When the toughest decision of the day is whether the shrimp tacos are to be garlic, crumbed or ceviche style and is it to be beer or mojito, you know you are in Mexico.
First stop in our 2 1/2 week stay in the Yukatan Peninsula (with husband and 3 teens) is Cozumel, a postcard pretty Caribbean island of around 60km long, much of which is still untamed.
San Miguel is the only town and it is definitely town sized as opposed to city.
The VW beetle that is almost as old as their mother is not the convertible the kids were anticipating but essentially the whole of Cozumel is delightfully a step back in time. After 5pm and the daily cruise boats have departed, we feel as though the island is ours alone. Mid-April means balmy days of mid 20s with nights not much cooler. Summer tourists from the north are yet to arrive and while the spring wind makes for a slightly interesting 40 minute ferry crossing, it is not enough to impact on our fun.
For a relatively small island Cozumel certainly packs a punch when it comes to fantastic flavours at truly affordable prices. As we sign for our rental car at ISIS (yes that is their name), breakfast in Houston seems a long time ago. Next door is the unassuming Burritos Gorditos where despite it being closing time, in true Mexican hospitality, they offer to make us burritos. Not only do the make the best burritos (and guacomole) that we will eat on our trip but they also duck to the corner store and bring back chilled bottles of Sol cerveza (beer) at around $1 each.
Every meal of our 4 days on the island is memorable and in particular the Shrimp Tacos at El Sazon Del Camaron have joined baklava from Giazenterp as some of the best things I have ever eaten. Shrimps (well more like prawns) are caught off the coast of Mexico – as opposed to being farmed – and they are seriously delicious. El Sazon offer shrimps every which way and of course we had to try them all. Yes they also have guacomole, chicken tacos etc… perfect for the particularly fussy one.
Ceviche is very much a national dish of the Yukatan area. My favourite has tender chunks of lime infused fish, conch, octopus and shrimp with loads red onion, cubes of juicy tomato and fragrant fresh basil and coriander.
Snorkelling/scuba diving is a popular activity in the water surrounding Cozumel as it is along the whole Yukatan coastline. In 1961 Jacque Cousteau put Cozumel on the world map, claiming it to be one the best dive spots in the world. It is the clear water reefs that attract tourists and our youngest completes his Padi dive certificate in these flourishing underwater gardens. The girls and I are completely happy to languidly snorkel amongst the coral, hanging out with loads of nosey parrot fish, while simultaneously pretending to be invisible to the somewhat errant barracuda and hoping to make friends with a turtle or two. In the late summer months Cozumel is home to whale sharks and it is then that water tourism booms.
Leaving behind quiet streets of multi coloured houses and quaint cafes it is quite an assault to the senses to find resort hotels and the retail of Playa del Carmen.
Barkers are flogging their wares be it Tequila, Day of the Dead souvenirs, Cuban cigars “or maybe you wanna smoke something stronger…. “
The kids like the few US style chain store shops available and I waste time in a Talavera hand painted pottery store and art gallery.
While the beach here is of course the same white sand that the coastline is famous for, it is a challenge to find enough grains to perch on amongst the young bronzed bodies that are possibly sleeping off last nights party.
El Fogan Taqueria is a quick and easy casual restaurant that suits us all, the open street front venue is great for people watching, large barbecues are sizzling with pork, peppers and onions, frozen cocktails come in goldfish bowl sized glasses, the guacamole, salsa and cactus are delicious and my toes are tapping to the guy with the guitar belting out “Losing My Religion”. Dinner for 5 (with drinks) is completed in about 30 minutes and totals around $60NZ. Two nights later we are back for more.
A rental car makes a day trip to the beautiful marine sanctuary of Puerto Morelos easy as is Akumal beach turtle sanctuary. Puerto Morelos encapsulates all that beachside postcards promote. Waving palm trees, white powdery sand and sparklingly clear blue water. The girls and I spend an hour or so mesmerised while snorkelling amongst coral gardens (we hire a boat and guide for around $75NZ). The vibrantly coloured coral is home to hundreds of species of fish of varying shapes and sizes. We are lucky enough to spot a sting ray and also a turtle or two. The few cafes along the beach front serve fresh off the boat seafood so it is worth arriving with an appetite.
Akumal should be as amazing due to their resident prehistoric looking turtles (think of those enormous creatures seen on discovery channel) but unfortunately there are too many vendors fighting for business and intent on dissing each other, check out Tripadvisor for advice before visiting. Despite some fiery exchanges we are there to see turtles this is what we do. After the first so many turtles I do wonder if it isn’t a bit like watching cows graze as they slowly graze their way along the beds of seagrass.
After the commercial side of Playa del Carmen, it is wonderful to arrive to the peace of Rio Largatos, it is a few hours easy (but boring) drive to this pretty little fishing village with its smiling friendly locals and la plethora (or is it flotilla) of small fishing boats.
Over April/May flamingos breed in this area and it is easy to book boat tours out to see these brilliantly coloured birds. It is also home to the famous pink lakes, therapeutic mud bathing and within the lagoon there are plenty of crocodiles hiding in the mangroves. We take the opportunity to do an evening crocodile boat tour and also a dawn visit out to the flamingos. Both provide memorable photo opportunities especially for Freddie who posed with a young crocodile that the guide had “Steve Irwin style” wrestled into our boat (travel warning: they are known to carry salmonella).
Ed tries out the mud bathing, supposedly carrying all sorts of age defying minerals. I could do with a good dose of this but somehow am quite comfortable where I am.
Merida is the capital of Yukatan and the city that wins us over for grace and charm. The architecture is graceful and majestic with the towering cathedral dominating the city square. Live music is everywhere and people unashamedly salsa and jiggle as they feel inclined.
The Sunday morning markets are fun (come hungry) and the 15km of closed off roadways (8-12 noon every Sunday) make for a great cycling opportunity to work off that extra churros and coffee. The city square is surrounded with cafes and shops and we quickly fall in love with the fragrant fruit sorbets at Sorbeteria served in elegant glass bowls by formally dressed gracious male waiters.
If you plan to buy a hammock then Merida is the place to do it. We struggle to decide over
nylon (comfortable) and cotton (natural) so end up buying two. I just hope we show the same enthusiasm for them once home.
Chichen Itza is one of the 7 modern wonders of the world and is along the way from Merida to Tulum. The pyramid in the centre is awe inspiring by its sheer size and there are plenty of English speaking guides available. The famous ball court remains, where the first person to score a goal in each game earned the right of a beheading and with that an instant ticket to heaven…. A sober reminder of the brutality of life.
Due to the 40 degree day and one sick boy (I’m blaming the crocodile) we possibly circle the ruins in record time and further down the road the Tulum ruins get about the same amount of attention. At least the Tulum ruins are full of large iguanas and also have beach access, something that gives them points with the teens.
Thank goodness for the cenotes that pepper the Yukatan area, when the temperature is high and tempers are fraying a dip in a cool freshwater pool is certainly the thing to do.
Tulum is divided into two, the town and the beach. The town is where the locals and those with barefoot and dreadlocks hang (I didn’t have either but loved the vibe), food is cheap and tasty you can find yourself an excellent morning latte at Ki’bok. It is also worth returning later in the day for a sugar cane mojito next door at Batey. They press the sugar cane to order and make a mouth watering mojito, with or without the rum.
Tulum beach in contrast is lined with super stylish eco-style resorts and pricey boutiques, apparently the place for celebrities to holiday in style.
Being flat the 2 km between the two is easily cycled. The beach is undoubtedly beautiful and has a understated sophistication compared to the more brash Playa del Carmen. We are not offered anything to smoke (phew) and the beach side boutiques adorned with dream catchers and crochet bikinis reek of wealthy tourist wallets.
Most resorts allow you to recline on their beach loungers – as long as you are happy to buy a drink and/or some food. The other end of the beach is completely free access but can be plagued with drifts of seaweed at certain times of the year.
All in all our 2 week (plus) holiday has given us a vivid tapestry of tastes and experiences. From rustic island charm, to tourist hot spots, a grand old city and a fishing village in between, it really does feel as though we have had an authentic nibble of this little corner of Mexico.
If you are feeling like coming with me to Mexico then the good news is that I am currently planning a trip next year with World Expeditions. As well as covering some of the favourite spots as mentioned here we will also be in Mexico city, Oaxaca, Uxmal and more.
Email me for more details [email protected]
Yukatan Travel Tips
*We flew Auckland to Houston and then on to Cancun. The same route returning home.
*Book your taxi from Cancun airport before leaving home, it is overwhelming when you arrive and you can easily pay more than intended. We had a driver meet us who took us straight to the ferry terminal for which we had pre-paid tickets.
*Train your kids to eat guacamole and salsa before you leave home.
*Supermarkets and convenience stores such as Oxxo are easy to find and well stocked with most items that you can buy at home.
*Oxxo’s are a great place for pitstops and clean bathroom facilities.
*Condos are perfect for family accommodation. These are easy to find and well priced. Resorts/hotels vary in price. Do your research, we found many nights were around $150NZ for our family.
*You don’t need US dollars but you do need peso. We got these as needed from ATM machines within banks. Don’t use the ATM machines in the streets.
*Rental Cars are a great way to travel and on the whole the driving is easy – just watch out for kamikaze taxi drivers.
*Police road blocks are common, we had no issue with these, they smiled (well they sometimes did) and waved us through.
*Some petrol stations are cash only e.g Pemex. Watch the meter and don’t get distracted. Make sure it starts at zero and watch it going up. They often will try and rip you off.
We leant this the hard way…
*Filtered water is available everywhere so take your own reusable drink bottle and save the planet from excess plastic waste.
*Forget duty free alcohol as it is cheap locally. Beers are as little as $1 each.
*From our experience the local filtered water, ice and salads were all completely fine – just don’t touch crocodiles. :)
*Cancun airport is the most appalling rip off for food so don’t arrive there hungry. haha
*Luz en Yukatan is a charming hotel in Merida that I would recommend to anyone.
*Merida is especially lovely on a Sunday with markets and bikes available for hire.
*While there is crime just up the road in Cancun it is mainly between drug cartels. We felt completely safe at all times.