Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Riviera Maya/Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

Travel Dates: Second week of March

For Americans, Cancun is to Spring Break as apple pie is to 4th of July. It's almost patriotic. If you haven't experienced this hedonistic time in your college life, don't's not going anywhere. Good news is that the surrounding regions of Quintana Roo (popularly known as the Riviera Maya or Mexican Riviera) and Yucatan Peninsula have come up very nicely in the past years as well, diverting a large portion of the Cancun tourists their way. Hotels and resorts in these areas are known to be the most ecologically friendly, with many promoting healthy, natural getaways with yoga and spa services at your fingertips. We completely skipped Cancun except for flying in and out of there.

Highlights: Mayan Ruins, Cenotes, Snorkeling, Diving, Massages & Relaxation

What we would do differently: We got a package tour to Chichen Itza one day, which we wouldn't have. We probably would have rented a car and driven to Chichen Itza ourselves, thus giving us more time there as well as possibly making it to the even grander ruins at Uxmal (so we've heard) in one day. A lot of time was spent in picking up other tourists from various parts of the was 1pm before we even made it to Chichen Itza!

Prices: Slightly cheaper than the US, but not by much. Each of our snorkeling trips was $25 per person including gear, guide and transportation. Food at "local" places was less expensive and flavorful rather than at the touristy 5th Ave in Playa Del Carmen. Alcoholic drinks were priced the same as in US.

Transportation: We landed in Cancun at night, so we couldn't take the convenient Aeropuerto bus (110 pesos, or approximately $10) to our hotel in Playa Del Carmen (an hour south). We chose to go with a private driver that the hotel booked for us, costing $75 (we were three of us, so $25 each). A taxi would have cost us $80. A Collectivo (shared taxi) would have been $25 per person as well. One day we rented a taxi for the whole day to take us to Akumal, Tulum, Coba, Gran Cenote and back to Playa Del Carmen. It cost $200.

The roads are very well laid out with lots of signs, so I suppose it wouldn't be too bad renting a car here and driving either.

Stay: There is no shortage of five star resorts in Riviera Maya. If you can afford them, you should definitely stay at one! Our hotel, Hotel Luna Sol, was about $135 per night. It was perfectly located a couple of blocks from the bustling 5th Ave, close to the Collectivo stops and a short few blocks away from the beach. It was cute...the staff attentive...and safe for four girls to stay there for four nights!

Best Time to Visit/Weather: Winter and Spring are the most popular times to visit this place. Watch out for hurricane season during late Fall though. Even though we went during the heart of Spring Break season, we somehow managed to avoid most of the spring breaking crowd by heading out of Cancun (except for a brief encounter in Cenote Ik Kil). When we went, it was nice and warm in the daytime but got quite windy and even a bit chilly at night by the beach. We were glad we had our thinner jackets with us.

Cuisine: We were expecting to be blown away by some amazing, authentic Mexican food, but unfortunately we were satisfied only once during the trip. I'm also very surprised that it was impossible to find Tres Leches cake anywhere in Riviera Maya! Our guide said that other typical Yucatan desserts are Arroz con Leche (literally translated, Rice with Milk), and Dulce de Papaya (Papaya with some sweet caramel sauce). He said the best place to find this was at Mega Commercial. Here I went expecting this Mega Commercial to be an awesome sprawling local market with lots of goodies, but I was sadly disappointed as it revealed itself to be Mexico's answer to Walmart. They didn't have any of the desserts I was looking for, although I did find some good Flan there!

Attractions in the area:
  • Cancun - Partying at the rows and rows of resorts
  • Isla Mujeres - an island north of Cancun that is good for a day trip for just walking around town and relaxing
  • Chich'en Itzá - an hour from Cancun, the most famous of all Mayan Ruins
  • Playa Del Carmen - an hour south of Cancun, a very nice and lively tourist town by the beach
  • Cobá - 20 minutes from Tulum, the ruins here are located within a forest. Here is where you can climb to the top of the pyramid (you can no longer do that in Chichen Itza). You can explore this place in 1-1.5 hours on a bicycle/bicycle taxi. Be sure to douse yourself in bug spray as this forest is full of mosquitoes!
  • Cozumel - a short ferry ride away from Playa del Carmen and Cancun, is home to amazing reefs and known for diving resorts and awesome beaches for snorkeling/diving.
  • Playa Akumal - half way between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, is a great beach for just relaxing and/or snorkeling. We spotted a lot of marine life including turtles who come here to feed on the sea grass!
  • Tulum - two hours south of Cancun (an hour from Playa Del Carmen); home to more ruins by the sea; also home to an amazing array of eco-resorts!
  • Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve - further south of Tulum and recommended by several guides in Playa del Carmen, is supposed to be an amazing nature reserve to spot stingrays and lots of fish
  • Cenotes - these are sinkholes, or caves with subterranean rivers flowing through. Snorkeling here can be great, but diving here can be amazing! Gran Cenote, though expensive (100 pesos), is very nice. It's very close to Tulum. Cenote Ik Kil on the way to Chich'en Itzá is quite nice as well...and huge! You can rent a life jacket and snorkel gear at these cenotes if you aren't a strong swimmer and/or don't have your own. It's pretty cool to see the cave formations underwater!
  • Uxmal - Almost 3 hours west of Chich'en Itzá lie the Mayan ruins of Uxmal, supposedly much grander than Chich'en Itzá

Suggestions for activities:
  • XPLOR - very close to Playa del Carmen, seemed like a really cool place with lots of zip lining and adrenaline filled adventures; probably an all-day activity
  • Xel-Ha - an all-day activity filled place that advertises as being fun for the whole family
  • Xcaret - another all-day activity filled place that advertises as being fun for the whole family
  • Cenote Xperience - from all the reviews on Trip Advisor, this company seemed to be one of the most recommended when it comes to cenote diving. Do note that you need to have your diving certification before diving in almost all cenotes.
  • Mayas Aventuras - seemed like another company that offered a variety of all-day activity packages to suit your interests. Would have loved to have checked it out if we had another day
  • Get a typical Mayan massage (called a Temazcal, which is a ceremonial steam bath) at one of many spas available everywhere in the Riviera Maya.

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