Mexico had been one of my dream destinations for a long time. I love history and archaeology (check out my little archaeology adventure in the UK) and when we finally had a long break at work, we decided it was time to escape cold Vancouver and head to the Yucatán Peninsula.
Why Playa Del Carmen
To maximise our time on holiday, we wanted to stay close to the airport. We weren’t too keen on staying in Cancun, which had a decidedly party reputation. Tulum was a little too far and most tours weren’t available from Tulum. Playa del Carmen seemed like the perfect middle ground.
Playa Del Carmen is touristy, but still maintains a quaint charm which I loved. It’s the perfect base to explore the peninsula, with tours to Cozumel, Isla Mujeres, Tulum, Coba and Chichen Itza to name a few. The beach is beautiful and the restaurants and shops are only a few steps away from the ocean.
Day 1 – Arrival
We left Vancouver early on Sunday, but only arrived in Cancun around 5pm. It was raining when we landed, but this didn’t quell our excitement. We boarded a shared van, booked through Expedia before we left Canada, which would bring us to our hotel. It was cheap, but because our hotel was the furthest, we were the last ones to be dropped off, at around 8pm. I would suggest booking a taxi if you don’t want to waste time. Luckily we had nothing planned, and this was a great way to see other hotels in the area (such as the enormous resorts).
We decided not to stay at one of these resorts but rather in a small boutique hotel in the centre of Playa Del Carmen. We love exploring, so we didn’t want to pay for an all inclusive hotel when 90% of the time, we would be outside the resort.
We booked 4 nights at Hotel Magic Blue. Even though the hotel was right in the centre, opposite the Coco Bongo club, once inside the complex, it transformed into a quiet oasis. The palapa style buildings were set around the hotel’s pool with palm trees dotted around the grounds.
Once settled into our hotel, we ventured out into the town in search for some food. We walked on Quinta Avenida, the main street where you find plenty of restaurants, bars and souvenir shops, and ended up at a restaurant offering typical Mexican cuisine.
Even though we had only been in Mexico for a few hours, it was a great start to our holiday.
Book your stay at Magic Blue
Centrally located for an affordable price, Hotel Magic Blue is a great choice if you’re out exploring all day. Relax at the swimming pool or doze off in your personal hammock after a full day of activities.
Day 2 – Getting To Know Playa Del Carmen
Our introduction to Playa Del Carmen started a little differently than for most tourists. The sun was hiding behind dark stormy clouds and the beach was virtually empty. Before the first raindrops started to fall, we strolled along the shoreline passing hotels and beach bars while local women tried to tempt us to enjoy a massage on the beach.
I loved it.
The overcast weather made for some great photography and a relaxing introduction to the town where we would spend the next 8 days.
Day 3 – Jungle Adventure – Maya Encounter – Coba Ruins
It didn’t take long before we ventured out of Playa Del Carmen. We booked a tour through Alltournative, a tour company that gives back to the community. A visit to a Mayan village and ruins was high on my list, and sounded quite a bit more interesting than lying on the beach baking in the sun.
We drove to a Mayan village in the jungle, where we canoed, ziplined, and received a Mayan blessing before rappelling into a cenote, a sinkhole. We floated around for a while before climbing back up and enjoying a delicious Mayan lunch prepared by the local women.
We were soon ushered back into the car and we were on our way to Coba, an ancient Mayan city with over 6000 structures scattered around an area of … A local guide provided us with the basic history of the site before we were set free. Because of the size of the site, we rented a bicycle and explored the area while riding around. It was fun! The main attraction is Nohoch Mul, a 42m tall temple which you can climb.
I highly recommend booking a tour through Alltournative. Their mission is admirable, the tour was excellent and the guides are great.
Day 4 – Cenote Swimming – Chichen Itza – Valladolid
The 4th day had another tour in store for us. This time we booked through Yucatreks, because of the very positive reviews online. I’m glad we did, since the tour and our guide were great. Today we visited Chichen Itza, a Mayan city and UNESCO site, which had been on my bucket list for some time. The city wasn’t the only item on the itinerary. After the ruins, we went swimming in an underground cenote, delved into a delicious Mayan/Mexican buffet for lunch and visited Valladolid, a typical quaint Mexican city.
The visit to the ruins took around 2,5 hours. We usually like to walk around on our own, but this time, I didn’t mind following the guide. If you’re into history, this is a must, as the guide was a treasure trove in ancient Mayan history It was hot and it was busy, but don’t skip this beautiful site when you’re in Quintana Roo.
Day 5 – Xcaret Eco Archaeological Park
While you’re walking around Playa Del Carmen, you’ll see plenty of advertisement for Xcaret, an eco-archaeological park 10 minutes outside of the town. We were intrigued by it, especially after a few friends had recommended it to us.
Overall, Xcaret was great. The park is beautifully maintained, has gorgeous beaches, plenty of water activities for kids as well as adults and an amazing evening show which was the highlight of the day. The park prides itself for its conservation efforts for its Macaws, Turtles and have a reforestation program in place for rural and urban areas.
Their mission to help the flora and fauna of the Mexican Peninsula is admirable. This is why I was so surprised to see that they offer the experience to swim with dolphins. These beautiful creatures are not meant to be kept in small enclosures and performing tricks in front of a crowd. They are not kept at Xcaret for conservation efforts, but solely for the entertainment of tourists.
Because of this, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend Xcaret.
If you’d like more information on Xcaret’s conservation efforts, have a look here.
If you’d like to read more about why you shouldn’t swim with dolphins, have a look at this page. If you’d like more reading material, check out this report on captive dolphins in Mexico and Dominican Republic.
Day 6 – Relaxing At Mahekal Resort
Today we moved to a different hotel in Playa Del Carmen. As soon as I saw the Mahekal resort online, I knew I wanted to stay there. The hotel is situated close to the centre of Playa Del Carmen but far enough from the hustle and bustle to make it a relaxing stay.
The hotel features rustic palapa style guestrooms, 3 pools and 3 restaurants and offers a semi-all inclusive stay with breakfast and lunch or dinner included. Even though it’s classified as a resort, it’s still small and boutique enough to have an intimate experience.
While Hotel Magic Blue was the perfect hotel to come back to after a long day of exploring, Mahekal was the perfect place to slow down and revitalise.
We opted to have breakfast and dinner each day and venture out for lunch (or have lunch on our day trips). After exploring the grounds, with the beautiful jungle, garden and beach palapas, we found ourselves settling down at one of the pools, enjoying delicious cocktails at happy hour. I’m usually not a fan of spending time at a resort, but after the busy previous days, it was a welcoming break.
Day 7 – Boat Trip To Isla Mujeres
Situated 13km off the coast of Cancun, Isla Mujeres is a popular day trip from Cancun. We were persuaded to book a catamaran trip to the island by a street vendor in Playa Del Carmen. We love boat trips, especially on a catamaran, and the itinerary looked promising: The catamaran would have up to 20 people on board, free drinks, a stop at the underwater museum where we could snorkel, a stop at a private beach for lunch, free time to explore the island and a spinnaker ride.
It could have been a great day, but the vendor oversold this trip. There were around 40 people on the boat (no room to move around), the private beach was not private at all and overcrowded, the snorkelling at the underwater museum was overcrowded with over 100 people in the water (no room to move around) and not enough time to explore the island.
My tip: Don’t buy tours from vendors on the street, but make sure you check and do your research online about catamaran tours to Isla Mujeres.
Day 8 – Relax At Mahekal Resort
Today was our first and only full day of relaxing at the hotel. It was bliss. We did venture out for some lunch in Playa Del Carmen, but the rest of the time was spent at the pool or the beach.
At dinner we were treated to a little evening entertainment. A Mariachi band was performing while we enjoyed a delicious dinner at Mahekal.
Day 9 – Visit To Tulum
On our last full day in Mexico, it was time to pay a quick visit to the Tulum ruins, the only remaining ancient Mayan city on the coast. The ruins are not too far from Playa Del Carmen, around 1 hour drive, but we decided to book a tour with a guide to soak up some of the history.
What should have been a quick trip, turned into an almost full day venture. I will go into more detail in my review post about the tour company, but here is the biggest tip I can give you: Don’t book any of your tours with Easytours. If you book a tour through your hotel, make sure it’s not with Easytours (the tours we booked through our hotel were both with Easytours, and both were a disappointment).
The ruins themselves were great, and the setting was gorgeous and there is a beach you can access from the ruins, where you can take some nice photos.
When we were finally back at the hotel, it was almost evening. We took a quick plunge into the pool and tried to forget about the experience which had soured our day.
Day 10 – Leaving Mexico
We spent our last few hours around the hotels, snapping the last few photos of the resort and taking a last plunge into the pool before heading off to the airport. This time we booked a taxi which took us to the departure gate in less than an hour.
I’m glad our flight was in the afternoon, so we didn’t have to rush in the morning. We were still able to enjoy a tasty breakfast and a few hours at the hotel before check out.
Our Favourite Restaurants
Some of our favourite restaurants were all on Quinta Avenida: