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Beach hopping along Mexico’s Riviera Nayarit

sayulita beach mexico1

The rain had finally stopped. I looked out the window of the bus and took in the scenery around me. I could see blue skies in the distance ahead of me and was surrounded by lush green jungle.sayulita jungleEarlier that morning, I had boarded the bus in Guadalajara in a rainstorm, ready to get out of the city after a couple of wet and grey days. I would have spent more time there, but was put off by the heavy rains. So I decided that it was time to head to the beach.sayulita sunset skyEven though I spent many months in Mexico, exploring Mexico City, Veracruz, Oaxaca, the Yucatan and Isla Mujeres, somehow I had never made it to the Riviera Nayarit, the Pacific’s counterpart of the Riviera Maya.sunset sayulitaThe Riviera Nayarit is a 200-mile stretch of coastline between the historic port town of San Blas and Nuevo Vallarta, the new part of Puerto Vallarta, a major cruise ship port. In between, you find small beach villages, colonial towns, luxury all-inclusive resorts, lots of jungle and hidden bays.sayulita beachSince I didn’t have all that much time, I decided to check out three places along the coast: Sayulita, a popular surf town, San Pancho, a laid-back beach village, and Puerto Vallarta, where I could get both: my city and my beach fix, because even though I love beaches, I tend to get restless quickly when there’s not much to do except for lounging in the sun.puerto vallarta archMy first stop was Sayulita, where the bus dropped me off four hours after leaving Guadalajara, on the side of Highway 200 which follows the coast all the way down to the Guatemalan border. I went from being freezing cold in the morning (wishing I had brought a jacket on this trip, which I hadn’t) to being drenched in sweat as I walked to my guesthouse in the midday heat.sayulita with jungleSayulita slowly appeared in front of me – colorful houses perched on the side of a green hill, and little houses now replaced the trees on both sides of the dirt road I was walking down. My guesthouse was not right in the center of town, but I didn’t mind that; I like seeing how the locals live.sayulita pueblo magicoOnce I reached my guest house, I didn’t waste much time: I checked in, put my bikini on and went straight to the beach, which was just down the road I was staying on. After the chilly days in Guadalajara, I soaked up every ray of sun. I walked along the long, white sand beach, watching the families that were picnicking on the beach, and taking in the surfers.
sayulita beach mexicoSituated in a bay, Sayulita gets quite a few waves, which is what most visitors seem to come here for: to surf. There are several surf schools around town, and whenever I went for a morning run on the empty beach, the ocean was already filled with surfers. After a while, I turned left onto a street lined with palm trees to explore the actual village.sayulita street with palm treesSayulita looked beautiful. Houses that were painted in bright colors, and with Mexican fiesta flags waving in the wind, spanning across the streets. I could see immediately why it had been declared a ‘Pueblo Magico’, a Magic Village, a couple of years ago by Mexico’s Secretariat of Tourism.Sayulita Mexico NayaritThe ‘Magic Village’ program was introduced in 2001, when the first few dozen villages were awarded this title, which is confined to Mexican small towns and villages that offer visitors a magical experience. This can be through natural beauty, historic relevance and cultural riches – Sayulita was awarded the title thanks to its stunning natural beauty but also because of its distinct architecture, cobblestone streets, the well-preserved bright white church and the little town square, the zocalo, a typical feature of Mexican villages.Sayulita Pueblo Magico MexicoIt was more touristy than I had expected – at first glance I counted more foreign restaurants along the streets than Mexican eateries and walked by several high-end boutiques, but that didn’t take away from the charming atmosphere of the village.sayulita sunsetWhile ‘touristy’ often turns into high-rise hotel complexes and all-inclusive resorts (which is what I’d find in Puerto Vallarta a few days later), Sayulita has managed to maintain its small town character, where Mexican mom-and-pop food stalls exist alongside the fancier restaurants, which are run by expats.sayulita flagsOverall, I found that most of the restaurants and shops seemed to be owned by foreigners, and over the course of my stay I learned that it was actually surfers who discovered this place around twenty years ago – and back then, there were no villas in the hills, whereas now you see many thatched roofs peeking out between the palm trees.sayulita bayAfter trying to find the entrance to Sayulita’s co-working space (I surprised to find out that there even was one!) without success, I made the Yah-Yah coffee shop my ‘coffice’, typing away on my laptop in between my beach sessions every day. In the coffee shop I was told that a lot of people seem to come for the entire winter, after spending all summer working in North America in seasonal jobs. A surfer’s dream life, I guess.sayulita beach mexicoI spent a few days working on my tan, hiked up the steep hills for stunning views over the bay and hiked to a couple of beaches outside of town – Playa Los Muertos, Beach Of The Dead, which is just south of town, an easy walk following a dirt road along the beach, passing the fishing boats and the fancy ‘Villa Amor‘ Resort at the very end of the bay before the road turns up the hill. Here, you pass a colorful cemetery, where candles are lit up on the graves every night, and when you descend the hill on the other side, you’re already at the small beach – probably named after the nearby cemetery. It is kind of neat to think that the deceased have their own beach here – a pristine one no less.sayulita carricitos beach daniThis small beach in between two sets of rocks is less rough, the waves aren’t crashing against the shore like they do in the main bay, which is what attracts most people to come here. Still, compared to Sayulita’s town beach, there aren’t many people around.sayulita pelicansThe second beach I visited took more of an effort to get to. I set off on the same route that led me to Playa Los Muertos, but followed the winding road along the coast, even though I never saw the ocean. I could hear the waves though and followed the sound of the sea, sticking to the right every time there was a fork in the road. The road was hilly and unpaved, offering vistas over the thick green jungle to the left, and I rarely saw any other people or cars. The walk itself was already worth it for me, getting away from the crowds and the city noise and taking in the jungle with sounds of monkeys, frogs and insects.sayulita carricitos beachI almost missed the little handwritten wooden sign near a concrete wall on the right side of the path which read ‘Playa Carricitos’ and pointed to the right, where a narrow path led along the wall down towards the ocean. I followed the path and three minutes later I was stepping onto a remote beach with golden sand, like Playa Los Muertos set in a bay, but much larger and wider, and most notably: completely deserted.sayulita carricitos beachI looked to my left and saw a couple laying in the sand on the far end of the beach, and to my right, there was another couple at the far end of the beach. I couldn’t believe that there weren’t more people here, considering how close we were to Sayulita – I’d walked for about 45 minutes – and how amazing this beach was. While Playa Muertos is calmer, Playa Carricitos has rough waves, rougher waves than the beach in town even, which is why I only walked into the ocean but didn’t go for a proper swim.sayulita dani playa carricitosOn the southern end, there’s a house on the top of the cliff – I couldn’t figure out if it was a private home or a hotel – and there’s a small abandoned house in between the trees that line the beach. Other than that: nothing. I felt like I’d discovered a secret beach that I had (nearly) to myself, and I spent a couple of hours there just watching the waves crashing against the shore. I was even hesitant about mentioning it here, for everyone to read, but decided to share this little gem because of what happened when I returned a week later.sayulita carricitos beach sunsetAfter a few relaxed days in Sayulita, it was time for a city break: I was meeting a friend in Puerto Vallarta, about an hour south of Sayulita, and was curious to see how the city would compare to Sayulita, before returning there together.puerto vallarta viewThe bus traveled through the jungle for about forty minutes before the first buildings came into sight. It felt like a different world from the village I had just left: modern skyscrapers, a cruise ship port where two massive ships were lined up, a golf course, casinos and shiny new malls. It was a shock to the system after my slow beach days.puerto vallarta playa los muertosLuckily, as the bus moved further south along the busy, congested road, the skyscrapers became smaller and smaller and finally disappeared in the rearview mirror. Instead, white colonial houses with colorful doors and windows came into sight. By the time I got off the bus, we had passed a couple of historic churches and I was walking to my hotel on a cobblestone street, past blooming hibiscus trees.puerto vallarta streetI liked this part, the Old Town, of Puerto Vallarta, much better, and never ventured over to Nuevo Vallarta – why would I, because here, I found everything I needed: plenty of restaurants, several bars right on the beach, plenty of art galleries, even a microbrewery.Puerto Vallarta1This part, Viejo Vallarta (Old Vallarta) is also where most of the gay bars and clubs are located, because PV is not just a popular vacation spot for families and retirees, but it is also the gay capital of Mexico.

There are gay bars, clubs and saunas on every street, it seemed, the one below the apartment I was staying carrying a big sign that said ‘Only Men Allowed’.puerto vallarta vochoI was wondering if I should feel discriminated, a feeling that rose over the week when I saw plenty of tour agencies around town advertising gay-friendly tours with two men holding hands, usually not wearing anything but tight speedos and showing off their toned bodies.puerto vallarta streetWhere were the women? If PV was such an LGBT-friendly destination, there sure had to be some venues for lesbians? I looked into it and was surprised when I found that while there were a few mixed bars, there was only one girls – specific venue in PV, Apaches Martini Bar. However, when I swung by for a drink, there were, yet again, only gay men.beach sunset puerto vallartaI also only ever saw one lesbian couple, whereas I couldn’t go anywhere without stumbling upon gay couples or groups of friends on vacation together. Where were all the lesbians? Maybe it’s time for me to open a women-focused B&B in the Zona Romantica?Puerto Vallarta Zona RomanticaThe beach down here, Playa de los Muertos, is said to be the best beach in all of Puerto Vallarta, so I made the right decision by staying all the way down in the Old Town, also called ‘Zona Romantica’. It is also here where the malecon begins, a 12-block oceanside promenade which is filled with people at any time of day, and which for me turned out to be great for running.Puerto Vallarta Malecon1One morning, before it got too hot, I ventured up into the hills, which make for a gorgeous backdrop for PV (as most people call it) and stumbled on small residential houses, overgrown with bougainvillea, squeezed between new condominium complexes. It was interesting to see how old and new co-existed here.puerto Vallarta hillsBanderas Bay, one of the largest and deepest bays in the world and covered in lush green vegetation, is also just such a gorgeous backdrop that I forgave Puerto Vallarta for having a Señor Frog’s right down on the malecon (the only thing Cancun and Puerto Vallarta have in common, by the way).puerto vallarta sunsetI made a daily visit to the new pier, la muelle de los muertos, a futuristic-looking structure in the ocean that overlooks both the beach and the bay, part of my routine, because I loved the views from up here. Sometimes during sunset, a bunch of local kids came to jump off here, at least 20 meters over the water, which always drew a crowd.Puerto Vallarta Muelle Los MuertosWhen my friend arrived in town a couple of days later, I moved from my first apartment, housed in one of the old buildings, into one of the brand new condo buildings, to treat myself to a fancy place for a change.

We had found an incredible deal on Booking.com for a top-notch apartment in a modern building, the Pinnacle 220, which did not only come with brand new appliances (even a washer and dryer, a BBQ on the balcony, a bar, a kitchen with a stove & oven) and two bed rooms, but also with a nice rooftop pool. Going up there for a sunset pre-dinner drink was my favorite part of the day, and we loved it so much, that we extended our stay for a couple more nights.Mexico Pinnacle ResortI came to appreciate the amenities of city life in Puerto Vallarta – fast wifi, a large number of restaurants to choose from, enough bars for a margarita crawl and a fun night of beer sampling at the Los Muertos microbrewery.Puerto Vallarta MexicoI also attempted my first SUP session in the ocean (rather than a calm river where I’d done it before), which turned out to be much more difficult than it looked, and then I was ready to return to the tranquil and slow life of a beach village.puerto vallarta SUP daniBack north I went, this time with a travel buddy in tow, and this time my destination would be a bit further north than Sayulita: San Francisco, better known as San Pancho. Ten or fifteen minutes after dropping off a bunch of tourists headed for Sayulita, I was dropped off again on the side of Highway 200, and we walked into the village where we had booked a room in a small hotel. My first impression was that San Pancho was very sleepy compared to bustling Sayulita, and what a difference from Puerto Vallarta!San Pancho Nayarit1We followed the main road down to the beach, which, similar to Sayulita, was set around a long bay. This beach however, was much wider, and in my opinion not as picturesque as Sayulita’s main beach. There were less people though, and most of them seemed to be surfers.san pancho beachThe main difference to Sayulita? Here, there were only a couple of boutique hotels, no high-end resorts like in Puerto Vallarta, and it seemed that there were primarily private rentals. There weren’t any bohemian shops like in Sayulita selling leather goods and high-end jewelry. San Pancho felt much more like a truly Mexican village, even though there were a couple of coffee shops and restaurants that were clearly geared towards gringos. The golf court on the edge of town seemed completely out of place – apparently a president who was very fond of San Pancho and came here regularly had it built in the 1970s.san panchoWe spend the rest of the afternoon on the beach and toasted to our first day in San Pancho with a couple of beers while the sun set over the ocean in front of us, and while watching the many surfers who’d come out for a sunset surf, showing off their rad skills.San Pancho SurfersThe next day, we set off to do something I’d wanted to do in Sayulita when I stayed there the week before: a jungle hike between the two villages. The path wasn’t described very well, and I found somewhat confusing tales from people who got lost somewhere along the way and turned back, and others whose trip ended in front of a fence or a closed gate. We were determined to at least give it a try though, and to make things easier, we decided to start in Sayulita, where most people seemed to set out on the hike, and hopefully end in San Pancho in time for another epic sunset.jungle hike to san panchoWe had downloaded some of the hike descriptions onto our phone and off we went. The path through the jungle was as scenic as I had hoped it would be. At times we’d end up high above the ocean, seeing the dark blue of the Pacific shine in the distance, before the path turned into the jungle again.jungle hike ocean viewI was also hoping to spot some wildlife, but sadly we weren’t very lucky – unless you count the Yellow Orb spiders that nearly caused me a panic attack as wildlife.Jungle Hike MexicoEventually we got to a road fork and instinctively turned right where we could hear traffic on the paved road, but upon reaching it we weren’t sure anymore and turned around again to try the other path, even though it said ‘private property’. That’s how we got to the gate that we had read about, which luckily was open and led to a gorgeous estate (some accounts mentioned it was the mansion of a Mexican ex-president). The estate sat on the top of a hill, to its right a small beach, and to its left we could see San Pancho beach.dani san panchoA guard slowly walked towards us as we were trying to figure out how to get to the beach and San Pancho which was indeed blocked by a fence. The guard told us we weren’t supposed to be there, but he pointed to a small door inside the fence which was open, saying we could go through there but not come back. I was relieved that the door was open because the fence was much too high to climb it and I really didn’t want to turn back.san pancho sunsetWe celebrated our successful hike with a couple of beers while watching yet another superb sunset. So far, all of the sunsets along the Pacific had been stunning, and I vowed not to miss a single one while I was here.san pancho sunset beers mexicoAfter a couple of days in tranquil San Pancho we headed down to Sayulita which felt now, after relaxing in this tiny village, like a busy, big town. It’s funny how quickly your perception can change.sayulita beachI was excited to introduce my friend to El Itacate, a hole-in-the-wall taco stall that had gotten the approval rating of Thomas Keller, the Michelin star carrying chef at the famous The French Laundry, and a place I ended up returning to over and over again after I first discovered it.el itacate tacoWe made watching the spectacle that are the sunsets our nightly routine, we bar hopped in the evenings, and I wanted to show off Las Carricitos, the isolated beach I’d found on my first visit. But when I arrived at the place where a week prior the sign had been, I noticed that it was gone! Had I not taken a picture of it the first time, I would have thought I’d imagined it. Instead, there was a brand new fence blocking access to the hill that leads down to the hidden beach.sayulita beach boatsA worker, who saw my confused face, explained we should follow the road a bit further and go down there. The hole in the fence we climbed through was probably not supposed to be an entrance, but we sneaked through it, and just like during my first visit, there were only a couple of other people, and we had the beach nearly to ourselves.dani ocean mexicoWe frolicked in the waves, watched the sunset and walked back into town. Again, I am not sure if I want to tell anyone about this beach find, but since it seemed as if they were making accessing it even more difficult, I don’t even know if there’s still going to be any access to it in the future.Dani Playa carricitosSince Sayulita is not only a popular surf spot but also has excellent Stand Up Paddling conditions, so good that the first ever StandUp Paddle and Paddleboard Championship (WSUPPC) was held here in 2015, I decided to get out on a paddleboard again while here to work on my SUP skills. While I don’t think I’ll ever take part in a championship, I enjoy SUPing so much that I’ll try to always incorporate it into beach vacations from now on. Since I can’t lay on a beach for too long anyway, it’s perfect for me. I get to hang out in the ocean and be active at the same time.SUP SayulitaAfter bidding my friend farewell, I was torn about staying a few more days in Sayulita or returning to Puerto Vallarta. Even though I preferred the vibe in the small beach town, I felt that the amenities in Vallarta were better. In Sayulita, it was a constant struggle to find decent wifi. There were no air-conditioned coffee shops to work in, and writing in temperatures in the 90s is quite a challenge. The running route in PV along the malecon was better than the hills in Sayulita. And there were more vegetarian restaurants in the big city.Puerto Vallarta Mexico2When my bus approached Puerto Vallarta this time around, I wasn’t appalled by the skyscrapers and malls, knowing I’d not be spending any time there anyway. Instead, I’d be enjoying the charming Old Town again, and the best beach in PV, Playa Muertos. I’d be able to sit on the new boat pier and enjoy the views over Banderas Bay, devour amazing vegetarian food at Salud (still my favorite veggie place in PV) and maybe even take advantage of the air-conditioning at Starbucks. Because sometimes touristy places aren’t all that bad.Puerto Vallarta MexicoNow that I know both of Mexico’s most popular rivieras, the Riviera Maya and the Riviera Nayarit, I think I still prefer the Riviera Maya. I’ve always loved the Caribbean Coast more than the Pacific (also in Costa Rica) and I love the cenotes along the Riviera Maya, plus of course the people its named after, the Maya, and all their stunning ruins on the Yucatan.
puerto vallarta coconutHowever, I loved beach hopping along the Riviera Nayarit, and I hope I’ll get to explore more of that coastline in the future – San Blas for example is supposed to be amazing, and I haven’t made it to Yelapa near PV, which was highly recommended to me.sayulita beachThere’s always more to see, and so I say: Hasta Pronto, Riviera Nayarit – See you soon.san pancho sunset

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Tequila, Art and Mariachis: Experiencing the Real Mexico in Guadalajara

guadalajara street

Guadalajara was never on my travel wish list for Mexico, I admit it. The blank spots I’ve been wanting to fill on my Mexico map are places like San Miguel Allende, Guanajuato, Copper Canyon and the beaches on the West Coast – Puerto Vallarta, Sayulita, and San Pancho, all of which I’ve been wanting to visit since reading about them on a bunch of travel blogs a few years ago, when several bloggers based themselves there for their winter escape.guadalajara airport sunsetAnd that’s exactly how I ended up in Guadalajara: Its proximity to said beaches. I was looking for a place to fly to that had easy access to the coast, and which seemed worth exploring. Guadalajara sounded interesting enough: the cultural capital of Latin America in 2005, a university town, a city with art museums and a historic city center, and a city with several Jose Clemente Orozco murals, one of the famous Mexican muralists whose art I adore. What more could I ask for? A great flight deal ($109 from LA, booked only three days in advance) sealed the deal.guadalajara street art wall hummingbirdMy instinct had once again brought me to the right place. From my very first stroll through the historic center, I was much reminded of Mexico City – and you all know how much I love Mexico’s capital.guadalajara fountainMost streets of the historic center with its beautiful well-preserved, colorful Spanish-colonial buildings were lined with trees, there was more street art than I expected – and it was among the best I’ve seen in all of Mexico, and the museums were indeed as world-class as the travel guides promised.Street Art GuadalajaraI had only two nights booked in Guadalajara, but I quickly decided to make a week out of it. Three days in a city of over four million people were just not enough.guadalajara colonial buildingGuadalajara is actually made up of three cities: Guadalajara, Zapopan and Tlaquepaque. The historic center with its imposing cathedral in the center was where I spent most of my time, and the four plazas that surround the cathedral, laid out in the form of a cross, make Guadalajara’s center one of the prettiest in the entire country. After dark is when the plazas really come to life, with food stalls setting up, entire families gathering and having a snack, and young couples making out on the benches everywhere.Guadalajara Jalisco MexicoThe cathedral itself is well worth a visit, a massive structure which took 50 years to complete (construction started in the 1560s) and whose architecture is an interesting mix of Gothic, Neoclassical and Palladian styles. The gothic twin spires in particular give the cathedral a unique look – the third set of towers built after the two previous ones fell during earthquakes.Guadalajara Mexico JaliscoEven though the historic center and the surrounding neighborhoods are walkable, I was happy when I discovered the city had a shared bike system, Mi Bici. I downloaded the app to see where the stations were, paid 80 Pesos (US$3.92) for a 24-hour rental with free rentals for up to 30 minutes, which is common for most bicycle shares I’ve used, and off I went. (I later discovered that a 3-day rental for MXN$160/US$7.84 would have been a better deal, but I think it’s still very cheap).Guadalajara ArtI biked around the center, took the bike over to the Plazuela De Los Mariachis, a little square that is dedicated to one of the city’s most famous inventions – Mariachi music originates in Guadalajara. Similar to Mexico City’s Plaza Garibaldi, several mariachi bands were hanging around here, possibly waiting to play for potential customers who are looking for a mariachi band for a wedding or another event, but also to serenade customers who were eating in the restaurants around the plaza (for a tip, of course).Guadalajara Jalisco1I also biked over to Avenida Chapultepec, a wide boulevard lined with restaurants and bars, an area that didn’t seem like much during the day but which came to life at night when Guadalajara’s students and twenty-somethings filled the trendy bars in and around Avenida Chapultepec, as I’d learn a few days later when a group from our hostel made our way over there on a Friday night for some drinks. Of course I found here, like everywhere in Mexico these days, some excellent local craft beers on the menu.guadalajara streetThe bike came in especially handy when I wanted to visit the Museo de Arte Zapopan, a modern art museum which is located in the Zapopan part of town. It was a welcome excuse for me to check out that part of town, which I might not have gone to otherwise, because it was pretty far from the historic center, where I was staying.guadalajara zapopan art museumThe museum turned out to be one of those contemporary art museums that made me think several times ‘Really? This is art?’, and it was much smaller than I expected, but the architecture in Zapopan and the striking Basilica Nuestra Señora de Zapopan, which dates back to 1730, made up for the slightly disappointing museum (which luckily had free admission. I would’ve regretted paying for it, I think).zapopanI much preferred the Museo de las Artes de la Universidad (MUSA) in the center of Guadalajara, which didn’t only win me over with some impressive pieces of art, but also with its auditorium, in which Orozco had painted both the walls behind the stage as well as the inside of the auditorium’s dome. Both murals depict, typical for Orozco, social injustice and resistance against the system.guadalajara orozco mural musaAnother art space in Guadalajara that shouldn’t be missed is the Hospicio Cabañas, one of the oldest and largest hospital complexes in the Americas, and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. Orozco painted the domed chapel of the 19th-century neoclassical hospice complex – 57 frescoes cover the walls and the ceilings. It is one of his masterpieces.guadalajara orozco muralBut art in Guadalajara doesn’t stop there: In recent years, Guadalajara has become more and more of a hub for young artists from all parts of Mexico and beyond. Art galleries have been popping up around town, and a residency and alternative cultural education organization supported by the State of Jalisco’s Ministry of Culture and the Instituto Cultural Cabañas, PAOS (Programa Anual de Open Studios), has been attracting artists from all over the world. The program offers a month-long residency at the Museo Taller Jose Clemente Orozco, the former residence and workshop of the late Mexican muralist.guadalajara art museumAnd then there’s the street art which fills entire building walls and doors. Even on the colonial houses the art never appears disruptive, but rather adds to the crumbling facades. I stumbled upon a new great piece every day on my wanderings around town, one of the best murals was right outside the MUSA Art Museum:MUSA MuralWhile I didn’t fall in love with any of the foods I tried in Guadalajara (and admittedly, sometimes struggling to find a vegetarian option on the meat-focused menus), I thought the tortas ahogadas, which translate to ‘drowned sandwiches’ – and they are in fact drowned, in sauce – were quite delicious, albeit messy to eat. They are usually stuffed with meat but I found several places that offered vegetarian versions . Guadalajara’s most famous dish is Birria, a stew that is made of goat meat, roast chiles and spices – if you’re a foodie and would like to try it, check out one of the birrierias in town.guadalajara carGuadalajara doesn’t have a typical drink, but it is so close to the town from which Mexico’s most famous drink originates that almost everybody visiting Guadalajara takes at least a day trip there: Tequila. Of course you can also get it in every single bar in Guadalajara, but after seeing photos of vast fields filled with blue agave plants in a travel article a while back, I wanted to see the little town for myself, and most importantly: take a distillery tour.tequila agave plantI am not the biggest fan of tequila (the thought of tequila usually brings back memories of too many tequila shots in my early 20s, complete with licking salt off my hands and finishing the shot with sucking on a slice of lemon), but I thought that a distillery tour and a tasting of some higher end tequilas might change my mind.tequila shopA few other people from the hostel also wanted to visit Tequila, and so we decided to head there together on what turned out to be a pretty rainy Saturday. Saturday is the only day that the Tequila Express runs, a train that goes from Guadalajara to Tequila, solely for tourists, complete with mariachi bands, tequila and some snacks. However, once we saw the hefty price tag (MXN$1,200 US$59), read some lukewarm reviews and found out that we wouldn’t even get to see the town itself, only a distillery, we opted for the more economical way to get there: taking the bus.tequila rutaWhat was supposed to be a 90-minute trip turned into a two hour journey, and when we finally reached Tequila, we were starving. We decided to get some food before finding out how to hop on a distillery tour, of which there are many in the little town, including well-known tequila producers such as Sauza, Tequila Herradura, Jose Cuervo, Cofradia and the El Llano Distillery.tequila jalisco mexicoSeveral touts approached us, trying to sell us their tour, and we finally agreed to join one that left an hour later, which cost MXN$180 (just under US$9), leaving us enough time to grab lunch, and maybe see a little bit more of Tequila.tequila mexicoStrolling through the streets of the village made me wish I would’ve come for an overnight stay. Tourists were roaming the streets now, which were lined with souvenir shops and restaurants. Tequila itself is beautiful, but I think I would’ve enjoyed the village more after the crowds had left and the tequila barrel-shaped vehicles that brought visitors to the distilleries had also left for the day, enjoying a quiet evening on one of the benches in the town square.tequila barrel carWith its colorful Mexican houses, an 18th century stone church and leafy plazas it deserved being included in the list of Mexico’s Pueblos Magicos, towns around the country that offer visitors a ‘magical’ experience because of their natural beauty, cultural riches, or historical relevance.tequila jaliscoThanks to Tequila’s significance in producing Mexico’s most famous export, Tequila and the surrounding area have also been given UNESCO World Heritage Site status. For most people, a day trip is probably enough, but I would’ve also added an extra day to check out another distillery, because there are so many in and around Tequila, which is why the region also likes to promote itself as the ‘Tequila Trail’ – think Mexico’s answer to Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail.tequila agave fieldOn this visit though, there was only time for one. The tour we’d been sold was for the Orendain Distillery, a family-run, award-winning tequila producer which was founded by Don Edwardo Orendain Gonzalez in 1926. It was fascinating to learn more about the production of tequila, a drink I knew literally nothing about, other than that it is produced from the agave plant. But which part of it?tequila orendain distilleryDuring the tour, we learned that tequila is made from the piña, the heart of the agave, which, once the spikey leaves have been removed, indeed looks like an oversized piña (Spanish for pineapple). It takes 8 to 10 years until the agave can be harvested though – the tequila business sure is a long-term investment. The companies who were smart enough to extend their Blue Agave fields a decade , however, are now the ones that benefit from the growing popularity of high-end tequilas inside and outside of Mexico.tequila orendain ovensDistilleries here proudly serve ‘100% agave’ tequila – this is what you should look out for, if you, like me, have bad memories of tequila-related headaches, because the 100% pure tequilas don’t cause hangovers, if enjoyed in moderation.tequila tequila shopThe tour of the distillery was highly informative and shows visitors pretty much the entire process of tequila making: first, the piñas are roasted in an oven, then, the sugar is extracted and fermented for 7 to 12 days, and lastly, the tequila is distilled (usually twice), which means ferments are separated by heat and steam pressure.tequila orendain fermentationThere are three different types of tequila: Blanco (bottled immediately upon distillation), Reposado (aged for at least two months), Añejo (aged for at least a year, but less than three) and sometimes there is a fourth one, Extra Añejo (over-aged). We get to try the main three types during our tasting and are surprised how different the tequila tastes from the mediocre stuff we’ve previously tried. Especially the Añejo, which is smooth and tastes more complex.tequilaWe are in good spirits as we walk through the pouring rain back to the bus station to catch a bus back to Guadalajara, and we all agree: coming to Tequila was eye-opening in many ways. The three of us agreed that we’d all been converted to Tequila drinkers, each of us carrying a small bottle in our bags, to enjoy back home.tequila orendain tequilas

Practical Information

Where to Stay in Guadalajara

I first stayed at a B&B, which I didn’t love, and decided to move to a hostel with great reviews that I had found on Booking.com. I made the right decision: Hostal De Maria, in a converted old mansion, was in an excellent location in Plaza Colón. It has private rooms as well as dorms, a beautiful colonial-style courtyard, lovely colorful decorations and breakfast is included. Double rooms are US$20, a bed in a 6-bed dorm is US$9.guadalajara church

Where to Eat in Guadalajara

  • El Sazon de la Comadre – Large selection of Mexican breakfasts
  • Finca Riveroll – Fabulous little specialty coffee shop (serves sandwiches, pastries and breakfast)
  • La Lupita Cantina – Great Mexican food, and in the evening it turns more into a bar.
  • Chai – A coffee shop chain that serves also Western food (mainly sandwiches). Big variety of delicious chai creations.
  • Alta Fibra – Best value-for-money for a vegetarian lunch – Three courses including a drink for MXN$55 (US$2.69)
  • El Gato Café – Small cozy café near the MUSA which also serves tasty cakes and other food.
  • La Bottega – If you love coffee, you have to stop at La Bottega, where I had the best coffee in Guadalajara. A small independent coffee shop that uses Mexican coffee beans.

huevos rancheros

Where to Drink in Guadalajara

The Guadalajara Pub Crawl, which combines a narrated tour of the city with samples of the most popular drinks of the region and an introduction to some cool bars is something I would check out next time I’m in town. Since this tour only runs on Fridays and I had already made plans for that night, I couldn’t take this tour during this trip.guadalajara street art

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Polaroid Of The Week: The Lush Mountains Of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week mexico puerto vallartaTo be completely honest: I didn’t want to spend my last few days in Mexico in Puerto Vallarta. I wanted to stay in San Pancho or in Sayulita, which are both smaller beach towns north of Puerto Vallarta, and where I had spent my birthday. But because the season was just about to start in San Pancho most cafes were still opening at unreliable hours (if it all), and I needed wifi to get work done. In Sayulita, there were a few places I knew I could work at (with okay wifi, but still not great speeds) but struggled to find decent accommodation. Since I had several deadlines looming over me, I decided to do what seemed the most reasonable: to return to Puerto Vallarta, which I knew had a much bigger selection of available accommodation and great wifi. As much as I loved the vibe in the smaller beach towns, sometimes the digital nomad has to put work first, especially after a slow month in November.

And after a couple of days back in Puerto Vallarta I realized how much I actually liked the town that had seemed like a big resort town at first. Yes, there are casinos, golf clubs and cruise ships. Yes, there are giant all-inclusive resorts. But there’s also the Old Town, the Zona Romantica, with cobblestone streets, with ornate churches and bright pink bougainvillea trees that form a perfect contrast to the whitewashed colonial houses. And then there’s the dramatic backdrop: the lush green jungle-covered mountains that hug the Bahía de Banderas, the bay alongside which Puerto Vallarta stretches. I loved my morning runs on the Malecon, the wide promenade, which is lined with stunning bronze sculptures, and my explorations of the neighborhoods up in the hills, which offer jawdroppingly beautiful views over the city and the bay. I loved the variety of cafes and restaurants and gay bars (albeit almost all of them being heavily men-focused) and even a microbrewery, and that on Playa de los Muertos, the southernmost beach of Puerto Vallarta, you can dine right in the sand.

While Sayulita and San Pancho were smaller and more laid-back and I could still find completely deserted beaches there, I came to appreciate Puerto Vallarta in the end and boarded my flight knowing that I’d be back one day.

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Life Lately & Upcoming Travels: November 2016 Edition

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In my monthly round-ups, I am looking back at my travels over the past four weeks, what went well and what didn’t, and what’s next for me. 

Where I’ve been

I started the month with a few days in Los Angeles, which were not in my travel plans at all… followed by a full four weeks on Mexico. Which, well, also wasn’t part of my original plan, but in hindsight, I couldn’t have asked for a better turn of events, leading me to Puerto Vallarta eventually, where I am writing this now. You might remember from last month’s round-up that I was basically stranded in the U.S. after my trip to Istanbul fell through… read on to find out how I ended up in Mexico instead.November 2016I flew into Guadalajara, Mexico’s second city, where I spent a week, including a day trip to Tequila, and headed west from there to spend some time exploring the most popular towns along the popular Riviera Nayarit: Sayulita, San Pancho and Puerto Vallarta.

I had originally toyed with the idea of also visiting Guanajuato and San Miguel Allende, two towns north of Mexico City, but I quickly scrapped these plans – I didn’t want to travel too much and rush around, knowing I’d be having a limited amount of time because I would be flying back to California in early December. And even though I felt like I wasn’t moving around all that much, I ended up sleeping in 11 different beds over 30 days, meaning I was moving to a new places roughly every three days (that said, I moved places within cities several times, ending up sleeping in four different places in Puerto Vallarta, for example.)november collage

Life Lately

Sigh. It’s been quite a month. Donald Trump is president-elect. I got sick twice. I turned 36. It could’ve been such a great month, enjoying Mexico.. but, you can’t escape reality. Even when you’re in beautiful surroundings. While I was completely bummed out about the canceled trip to Istanbul at the end of last month, I got over that disappointment pretty quickly. As soon as I hit the ‘Purchase’ button for my ticket to Mexico, I was giddy with excitement. And now, after a month in the sun, I think this was a much better way to spend November than in Istanbul, where it would’ve been equally as cold as it had been in Seattle.

The disappointment I couldn’t shake off all month however: the U.S. election results (see Lowlights below). I tried to make myself feel better in so many ways: I started reading a page turner. I went to the beach. I socialized. I spent hours chatting with my closest friends and family. I hugged puppies. And kitties. I ate tacos. Drank margaritas. Ate more tacos. But the news and social media were a constant reminder of what had happened and gloomy headlines made me realize that even though I was in Mexico, this was a reality that was still there.

But let’s look at the highlights of the month – and luckily, the highlights outweighed the lowlights by far in November!November in Mexico

Highlights

Los Angeles.. again!

After I was in a bit of a funk when I spent nearly a month in the LA area in September, I was in high spirits when I arrived this time around. I was only supposed to have a layover in LAX, and fly straight to Istanbul from there, but after my trip to Turkey had been canceled only two days earlier, I decided to still use my ticket from Seattle to LA and figure out things from there. It was an excellent decision, because I arrived in LA during a heat wave and after basically shivering for the entire month in Seattle, I was more than ready for some hot weather. Being in 90F weather made me so happy. I also happened to be in town for a party my friends Jen and Chris threw at their house, I was able to reconnect with a friend I gotten into a little argument with in September, and I checked off a couple of neighborhoods off of my LA exploration list that I’d never been to: Highland Park and Mount Washington, which is up in the San Rafael Hills overlooking the city.Los Angeles november2016

Returning to Mexico

Well, you might think the ‘returning to..’ was a theme this month, but I was actually traveling to places in Mexico that were completely new to me. It was during a morning stroll around LA’s Highland Park neighborhood, which is largely Hispanic, that I decided on a whim to purchase a ticket to Mexico. Now it would’ve been easy to go to Mexico City or another place I already knew, but I decided it was time to see a new place. During my month in Mexico this past March / April I had only visited a couple of new places (Cuetzalan and El Tajin), but there’s so much of the country I haven’t seen yet. And that’s how I ended up buying a ticket to Guadalajara, and it felt absolutely amazing to be back in Mexico when I meandered through the beautiful historic town center, picking up fresh fruit from a street vendor, and enjoying chilaquiles for breakfast.  I just love this country, and it is one of those places where I can fall into a routine again easily, feeling at home straight away.Mexico November 2016

Beach life in the Riviera Nayarit

I just love beach life. There, I said it. Even though I’m a city girl through and through, sometimes all I need is a dose of beach life to make me feel better. You might remember that I was struggling a little bit in Seattle because of how cold and rainy it was – well, a few days on a beach is apparently all I need to feel alive again. I’ve already touched on my not very exciting routine of beach runs, ocean dips, SUP sessions and sunset beers in last week’s Polaroid, but I want to say it again: I love beach life, and I felt the same way during my time in Long Beach in September.Mexico Beach Life

Birthday splurge in Puerto Vallarta

Being a freelancer means I am constantly hustling for business, trying to make ends meet, and this means: I am traveling on a budget most of the time. The times that I decide to splurge on a truly nice place to stay are rare, and my birthday this month was the perfect excuse for a little extravaganza. I had a visitor from the States, and so we didn’t only splurge on a fancy apartment in Puerto Vallarta, but also on nice meals during which I actually focused on the meal instead of working through it. The same goes for cocktails (which I wouldn’t drink by myself) and hours spent away from my laptop. When I wasn’t traveling solo this month, I felt like I was taking in every moment much more consciously, and particularly those that made my birthday so special: rooftop cocktails, SUPing in the ocean, jungle hikes, and setting working hours, because I have to admit that I can easily spend all day long in front of my laptop when I’m by myself, and that includes a whole bunch of ‘wasting time on the internet’, which would be better spent with a book on the beach.Birthday in Mexico

Lowlights

Post election blues

The biggest lowlight of the month has been the election, without a doubt. Even though id predicted the outcome exactly as it happened, discussing it with friends of mine already back in Europe this past summer, once the results were confirmed, I couldn’t stop crying for two days straight. Two days straight. I don’t even remember the last time I cried that hard. I was sobbing uncontrollably in a Starbucks in Guadalajara, causing a scene. It wasn’t pretty. In case you’re wondering why this affects me, as a German, to such an extent, here’s a hint, but I have a detailed post coming up on that topic early next year, just in time for my 7-year quitversary (I wrote about my 5-year quitversary here) in which I will finally shine light on the big changes ahead of me that I’ve been hinting on for a few months now. (And if you belong to my inner circle of newsletter subscribers or Snapchat followers, you know what I’m talking about).

Mexico Sunsets
At least the sunsets were pretty…

Anyway, back to the post-election blues. Luckily I know what to do in situations like this: do something that makes me happy. In this case, it was giving the green light to a visitor from the States to come down to Mexico (which I had been on the fence about), surround myself with other people (I moved from a deserted B&B to a social hostel), and get my ass to a beach. In all honesty though, I am still shaken to the core by the outcome of the election and it took me days to get a full night’s sleep after 8 November. After the first few days of resignation, sadness and disappointment, I am now trying to be more optimistic about everything but I have to admit that I am still struggling to come to terms with it.

Mexico arrival day

dani solo travelThe day I arrived in Mexico, I nearly had a panic attack. I was so busy the day leading up to my departure from LA that I didn’t even have time to think about all the things that popped into my head during my plane ride to Guadalajara:

  1. OMG I haven’t traveled solo in months
  2. OMG I haven’t traveled outside the save havens of Europe and the US since April (and back then I didn’t travel alone in Mexico!)
  3. OMG I never traveled in Mexico by myself.
  4. OMG I didn’t put cash on my debit card, so I can’t use an ATM upon arrival.
  5. OMG what if I forgot all my Spanish?!

Full on panic mode! Luckily, as so often, everything fell into place as soon as I arrived in Guadalajara. I found 87 pesos in my change purse from my last visit to Mexico – just enough to get me into the city on the public bus, my Spanish came back to me as soon as I had to ask for directions to the bus into town, luckily traveling by myself is something I’m pretty good at, and, well, Mexico is one of the easiest countries to travel in, no matter if solo or as a couple.

Being sick on the road

This month I got sick twice: I had stomach issues on my first day in Mexico (I assume from some fresh fruit I had picked up) which led me to spend more time in the bathroom over the next couple of days than I was comfortable with, and then I got a cold just in time for my birthday on Sunday. I am still battling my cold (that’s the disadvantage of staying in fancy hotels with AC – I am sure it was the drastic difference in temperature between the chilled room and the 90F heat outside that made me sick) and once again I was reminded that being sick on the road sucks.

Mexico life
When I wasn’t sick, life was pretty sweet though..

Slow business

Luckily the peso / dollar exchange rate was in my favor this month, making Mexico even cheaper than it had been during my last visit in the spring. Because I didn’t earn a lot of money in November, which was quite disappointing. It definitely helped that I was in an inexpensive country, where I usually didn’t spend more than $35 a day (except for my week of birthday splurges).

pinnacle pool sunset
Slow business did not stop me from splurging on a hotel with a gorgeous infinity pool for a few days…

Other happenings

snapchat
The instant feedback on Snapchat is amazing.

Snapchat love

I don’t really know in which section to put it, but I want to mention my Snapchat community briefly – this medium has brought me so much closer to my those following my raw, unfiltered journey on their phones. (For those of you who don’t use Snapchat, it’s an app that lets you record 10-second clips of anything you see / do and keeps it live for 24 hours. After that, it’s gone forever). And especially this month, I was so appreciative of all the supportive messages I received, not only for my birthday, but also when I was feeling really down after election day. So much empathy, outpouring of love and uplifting words from complete strangers still blow me away. Thanks to everyone following me and interacting with me – I love the instant feedback to everything I’m doing. (If you want to follow my adventures in real time, add me on Snapchat: Mariposa2711)

What’s next for me

I’ve already mentioned that I am on my way to sunny California.. for the third time this year! After a long weekend in LA I will be heading north, however – and that’s a first for this year, and a first in over six years, to be completely honest. The only time I visited the wine countries of Napa and Sonoma north of San Francisco was in 2010, and when the opportunity arose to revisit Sonoma, and the town of Santa Rosa, where I spent barely any time back then, I didn’t have to think long. After that, I will finally return to New York – but not for long. I had originally planned to spend the winter in South East Asia and already secured a housesit in Vietnam (which, you may remember, was on my travel wish list for this year), but urgent matters are calling me to Germany. You know that this must have been something super urgent, if it gets me to return to Germany in the death of winter (More on that soon, I promise).November travels

I will now be spending the Holidays with my family instead of a kitty, and while I am not a big fan of winter, I do appreciate Christmas markets, baking cookies, drinking Gluhwein, and see my nephew’s and nieces’ eyes light up when they see the wrapped gifts under the Christmas tree. I only spent one Christmas at home since 2007, which was in 2014, and still have fond memories of it, so I am not too upset about this sudden change of plans… and Vietnam will have to wait a little longer.

I am not sure yet what I’ll be doing for New Year’s Eve – knowing myself, I might end up going on a last-minute trip, so who knows where the last round-up of 2016 will come from…
November 2016 travels

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Polaroid Of The Week: Sunset and surfers in San Pancho, Mexico

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week mexico 2016 san pancho mexicoThe last few days in Guadalajara were rainy, grey and cold. I had planned to stay there longer, but the weather made me change my plans. Instead of spending more time inland, I’d head straight to the coast. My first stop would be Sayulita, a small surfer town on the Pacific, and then I would visit San Pancho, a few miles further north, even smaller than the already tiny Sayulita, but a few of my friends had spent a winter there a few years back and loved it.

I couldn’t have made a better decision than traveling to the coast. I started my journey on a rainy morning in Guadalajara (it was pouring down the second day in a row) and a couple of hours into the bus ride, the rain stopped and the scenery began to look a lot more tropical. Four hours after hopping on that bus, I was let out on the side of the road right next to a guy selling coconuts fresh off a palm tree. The air felt sticky and hot. This was the climate I felt right at home in.

I’ve been enjoying beach life in both Sayulita and San Pancho since I got here: Watching the surfers, taking in the spectacular sunsets every day with a beer or two, taking a quick dip in the ocean when it gets too hot. I went on jungle hikes, on sweaty runs along the coast, I sipped fresh coconuts and ate too many tacos. I almost feel as if I was on vacation, even though I am spending way too many hours behind the screen of my laptop – but I don’t mind it. Knowing that I’ll get to recharge my batteries on the beach after work is all I need to make me happy right now.

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Cenotes, Beaches & Maya Ruins: A Taco-Fueled Yucatan Road Trip

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Not long after our two weeks in Colombia together, I was reunited with my favorite travel buddy, Miss G, in Mexico. It was her first time in the country, and it was my job to give her the best introduction to Mexico possible – a mix of culture, food, and scenery.dani coba ruins

I didn’t have to think long about where I’d take her: the Yucatan Peninsula/the state of Quintana Roo. This part of Mexico, a peninsula in the southeast that stretches along the Caribbean coastline all the way down to Belize, is my favorite part of the country, a region that I could return to over and over again.tulum beach mexicoI knew I could give her a great taste of Mexico here, with abundant Mayan culture at historic sites like Chichen Itza, Tulum and Uxmal; beautiful Spanish-colonial towns like Valladolid, Campeche and Izamal; dreamy beaches in Playa del Carmen, Tulum and Mahahual; dozens of cenotes – natural freshwater sinkholes – for something completely unique; swimming with turtles and flamingo watching for wildlife, and plenty of taco stops along the way.
cenote valladolidOnce I started to map out my dream road trip in detail, breaking it down day by day, I realized that I wouldn’t be able to fit in all the places I ideally wanted to visit. This was the route for our week-long road trip:yucatan-road-tripIf you have more time than we did (ten days), I recommend you take this slightly longer route, which includes the Yellow Town of Izamal and Las Coloradas, the Pink Lakes near Rio Lagartos (flamingos included, if you’re visiting at the right time of year!). You could end your trip in Isla Holbox and swim with whale sharks (July until October) or on Isla Mujeres like we did.yucatan-road-trip-extendedIf you’re wondering why I didn’t include Merida in the second option, which is just a short drive from Izamal, it is because I wasn’t too fussed about Merida when I visited a few years back, but that’s my personal opinion. I know a lot of people would disagree and definitely include Merida.

But back to our route. I chose my route with the intention to showcase some of Mexico’s finest: remarkable Maya ruins, splendidly beautiful beaches, and some authentic Mexican village life.valladolid mexico churchMexican village life in the form of a sleepy little fishing village was our first stop. We picked up our US$9 per day rental car at the airport in Cancun and headed straight south towards Playa del Carmen. On the way, just off the main highway to Playa, sits Puerto Morelos. Even though it’s far from not touristy – there are some fancy condo buildings further down the beach – in its core, it is still pretty much untouched by the mass tourism you find in Playa or Cancun. Fisherman sell their catch right on the beach, which is lined with colorful little fishing boats. You won’t find a Senor Frogs or a steak restaurant here, but instead, little mom-and-pop restaurants dominate the ‘restaurant scene’, if you can even call it that.puerto morelos mexicoFrom Puerto Morelos, it is only another 45 minutes to Playa del Carmen, where we spent a couple of nights. I wanted to use Playa as a base to explore a couple of cenotes, and there are quite a few of them just a short drive from Playa.

What is a cenote, you ask? Cenotes are underwater sinkholes or underground caverns which result from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath. They come in different shapes and forms, some are covered, others are open, and there are over 7,000 of them scattered all over the Yucatan peninsula.cenote jardin del eden yucatanIn fact, they are unique to this part of Mexico and belong to an extensive underground network of rivers and caves, many of which remain unexplored. Those that are explored have one thing in common: they all have crystal clear turquoise water and often they have a large underwater cave system which you cannot see from the usually round, open cenote entrance. In short: they are perfect for snorkeling and diving and are a must-visit on a trip to the Yucatan.dani cenoteI tried to fit as many of them as possible into our road trip to introduce Miss G to several kinds of sinkholes: covered ones, underground ones, and open ones, and our first one was going to be an open cenote south of Playa named Jardin del Eden, Garden Of Eden.cenote jardin del eden iguanaJardin del Eden is aptly named in my opinion, because this open cenote is surrounded by lush green plants and trees, and you can see all the way down to the bottom of it. This is one of the bigger cenotes I’ve seen, and what you see from above isn’t even everything there is: we kept seeing groups of divers peek out of the water every now and again, which made me wonder how big the underwater cave system was.cenote jardin del edenOur second day in Playa was spent right in town, because this beach deserved some time, too:playa del carmenI have to admit that I am not the biggest fan of Playa itself though, simply because it is just so Americanized and tourist-focused, but I know that other people like it. Fifth Avenue, the main drag that runs parallel to the beach through Playa, is lined with malls, souvenir shops and restaurants, many of which don’t even serve Mexican food, but European or North American fare at U.S. prices. I don’t mind it for a stroll, but we didn’t spend much time in Playa itself.dani playa del carmenOur hotel, the Grand Hyatt Resort, was right on the best stretch of the beach, Playa Mamita, and I have to admit that I found it hard to leave my sun lounger by the gorgeous infinity pool. Can you blame me?hyatt playa del carmenI know that other travelers spend a week or longer in Playa, but some of my favorite places along the coast, the Riviera Maya, are actually further south. Our next stop was one of them: Akumal.akumal beachThis small beach town is located about 30 minutes south of PdC, or 25 minutes north of Tulum. Once a hidden gem, the secret is out now. During previous visits, I’d never seen the beach as busy as this time around, and that’s for one very good reason: there are sea turtles feeding off the sea grass right off the shore here, and you can swim with them. While years ago, you’d see only a few individual tourists floating face-down in the water turtle watching, this time around there were entire tour groups in the water, easily recognizable by their bright yellow, orange or red life jackets.
dani akumal
As soon as we walked up to the beach, we were approached by a bunch of guys trying to sell us a pricey snorkel tour. Since when do we have to pay for this?, I wondered. For all I knew, access to the beach was free. So be careful: Don’t let anyone convince you you need to join a tour. No need for that! All you need is a snorkel and a mask.I wasn’t surprised when I later read in an article that Akumal is struggling to maintain sustainable tourism due to the increased number of tourists, and that the turtles are showing signs of stress due to the high number of humans in the water.turtles akumalApologies for the bad quality of these pictures – Just to give you an idea of how close you’ll get to the turtles. Make sure to bring a good underwater camera and, extra pro tip, a disposable camera doesn’t qualify as such.

I hope that the officials will find a way to protect the turtles and increase their efforts in making tourism sustainable here, because, with or without turtles, Akumal is one of the most beautiful stretches along the Riviera Maya, and I’d hate to see this little paradise ruined.akumal beach pelicanDespite the popularity of the turtles, which are on the part of the beach that is closest to the street, it is still possible to find an empty stretch of beach here, if you walk further down the bay, away from where the turtles are.akumal beach mexicoFrom Akumal, we drove further south, and half an hour later, we arrived in Tulum. I was especially excited for Tulum, because here we would visit the first (out of three) Mayan ruins which I had planned the road trip around. I had been to Tulum years ago, and even though the ruins there are not as stunning as Chichen Itza or Palenque, their spectacular cliff top setting, overlooking the turquoise Caribbean waters, makes them stand out from all the other Mayan ruins in Central America.tulum ruinsThe Maya lived in the region which today is made up of Mexico, Belize, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, and are known to be one of the most sophisticated civilizations of their time (AD250 – AD900). To this day, you can find the ruins of their cities, their temples, their religious centers and their infrastructure throughout Central America, and there are around 20 Mayan ruin sites on the Yucatan Peninsula alone.tulum ruins yucatanTulum was mainly serving as a port for the larger Mayan city of Cobá, which would be the next set of ruins we’d visit. Tulum is believed to have had between 1,000 and 1,600 inhabitants, compared to around 50,000 in Cobá, to give you an idea of the size of the site. There is only one major structure here, El Castillo, a 25 feet (7.5 meters) tall pyramid.tulum castilloBecause of its proximity to Playa del Carmen and relative closeness to Cancun, Tulum is one of the most popular ruin sites, and always packed. Knowing that, I made sure we’d arrive at the crack of dawn.. well maybe not that early, but we got to the gates just after 8am, when the site opens, and we got our tickets without having to wait in line, enjoying our stroll around the ruins with barely any other tourists around.tulum ruins mexicoBy the time the sun started burning down on us, we were ready to leave. We had timed our visit perfectly: when we walked back to the car, several massive tour groups were entering the ruins, and no less than 20 large buses were spitting out tourist after tourist into the parking lot. If you want Tulum without the crowds, definitely head there early.tulum ruins1Instead of returning to our hotel, we drove straight to Tulum’s glorious beach – without a doubt one of the prettiest along the Riviera Maya. An extra wide stretch of beach with powdery, white sand for as far as the eye can see, and this water, with its incredible I-don’t-know-how-many shades of blue.tulum beachWe found a beach bar, settled into our beach chairs and didn’t leave our spot for the rest of the day, until it was time for dinner, which brought us to Antojitos La Chiapaneca, a taco place in the village (not by the beach) that came highly recommended and exceeded our expectations by far. It was so good that we ended up going back there the next night – even though Tulum has dozens of dining options. But could there really be anything better than these seven peso tacos?tacos tulumWe could have easily spent another day on the beach in Tulum, but the next day was reserved for more cenotes. After having swum in an open cenote, we wanted to see a different kind of cenote – a covered or partially covered one. After doing some research, it was a close tie between Gran Cenote and Cenote Dos Ojos, and I finally went for Gran Cenote. Dos Ojos, a covered cenote, seems to be the most popular cenote in Tulum, but I found the admission pretty high (MXN200 admission if you bring your own equipment and are prepared to walk 3km to the cenote, or MXN500 for a ride to the cenote, a guide, snorkel equipment, and a lamp), and I knew we would be visiting a couple of covered cenotes in Valladolid later in our trip.tulum gran cenoteGran Cenote was the perfect mix of covered and open cenote, and with a lower admission (MXN150) it allowed us to add another cenote to our tour of natural sinkholes. Gran Cenote did not disappoint: crystal clear water, a large area for swimming, and a covered part where you could swim through and reach another open part of the cenote. We snorkeled, marveled at the underwater rock formations and the stalactites hanging from the roof of the cave, sunbathed on the wooden deck and watched the turtles that were swimming in a separate area.Gran Cenote MexicoAfter a couple of hours, we were ready to check out another cenote and we went to Zacil-Ha, which was just a little further down the road. This cenote was mainly frequented by Mexican tourists, I had read, and was only MXN50. When we arrived, there were only two other people around, and later on three girls arrived to film a music video there, other than that, we had Zacil-Ha to ourselves.tulum cenote zacil haThe cenote is much smaller than the Gran Cenote, an almost perfectly round-shaped natural swimming pool – at least that’s what you see from above. After a while, we saw a couple of divers emerge, and descend again, and were gone for long enough to lead me to assume there must be quite a large underwater cave system here.cenote zacil-haThe best part of Zacil-Ha was the zip-line that went right above the cenote. You can take a thrilling ride which ends with you plunging into the water from a considerable height. Don’t expect a proper zipline with a harness – it is basically just a handle that you hold on to and let go of once you reach the center of the cenote. Definitely worth the 10 pesos we paid for it. Since this cenote is small and on the road to Cobá, you could even stop here for a quick dip on the way to the Cobá ruins, where we’d head the next day.dani coba treeCobá is about an hour inland from Tulum, and couldn’t be more different from the seaside ruins. This Mayan city is surrounded by thick jungle and gets much less visitors than Tulum or Chichen Itza, and the grounds are so spread out that it’s nearly impossible to see everything without a bicycle. Luckily, there are plenty of bikes right at the entrance, waiting to be rented, or bicycle guides, who have a seat for two in front of their bike to drive you through the jungle from one structure to the next. Feeling a little lazy, we opted for the latter option which turned out to be pretty convenient, because that way we were taken on the route that made the most sense and we were able to take in the beautiful jungle instead of focusing on not getting lost.coba bicyclesThe most exhilarating part of a visit to Cobá is the climb up Nohoch Mul, which isn’t only the highest pyramid in this city, but in all of the Yucatan. The views from up here make you realize just how green this part of the country is: the jungle stretches to the horizon in all four directions. It is one of the few ruin sites where you can still climb a pyramid, and Nohoch Mul with its 120 uneven, large stone steps up to reach the top at 137 feet (42 meters) is quite the challenge for most visitors. The way down seems even more daunting, and the lone rope dangling from the top for tourists to hold on to is used by every single person slowly clambering back down.coba main ruin mexicoCobá is certainly one of the most interesting temple complexes on the Yucatan: older than Chichen Itza, known for its elaborate stone carvings, and the famous sacbeob, a network of elevated roads that connected Cobá with other Mayan cities throughout the region. What I love most about this site is the jungle setting, and that it is less crowded than the other Mayan ruins in the Yucatan, Chichen Itza in particular, which would be our third set of Mayan pyramids.Coba MexicoI am not sure why Cobá is less popular with tourists, given that it is close to both Playa Del Carmen and Tulum and has a ridiculously low admission fee of only MXN57 – especially compared to the steep MXN232 Chichen Itza charges.coba ball courtAfter touring the ruins for a couple of hours we stopped in the actual town of Coba (which is tiny) for a quick lunch in a local Mexican restaurant before hitting the road again. According to GoogleMaps it would take us about an hour to get to Valladolid, where we’d be spending the next couple of nights, but it took us closer to two hours for us to finally get to what is still my favorite Mexican village.valladolid volkswagen beetleValladolid was the stop on our road trip I was most excited about, because I had fallen in love with this colonial town in 2010, but during all of my visits to Mexico since, I had never made it back there. Now that I’d seen so many other Spanish-colonial villages all over Latin America, and visited several ‘magic villages’ (as 83 villages in Mexico were declared, thanks to their cultural, historical, or natural treasures) – would I still adore Valladolid as much as I did all those years ago?valladolid mexico churchI didn’t have anything to worry about: Valladolid had barely changed over the past few years, and was still as charming and sleepy as I had remembered it. The pastel-colored houses with their colonial courtyards were still beautiful, the churches striking, and the main plaza with old ladies chatting on benches while vendors were walking around selling granizados out of their little carts was as delightful a place to sit in as ever.valladolid cathedralAnother thing that hadn’t changed? How hot Valladolid was. With average temperatures of 93ºF (34ºC), the town can feel unbearably hot, especially in the afternoon, and with no ocean anywhere nearby, we were thankful for the three cenotes here. Cenote Zaci, is right in town, and Cenote Dzitnup, is about five miles outside of town.
valladolid housesDzitnup was the one we chose for our first afternoon in town, a cenote that is actually made up of two different sinkholes, Samulá & Xkekén. They are both covered and undeniably two of the most remarkable cenotes I’ve been to, so it didn’t surprise me that the setup was vastly different from when I first came here a few years ago.
cenote valladolid (2)Back then, you could nearly miss the entrance to the cenotes if you didn’t pay attention, but now, a big tourist plaza had been built around them, charging MXN90 admission to enter both, and a number of souvenir stands lines the path to each cenote. I realized that these two cenotes had become part of a tour, probably the Chichen Itza tours from Cancun, but luckily we didn’t encounter a bus load of tourists while we were there – as a matter of fact, the tourists in both cenotes seemed to be mainly Mexicans.
cenote xkeken mexicoWe started with Cenote Xkeken, which you can’t see at all from the outside. A small entrance leads to some stairs which go down into the cave, and once you reach the big cave room it is almost impossible not to be in complete awe. The ceiling is covered in stalactites of all sizes, and then there is the bright blue refreshing water.cenote xkekenAfter a quick dip we walked over to Cenote Samula, which used to be famous for the long tree roots hanging from a small hole in the ceiling of the covered cenote. However, there wasn’t much of the tree roots left when I went there this year – either they were cut off or fell in, I am not sure. This doesn’t make Samula less impressive though, and again, you can’t even see the entrance, but access the cavern through a tiny hole and walk down a set of stairs until you reach the water. In this cenote, the rocks and stalagmites underwater are even more dramatic than in Cenote Xkeken, and you’ll want to bring a mask and a snorkel to be able to fully appreciate them.cenote xkeken mexico1We got off to an early start the next morning – once again to beat the tourist crowds. Our final, grand destination was Chichen Itza, the most popular Mayan ruin site of the Yuctan.
chichen itza daniAnd it is easy to see why this UNESCO World Heritage site is so famous: the structures here are extraordinary, especially the perfectly restored main pyramid, El Castillo, which is jaw-droppingly stunning. It is on this stepped pyramid where during the equinoxes (21 March and 21 September), shadows on the steps of the pyramid resemble a descending snake. The temple has 365 steps – one for each day of the year – which is only one feat to show how sophisticated the Mayan culture was, and how it was integrated into their buildings and religious centers.chichen itza mexicoThe site has enough structures to keep you exploring for at least half a day, with the Temple of the Warriors, and the massive Great Ball Court, where the Mayan ballgame was played and which is the largest in the Mayan world.
chichen itza mexicoThere are fascinating structures like El Caracol, an Observatory, and the Jaguar Temple. All of Chichen Itza’s buildings are restored in such detail that there are frescos and the ubiquitous serpent heads that ornate many of the temples.chichen itza el castilloUpon leaving, we saw tour bus after tour bus arrive, and I can only recommend staying in Vallodolid or one of the hotels near Chichen Itza if you don’t want to share the site with hundreds of tourists (the pictures at El Castillo were taken before the crowds arrived).chichen itza skulls mexicoFor us, all that was left was the long drive back to Cancun, and long before handing over the keys to our rental car at the airport we were already pondering where our next Mexican road trip would be..tulum sunset

Practical information

Tips for renting a car in Mexico

I was initially tempted to rent a car via RentalCars.com, an Expedia-owned car rental company I often use in the US – but these prices seemed too good even for me (being a cheap ass!):

carrentals-dot-com-screenshot-cancun

Instead, I opted for the slightly pricier Priceline.com, where cars start at US$4 per day. I was skeptic but willing to give it a try, thinking that even with additional fees and taxes it couldn’t add up to more than $20 a day. And sure enough, there are some additional charges in Mexico that are not covered by credit card car insurance (most credit card companies offer up to 14 days coverage overseas – before you go on your trip, check what kind of coverage is included in your credit card. Nerdwallet has a good overview of all credit cards and what kind of insurance they cover.)

Note: All car rental companies in Mexico require you to purchase basic personal liability insurance (sometimes called third-party liability insurance). They do not accept personal liability insurance through U.S. credit cards. However, they are by law required to include this fee in the rental price, so don’t let them fool you and tell you it has to be added.

Some car rental companies will try to sell you a so-called ‘supplemental liability insurance’ on top of that. It is not mandatory, but at only around $13 a day it is worth considering.

A comprehensive article on everything you need to know about renting a car in Mexico can be found here.grand hyatt playa del carmen infinity pool daniThird-party liability insurance can also be purchased through an independent insurance provider, by the way. I’ve done that several times (through iCarHireInsurance, a UK-based company), including this trip and their daily rates are about half of what you pay at the rental car counter. I paid around GBP6 per day. If you decide to go for this option, there are two things to note: 1) You have to purchase your insurance before you start the rental and present the policy number at the counter. 2) Not all countries accept third-party insurances, so check beforehand if your destination does accept it.tulum beach

Important: Another additional and not insignificant charge to your credit card will be a security deposit which you’ll get back when you return the car. The amount of this will depend on the total of your rental – I was charged around $1,500 but other companies charge more (US$3,000 are not uncommon). The amount was returned to my credit card upon returning the car.

Road conditions: The roads in the Yucatan are in very good condition, especially the 4-lane road between Cancun and Tulum and the fast route between Cancun and Valladolid. We found ourselves on unpaved roads occasionally (usually to get to a cenote) but nothing our economy car wouldn’t have been able to handle. Be careful with the ‘topes’ though, horrid speed bumps which you’ll encounter frequently.cenote drive

Gas stations: There are plenty of gas stations all over the Yucatan, but note that there are still gas stations that only accept cash, no credit cards.

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Polaroid Of The Week: Agave Fields In Tequila, Mexico

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week mexico tequila jaliscoWhen I mapped out my Mexico trip and tried to decide which city to fly into, it basically came down to one decision: Flying straight to the coast or visit a new city first. And as much as I was ready for some beach time, my curiosity to explore another Mexican city won. And Guadalajara won for three reasons: It is known to be cultural and artsy, it is relatively close to the Pacific coast, and it is only 70 kilometers from Tequila. A travel writer I follow on Snapchat had just gone there and her snaps from Tequila looked so gorgeous that I wanted to see the agave fields for myself, and visit a couple of tequila distilleries – even though I am not a big tequila fan (I have a margarita every now and again, but straight up tequila wouldn’t necessarily be my drink of choice).

And so I found myself on a bus to Tequila on my very last day in Guadalajara, excited for agave fields and for an education about Mexico’s national spirit, one that, admittedly, I knew very little about. While the day trip didn’t exactly turn on the way I was hoping for (rain instead of blue skies, too many hours spent on a bus, bad planning), I immediately fell in love with the little village of Tequila. I could feel that we weren’t far anymore when agave fields started to line the street on both sides, with their distinctive green-bluish leaves.

The village itself is one of Mexico’s fifty or so Pueblos Magicos, Magic Villages – a title that Tequila well deserves. Colorful colonial houses, cobble stone streets, colonial churches, and tree-lined plazas where street vendors try to tempt you with fresh roasted corn or with ice cream. I instantly wished I would have come for longer than a few hours on a day trip. The highlight was, of course, visiting a tequila distillery, where we were shown the entire process of tequila making. Starting with the big piles of the piñas, the agaves’ round centers, which are thrown on a conveyor belt – the first step of the actual tequila production. We got to see the milling and fermentation, the distillation and finally the bottling. And of course we were not leaving before everyone had tasted the different kinds of tequila produced here: Blanco (bottled immediately upon distillation), Reposado (aged for at least two months), Añejo (aged for at least a year, but less than three) and Extra Añejo (over-aged).

As I said: the day trip to Tequila could’ve been planned better, but yet: I am so glad I went. In fact, it made me add a road trip following Jalisco’s entire Tequila Trail to my travel wish list.

P.S. You can follow my journey in real time on Snapchat: mariposa2711

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Polaroid Of The Week: Guadalajara, Mexico’s Second City

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week mexico guadalajaraWhen it rains, it pours, they say, and that couldn’t hold truer for the past couple of weeks. And I don’t only mean that because it is pouring as I type this – I haven’t seen that much rain since leaving Seattle, but Guadalajara got so much rain today that the streets were flooding – but, as so many of us, I’ve been struggling with the events of this week. That combined with a string of bad news since the beginning of the month has put me in a slump which I’m trying to get out of.

Coming to Mexico was certainly a good decision and is helping me getting my mojo back: As soon as I walked out of the terminal building last week and saw the familiar OXXO convenience store across the street, I felt like I was coming home. And there aren’t many places that make me feel this way. The familiarity of Mexico has also helped me ease into solo travel again, which I haven’t done in a while now, and the weather has been perfect for most of the week – after my depressingly wet and cold October this was much needed.

Guadalajara, which I picked as the starting point for my current Mexico trip, was an excellent choice. I’d never been to Mexico’s second largest city, and it was time to fix that. The city reminds me a lot of Mexico City, which I love, has plenty of awesome street art, beautiful colonial buildings and tree-lined plazas that invite to linger. There is a fantastic art scene here, and I’ve been trying to take as much of it in as possible. The highlight was the Art Museum of the University with a giant, stunning Orozco wall mural and mural covering the interior of the auditorium dome. I felt like it was just yesterday that I marveled at his murals in Mexico City and visited Frida’s Casa Azul for the second time.

I apologize for the lack of content here, but I’ll get back to regular posting as soon as I’m back at 100%. I’ve got a bunch of posts from all over the place for you: Seattle, Mexico, Colombia and Italy!

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Isla Mujeres: Finding Paradise In Mexico

isla-mujeres-dani

The first mistake I made when I visited Isla Mujeres? I only stayed for a day. That was in 2010, during my first trip to the Yucatan peninsula, when I lived in Playa del Carmen for a month. I fell in love with the little island off the coast of Cancun immediately.

Can you see why?isla mujeres beach mexicoThe second mistake I made? I waited nearly six years to return to Isla Mujeres, even though I was raving about it to everyone who was planning a trip to the Yucatan and asked me for advice on where to go, and despite the fact that I returned to the Yucatan in 2012. It is still beyond me why I didn’t plan in time for a little island getaway back then, but I guess after two months of living on a remote Caribbean beach I wasn’t craving more beach time.dani isla mujeresWhen I planned my Yucatan road trip this year, I made sure that we would spend some time on Isla Mujeres.isla mujeresThere isn’t much to do on this tiny island, which is only 1.3 miles (7 kilometers) long and 2,130 feet (650 meters) wide. As I recall, there weren’t even cars on the island then, only golf carts, but this time around there were a few cars as well. However, golf carts are still definitely outnumbering cars on Isla Mujeres, and most tourists rent those for the day instead of scooters.isla mujeres golf kartI later found out exactly how many vehicles there are on the island: about 130 taxis, 500 golf carts and 1,500 scooters.isla mujeresEven though we wanted to rent a golf cart to whiz around the island, that wasn’t our first priority. Our first priority was this:isla mujeres caribbeanPlaya Norte. This beach on the northern end of Isla Mujeres is one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever been to, along with Koh Poda, my Thai paradise island, and Boracay, the paradise I found in the Philippines.isla mujeres loveIt’s one of those beaches where you can just sit and look out at the ocean for hours, without the desire to do anything.isla mujeres shades of blueThe color of the water is what Caribbean dreams are made of!isla mujeres boatI could’ve spent my entire time at this beach, with the occasional swim in the ocean – the water here is so shallow that you can walk for about 160 feet (50 meters) into the ocean and still be only knee deep in the water.isla mujeres caribbean oceanBut we weren’t only here to relax on the beach (even though this was our main reason to visit Isla Mujeres), we also wanted to see the rest of the island.isla mujeres palm treesWe were staying on the far northern tip of Isla Mujeres, where the ferries from Cancun arrive and where you have the biggest congregation of restaurants and small hotels – none of the massive concrete blocks you can see in the far distance in Cancun! – a small village if you want to call it that.isla mujeres housesThe ‘village’ doesn’t even have a name, it is simply known as ‘El Centro’, and Hidalgo Street is the main drag here with plenty of restaurants, souvenir shops and hotels. But all of the restaurants and cafes in neighboring streets can be reached within five minutes from anywhere in ‘El Centro’.isla mujeres housesThe houses here are as colorful as one would expect from a Caribbean island, and there is even some street art!isla mujeres street art mexicoMost of the murals have a deeper meaning: they were painted in 2014 during the Murals For Oceans street art festival in order to promote respect and protection for endangered whale sharks and manta rays, which migrate to Isla Mujeres every year to feast on plankton.Street Art Isla Mujeres MexicoWe balked at the costly price for a 24-hour golf cart rental ($40 – I had paid $7 per day for a rental car in Cancun!) but sucked it up because I wanted to go to the southern part of the island, which is quite the opposite from the northern part with its long sandy stretch of beach and crystal clear water.isla mujeres lizard statueDown there, you find cliffs that tower high above the ocean, which is a deep blue color here. It is a spectacular sight and reminds me of the coast of Ireland – the lush green on top of the cliffs, and the roaring ocean below.isla mujeres dani cliffsOn the southern tip of the island you also find a hint of the origin of the name of the island: Isla Mujeres means Island of Women.isla mujeres statue

The Mayans had a presence on the island and during that time, it was sacred to Ix Chel, the Maya goddess of childbirth and medicine. When the Spanish arrived here in the 16th century and saw all the images of Ix Chel, they named it Island of Women. And on the southern end of the island, you find a statue depicting Ix Chel.

There is also a little sculpture park there, which was free to visit the first time I was on the island, but this time around, they were charging 30 Pesos per person, so we skipped it and cruised around in our golf cart some more, stopping at a little marina with a hotel restaurant for a snack.

isla mujeres punta surWe decided to stop in a little marina along the way for some snacks in a hotel with a restaurant right by the ocean – I had been hoping to find a beach club I had randomly found on my first visit to the island, but sadly I couldn’t remember where it was.
isla mujeres boatsAfter a long day of sightseeing we returned to Playa Norte in time to watch the spectacular sunset – there is no better place on the island to watch the sunset from!isla mujeres sunsetThe sunsets on the island alone are worth an overnight trip, but most people seem to come to Isla Mujeres on a day trip from Cancun, which includes a short stop on the island and several snorkeling stops.Dani 2016 Mexico Isla MujeresI would, however, recommend to spend at least one night here. If you are looking for a Caribbean experience that isn’t pricey (prices in Cancun are en par with US prices for drinks, dinner and entertainment these days!) and easy to get to, Isla Mujeres is the place for you.isla mujeres playa norteI hope that it won’t take me six more years to return to Isla Mujeres, my Mexican paradise…Isla Mujeres Mexico Cancun

How to visit Isla Mujeres

From Cancun, it is super easy to get to Isla Mujeres. I recommend spending a night or two on the island (if not longer) instead of opting for a day trip from Cancun.isla mujeres oceanYou can take a cab straight from the airport, and if you don’t want to wait in line I recommend downloading the EasyTaxi app and ordering a cab via the app. Take the cab to the Gran Puerto ferry port.

If you’re on a budget, take the ADO bus from the airport to Cancun’s central bus station (MXN$66 /US$3.50) and change there into a colectivo (shared minivan) to the ferry terminal in Gran Puerto (two blocks from the older ferry port Puerto Juarez). The colectivos stop right across from the ADO station in front of McDonald’s and cost MXN$8 ($0.45).isla mujeres dani golf kartThe Ultramar ferry from Gran Puerto is MXN$160 (US$8.50) for a round trip or MXN$80 (US$4.25) for a one-way ticket.

The ride takes about 25 minutes. You can check the ferry schedules here, but ferries run several times an hour between 5am and 11.30pm.

Note: Returning to the airport from the ferry terminal, make sure to negotiate the taxi rate before you get in. Taxi drivers will start their negotiations at around MXN$700 (US$37), but I was able to get our driver down to MXN$300 (US$16).

dani mexico

Where to stay on Isla Mujeres

I’d recommend staying in El Centro – simply because that’s where the best beach (Playa Norte) on the island is, and you have a variety of restaurants and bars to choose from. If you’re staying in another part of the island, you’ll be depending on taxis or renting a golf cart to get around. There are also not a lot of great beaches (only a few small ones, most of which belong to private beach clubs) and the beach is the island’s main draw.isla mujeres playa norteI didn’t find many hotels that I loved on Booking.com, but saw a great selection of AirBnb apartments, most of which looked better than the hotels. Check out AirBnb rentals on Isla Mujeres here (if you’re not signed up with AirBnb yet, use my referral code and get $30 off your first booking!) Check out hotels on Isla Mujeres on Booking.com here.isla mujeres jump

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Where to stay in… Playa Del Carmen: The Grand Hyatt Resort

hyatt playa del carmen

When I heard that the new Grand Hyatt Resort in Playa del Carmen was awarded with the AAA Four Diamond Award after operating for only eight months (!), I was intrigued. If a hotel receives this honor after such a short time, it had to be exceptional.

The other aspect of the Grand Hyatt that piqued my interest was the fact that it was designed by the acclaimed Mexican architect Sordo Madaleno, and the award-winning New York-based Rockwell Group. I knew I had to check this new resort out for myself during my recent road trip across the Yucatan Peninsula.Grand Hyatt Resort Playa del Carmen

The Grand Entrance

Even just my arrival at the hotel was an impressive experience: We drove up a spacious driveway and at the end of it, we were greeted by a massive fountain, which resembles a Mayan step pyramid.grand hyatt playa del carmen fountain1

The intention to incorporate the local culture and natural beauty of the area  was apparent not only at the entrance, but throughout the entire property – when you access the grand entrance area you immediately see the vast mangrove gardens, which were preserved in the process of building the hotel.grand hyatt playa del carmen mangrove

The rooms are set in U-shaped four-story  blocks that surround the center section  of the hotel. The wide open central section  was designed in a way that offers terrific sea views, and can best be described as a covered walkway (Paseo) where you find the reception, a concierge desk, a coffee shop and a couple of snack bars.grand hyatt playa del carmen1

While the receptionist was checking us in, we were handed two ice cold glasses of champagne – the perfect way to start off our time in such breathtaking surroundings and to relax us after the long day of travel  (which involved a flight from New York and the drive to Playa del Carmen from the airport in Cancun ).grand hyatt champagne

We loaded our bags onto a luggage cart and a porter took them up to our room, leaving us free to continue sipping our champagne. Walking through the long, open corridors on which the rooms are located, we noticed right away the finishes and materials that were thoughtfully sought out for the property: wood, sand colored stone and lots of plants on the open side, always emphasizing the connection with the natural environment.grand hyatt playa views

And then there is the tasteful artwork – I don’t think I have ever been to a hotel with so many carefully selected pieces of art, featuring materials such as  wood and metal. Much of the artwork was created by the artist César López-Negrete, who conceptualized many of his pieces exclusively for the Grand Hyatt. I found myself constantly impressed with the design of the hotel, especially in the mornings, when I walked down to the Paseo. I was stunned by the grand architecture every time.
Grand Hyatt Resort Playa del Carmen art

The Rooms

When we were shown our room, I felt immediately at home: it was elegant and spacious, with  contemporary furniture, sun loungers on the balcony, and a bed that looked so comfortable that I knew right away I’d be able to get a decent night’s sleep.grand hyatt playa del carmen beds

There are 14 different room categories at the Grand Hyatt, ranging from regular ocean view rooms to more luxurious swim-up rooms which have access to a private pool (which is shared with the other swim-up rooms). The rooms with the most stunning vistas are without a doubt the executive suites, which are located on the fifth floor of a bridge that looks right over the translucent waters of the Caribbean sea.grand hyatt playa del carmen infinity pool view

All of the rooms are big enough to feature their own dining area, and come with flat screen TVs, iPod docking areas, coffee machines, and a bathroom that is half open to the room and features large double sinks. I loved the modern yet timeless interior design with a touch of nature thanks to the wooden features that were incorporated.grand hyatt playa del carmen bathroom

A fantastic extra? The mosquito spray that was included in the toiletries (which are organic) since the mosquitos can get annoying, especially after a rainstorm or at dusk and I truly  appreciated the hotel’s thoughtful gesture. Sometimes it’s little things like this that can make a huge difference.grand hyatt playa del carmen toiletries

The Showstopper of the Grand Hyatt

Despite the rooms being so gorgeous, the only time I ended up spending in my room was when I was sleeping, because the real showstopper at the property are the three infinity pools (the Cenote Spa would be a very close second, but more on that later.) I was tempted to extend my stay as soon as I saw the beautifully designed swimming pools and sun loungers, some of which were conveniently placed right in the water.grand hyatt playa del carmen infinity pool1

But I also loved the bigger ‘nests’, which almost felt as if somebody had taken a super comfy canopy bed and placed it by the pool – I didn’t want to leave mine! And the best bit: you don’t really have to. The attentive wait staff serve food and refreshments  right to the sun loungers, so the only thing you need to do is to get up from time to time to enjoy the views from the infinity pool during a quick dip in the water.grand hyatt playa pool area

Guests who prefer the actual beach can lay down on sun beds in the sand, right by the turquoise Caribbean waters Playa is famous for. The Grand Hyatt has a 460 feet /140 meter beachfront, but it doesn’t really matter if you lay out on the beach or in the pool area, because they’re just steps away from one another.grand hyatt playa del carmen beach

The Award-winning Cenote Spa

If laying by the pool is not relaxing enough for you, head straight to the Cenote Spa. I’ve seen quite a few spas and wellness centers  in my life, but I don’t think I’ve ever been as impressed with one as I was with the enormous 6,000ft Cenote Spa.Grand Hyatt Resort Playa del Carmen spa

My first thought on a stroll through the spa was that the spa alone should win a prize for its architecture and interior design, and funnily enough I later learned that the spa did in fact win the Interior Design Best Project Of 2015 award. That’s how stunning the Cenote Spa is – I am afraid the photos can’t even do it justice.grand hyatt playa del carmen cenote spa chairs

The centerpiece of the spa resembles a cenote, a natural underground swimming hole that are unique to the Yucatan peninsula . Inside the igloo-shaped cenote there is a circular pool, which is extraordinary. This place is in fact so breathtaking that couples can book romantic dinners for which tables are set up right by the cenote pool, lit by intimate lights – a wonderful spot for a dinner for two. It is  also a fantastic spot for morning yoga, and luckily for yoga enthusiasts , that is exactly what you can do there.
Grand Hyatt Resort Playa del Carmen Cenote Spa

The spa treatments are designed with the Mexican culture in mind too, with unique treatments such as the Mayan head massage with cocoa and tequila oils. In addition, the Cenote Spa is equipped with a steam room, sauna, cold plunge pools, a Jacuzzi and a lap pool.grand hyatt playa del carmen cenote spa2

I was also happy to discover a bright, airy gym, which is much bigger than most gyms at hotels of a comparable size. The machines and equipment are all brand new, and I have to admit that I needed to use a treadmill after enjoying the decadent breakfast buffet maybe a little too much. Yes, let’s talk about the food:grand hyatt playa del carmen the grill menu1

Food & Drinks

There are three restaurants at the Grand Hyatt – La Cocina, The Grill at 1 26 (referring to the cross streets the hotel is located at – 1 Avenida and 26 Street), and the Raw Seafood Bar. In addition, there is a coffee bar, El Paseo, conveniently located in the covered walkway area. Both La Cocina and The Grill at 1 26 have amazing sea views, bordering the pool area, while the Raw Seafood Bar is located in the center building with a more casual flair.
Grand Hyatt Resort Playa del Carmen Breakfast Buffet

I had dinner at The Grill at 1 26, where you can get some of the best steak and grilled seafood in Playa del Carmen. My travel companion was excited to try a good steak, and I have to admit that I was a bit worried that I wouldn’t find something vegetarian on the menu, but there was nothing to worry about: the restaurant has a special vegetarian menu!

Sadly, I didn’t get to dine at La Cocina, which offers international food and focuses on fresh, local ingredients, but I got to experience the restaurant during breakfast and loved the atmosphere inside as well as out on the terrace, overlooking the beach.grand hyatt playa del carmen the grill margarita

The breakfast buffet was one of the best I have experienced in any hotel, with an extensive selection of European, North American and Mexican dishes. Every single dish I tried was scrumptious, and I couldn’t resist sampling pretty much every single pastry that was on the buffet, simply because they looked so mouthwatering good. And let me tell you: they are worth every single calorie.Grand Hyatt Resort Playa del Carmen Breakfast Buffet

One thing I appreciated about the Grand Hyatt was the fact that the hotel is not, like most resorts of a similar size in Playa del Carmen, an all-inclusive resort, but encourages guests to also go out and sample the many nearby restaurants on 5th Avenue. If you do prefer to eat at the hotel however, you can add on a meal plan to your room – just dinner (US$40, at La Cocina or The Grill); dinner and lunch (US$59) or breakfast, lunch and dinner (US$74).grand hyatt playa del carmen bar

Extra Fun!

Along with everything I have mentioned above, there is also a  coffee shop onsite, so there is really no reason to leave the hotel. And if you are afraid you might get bored: fear not, there is so much to do at the resort, it is impossible to experience even the slightest hint of boredom.grand hyatt playa del carmen restaurant2

Not only is there a movie theater (including a popcorn machine for an endless flow of fresh popcorn!), but there is an entire room dedicated to entertainment. A ping pong table, gaming consoles, table soccer, board games.. you name it, they have it. That would be where I’d be hanging out if I found myself in the Grand Hyatt during the rainy season (that said, I’ve never experienced a lot of rain in Playa, even when I was there during the rainy season… after a shower, the sun usually comes out again quickly). This room is named ‘Teen Arcade’ but judging by my own excitement over this room, I am sure that adults enjoy it just as much.Grand Hyatt Resort Playa del Carmen Entertainment Room

For families traveling with kids, there is a great kids room with plenty of toys – I know that my nieces and nephew would love it there – and experienced staff, so you can also enjoy some kids-free time during your vacation. There is even a children’s dinner on two nights, so that parents can enjoy a romantic dinner for two during their vacation!grand hyatt playa infinity pool dani

If you are looking to get married, the Grand Hyatt Resort can arrange your dream destination wedding right on the beach, and with 314 guest rooms and suites, you can rest assured that all wedding guests can be accommodated.grand hyatt playa sun loungers

Location, Location, Location

Another huge plus factor of the hotel? Its location! Playa del Carmen’s main shopping and entertainment drag, Fifth Avenue (Quinta Avenida), is just two minutes away. Right away you’ll find yourself in the middle of shops, bars and restaurants, and the new Quinta Alegria Shopping Mall is only a five minute walk from the hotel.

Most of the hotel resorts in Playa del Carmen aren’t actually in town, but stretch along the beaches north and south of the center, which means you have to take a taxi every time you want to go into town. I really appreciated that at the Grand Hyatt, you can just walk out of the hotel and are in the middle of it all. And the beach where the hotel is located, Mamita’s Beach, is one of the best beaches in Playa.grand hyatt playa del carmen mamitas beach

The Verdict

So what’s my verdict? The Grand Hyatt Playa Del Carmen gets five Globetrottergirls gold stars! I was trying hard to find something to complain about, or room for improvement, but I honestly couldn’t find anything.

A stylish, elegant hotel with a gorgeous pool area and stunning spa, comfortable rooms, sophisticated restaurants and attentive staff – it’s impossible to leave the Grand Hyatt and not feel refreshed and relaxed, no matter if you’re there for a quick weekend getaway or a week-long holiday. I am already dreaming of a return to this incredible hotel.Grand Hyatt resort Playa Del Carmen pool area

Details

  • Address: 1a Avenida esquina Calle 26 Colonia Centro, Gonzalo Guerrero, 77710 Playa del Carmen
  • Price: Rooms start at $199, suites start at $549 (room rates vary depending on season). Check the Grand Hyatt website for special deals & packages
  • LGBT Friendly: Yes
  • Amenities: Buffet breakfast (at extra cost, if room not booked with a meal plan); three restaurants; three infinity pools, spa & gym, concierge desk, rooms have iPod docking stations, flat screen TVs, tea & coffee making facilities; wedding and events space; parking (at extra cost); kids club; entertainment room with movie theater; beach cabanas
  • Website: PlayadelCarmen.grandhyatt.com

Grand Hyatt Resort Playa del Carmen Mexico

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