Magnificent Mexico – What to see and do in Playa Del Carmen & Tulum

I spent 2 full days in Playa Del Carmen, and 2 full days in Tulum.  Mexico is one of the most popular destinations for Canadians. But when most people head down to Mexico, an all-inclusive resort is a preferred option. Since I was booked to do a tour with Intrepid, I stayed in the towns of Playa Del Carmen and Tulum – far from any swanky resorts.

This was my first time in this part of Mexico, also known as the Riviera Maya. Located on the Yucatan peninsula, the beautiful beaches offer many opportunities for snorkeling, water sports, adventure and relaxation.  The small towns offer many dining and partying options, as well as a glimpse into the traditional Mexican lifestyle. And of course, there are many ancient Mayan ruins to explore!

Getting there:

I flew with AeroMéxico…they offered great flight options, and it was cheap! It isn’t the most luxurious airline out there, but it was comfortable and the staff was very nice. One thing I will say is their customer service is fantastic – I was originally flying into Guatemala City and out of Nicaragua. But because of civil unrest in Nicaragua, my tour was cancelled. So, I had to find another tour and another flight option…. AeroMéxico only charged one change fee of $250, and we completely changed the dates and destinations. Way to help a girl out!

Currency and costs:

Mexico uses the peso. The places I visited were probably a little pricier because of the touristy aspect but I still found Mexico to be very affordable and reasonable. You can also use US dollars everywhere; but I think converting to pesos is a better value.

Getting Around:

To get from the airport in Cancun to Playa del Carmen, I found a company called Canada Transfers. They had amazing reviews. It was very easy to find them at the airport and the driver was friendly and efficient. He did offer to take me to his place for home cooking and tequila though…. hospitable or creepy? I wasn’t sure so the answer was no. Haha. 

When staying in Playa Del Carmen town, it’s very easy to walk everywhere.

To get from PDC to Tulum, a colectivo is a fun option. It’s a large van that fits around 12-15 people, and it operates like a taxi ride share. One of the easiest ways to travel around the Mayan Riviera.

For exploring Tulum, taxis are easy to come by. But it’s also a great option to rent a bike.

Tours:

I did a tour with Intrepid, one of my favorite tour companies. I chose Maya Encounter, which was 17 days total.

https://www.intrepidtravel.com/ca/mexico/maya-encounter-116420

The tour starts in Playa Del Carmen but doesn’t include any time there so I arrived earlier to spend 2 days exploring the town and Chichen Itza. Intrepid also offers many other tours within Mexico; around the Yucatan peninsula and Mexico City. The maximum group size is 16 but the tour will still run with one person(believe it or not, this did happen to me once…but it was a rare situation and I was given the option to cancel). The tours use local transport which can be quite the adventure, and sometimes they use private vehicles. The tour leaders will organize activities for the group, or you can go off on your own. Plenty of free time is offered. I think it’s a great way to explore, and to meet new people. Plus, your transport and hotels are already booked so it’s a very hassle free and safe way to travel..especially if you’re a woman or if it’s your first time traveling.

Playa Del Carmen

Where to Stay:

Of course, you may want to do the All-Inclusive thing. No prob…but if you’d like to stay in the town try:

SC Play Del Carmen Hotel – the location of this hotel is great…a short walk to the beaches and the famous 5th avenue.  The rooms surround a large open-air courtyard with a swimming pool. If the beach isn’t the best option, then a few hours by the pool would be perfect! 3 floors, 130 rooms from dorms to suites…take your pick! The staff is also very friendly and helpful. Breakfast is decent, but there are many restaurant options nearby.

What to see and do:

Chichen Itza – a few hours drive from Playa Del Carmen. This Ancient Maya archaeological site is one of the top visited attractions in the entire country. It is a must…it’s a 7 wonder of the modern world after all, and a UNESCO World Heritage site. You can get there on your own by car or public bus, or there are many tour companies to choose from. I went with Canada Transfers again, and they partner with Experiences Xcaret. I enjoyed this tour company and would recommend it, but as I’ve said, there are a lot of options to choose from to fit all of your wants and needs. My tour was a full day with stops at Chichen Itza and Ik Kil cenote. You need a few hours to fully explore Chichen Itza, and if you are able to stick around until the evening there is a really cool light show. Ik Kil cenote is a nice place to have a swim but super popular and crowded with tourists. There are many other cenotes to explore in this region so I would say unless it’s included in your tour package, skip it.

Walk Fifth Avenue – shops, restaurants, night clubs, people watching. You can easily spend a couple of hours wandering up and down the street.

Parque Fundadores – a cute park right on the beach. It is always jumping with activities…kids running around, live bands, dancing. Street stalls (I had the best churro EVER here), shops, the giant Playa del Carmen sign made for Instagram photo ops. If it’s a nice day, stroll down to the beach and take in some rays beside the ocean.

Frida Kahlo Museum – while there are no works of art in the museum, it chronicles her life and history in photos and personal items.

Night out at Coco Bongo – this is the ultimate nightclub. A bit cheesy, ok, but a guaranteed night of fun. It is a 4-hour show; non stop entertainment. I felt that a proper night out here would require me being out of commission for the whole day afterwards so I skipped it this time.  Entry tickets are quite expensive, but they include an open bar!

Akumal – ever wanted to swim with sea turtles? The only reason I did not do this is because I only had two days and I wasn’t sure how long it would take to get there and back and if it was easy enough to find on my own. And if I really would see the turtles due to it being more protected as of late. But I will definitely do this the next time I’m there!

Cozumel – a one-hour ferry ride to get to this island that boasts some fantastic snorkeling and scuba diving. Or rent a car or scooter and explore the island. It was on my shortlist, but time played a factor again. Too bad, but hopefully you can go enjoy it!

Visit an eco park – Xcaret, Xel Ha and XPlor are the main ones. Here you can experience all kinds of adventures from ziplining, driving amphibious vehicles through jungle trails, relaxing on the beach, snorkeling, exploring underground rivers…the list goes on. A jam-packed day of fun!

Where to Eat:

Nativo – I highly recommend this place for breakfast…there are a couple of locations in the town. Their smoothies are ridiculous – in a massive glass and super fresh and tasty. I also suggest ordering the chilaquiles verdes… It is a plate of fried tortillas smothered in a green salsa, shredded cheese and a fried egg with avocado on top. Absolutely delicious!

Ah Cacao – a few locations in town to choose from. You can get everything chocolate here…I had a cold chocolate drink.  The staff was very friendly, offering small chocolate samples. You can also buy other goods here, such as shampoos, soap and body oil. Fun Fact: all of their ingredients come from local plantations and they have a solar powered factory to make their products They also support wildlife conservation and they use sustainable practices to have a positive impact on our planet. Cool!

Bip Bip – I have mixed feelings about this place. On the one hand, the cheap margaritas are great (and huge!) and the outdoor seating provides a great place to sit back and people watch. But the service wasn’t great and they charged me more for the drink than what was advertised. I just wanted to know why…was it tax? An automatic tip? Or just overcharge me and see if I complain or not and then pretend you don’t speak English? Couldn’t get a proper answer, but they adjusted the price eventually. Just be aware when ordering.

Don Sirloin – a chain of restaurants – they say they have the tastiest and cheapest beach tacos. They also specialize in sirloin tacos. This was our tour leader’s choice and he is Mexican, so I trust that it is a decent representation of authentic Mexican food. Or maybe his buddy owns the place? Lol.

Karen’s Bar – you can have dinner and drinks here. Really cool Mexican décor and atmosphere. There is also live music…there was a Mexican band playing traditional music and then a young band playing pop and rock music. If you choose, you can sit on a swing at the bar. A really fun place located right on 5th avenue.

El Fogon –an authentic Mexican style cantina, even the locals love it. It’s always really busy, so be prepared to wait in line for your tacos.

Alux – a beautiful restaurant located in a cavern, with its own cenote. It’s more of a fine dining place, so go get your fancy on!

I used this website for some ideas when I was planning my trip. Check it out! http://everythingplayadelcarmen.com/

Tulum

Where to Stay:

El Punto Hotel – I’m only mentioning this place to say…DON’T stay here. I had a small room with one small window, leaky air con, a clanking sound at night that kept me up. The rooms weren’t super clean, security wasn’t very tight- anyone can walk around the back of the hotel to where the cabins are located. If this hotel wasn’t part of the tour, I would have moved to another hotel!

What to see and do:

Tulum Ruins – It is an ancient city sitting on top of 39-foot cliffs, the Caribbean Sea lapping onto the beaches below. This walled city is fairly compact and can easily be explored in an hour or so.  The area is very open with no shade, so a sun hat or umbrella are perfect accessories. Or a rain poncho for that hands-free experience. You can hire a guide and pricing will vary, but I say get yourself a good map and go for it on your own. Fun Fact: if weather permits, you can go down to the beach for a swim! The entrance fee for the ruins is cheap and it’s very easy to get here by taxi.

Coba Ruins – this one is less frequented by tourists, plus you can actually climb the main pyramid at Nohoch Mul. It is around a half hour walk through the hot humid jungle to get to Nohoch Mul so I would recommend renting a bike or hiring a tuk tuk to take you there and back. I walked to the pyramid, then came to my senses and tuk tuk’ed back.

Relax on Playa Paraiso – Tulum has some of the best beaches (and they’re not as crowded).

Los Aluxes cenote – we got here with a private tour…. a short hike in a jungly area and then down the wooden stairs deep into this cenote that’s in a cave.  It is lit up a bit but we needed a flashlight to explore deeper into the cave. The water is refreshing…you won’t want to get out! There are also many other popular cenotes around Tulum, including Gran Cenote and Dos Ojos

Sian Ka’an Biosphere – you should probably spend a whole day here. It’s a protected area where you can swim in the pristine waters, see lots of wildlife and enjoy the beautiful scenery. I wish I had time to visit this place!

Akumal Adventours – run by my new friend Gabriel. He is a fantastic tour guide! He’ll take you to a cenote and to his animal rescue centre – I wish I’d had time to visit the centre. I highly recommend doing his tour! https://www.facebook.com/akumalAdventours/

Easy Tours Tulum – a small shack close to our hotel, they were able to book any type of tour. So many different options to piece together and it was very well organized

Where to Eat:

El Capitan – located beside El Punto Hotel, this place has lots of seating and menu options.  I went for the cheese quesadillas and to drink, a refreshing horchata. There is also a location right in the town, which I’ve heard is better.

El Milagrito – located on one of the busy streets the center of the town, this place offers drink specials and yummy grilled octopus tacos. The atmosphere is cool, service is great too! It also gets good reviews on TripAdvisor, so we can’t all be wrong!

Pasito Tun Tun– a fun place with live music and dancing. We sat in the patio at the back. Great place to sip on a cocktail, and they offer food as well.

Burrito Amor – try a burrito wrapped in banana leaf. Great food, and not too pricey.

Batey Mojito and Guarapo Bar–  the menu was ok, but the drinks were astounding. The freshest mojito you’ll ever have, because they crush the sugar cane in a converted VW beetle…right on site. Also has live music. The service was a little slow though – had to flag the girl down numerous times.

Museo de la Cultura Maya park – here you can find many streets stalls selling all kinds of yummy snacks from elote to churros.

What to eat:

Churros – of course you will have churros while in Mexico! The best ones I found were at a street stall in Parque Fundadores in Playa Del Carmen.

Chilaquiles – commonly a breakfast food –  it’s fried tortilla chips with green salsa, cheese, with a fried egg on top. There are many different versions of this dish, and I can only imagine they’re all spectacular.

Tacos al pastor – pork tacos. The meat is done shawarma style. Really tasty.

Quesadillas, nachos, burritos, fajitas, tortillas, tacos, enchiladas – you all know what they are…so now try a more authentic version here in Mexico!

Marquesita– a crunchy crepe, filled with Nutella and sprinkled with cheese. You can find these at street stalls. I found them at the Museo de la Cultura Maya park in Tulum. You MUST try one!

Flautas – small, crispy tortillas filled with cheese or beef or chicken

Mole – It is a thick sauce with a chili pepper base, with added flavors of chocolate, nuts, cloves, tomatoes.

Guacamole – nothing beats fresh Mexican guac

Tamales – they can be filled with meat, cheese, veggies…you name it. It’s all tied up into a corn husk or banana leaf. The chicken one I had was melt in your mouth delicious

Elote – grilled corn on the cob, slathered with mayonnaise and parmesan cheese. Or you can order it in a cup(esquites) for an easier eating experience.

What to drink:

Beer– ice cold beers are the thing to drink in hot sunny Mexico. Try the obvious Corona, or maybe have a Sol or a Montejo….so many options.

Margaritas, daquiris – slushy or smooth, always refreshing

Tequila! – so much tequila everywhere. Different flavors. Shoot it, sip it, mix it.

Mezcal – you can find the most amazing mezcals here in Mexico. It is a spirit made from the agave plant. Technically, tequila is a mezcal but there are differences in which it is made –  Mezcal is usually sweeter. Savor the mezcal by sipping it, not shooting it.

Michelada – order a beer, and then order a salt rimmed glass with assorted sauces and spices, lime juice, tomato juice. Then pour that beer into the glass and mix it all together. A bit an of acquired taste but it reminds me of a Caesar (sorry to the non-Canadians who don’t know what that is ha-ha). Also said to be a cure for hangovers.

Horchata – a plant milk beverage. Rice milk is used in the common Mexican version. Flavored with vanilla and cinnamon.

Paloma – a tequila cocktail, mixed with grapefruit juice or soda

What to buy:

Day of the Dead stuff…I went for a cute little figurine of a dead lady. They come in varying sizes and styles. I think it’s a cool option. Or maybe get one of these designs on a t-shirt or a mug

Obsidian – apparently there are a lot of fakes out there so I bought mine from a reputable store. It’s in the form of a little Mayan warrior.

One of those whistle things that makes a jaguar sound – want to annoy or scare the crap out of your friends? Bring one of these home. You can’t argue though…it’s a pretty unique souvenir. You can find them at most souvenir stalls at the major attractions, like Chichen Itza.

Lucha libre mask – for you wrestling fans out there.

Mexican chocolate – the Mayans discovered chocolate, so you’ll get some of the best here. Also, a molinillo which is a wooden tool used to crush chocolate to make hot chocolate. I went to many shops asking for one, and no one seemed to know what I was talking about. What the?

Tequila or Mezcal -of course!

Textiles – in the form of a blanket, perhaps? So colorful and pretty.

Alebrijes – if you’ve seen the Disney movie Coco (and you really should), you have seen these. They are brightly colored folk sculptures of real and mythical creatures.

You can get them in all sizes; a little turtle is all I had room for!

Taxco silver – most popular in the form of jewelry.

And that is my review based on my time in the Mayan Riviera, Mexico. Please check out my other blogs for more in depth stories of my travels!

Go Everywhere!

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