Cenotes, check out my post "Cenotes in the Yucatan 101" This Cenote is Cenote Samula, stunning to see and swim around despite the freezing water. Best for couples and people wanting to snorkel or an epic pic.
If swimming in underground sinkholes surrounded by bats is not your thing, then I think you'll enjoy the cenote inside "Hacienda San Lorenzo Oxman."Oxman has something for everyone, not to mention it's inside a Mexican Hacienda! This cenote is excellent for families, couples, and travelers with an adventurous soul. Inside a hacienda, you'll find this little gem with a pool and a bar offering drinks for those wanting to chill and soak the sun in. Despite this cenote having kicks ass amenities, it's highlight is it's fun built-in rope where you can swing from and jump into the cenote!
Day 4 -- Valladolid
Take day 4 to chill. Sleep in and take your time enjoying an authentic Mexican breakfast. If staying at Zentik, try their enchiladas Verdes (had them every day!) and ask for their specialty Zentik Coffee, which is made in house with an added shot of local tequila... super delicious! But don't overdo it with the coffee unless you want to spend the next couple of hours taking a siesta by the pool in a hammock... its totally fine if you do! we did :)
Things to do in town:
-Visit Parque Francisco Canton Rosado
-Check out the San Lorenzo Convent
-Stroll down "Calzada de Los Frailes" for a street full of colorful houses.
-Go chocolate tasting in town for free! Two great spots to do this are "Fabrica de Chocolates Artesanal Maya Cho Haa" & "Choco-Story".
-For local craft ice cream, check out "Subterra Helados," always a yes on a hot day!
-Grab lunch in town: Check out "La Casona de Valladolid" for a buffet-style lunch. Make sure to check out the patio; it's stunning!
With a full belly, take a tequila tour and go tequila tasting at the local "Mayapan Distillerias" - open from 9am- 6pm.
After tequila tasting, head back to town and enjoy a free night light show at San Bernardo Convent in Valladolid. -- end of day 4
Day 5 -- On the road to Tulum
Since we only had 9 days in the Yucatan, we decided to head back east to explore Tulum and surrounding areas. If you have extra days, head west instead and visit Merida, known for colonial architecture. Izamal; an all yellow pueblo magico town. Uxmal, Celestun, Campeche, and Chiapas for stunning ruins, wildlife, and waterfalls. But to stay true to our itinerary and 9-day blog, we'll head east to Tulum. On the drive to Tulum, we'll make 3 stops before arriving at our hotel in town. The first stop is only 15 min away from Valladolid -- Cenote Suytum: in my opinion, the most stunning cenote in all of Yucatan. Open from 9am-6pm.
This cenote is surreal and magical, perfect nature lovers. We felt we were in a movie set from its abnormal beauty. We arrived early and shared the space with bats above and fish below. The light from the sky was gently illuminating the underground sinkhole. We fell in love with the now absent fear of numerous bats flying overhead, for this was a place we knew as we walked in, we would never forget!
After our magical encounter with nature, we decided to head on to our next stop Gran Cenote-- This cenote is closer to Tulum, a bit more touristy, and perfect for families and snorkeling. The water tends to be a bit warmer due to the cenote being open for most parts, and it offers a clear view of fish below and turtles soaking in the sun in nearby rocks. Renting snorkeling gear in the Yucatan is easy and affordable. Still, I recommend buying gear and bringing your own equipment, especially if you plan on cenote hopping and snorkeling on nearby beaches. That's something we didn't do and wished we had done. The renting facilities clean them out after every use, Still, on the back of our heads, we knew every time we rented one, that people before us had put their mouths there... and it was fine the first 3 times, after that -- we felt that buying our own snorkeling kit would have been a better choice. lol
After splashing in the Gran Cenote, we're heading over to Tulum's best-kept secret... Kaan Luum Lagoon! This was our favorite freshwater "beach" in Mexico. Only 30 min south of Tulum, you'll find this local freshwater lagoon. It's great for swimming, having a picnic, and using its sand as a natural body exfoliant. What makes this lagoon so unique is that there's a cenote smack in the middle (the darkest shade of blue in the pic below.) This cenote is an underwater one, and you need a divers permit to get in as it's very deep.
Any divers out there up for the challenge??? Leave a comment with your favorite cenote to dive in, in the Yucatan!
After a whole bunch of swimming, it's time to finally arrive in Tulum. Where to stay in Tulum: if you rent a car, stay in town so you can experience more of the local eats and lifestyle. We stayed at Maison Tulum and paid around $50/ night for a queen-sized room with two full-sized beds. This place was perfect for us as we only needed a place to come in and out to sleep at night. We got to experience some really great local food restaurants nearby and have amazing $0.42 tacos! Great local "hole in the wall" restaurants. Eat spots to check out in this area for under $1
- Taqueria Honorio ( 8am-2pm)
-Antojitos la Chiapaneca (2:30pm-11pm)
-El Rincon Chiapaneco (11am- 10pm)
With a full belly, it's now time to check-in at your hotel, freshen up and start your night exploring the beachside of Tulum. The beachside is basically a strip that's about 3.4 miles long from Azulik (our starting point) to Casa Malca --Pablo Escobar's old Mansion and our endpoint. We'll do this in the course of a few nights, always picking up where we left off. Things to know about the beach area in Tulum:
* You can walk the strip from the beachside (although it can become hard to tell at times where you are since this area is technically the backside of the
hotel), or you could walk through the front side ( which is the street side) we did both and encourage you to do the same! There are lots of cute shops and non -hotel-related restaurants that can be discovered and visited on the street side. On the opposite end, traveling through the beachside can offer amazing views and romantic moments. * You can go to all these hotels for drinks, breakfast, lunch, or dinner even if not staying there and walk around! They're all super friendly.
* This area is overly touristy and filled with luxury hotels, so be ready for your wallet to take a hit. It's most likely you'll be overpaying for everything here. I recommend taking a day to go into town and have .42 cent tacos before hitting the beach. Even with taxi fare (if you did not rent a car), you'll be saving $$ plus the quality of the food in town is more authentic. We only found locals eating there, always a good sign.
Start your night at Azulik, a stunning eco-
friendly luxury hotel that we found to be the perfect spot to watch the sunset from. Drinks are overpriced, and the service is just ok, but the hotel is breathtaking! Buy a drink & roam around or stay for dinner. They have a giant nest overlooking the jungle that's out of this world. You can spend hours here walking around and always find a new area that will take your breath away. Watch the sunset and make your way along the strip to different hotels, shops & bars either by foot or bike.
You can't go wrong here, this area is full of music, great food & drinks.
Some of our Favorite spots were:
*Ahau Tulum -- breakfast
*Casa Jaguar -- drinks
*Be Tulum -- dinner at their beachfront restaurant watching the moon rise.
*Nomade -- for the vibes and ambiance
*Gitano -- with live music on Sundays
*Kitchen Table -- RSVP recommended
*Safari -- drinks, bites, music
Day 6 -- Tulum
Start your day with an archeological ruin hike at the ruins of Tulum. This place is popular and free for Mexican residents on Sundays so keep that in mind when planning. I recommend going early in the morning to avoid the extreme heat and crowds. This ruin site is right next to the beach, so bring your bathing suit with you so you can head for a swim after. Continue and end the rest of your day where you left off exploring, Tulum's beachfront, relaxing, strolling around, and taking in some sun.
Day 7 -- Akumal Beach
( on the road to Playa del Carmen)
Akumal is a beach town between Tulum and Playa del Carmen. This beach is known for its sea turtles and clear waters for snorkeling. It was a fantastic experience snorkeling there; we got to see some fascinating sea life and coral reefs. If you don't have snorkeling gear, you can rent equipment there. Be sure to arrive early, wear biodegradable sunblock, and have your GoPro in handy! We recommend arriving early because more
people = fewer sea turtles as they hide from crowds. Something vital is NOT to touch them! They're wild and endangered. The sea turtles here won't harm you, so please respect their privacy. The beach is starting to close on some days to preserve the wildlife. Tourists are always trying to pet and hold the turtles for that perfect shot... Not worth it! Please avoid contact for us all to continue enjoying swimming with them. Another critical topic to bring up is that this is a FREE beach and open to the public. Big resorts in this area are trying to charge the public a cover fee to get in, even to Mexican residents... Ridiculous! This beach is and should always be free to the public, especially its residents. 🚩 To find the turtles find the red flag on the beach; that's the area with the most turtles. It's near a scuba rental shop and resort restaurant.
On the way Cenotes...
After Akumal and between Tulum and Playa del Carmen, you can find 3 sister cenotes. Cenote Cristalino, Cenote Jardin del Eden, and Cenote Azul are less than a 1 min drive away from one another. We went to all 3, and up next, I'll be share the highlights of each one so you can choose the one that works for you. Let's start with Cenote Cristalino: This cenote is an open cenote and has a secret garden feel as is less touristy than other cenotes nearby with beautiful nooks where you
find yourself surrounded by nature and secluded from the rest. It's perfect for couples and groups as there's a fun cliff you can jump from and nearby fruit snacks for purchase. Out of all 3, this was my favorite one. This cenote is also very calm, so it's perfect for having fish therapy. Just sit by a rock, stay still, and they'll all come swimming your way.
This is the second Cenote Jardin del Eden; This Cenote is an open Cenote and has an adventurous feel. It's also less touristy than other cenotes nearby, with unusual spots to dive and cliffs to jump off from. It's perfect for divers and groups as there's a grill with burgers and hot dogs available for purchase.
Last we have cenote Azul. This cenote is open and offers stunning views with an "oasis" kinda feel. The perfect spot to cool off on a hot day! Best for families and individuals seeking a more chill vibe. The waters here can be shallow and deep, with nearby rocks to soak the sun in and cliffs to jump in from.
Finally, arrive at Playa del Carmen, Check-in at your hotel, and find some food. Here are some of our other favorite spots to eat at in Playa del Carmen. • Pasteleria Italiana Tiramisu Firenze -- ok, so this is an adorable Italian bakery that's really affordable with fantastic coffee... Just in case you needed a break from Mexican food (depending on the Lenght of your stay), I recommend this spot for breakfast or a quick coffee run. It's very local and super laid back.
• Wichoos -- this spot has swings as seats! Plus yummy local Mexican food at great prices. I recommend this spot for lunch.
• El Boticario -- this was our favorite spot for cocktails, snacks, and dinner along the famous 5th avenue road. Great ambiance and music! • La Cueva de Chango -- our favorite fine dining restaurant in a patio setting, that's very romantic at night, Plus delish food! Just bring bug spray. Spend the night strolling around 5th avenue. You'll find bars along 10th street and night clubs along 12th street.
Day 8 -- Visit an Adventure Park
We love theme parks! From Disney to Six Flags, you name it...we're adrenaline junkies! We've been to a handful of parks all across the U.S.A and found Mexico to have some really unique and cool ones that are totally worth a visit. Whether you're looking for something the entire family and your inner kid can enjoy or zip-lining through the jungle while diving in underground caves, the Yucatan has you covered! We decided to visit two parks: Xelha and Xenses and had a blast!! *Tip: buying your ticket online can save you up to 30%. If visiting multiple parks, try combining them into one (you can see each on different days) to save even more! Most of these parks are all inclusive. Yassss 🙌🏽 to hourly beers, margaritas, and tacos!! Do a little research and go to the park that's best for YOU. There are so many to choose from! Our favorite park was Xenses, a park meant for exploring all human senses. This park was so much fun and unique, plus it's a half-day park, we were there from 9am - 2pm and did everything!
Day 9 - Last day - Fly to CDMX
This is our last day in the Yucatan. We decided to sleep in, wash our car rental, and visit a local brewery in the area before boarding our flight to Mexico City. For some reason finding a car wash company in Playa del Carmen was a bit challenging. Google maps and locals led us to places that had already been closed down or did not even exist! So we had to drive around for a while until we found a spot! The car wash company we found is near an excellent brewery company "Carmen Beer Co." If you type that name in google maps, you'll see a small car wash crossing a big street intersection (a 5 min walk); this place was fast and great! I recommend dropping off your car, then walking over to
the brewery for some local tap beer and a bite. * if you write a trip advisor review for them, they'll give you a free beer! I recommend not leaving your car wash duties (as much as a drag as it is) for that last minute. If they're super busy, it could take a long time for your car to be ready, and if you return your vehicle unwashed, the rental company can charge you a higher fee than a car wash would. We were as neat as possible, but the Yucatan's a beach area, so there'll be sand in your car and wet seats no matter how tidy you try to be; keep this in mind while planning, especially if needing to take a flight out... Up next, join us for Mexico Part II -- CDMX, Puebla & Oaxaca.
Additional Day trips in the Yucatan
* Visit la Ruta de los Cenotes; on the way from Playa del Carmen to Cancun.
* Isla Holbox; Overnight stay. Drive from Cancun to Chiquila (2hr drive). Take a Ferry from Chiquila to Isla Holbox (15 min). Although becoming more and more popular, this island is still not as commercial as Tulum. With unfinished roads, shallow waters, and magical sunsets, come here to unwind and relax, having some incredible local ceviche, night festivals, and the chance to swim with whale sharks.
*Laguna Bacalar; Overnight stay. This is a seven-color lagoon with nearby cenotes. Its located about two hours south of Tulum.
Thanks for Reading!