Instead of sitting around in San Miguel de Allende during Spring Break, we decided to go someplace hot and humid. R arranged a house swap with a family from Playa del Carmen and even though we love the house that Joyce built, we feel that we got the better end of the deal. We spent a week in a quiet, gated community, and despite the Florida-like feel, it was a nice contrast to our street in SMA where the traffic noise starts even before the roosters and barking dogs.
In addition to the floor to ceiling glass windows that allow the blistering sun to heat the house like a pizza oven, and the modern appliances (including cold water dispenser), and ceiling fans, the house came equipped with a private swimming pool which gave me and J the opportunity to learn a new skill - how to turn on the pool filter.
Playa del Carmen is in roughly the middle of what is dubbed the Riviera Maya, a coastal area on the western side of the Yucatan Peninsula, which for our purposes, stretches 131 kilometers (about 80 miles) from Cancun in the north to Tulum in the south. Now, you might ask just what it is that we actually needed a vacation from, given that we don't actually have 9 to 5 jobs that we have to go to each day, but there are a lot of activities on the Riviera Maya besides drinking beer on the beach all day watching scantily-clad women and tattooed guys, so we did those things. Below is a summary of our week.
Playa del Carmen
Playa, as the locals call it, is supposed to be a chiller version of Cancun, and maybe it is but we don't know because we didn't go to Cancun. However, I can state with some confidence that I will probably never visit Cancun because I already know that Playa is not for bald guys who are 47 years old.
Our first attempt to be cool was to walk down the main drag - the Quinta - to check out the scene. The scene is pretty much the scene on every main strip in every tourist-trap town you have ever been. We perused a few shot glasses with crude sayings, looked at some overpriced sunscreen (ours was taken by security at the airport), and gate crashed a fancy hotel to see what life is like on the other side.
Life on the other side was Mamita's Beach, where we saw a woman in a T-shirt that read, "I Love to Fart" and watched a guy fall down and not be able to get back up. To be honest, because my head was on a swivel taking in all the beer that was being drunk, cigarettes that were being smoked, heavily tattooed and muscled men and curvy and tanned women that were grinding hips to high decibel club music, I don't even remember if there was an ocean.
Cenotes are sinkholes that expose cool, clear, underground rivers where you can snorkel and see many colorful fish playing among the caves and crevices, and eat a reasonably priced hamburger at a topside grill. The Yucatan Peninsula is one of the few places in the world where you can visit a cenote, so we were eager to cross this off R's bucket list.
We visited the cenote at El Jardin de Eden. The water was cool, crystal clear, and I'm told, filled with fish (I have to remove my glasses when I snorkel which kind of defeats the point.) There were also a few platforms and cliffs for jumping. However, since J is a jump snob, having jumped off things that were much higher during our Pan-American drive a few years ago, we only jumped a few times. We did like swimming through the bubbles created by the divers in the cenote.
The Scoop: Recommended activity and this was a good site. We should have visited more cenotes (and taken some pictures!)
Beaches - In General
We had heard a lot about beaches along the Riviera Maya. We had heard that the sand was like powder, the surf like a mirror, and that they are free to access. None of this turned out to be true. The sand is like a thin blanket thrown over big rocks where you can and will scrape your feet and knees. The surf is rough as a cobblestone street (due to the season, we were told), and we paid to get on most of the beaches we visited.
By law in Mexico, all beaches are free to access. That is, you can't be charged a fee to use the beach. However, you can be charged a fee to walk across the private property that is adjacent to the beach (think beach front hotel or restaurant.) Thus, in most cases, a free beach will run you anywhere from 20 to 80 pesos to get on because you have to walk across the restaurant or hotel land. For a Jersey boy, where even in 1975 we used to pay $8 a day to get on the beach at Belmar, paying a few pesos to dip your toes in the sand is not a big deal. But, it's not free.
Beaches - Xpu-Ha
The best thing about this beach when we visited was its name - pronounced (by us, at least) "Poo-Ha". There was a mandatory 80 pesos per person cover charge, the beach was full of women with big, round breasts, and the sea was loaded with sargassum (a type of seaweed which is apparently very important to the ecology of the ocean but which piles up like an ugly border wall along the surf line and is like swimming through a bush.) Now, don't get me wrong, I can appreciate both sargassum and women with big, round breasts, but not when I am vacationing with my wife and 12 year old son.
The Scoop: This beach had potential - especially at the southern end where there were no restaurants and flirting couples.
Beaches - Xcacel
I liked this place as soon as we pulled in. The entrance fee is whatever you want to contribute as a donation - we gave them J's 8-month old sneakers. The beach was a long expanse of sugary, white sand that you might be tempted to put in your coffee, the sea a pounding drum of sargassum-free waves, and most of the people were older than us, or families like us - except Mexican.
There is apparently a small cenote along this beach as well, but we couldn't get out of the ocean long enough to visit it. Maybe next time.
The Scoop: Recommended. Go early as they shut the gates if the beach gets too crowded.
Beaches - Tulum
I'm going to talk about the beach, but there is also a Mayan archeological site named Tulum as well as a pretty extensive town with a growing tourism scene that seems to cater to those of the hippie persuasion (wheat grass smoothies being advertised profusely.)
We enjoyed two beaches in Tulum. The first was a public beach along the road that leads to the Sian Ka'an Nature Preserve (more on this below.) We didn't swim at this beach, but we watched the locals swim while we ate overpriced tacos (300 pesos for four fish tacos!) at Zama's Restaurant. We would have gone back to swim here if we had more time in Tulum as there was a lot of activity that looked like fun and it was actually free to use the beach.
The other beach we visited in Tulum was at the foot of the ancient Mayan archeological site. This beach was also free to use, but as far as I can tell the only way to access it is from the archeological site which costs 70 pesos per person to enter. Nevertheless, this beach was pretty, had little sargassum, no underwater rocks to stub your toes, and had the added benefit of being able to look back to land and see the various temples and other crumbling Mayan structures set atop the cliff.
The Scoop: Bring your swim trunks when you visit the archeological site. It's hot on the cliffs and the water will be too inviting to pass up. The beach gets crowded as it is small and there are many tour buses that visit the ruins, but it's still worth it. Oh, and avoid eating at the beach side restaurants. There are a few blocks of restaurants along Rte. 307 that are much more reasonably priced and the food is just as good, and more plentiful.
Akumal is a village south of Playa that has a restaurant called La Buena Vida, a t-shirt shop, and a bunch of gringo kids driving around in golf carts. It seemed pretty cool. J's best friend from Alexandria was staying with his family in a resort near Akumal and we arranged to meet them at a restaurant called La Buena Vida to enjoy the beach and to eat dinner. The beach pretty much sucked because of aforementioned sargassum, but we had fun anyway, aided by about 25 margaritas. Afterwards we piled both families Mexican-style in our 4-person rental car and toured the Sirenis resort, where we briefly crashed a wedding reception for desserts.
The Scoop: The restaurant was good. The beach, not so much - mostly due to the saragassum. We would have liked to have spent more time checking out the actual town.
Word on the street is that Puerto Morelos is what Playa was before it became Playa - a small, one-time fishing village that boasts a quiet town square, a couple of beachfront restaurants, a boat pier, and a public beach that fit exactly what our preconceived notions about what a beach along the Mexican Riviera would be - calm, gentle, and family friendly. We liked it better than Playa.
We traveled to Puerto Morelos in hopes of finding a fishing charter. There are plenty to be had and I plan to write a separate post about how to find the best price. Anyway, we found one at the best price and spent about three hours of our four-hour tour trolling the waters so J could spend about 5 minutes reeling in two good size barracuda, which we ate for dinner. We also did some bottom fishing using light tackle and landed a grouper and a few other small fish. We also did some swimming from the boat. Overall, a good day.
The Scoop: Recommended to visit Puerto Morelos even if you are not interested in fishing. There are a few restaurants overlooking the beach and pier (we can recommend Pelicanos) and the town was quiet and seemed pretty chill.
Tulum - Mayan Archeological Site
Tulum has always intrigued me because of the dramatic pictures i've seen of its temples built on cliffs overlooking stretches of white sand and blue waters. I didn't know much about its significance as a Mayan trading port, and don't really know much more about it now that I've visited it because the entrance fee does not include a map of the site and we spent most of our time counting the hundreds of resident iguanas. The views did not disappoint, however. The site is pretty small and we spent less than an hour exploring the grounds but more than an hour swimming in the really nice public beach at the foot of the cliff under the Temple of the Wind.
The Scoop: Recommended for its dramatic views even if not a fan of ancient structures or iguanas. The beach at the foot of the cliff is a must.
Sian Ka'an Nature Reserve
Located south of Tulum, we basically just drove onto the reserve by accident because we kept going once we left Tulum. It's okay though, since you are supposed to drive through the reserve - the road keeps going south until it ends at the ocean. We drove about 10 of the 40 or so kilometers of road, but saw some pretty interesting things - including a bunch of people fishing from the bridge despite the no fishing from bridge sign. We spotted a barracuda, large schools of fish, and a crocodile. R and J kept yanking my chain by pretending they were falling off of the bridge to certain death in the jaws of the reptile. I didn't think it was very funny.
There are miles of beaches to explore in the reserve and if we had a cooler full of food and cold beverages it would have been a nice way to spend the day. The one downside is that the miles of beaches are littered with garbage - mostly plastic water bottles, empty beer cans, and single flip flops. It caused J and me to get the stink eye from R later that day when we twisted the cap on a water bottle that our AirBnB host left in the refrigerator for us. But it was worth it - the sun was hot, the water was cold, and we were thirsty.
The Scoop: Recommended. If you don't want to drive the 40 kilometers of road in the reserve to the point, go early in the day with a blanket and cooler and spend the day on one of the beaches.