This one is going out to my lovely friend Jane, Misceo Alumni and fellow adventurer, soon to embark on a little trip to the magical land of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.
I started this post quite a while ago but never got around to posting it but since Jane reached out for some tips on visiting Mexico I thought it was high time I did. It's exciting to reminisce and write about because after 1 full year on the road, visiting 13 countries and countless beaches, I can definitely say that Mexico was my favourite place (closely followed by Spain and Colombia). This probably has a lot to do with the fact that my three favourite things in life happen to be sunshine, delicious food and beautiful beaches, all of which the Yucatan offers in abundance. Of all the places I visited this is the one I am DYING to go back to, and in fact hope to go back to next year.
So without further ado, here are the deets on my little Mexican adventure starting with Playa del Carmen.
I had 10 days and spent them all in the state of Quintana Roo on the Yucatan Peninsula. I flew into Cancun airport but decided not to bother with Cancun city based on its reputation for being part party town for yanks on spring break, part all inclusive resort land. Next time I think I will check it out for myself.
I took an ADO bus straight from the airport to Playa del Carmen for the very reasonable price of Mxn $168 (around USD$8.50) They run every half hour or so to various locations on the peninsula. I wouldn’t bother pre-booking because it can take a while to get your luggage at Cancun airport since they have dogs sniff every single piece of luggage that comes in. It took me nearly an hour to get my luggage. Check out the ADO timetable and pricing here. It’s your new best friend for getting around.
Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen is touristy as fuck (to be frank!). But I still believe it to be a great base as it is so central to visit all the must see places in a day trip. It has scores of accommodation options, from resorts to hostels, guesthouses, boutique hotels and Airbnbs. I stayed at and would highly recommend Hotel Casa Ticul which is right on the main drag (5th Avenue) but down the ‘quieter’ end. At around AU$70 a night, it was only a little higher than my usual budget (I was on a tight budget so I could last the year without working) but I wanted to ensure I felt safe and extra comfy while I transitioned into being a solo female traveller. I felt very safe and it was super convenient to everything, including a 5 min walk to the beach. They did a fantastic breakfast with a different Mexican treat each day. Any place that serves me fresh corn tortillas at breakfast gets my approval. Also, it's adults only which is a big plus for me! There are definitely cheaper options than that for anyone on a tight budget or much flasher beach front resorts for those wanting to treat themselves.
Playa del Carmen provides three main things. Firstly, a beautiful beach to chill out on and this is reason enough to visit. Secondly, it offers a long stretch of cafes, bars and restaurants and a wide variety of shopping from big souvenir shops to big name American brands. And thirdly, it is an excellent base for taking a day trip to Cozumel Island, Chichen Itza, Akumal, Tulum and the many cenotes in the area. There are tour vendors everywhere trying to sell you tour packages and I would advise shopping around to get the best deal and you definitely don't need to book one before you arrive in Mexico. They are generally quoted in USD and this usually means you’re paying too much. If you are not on a tight budget, then these tours can be a nice easy option to let your brain be on holiday too. However, it really is not that hard to find your own way to where you want to go and it will be much cheaper. There are collectivos (mini buses) that go back and forth along the riviera and will get you to Akumal or Tulum on the cheap. Wherever you stay the staff should be happy to point you in the right direction to flag down a collectivo. The ones I saw were white vans with orange writing and seemed happy to be flagged down anywhere along the route. I don't remember what I paid but I think it was only a few mere dollars.
What to eat and where to eat it
Let's get down to the important topic of food. If you can sample some Cochinita Pibil, Sopa de Lima (lime soup), Tostadas, Ceviche and Tacos al Pastor while on the Yucatan Peninsula then you've definitely crossed off some of the region's best, even if it's still only scratching the surface of the wonderful world of Mexican food. Cochinita Pibil is slow cooked pulled pork rich in indigenous spices and has origins in traditional Mayan cuisine. Al Pastor is pork meat on a kebab spit, and although I believe it hails from Mexico city (please tell me in the comments if that's wrong) but it's ubiquitous throughout Mexico and makes for the best tacos. Obviously being coastal there's great fresh seafood abound and you'd be mad not to indulge in some delicious fresh ceviche (fresh fish cooked only in citrus juices).
All along Fifth Avenue there are tonnes of food options although I have to say that because it's such a touristy/expat town there's a surplus of fancy restaurants that serve Italian and other types of cuisines catering to the western palette and, while I'm sure they are mostly pretty good, they are not the cheapest options. Plus, if you're anything like me, you DID NOT go to Mexico to eat pasta. With that in mind these are my two recommendations that I can personally vouch for.
Michaela's on 5th between 28 and 30. I notice this place has mixed reviews on Tripadvisor but I personally went there about 4 times for the Sopa de Lima which is one of the most iconic (and tasty) dishes of the Yucatan that you should definitely try. It's basically just chicken soup but the lime juice really adds something special and the crunchy strips of tortilla are so good. It was delicious and nourishing and so good for my wary travelling soul. I also had a fair few margaritas here that were decent. They will make guacamole fresh at your table and offer several Yucatan classics such as the Cochinita Pibil and Mayan Chicken - both slow cooked in achiote spices, wrapped in a banana leaves and served with fried plantain and corn tortillas. As this place is on the main drag it is aimed at tourists but they've got all the classics to try so why not.
El Fogón is THE place to get authentic local eats in Playa del Carmen. On Ave 30 Norte between 30 y 32 this place is as authentic as you'll get in Playa and was recommended to me by a local. Go for the Tacos al Pastor and/or La Gringa, which is more or less a flour tortilla quesadilla with al Pastor pork, pineapple, Mexican cheese, onion and cilantro and it's bloody good! (see pic below). The Tacos come served basic with cheese and meat and then you'll be served sides of condiments such as onion, cilantro, radish and several delicious salsas to add at your discretion. Yuuuuuuuuuuuummmmmmmm! AND SO CHEAP!
Other General Tips
Playa del Carmen is perfectly situated in the middle of the peninsula's star attractions and is good for those who want to enjoy western comfort. It's definitely a tourist town so if you're looking for something a little more rustic and authentically Mexican then I'd recommend staying a few nights down in Tulum...which I will write about next.
Lots of people here would love you to pay and play with USD but you'll end up paying more overall. Personally I would withdraw pesos and insist on paying with those. Beware of the ATMs all along 5th Avenue - they will sting you with big fees. An ATM at a proper bank may be better- depending on your bank, google ahead to find one because all you will find on the main drag is those little a-hole independent stand alone ATMs (you know the ones) with exorbitant fees and conversion rates and that's tequila money going right down the drain.
You can do an organised tour across to Cozumel Island and you'll be inundated with tour package offers as you walk along 5th Avenue but really, you can just take the ferry across yourself for a fraction of the cost. I didn't end up going but I did research it at the time and learned that you can rent scooters to get around the island and that you can actually go snorkelling straight off the beach so you don't need to go on a special boat trip for that, unless you want to.
Playa del Carmen has a beautiful beach...but it tended to have a strange sulphur-y smell at times. Not so much a tip as a heads up.
I was nearly robbed on the beach here but it was kind of my own fault. I was sunbathing face down with my purse at my feet and obviously not watching it closely (rookie error for someone so travelled I know). I was jolted wide awake when I felt something touch my leg and leapt up to find what appeared to be a little drunk man lying at my feet with his hand reaching towards my purse. He...kind of played dead for a while (it was really weird) before eventually getting up and going away, but I could see him looking around for another opportunity as he stumbled off. Moral of the story, watch your stuff. It's a tourist town and therefore there are thieves around. I felt really safe being alone in Playa, even at night but common sense is necessary and I pretty much deserved to be robbed that day. Ops. That said, I did leave my things (including my camera) on the beach to go swimming several times here and was not robbed thankfully. The perils of being a Nigel no mates on vacation, I was always torn between wanting to take photos and doing the sensible thing and leaving valuables at the hotel.
DO BE CAREFUL with water, ice and food hygiene in general (but don't be shy to eat at the hole in the wall local type places because it's the best food you'll find). Mexico is the only place besides Uruguay where I got an upset stomach in 7 months of travelling Latin America. Tap water is definitely not a good idea.
Next I'll write about Tulum and after that, Valladolid and Chichen Itza...But for now here are some photos to get you excited about going to MEEXICOOOOOOOOOO!!! (I am so incredibly jealous!)