Today- just for giggles- I decided to look up “Things to do in the Yucatan”. The information was just the same ol’ tourist venues advertising Coco Bongo, etc., and I was inspired to make this post from the perspective of someone who is in the scene here.
Over the years, as friends and family have booked trips to the area, they usually contact me asking what’s to do. Some are the more adventurous type, looking for completely off the grid activities, while others are the all-inclusive type and my suggestions fall rather flat. Regardless of their travel preferences and expectancies, this is what I tell them with the knowledge that they’ll have a good time. So what’s really making the scene in the Yucatan these days?
- Tulum. I love Tulum. You could say Tulum is what Playa del Carmen was fifteen years ago, but I think Tulum will continue to develop in an expressly different way. The community there is very dedicated to keeping a natural and organic vibe. In Tulum, the three main places to go are:
- The town. Driving down the freeway, this is the first little settlement you hit when the road turns off. It is slightly inland (the beach is a nice bike ride away) but it is definitely worth spending time in. Although it is very quaint, there is a handful of great Mexican restaurants (the kind where you order an appetizer for a buck and it’s big enough to feed your family for a week), shopping from traditional trinkets to artisanal tables, and art.
- The Strip. I’m calling the destination area of Tulum “the Strip” because it is a one-and-a-half car dirt lane on the beach sandwiched between a strip of boutique hotels, shops, and restaurants on either side. When people talk about “Tulum”- this is what they are talking about. The Strip is where the best chefs, cutting-edge designers, and hottest celebrities all come out to play. Our good friend is the owner of one highest rated and most beautiful boutique hotels situated directly on the beach front side of the strip, Papaya Playa, where you can spend the day on their daybeds ordering great food and drinks, or stay the night in one of their gorgeously decorated cabanas. For a more rustic experience, Tita Tulum‘s affordable cabanas offer the same beautiful beach front experience in a secluded area with only a handful of other individual cabanas surrounding an out-door restaurant with a homemade feel and great Mexican food. Another exceptional hotel and restaurant we frequent is La Zebra, who also host Salsa Dancing Sunday nights with a live band an open bar right on the sand.
- The Ruins. Actually, Tulum was one of the main and original Mayan ports back in the day. Of all the ruins I have been to, Tulum is definitely the most picturesque, with a famous temple at the edge of the cliffs that drop straight into a sliver of beach and turquoise water. The whole scene is framed by palm fronds and ancient stone structures that are fun to explore into the jungle.
- Cenotes. The entire Yucatan itself is sitting on a thin crust of rock, under which is the world’s largest underground system of caves. In fact, part of the freeway recently collapsed when a section caved in. There are underground and open-air cents galore, typically costing anywhere from a couple pesos for kids to eighty pesos for adults. They are an incredible natural phenomenon unique to this area and make for a great time for all ages and interests: whether you prefer to sit, eat fresh cut fruit from a cart, and bask in the sun, or free-dive through the underwater caves with the tropical fish. My favorite open-air cents are Azul, Cristalino, and Eden, all of which have docks and places to jump from in addition to great scuba and free-diving caves. On a Sunday afternoon, the cenotes are all packed with local families and coolers, so I recommend going anytime during the week when there is more space to set up and spread out.
- Centro Playa. I could write a whole book on all Playa del Carmen has to offer, but the point of this post is to introduce some of the un-commercialized attractions of the area.
- Centro is home to some amazing restaurants and cafes, like The Pitted Date, a vegan bakery and cafe, organic market and lunch spot BioNatural, and the famed Chez Celine, our delectable french bakery perfect for any occasion (but be prepared for a ten minute wait to get in). A local gem is Dac market and their restaurant, La Ceiba, that are always bustling with people thanks to their high quality, organic food and produce, healthy vibe, and cheap prices. For a nice but reasonably priced dinner, I suggest Casa Sofia, which is always bustling with couples and families due to the warm atmosphere, make-it-your-own style menu, and unfailing dishes. My favorite coffee-house is La Bendecida, owned by our friend Mario, whose welcoming, kind-hearted, and personalized service, exceptional coffee ground in-house, and local prices will have you passing up Starbucks every time.
- Nightlife. Like most of the population that lives here, I shun the boisterous and gaudy Coco Bongo. My favorite places currently are the up-and-coming rooftop bars of The Thompson, BePlaya (connected with the Sushi Club, because it’s always important to eat good when you party), and Almirante Pech. Favorite place to party like I’m a rich and famous rockstar? Without a doubt La Santanera, because clubbing should be classy.
- El Mario Villanueva. Want to get in a morning yoga class, go for a run, or learn how to dance zumba? At the Mario sports complex you can be a part of the soccer matches by night or join in a game of pick-up basketball at any hour. In addition, there are a few play structures and some workout equipment to get your reps in while you watch your kids play. Although I wouldn’t say the complex is a “tourist attraction” or a “must-see”, it is a great outlet to explore if you are in Centro.
- Xpu-Ha. This gorgeous, secluded beach off the highway towards Tulum is not to be missed. The clear, tropical waters and infinite shoreline are perfect for kiteboarding when there’s an on-shore breeze. A lost-in-time restaurant/bar with swings for seats looks out on the deserted stretch of pristine, pillow-soft sand. Looking for a place to propose? You just found it.
- Paamul. This village of palapas truly expounds Tommy Bahama’s catchphrase “Live Life Like it’s One Long Weekend”. If you want to stop by church Sunday morning, head down to Paamul for a great service by Pastor Doug and welcoming community. After, you can brunch at the open-air restaurant on situated right on the private beach, get a massage, and
enjoy an afternoon of snorkeling through the coral reef.
- Puerto Morelos. I have to say, Puerto Morelos is very underrated. The quaint town an hour and a half from Playa has the feel of an artist colony. The center of town boasts a large public park with a playground surrounded by mom-and-pop artisanal shops. They are home to the only bookstore in the area that buys, sells, and trades books in English. Next door is a fantastic homemade ice cream cafe with flavors for all taste buds: from mint chocolate chip to vanilla to watermelon to pistachio or rose petal. In addition, they frequently host art markets at a beautiful hacienda in town. Puerto Morelos is a fishing port, so make sure to try some of their ceviche or seafood entrees prepared right at your table at one of the beach front restaurants.
- Puerto Aventuras. The extensive community of Puerto Aventuras is home to a beautiful center plaza surrounding a lagoon where you can swim with the dolphins. (Although I recommend boycotting this practice; click here for more information.)At night, the ice cream parlors, restaurants, and shops that line the outer walk are lit up with glimmering lights and frequently boast live music. Stop at the Omni hotel for a swim in their beach-front pool, or get a drink at their swim-up bar overlooking the ocean. Spend the day on one of the yachts for rent in the marina, or play a round of golf at the course wrapping around the plaza.
- Muyil. Located right off the main highway, Muyil is the Riviera Maya’s natural lazy river. Float down the tranquil waters through deep jungle for a once-in-a-lifetime, otherworldly experience that will take you back to the roots of our existence.
- Holbox. Out of the four islands we have located in the area (Isla Blanca, Isla Mujeres, Cozumel, and Hotbox), Holbox is by far my favorite. A short and scenic 30 minute ferry ride drops you at the docks, where golf-carts (there are no cars on the island) take you wherever you want to go. The quaint town is filled with artisanal restaurants, shopping, and the freshest fish in the world. For the best breakfast in the Yucatan, walk through the colorful streets of town to El Limoncito, where large dishes of great, homemade Mexican breakfasts are served until 1. The beach is like crystal-clear glass and so shallow that you can walk for miles without the warm, tropical water even touching your chest. If you are looking for some spice in your relaxing vacation, take a day-trip out to swim with the majestic whale sharks. With its lovely boutique hotels, natural vibes, and unbelievable scenery, Holbox is the perfect destination for the smart & adventurous traveler looking for an experience off the beaten path.
Although this list is in no way meant to be extensive, I hope that it gave you a sense of more local and genuine places to experience while you are visiting the Yucatan. For people who are truly interested in seeking out the adventures unique to this diverse area, this list includes a few of the tried-and-true destinations my family and I take our friends to see year after year.
If you have any thoughts, comments, or reviews on this list, I’d love to hear them.