Meandering Through Mexico: Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, & Tulum

playa beachDreamy sunsets on the shores of Playa Del Carmen 

Mexico was full of coastal vistas, adventure, and a few surprises. In just two short weeks, our time flew by.

I’ll admit, our decision to start our trip in Cancun was made the same way you throw a dart at a map. Casually, and without conviction, just with the basic assumption that something wonderful will happen wherever you land. We knew we wanted to spend time in Mexico and ideally Belize, and with Guatemala being our ultimate destination, it made sense to start somewhere on the Yucatan Peninsula and work our way down.

The Eastern coast of Mexico is a well traveled path and backpacker’s dream, with nice, cheap public transportation available between cities, and beautiful sites and stopping points sprinkled along the way. It seemed an obvious place for two non-Spanish speakers without a car to begin our journey. Flights to Cancun happened to be the cheapest.

In fact, flights to Cancun on Feb. 14th came in lowest of all. Go figure. It sounded like the most romantic and epic way to start out trip, so we set out with high hopes.

As we walked out of the Cancun airport we were greeted with tropical heat, barking taxi drivers, and the scent of tequila and salt, coming from the Margaritaville located exactly at the exit of baggage claim. What should have been a 20 minute ride to our AirBnb turned into a two hour affair with a perturbed, Spanish only speaking driver who didn’t understand why we were staying in a local residence, and not a hotel like the other tourists.

We had a late dinner a local taco place, and went back to the AirBnb dreaming of hot showers and Netflix. Neither would happen that evening. The water was cold, and the internet didn’t work in our room. It was our first night in Mexico.

We stayed in Cancun for a brief two nights, finding it to be (not surprisingly) highly commercial and overpriced, before we happily moved onto our next destination. (I will say that the beaches in Cancun were pristine, which we admired on a sunset walk. However, the entire beach is lined with high rise hotels, so many are privately owned and the “hotel zone” is set apart from the rest of the city. It’s basically the designated tourist area.)

We knew little to nothing about our next destination, Playa Del Carmen, other than that it was slightly cheaper than Cancun, but might possibly be just as touristy. But it was a natural stopping point on our way south toward Belize, so we booked a place to stay and jumped on a comfortable, air-conditioned ADO bus to make the quick 45 min. drive.

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The welcoming view of Playa Del Carmen immediately upon exiting the ADO bus station

Playa Del Carmen welcomed us with shimmering beaches and quaint streets full of local character. It still had a vacation vibe to be sure, but we were staying a bit off the beaten path in a neighborhood, and we arrived during the off season, when the whole town had a tranquil and laid back air.

Our AirBnb provided us with all hot water, wifi and privacy that our last place had been lacking. We found ourselves in a small but cozy rooftop apartment surrounded by a lush garden and a few hungry cats who we shooed away from the table every time we ate outside. The wifi was steady and reliable, and we had enough space that we could both comfortably teach our very early morning classes. Our hosts were great, and even better was the fact that we could walk just about anywhere we needed.

In just a few minutes we could be at the beach or any number of restaurants or shops, and there was a local market just across the street. Lining the sidewalk were a handful of street taco vendors where we quickly realized we could both eat for under $5 combined.

Everything was cheaper in Playa Del Carmen. Even the nicer restaurants seemed to be about half the price of American dining. One night, we snagged one of our very best meals yet at a trendy, local restaurant where John enjoyed shrimp, fish, and octopus tacos for right around $4.50 total. 

In terms of adventure, Playa Del Carmen offered something for just about anyone. One of our first days, we hopped on a collectivo (a communal van and one of the cheapest ways to get around) to visit one of the nearby cenotes – a smaller one, more frequented by locals, just off of the highway. Another day, we caught the water taxi to Cozumel, and went snorkeling over the Great Maya reef (which we did at a discounted rate because of off season!)

Afterward, we rented a scooter and took off the explore the rest of the island on our own. To our surprise, while the western side of Cozumel is built up for tourists as a cruise boat pit stop, the eastern shoreline of the island feels almost completely untouched. We rode along isolated stretches of stunning shoreline, going miles at a time before encountering another soul.

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Scooting around Cozumel 

Playa Del Carmen easily won us over with its charm, convenience, and dreamy sunsets, and we found ourselves plotting opportunities to bring back our families and friends. After a very full four days, it was time to move further south to Tulum.

We went back to the bus station and took another trusty ADO bus about an hour further south. The heart of Tulum feels like a smaller version of Playa Del Carmen: a collection of shops, restaurants, and excursion vendors all catering to travelers (though in a few years it just might catch up to PDC.) Because Tulum boasts stunning ancient Mayan ruins right on its shoreline, the town plays more to its Mayan heritage than anywhere else we’d seen.

People dressed in Mayan garb and face paint walk casually through the streets, hoping to coax tourists into pictures, and every hour or so, several men climb a high tower in the city center and then slowly lower themselves with rope, hanging upside down while playing instruments. It’s nothing short of a spectacle. How much of this is culturally accurate versus created to impress tourists is debateable. But I like to imagine the Mayans might have been the earliest predecessors to circus acrobats.  

Our first full day in Tulum happened to be my 30th birthday, so it was a great opportunity to get out and explore. We rented bikes for the day and rode to another cenote, this time a larger one that we’d read might be crowded and touristy. Once again, visiting in the off season paid off. Grand Cenote was beautiful, with crystal clear waters stretching around a crescent shaped cavern and into a cave that emptied out in another pool. It was just a few dollars to get in, and though there were families and other travelers around, it definitely wasn’t overcrowded.

The Mayans believed that cenotes were sacred places for worship where they could experience the nearness of the gods. Wading through the glassy pools under the shelter of an arching rock face, the world felt quiet and still. It was easy to see why they felt a sense of otherworldly awe here. We hung up our camping hammock and spent several hours by the water.

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Afternoon hangs at Grand Cenote

Later that afternoon, we rode our bikes to the coastal ruins and made it inside just before they closed the gates for the day. The ruins, mostly temples like one built to worship the wind god, stood perched atop dramatic cliffs overlooking the still, blue waters of Tulum’s coastline. Again, it was evident why this was a place of worship. Even with tourists around, the breathtaking coastline viewed from above seemed to call obvious attention to the intentional and artistic God who created it.

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Tulum’s Coastal Ruins 

It was a hot stroll, and even close to 5pm the sun was beating down. We made a quick round to the bigger structures before the many over zealous security guards (did I mention this is probably the most well-guarded place in Mexico?) shooed us and the other tourists out for the day, but it was a trip that we were glad we’d made.

It had been a perfect day. I wanted to put the cherry on top of a wonderful birthday with a good meal. Though this was a shock to me, I was tired of tacos. I had my eye on a Thai place downtown, but upon reading the reviews, someone reported they’d gotten food poisoning there.

Here’s what happened next: “We don’t want to get sick, John. Let’s go to this sushi place instead.”

We did, and I spent our last full day in Tulum sick as a dog. A dying dog. A dying dog praying for God to just take her now. Food poisoning, obviously.

After that low point in our trip, we packed up and went south again, hoping for a full recovery and more peaceful visit in our next location. Our next stop would be Chetumal, on the border of Mexico and Belize. Stay tuned for more on that visit soon!

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