Mexican Caribbean: Cancun to Tulum
Cancun is about as Mexican as the 4th of July. Cancun is a very popular destination for Americans who like to party and spend the days at perfect white beaches in clear turquoise waters or snorkeling one of the world’s finest reef systems.
You can spend your whole vacation in Mexico without seeing much of Mexico when you stay in your resort. This is not for us, so this article will feature a little more than “just” Cancun.
We will rent a car and drive down all the way to beautiful Tulum, the ancient Mayan city, located at the beach. On our way we will come across many beautiful secluded beaches, Playa del Carmen another resort town that has managed to keep its old flair, take a ferry to Cozumel and check out some caves.
If this sounds like a multiple day trip to you, you are right. So if you are sick of your hotels beach, or if you are not staying in Cancun as we did, get ready to do some serious exploring. We will start our trip by renting a car at the airport at our arrival. This is an adventure in itself. The Car Rental companies do not have the same standards of safety as they do have in Europe or North America. Our car was pretty beaten up and had no license plates. Have you ever heard of a Rental Car having no plates? Well only in Mexico.
So lets put your car into gear and check out some Caribbean. Oh yes, before I forget it, keep your eyes on the road. They have speed bumps that can rip your car apart but not all of them are announced by signs. I managed to jump my car over one of them at about 50 kmh. The cop standing there was laughing at me.
The airport is in Cancun. So lets check out Cancun.
Lets check out the resort area first. All you have to do is follow the signs pointing you to the Hotel Zone. The Hotel Zone is a 17km long sandbar covered with resorts. It is a popular spring break destination for college students. During spring break hundreds of thousands of teens take over the city. Sex, Alcohol and endless Parties. Cancun is the perfect beach party destination. The finest beaches, about every water sport you can imagine world class restaurants and nightlife draw 3 Million Visitors each year.
Some of the best activities include:
When I was visiting, there was no spring break. So there was no reason to stay much longer than I had to. The prices in the restaurants are even higher than in the United States. English is spoken everywhere. I might as well have been in Florida.
Downtown & Mayan History
Now that you have gotten used to your car, how about some real fun? If you ever drove in a major European Metropolitan City, you will actually enjoy this very much.
If you find yourself on a busy highway surrounded by taxis you will know what I mean.
Besides the market, there is not too much to see in Downtown. The market is quite fascinating though. Not too many tourists will find their way here. The prices are negotiable.
If you are anxious to see some Mayan ruins, head north. Just a few miles north of Downtown you will come to El Meco. It is a very small site but very interesting. It is fenced off, so make sure you don’t arrive too late. It lies in the marshlands, so make sure to use mosquito repellant.
There are some Mayan Sites in or near the hotel zone like El Rey. Since we are going to drive all the way down to Tulum, we will skip that one. It simply does not compare.
The last time I visited, the town had two Internet Cafes. You can find Internet Cafes just about anywhere along the coast. One hour costs as little as $0.50 and a beer is about $1. What a difference to Cancun!
Puerto Morelos is expanding rapidly, so don’t expect these good deals to stay forever.
The reef offshore has been declared a National Park and offers excellent snorkeling.
One morning I was watching the sunrise at our hotels beach. I was completely alone. I then drove to the wharf and watched fishers taking off and Pelicans dive for fish. The first tourists didn’t show up after quite a while.
A car ferry to Cozumel leaves from here. It takes considerably more time than the passenger ferry from Playa del Carmen.
A couple of kilometers north of Puerto Morelos is a Croc Farm open to visitors.
Heading south from Puerto Morelos you will get to Tres Rios. Tres Rios is an ecopark with cenotes (waterfilled caves for diving), jungle and mangroves. There are other places further south that are cheaper so we skipped that.
Eleven kilometers after Tres Rios is the turnout to Punta Bete. If I will ever visit the area again, this is where I will stay. There are cottages right at the beach at affordable prices.
Punta Bete is as secluded as it can get in the Mexican Caribbean. If you come here off-season you may actually find that you are alone at the perfect white beach. There is a little restaurant with 2 or 3 tables outside underneath palm trees at the beach. The food is excellent at rock bottom prices. If you can eat the salsa you are one tough customer. This stuff makes the Jalapenos we have in California look like candy. But beware, you may loose eyesight for a few minutes. Fortunately beer is cheap too in case you damaged your taste butts. I discovered the place by luck since it wasn’t in my travel guide. I guess that explains the emptiness.
This was just about the only beach I was willing to lie down and not have the feeling I missed something important. It is what I consider the perfect beach. Unless you own your island this is as good as it gets. You won’t find more square feet per person than here.
The Quinta Avida is closed to traffic. It is at the heart of the city with an unbelievable collection of restaurants, cafes, dive shops, craft shops, souvenir shops and much more. You can watch Cigars being rolled by hand in front of one store. A popular sports bar is crowded when a popular soccer event is on. Here you can find clean food that even sensitive stomachs can digest. Most restaurants offer life music. The whole area is one big party at night. Cocktail bars rival each other with deals and party atmosphere.
Just watch your belongings. Always keep your valuables close, as it is easy for pickpockets to grab your stuff in the crowd.
I prefer Playa del Carmen anytime to Cancun. The prices are not as inflated, the atmosphere is Mediterranean laid-back, the beaches are not owned by hotels and the choices of entertainment and food are more unique to the area instead of tailored towards American tourists. I can visit a Hard Rock Café anytime back home.
In Playa del Carmen you can find many small travel agencies offering you every adventure you can imagine. Trips to Mayan sites, snorkeling, skydiving, cruises, cave diving or water sports are just a small example.
Playa del Carmen has some excellent beaches far superior to Cancuns beaches. Cruise ships often visit the city.
From Playa del Carmen you can catch a ride to Cozumel.
If you are taking the ferry from Playa del Carmen you have the choice between two lines. The older (white) and newer (blue) boats that is. They both cost the same, but what we didn’t know after booking the white ferry is, that it takes much longer than the newer speedboat like ferry. What a mistake.
We finally made it though.
Cozumel is Mexico’s largest inhabited island. In fact you can spend your whole vacation here and not miss much. I will only touch very briefly on Cozumel as the island should have its own travel guide page. It offers too much for this article.
White sand beaches and magnificent coral reefs surround Cozumel. You can find world-class hotels here and some of the best beach bars.
If you arrive by ferry from Playa del Carmen, you can rent a scooter or a car in San Miguel de Cozumel. It is worth negotiating. I saved a lot by walking into the local Avis and talking the guy down 50%, although I am sure when he saw me stepping in, he gave me a price that was 300% of the normal rate. Well by American standards I got a good deal and that’s what counts. When I saw the car I had just rented I had to laugh. It was the most banged up shaken up and dented sorry little piece I had ever seen. Everything rattled but it drove nicely and I didn’t have to worry about putting a dent on it.
Xcaret and Xpu-Ha, Akumal and Xel-Ha
Xcaret is not what I had in mind when traveling to Mexico. The stretch south of Playa del Carmen is a really bad example of development for tourism. Many places are now being closed off to the general public and being turned into resorts and parks with steep entrance fees.
Xcaret lays about 6km south of Playa del Carmen and is one of the parks. Sea turtles used to live in the area that has now been opened to paying customers on a grand scale. Landscaping projects have transformed the cenotes and lagoons to fit more customers and make them easier accessible. Xcaret is located on the coast on the site of an ancient settlement. Since I don’t support such environmental disasters, this is about all I can say about Xcaret.
Xpu-Ha is a wonderful white sand beach on a bay a lagoon and cenotes. A resort is now constructed and access is somewhat limited. Another great example of development, don’t you think?
Just south of Xpu-Ha is Kantenah. It is a perfect white sand beach enclosed by palms and much preferable to Xpu-Ha.
Akumal is a nice change from the development craziness in the area. Even though we have seen some signs of gentle development, I believe the place will remain as it was for a few more years until someone decides to expand into this area too.
Turtles lay their eggs on the beach every spring and hopefully will be able to do so in the future. When we arrived at Akumal for the first time, the beach was almost empty. We could get the best seats in the restaurant without having to wait and watch the fishers relax in their boats. That was December 20th. We came back December 23rd and couldn’t believe our eyes. All of a sudden beach was swamped by tourists. The season had begun. If you can, try to come to the Caribbean off-season. You will have a much more pleasant stay. Akkumal is a major dive site with another excellent reef. You can swim to the reef from the beach.
Xel-Ha, a National Park turned into a $50 a pop entrance fee aquarium. Well, if the area wouldn’t offer so much to explore already why not. Your children will thank you, otherwise move on.
There are underground rivers and caverns great for diving. Freshwater mixes with Seawater. Diving can be dangerous though, but you can hire a guide.
Many of the Cenotes are worth visiting. You should ask a Travel Agent in Playa del Carmen for the diving tours if you are interested in them.
Of all Mayan sites, Tulum may not have the most impressive architecture, but it offers the most impressive location. The main temple thrones above the gushing Caribbean Sea on a bluff overlooking the whole city. Beautiful beaches, although small, invite you to take a break from visiting ruins and take a dive into the warm turquoise waters. The contrast between the water, green jungle and ancient Mayan Temples spread a mystique like no other site.
There is a small admission fee. The site closes at dusk and you are not allowed to bring tripods or food.
Tulum was a major trade center and one of the most important ports of the empire. The town is fortified by a 4m tall stone wall with walkways on top at 3 sites and the ocean on the forth site.
At sunset, El Castillo, the main building, takes on a golden glow. This is also the time when most visitors will have left, or being forced to leave. It’s the best time for photos, as long as you can avoid the park guards and are being forced to leave as well.
Tips for Travelers
Getting around without a car
You don’t actually need to have a car to travel from Cancun to Tulum. There are small privately owned shuttles (white minivans) that travel the road frequently looking for hitchhikers to be picked up. Just signal the shuttle to stop. I am not sure how much the fare is, but most services are really affordable. The drivers are speed demons. It’s a lot of fun racing them. They have no regard for speed limits or lanes, but they seem to know all the cop-spots.
Although you can buy cigars in Playa del Carmen (even Cuban), do not try to bring any of them with you on a flight to the United States. Cuban cigars are illegal in the United States and they don’t take it very lightly. So please be careful.
Only drink bottled Water or Beer. Never drink tab water, as it may not be purified. This also includes ice in your drink. Outside the major resort areas I would not recommend having ice.
Only eat fruit that you peel yourself and don’t eat salads.
15% is custom but I prefer to give more, esp. when the lunch for 2 costs only $15.
Half of our Postcards arrived on time, a few more very late and a few never. We dropped all of them off at the same time at the same post office in Playa del Carmen. Go figure.
All images and text by Andre Gunther