If you spoke to me about my travel plans before I left, you may have heard me say that I had no intentions of going to any of the uber-touristy beach destinations in Mexico, such as Cancun, Acapulco, Puerto Vallarta, etc. Now it’s not that I have anything against these places—I’m sure that the beaches are beautiful and the hotels are wonderful and luxurious and that they make for wonderful weeklong getaways—but there’s a number of reasons that I try to avoid the more touristy destinations:
- They tend to be more expensive, and I’m traveling on a budget
- You can usually find less-touristy and less-expensive places nearby with beaches that are just as nice
- I’m always searching for the most “authentic” experience, whatever that means, and frankly, I don’t expect to find it at a resort
***I want to make clear that I don’t wish insult the tastes of those of you who do enjoy the resorts and luxury hotels– there’s certainly a lot to appreciate with that style of vacationing, and I definitely don’t me to sound judge-y.
This post is going to be about three places I went to, one that was off the beaten path, another that was semi-touristy, and one that was the closest I came to encountering the resort-dwelling gringo masses – let’s start with that one.
Playa del Carmen is one of the most popular destinations in the Riviera Maya (if you don’t know, the Riviera Maya is a stretch of coast along the Caribbean-facing end of the Yucatán Peninsula, in the state of Quintana Roo, and is one of the most popular tourist districts in all of México). Although I didn’t originally plan on going there, a fellow traveler that I had met in Mérida two weeks prior had been invited by a friend to go and party there on a Friday night, so by extension I was also invited, and I never say no to a party.
My general impression of Playa del Carmen was that it was like a big shopping mall with a beach attached to it. To be fair, coming from the quaint and quiet Isla Holbox, the transition was inevitably a little jarring, but still, it was a little overwhelming. While I knew right away that it wasn’t really my jam, I figured that I would at least be able to enjoy the luxuries of plentiful food options and easy access to wifi. I arrived in the mid-morning, and after chilling in a Starbucks for two hours and enjoying the AC and internet (a luxary I didn’t have in Holbox – I guess I’m kind of a hypocrite), I met up my aforementioned friend. We hit the beach, and I must admit, the playa at Playa del Carmen is very nice– the sand is clean and the water is a beautiful shade of transparent blue. However, the thing that kind of irked me about is that there are loads of resorts with their guests and patio furniture lining the beach no matter how far you walk, and while there is room enough between the hotels and the beach for you to set up your towel and sunbathe/swim, it kind of kills my vibe being that close to the splendor. Here’s a thought: maybe it’s being close to the luxury without being able to indulge in it that bothers me? Nah.
After going for a swim, we decided we needed to find a place to stay for that night, so we set off in search of a hostel, which surprisingly wasn’t that easy to find. After doing some research on our smartphones, we found a hostel listed for only 120 pesos per night (around $6 USD – that’s cheap even for a hostel), and decided to give it a shot. It was called Shambala Eco-hosel, and it’s situated just a little bit outside of the tourist zone, in a part of the town that is more residential. Upon our arrival, we were arrived we were greeted enthusiastically by Sergio – the do-it-all employee at the hostel – who shook our hands, gave us a tour of the hostel, and showed us our room, which was really one big room designed like a military barracks, about 20 bunks separated by curtains. While Shambala has simple accommodations, it’s so cheap that you can’t complain, and besides that, it also had the liveliest and most social atmospheres of any hostel I’ve stayed in. Before going out that night, we hung out in the common area of the hostel and enjoyed the precopeo (pregame) with 20ish people, travelers from all over the world, and despite the diversity and multitude of languages being spoken, it was incredibly jovial and even felt familial.
We left the hostel around 11:30pm to rendezvous with my friend’s friend and his crew, and from there we all went to a club where they had made a reservation. I don’t remember what the club was called, but it was located at an intersection on the main pedestrian street where it seemed that there was an identical club on every corner, with a covered patio, a huge bar, and small tables and large booths for VIPs, and we were apparently VIPs. The club was lit, with everyone drinking and dancing and having a good time. One thing I have to give to Playa del Carmen is that it is definitely a great place to party, and I really enjoyed my time their in spite of it being too touristy for my taste.
Traveler tip: If you ever find yourself in the area, do yourself a favor and visit AKumal, and go to the beach. It’s about 30 minutes from Playa del Carmen, about halfway between there and Tulum – so it’s a perfect stop in between the two places. What’s so special about this beach, you ask? Well it is a beautiful beach in its own right, but what really sets it apart is the fact that it is also one of the best places for spotting sea turtles. I was able to swim out from the beach less than 15 yards and sea two beautiful sea turtles grazing on sea grass. I floated above them with my snorkel for what must have been 15 minutes, just watching the beautiful creatures eat their lunch. I was able to borrow a snorkel and mask from another traveler at the hostel, but they are also available and cheap at most stores in the area, and even buying your own would be cheaper than an unnecessary tour.
After stopping in Akumal to gaze at sea turtles, we walked back to the main road and caught a passanger-van to Tulum. Tulum is known not only for its beautiful beaches, but also for its Mayan ruins, and since it’s one of the few places that has both, and it is a pretty popular destination, although not nearly as touristy as Playa del Carmen.
In Tulum we stayed at The Weary Traveler hostel, which is a nice one. While the social atmosphere can’t compete with Shambala, and the price is a bit steeper, I will admit that what you get for your money is pretty good. They have nice rooms, a pool, and a huge kitchen; they offer guests free eggs and pancake mix in the morning, and free rice, noodles, and lentils in the afternoons and evening, which means that if you’re willing to cook your own mean then you can essentially eat for free. The biggest drawback of staying here was that the hostel is located along the main road, which is not in walking distance from the beach – however, all of the hostels in Tulum are located in the same area, unfortunately, so there’s not really that many alternatives, unless you’re willing to shell-out for a beach front hotel.
We only spent one full day in Tulum, but we spent it pretty well: we woke up early and left for the famous Tulum archeological site, which I think is more famous for its proximity to the ocean than for the size of its pyramids and structures, which are modest compared to many of the others in México. Still, Tulum provides a unique experience, with many picturesque photo opportunities and even its own beautiful beach you can enjoy once you’re done looking at the pyramids. After exiting the ruins area, you’re only a stones-throw away from the main beach, which is beautiful and pristine, and a lot less crowded than Playa del Carmen.
In our last night in Tulum, we decided to call up a campsite we had heard about from a fellow traveler called Playa Roca. It was apparently very cheap, run by a very friendly man named Max, and located right on the beach. We were told that they had room, so we took a taxi from the hostel to the campsite, where we arrived shortly after dark. We arranged with Max to set up my hammock under a small thatch hut for some $4 USD, and my friend rented a single person tent for just a dollar more. I realized that night that, despite my comfy hammock, I wasn’t very well prepared to camp out, because I didn’t have a blanket. When the temperature dropped to about 60 degrees I was left shivering in my poorly insulated hammock, putting on nearly every article of clothing I had with me to try and stay warm. Despite the chilly night, the morning made it all worth it: I saw perhaps the most beautiful sunrise I had ever seen, and took nearly a million photos.
From Tulum I parted way with my friend and boarded a bus to Bacalar, which is located 3 hours further down the southern coast of the peninsula, outside of what is considered the Riviera Maya. Bacalar isn’t one of the most popular destinations, but after hearing from other travelers that it was worth visiting, I added it to my itinerary. It’s a small town that’s not actually on the coast, but what it lacks for in beach it makes up for in big, beautiful freshwater lake that they call La Laguna de Siete Colores, or The Lagoon of Seven Colors.
I stayed at a really nice hostel in Bacalar called the Green Monkey Hostel – it’s located right on the lake, and has a dock and with a thatch-roof hut that provides a shady spot to relax in a hammock. I was only there for two days, but those were two of the most relaxing days of my trip, and they seemed to float by like a dream. The highlight was doing an early morning paddleboard tour; we left before dawn and got to see the sun rise over the lagoon. We paddled around some small islands and floated over a cavernous cenote that is deeper than the length of a football field. I tried to do some yoga on my board and promptly fell in the water. Aside from that, I spent most of my time lounging around in hammocks, chatting and drinking beers with other travelers, and having a few excellent yoga sessions and runs next to the lake.
So, that concludes this tale. Be on the lookout for another post soon about my adventures in the Mexican mainland. Peace!