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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.
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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!):

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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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Isla Mujeres: Finding Paradise In Mexico

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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).

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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

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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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Life Lately & Upcoming Travels: April 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. April 2016

Where I’ve been

I began April in Mexico City, road tripped around Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula and finished my month-long stay in Mexico on the tiny Caribbean island of Isla Mujeres. After a short stop in New York City (just enough time to say Hi to a dear friend and to stuff my face with a bagel, something I’d been craving for months!) I flew to Tucson, Arizona, where I am ending the month – but I am actually packing up my stuff right now, about to head out on a mini road trip to my next destination, but more on that below.April 2016 Mexico Arizona

What I’ve been up to

This month was supposed to be a relaxing one, at least the second half, but somehow I never slowed down.. Story of my life, I guess. I ended my time in Mexico City with a near disaster (more on that below), but also with a great weekend that involved a return to Frida Kahlo’s house, the Casa Azul, and a fun day in Coyoacan, market madness and lots of craft beer. Then I flew to Cancun where I met up with my favorite travel buddy (again, after traveling together in Colombia a couple of months ago) to road trip around the Yucatan, which just so happens to be one of my favorite parts of Mexico. For eight days, we swam in cenotes (underwater sinkholes), beach hopped along the Caribbean and got our culture fix by visiting several Mayan ruins before a chilled out island getaway in Isla Mujeres. And with that, my 3-month winter escape to Latin America came to an end..MexicoMid-April I found myself in New York for a minute before I jumped on a plane to Tucson for my fifth visit to southern Arizona since 2010. While I usually use these weeks of housesitting to catch up on work, this year it seems like I had much more ‘play time’ than work time.. First, my friend Katie came to visit me and I found myself frolicking around old western towns, hiking in between giant Saguaro cacti, revisiting the beautiful San Xavier del Bac Mission and sampling all the craft beer Tucson has to offer (well maybe not all of it, but quite a lot!) and then I had a surprise visitor distracting me with a visit to a PowWow (get together of Native American communities) in Phoenix and a sweaty canyon hike. Plus, I also finally made an effort to meet some new people in Tucson and caught up with friends I made on previous visits. And just like that, my three weeks here are over.. But I hope this wasn’t my last visit, because the more time I spend in Tucson, the harder I fall for the city, discovering more and more cool stuff.

Arizona

Highlights

Road tripping around the Yucatan

I spent hours planning this road trip, but in the end it was so worth all the sleepless nights and the effort that went into it: the road trip couldn’t have gone any better. Beginning with a fabulous stay at the exquisite Grand Hyatt in Playa Del Carmen to accident-free driving to introducing my favorite girl to really good Mexican food, not the stuff you get in the States!yucatan road trip
Desert hikes in southern Arizona

If you’ve been following me for a while, you know how much I love the desertscape of Southern Arizona – and I was happy that I had several visitors who got me out of the house to hike some of my favorite trails here and explore some new ones. Bonus: it’s spring, which means the cacti are blossoming, making the dessert look extra pretty.arizona desert hikes

Returning to Isla Mujeres

I fell in love with Isla Mujeres when I first visited the tiny Caribbean island in 2010, and I decided to spend an entire weekend there after our road trip – even though I had no idea if I’d still like the island after all these years of travel and all the places I’ve seen since then. Moreover, I didn’t know if Isla Mujeres had changed – had it become just as touristy and crowded as Playa del Carmen, a place I used to like a lot but that doesn’t do much for me now? I had nothing to worry about: Isla Mujeres was as charming as ever, and yes, it had become more touristy, but just look at these pictures… what’s not to love?!isla mujeres

What went right

Great publicity

Bild Der FrauThis month was an awesome month for publicity – An article about me appeared in one of Germany’s biggest women’s magazines, and I was featured by Lonely Planet! Being included in a list of the Top 50 Travel Bloggers was another pleasant surprise yesterday.

My first Mexican road trip

As I said above, my Mexican road trip was a blast, but it was also my first time renting a car in Mexico for longer than a day and driving on roads I hadn’t driven on prior to this visit. The only reason I was confident enough to sign up for this trip was because I remembered from living on the Riviera Maya in 2010 and 2012 that driving was a breeze in this part of Mexico, but I was still nervous if everything would go okay with the rental, if the route I had mapped out was too ambitious and if the car would be safe everywhere we parked it (sometimes with all our belongings inside). I am happy to report that everything went smoothly and without a glitch – and this road trip is perfect for anyone who wants to explore the Yucatan, so I’ll be writing about it in more detail soon.Mexico road trip

What went wrong

The almost robbery in Mexico City

My time in Mexico City almost ended with a tragedy – on my very last day in the city my friend and I were strolling through the big Saturday market that sprawls out into the streets surrounding La Merced, the city’s biggest market.

I was happily snapping some pictures and munching on a mango when all of a sudden I felt someone grab me from behind, wrapping his arms around my chest so that I couldn’t move my arms, while a second guy tried to rip my dSLR camera out of my right hand. Luckily I had strapped it around my wrist tightly and he couldn’t just grab it, and I started screaming like crazy. My friend pushed the guy who was holding me, and we both fell to the ground, I was holding my bag and camera tight to my body prepared to defend them, but they decided to run. My friend ran after them, not sure if they’d gotten anything from me or not, and saw them disappear into a courtyard right off the market. Knowing where these thieves lived we decided to get the police involved but they seemed a bit lackluster about the situation. They still came with us to the house, but told us they couldn’t go in without a permit / order.

I can’t believe how lucky I was – this could’ve ended much worse. I had my passport in my bag (required to go inside the National Palace which we had planned for that day), my Kindle, and a chunk of cash. However – I wasn’t entirely lucky during the incident: in the fall, I smashed my camera lens which died a slow death after the incident and had to be replaced, and I hit my big toe so hard that I was sure it was broken.

mexico city merced market dani
This picture was taken minutes before the attack happened…

The credit card scare

At the beginning of the month, I logged into my account to check the balance on my credit card. But what was that? In my ‘Account Summary’, my credit card didn’t show up! Where was my credit card balance?? I looked everywhere in my online banking account, but there was no sign of my credit card. No message either about it being blocked or something. It was midnight in Mexico, so I had to wait until the next morning to call my bank in the UK. Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep that night. How could my credit card simply disappear from my account?!

When I finally got hold of my bank the next morning, it took an hour on the phone with them to resolve what had happened – the card had been blocked after I the rental car company I rented with try to charge a $2,000 deposit for the car. Yes, these high deposits are customary here in Mexico.. And so my bank put a flag on the account.

dani isla mujeres
Dealing with British banks makes me want to RUN.

I lost more things… And this time, really expensive things.

The ‘lost items’ section seems to evolve into a running segment in my monthly round-ups, much to my dismay. After losing clothes and my Sennheiser headphones last month, and my Kindle charger as well as camera charger the month before, this month’s loss was very tragic: I left my beloved $300 JBL headphones on the flight from New York to Chicago on my way to Tucson. When I realized what had happened while waiting for my connecting flight, I immediately ran back to the gate I’d arrived on, but I was told nothing had been handed in. Oh well, I guess somebody else is enjoying these amazing headphones now.

And not only did I lose my headphones in transit, I also managed to leave my belt behind in Cancun when I took it off to go through security in the airport. Only on the plane did I notice that I was suddenly belt-less! I really hope May goes by without me losing something.

isla mujeres dani cliffs
If I lose anything next month, I might jump off a cliff

What went almost wrong

The almost missed ferry & almost missed flight

For my last night in Mexico, I had booked a hotel near the airport in Cancun, because we were leaving on a super early flight the next morning. The plan was to spend the entire day on Isla Mujeres and head back to the mainland just to sleep there – why waste a day in Cancun when we can spend it in this island paradise? I had seen online that ferries were running until late at night, which was perfect for us – that way, we could even have dinner on Isla Mujeres!

But when we, happily stuffed with tacos, made our way to the ferry terminal around 8pm, we arrived to complete darkness – the terminal was closed! I panicked immediately, knowing that the first morning ferry wouldn’t run until 5am – too late for us to make it to the airport and to catch our flight. I started to hyperventilate, because neither my friend nor I could miss that flight the next morning. In my head, I already saw us pay for a private boat to the mainland, and ran over to a taxi driver to find out if there might be a car ferry or another way to get off the island that night, and he simply pointed to the ferry terminal next to the one we were at. Yes, this one had closed for the night, but the main one was still open. I almost suffered a heart attack in that near-travel fail, thinking I had screwed up and maybe ferries weren’t going late on Sundays. Luckily, everything went according to plan when we finally boarded the ferry.

isla mujeres sunset - Copy
The sunset was worth missing the ferry for

As if that wasn’t enough, the next morning we then nearly missed our flight even though we were at the airport two hours prior to our flight departure – and just because we were chatting at the gate waiting for the flight to board.. Our conversation was so deep that we forgot to pay attention and somehow missed that everyone had already boarded – they were ready to close the doors! Luckily we noticed that we were the only ones left in the departure area before the plane departed.

What’s next for me

I am finishing up my housesit in Tucson and am almost on my way to the next housesit: a month in Austin, Texas! I’ve been wanting to visit Austin for years, so when this opportunity came my way, I didn’t have to think long.

And because my travel plans aligned with those of a travel buddy I am finding myself now road tripping from Tucson to Austin, stopping along the way at one of the most remarkable places I’ve visited in the US, the stunning white desert of White Sands in New Mexico (which I hope I’ll get to photograph at sunset this time around) and in Big Bend National Park for a day of hiking before eating my way through Austin for the next few weeks. If you know Austin and have recommendations for restaurants, food trucks, craft beer bars and things to do, please share them in the comments!tucson cowboy hatsYou can follow along in real time on Snapchat: mariposa2711

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Polaroid of the week: Island paradise on Isla Mujeres, Mexico

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polaroid of the week mexico 2016 isla mujeresI visited Isla Mujeres in 2010 on a day trip while I was living in Playa del Carmen, and even though it was a (too!) short visit, I was smitten with the tiny Caribbean island immediately. Crystal clear water, powdery sand beaches, palm trees softly swaying in the wind. It was a glorious day. And yet it took me nearly six years to return to Isla Mujeres, the Isle of Women. I decided to spend my last weekend in Mexico on the island, and I don’t think I could’ve chosen a more perfect place to end my Mexico trip with a bang, but it also made saying goodbye even more bittersweet. I know that I’ll be back in Mexico (hopefully rather sooner than later), but I was definitely not ready for this trip to end, especially after our fabulous road trip.

As the last stop for our road trip, the island was perfect! It is tiny enough to be explored in a golf kart in half a day, so we didn’t feel like we missed out on anything when we spent most of the weekend on the beach, sitting in a swing bar with a cool beer or searching for the best palm tree to spread out our beach towels under.

Even though Isla Mujeres isn’t the tiny fishing village it was once, and word has definitely gotten out about this little gem, it is still paradise. The island was much less touristy when I first came here, but being only a short 20-minute boat ride from Cancun, I was surprised that word hadn’t gotten out earlier. And even though we were there over the weekend, it didn’t feel crowded, and none of the spring break crowds that you find in Cancun had made their way over to Isla Mujeres.

Next time I’ll be back for a whole week…

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Polaroid of the week: Mysterious and beautiful – the cenotes of the Yucatan

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polaroid of the week mexico 2016 yucatan cenote jardin del edenWhat a week it’s been – my whirlwind road trip through the Yucatan is coming to an end – how can this even be?! It seems like it was just yesterday that I boarded my plane to Cancun in Mexico City, but looking back at all the places I’ve visited since then, it almost seems too much to fit in one short week!

After so many adventures, which I’ll be sharing in detail with you soon, I am having the hardest time deciding which picture to share with you today! The magnificent pyramid of Chichen Itza? The stunning Mayan temples of Tulum, with the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea as a backdrop? Or the jungle ruins of Coba? One of the many beaches I’ve visited in the past seven days? But since I just posted a picture of an ancient pyramid in Mexico and will be posting a picture of one of my favorite beaches in the world next week (so excited about returning to this place – you can get a sneak peek of it in my journey through Mexico picture post from 2010, it’s the second to last place we visited in Mexico back then), I narrowed it down to a cenote – but even that wasn’t easy, considering we visited five different amazing cenotes last week!

If you’ve never been to Mexico, you might not be familiar with cenotes, which are unique to the Yucatan peninsula: there are over 3,000 of them scattered across this part of the country! So what are they? Cenotes are underwater sinkholes, natural swimming holes that were formed by the collapse of porous limestone rock. Some of them are open, framed by the limestone rock, some are closed, only accessible through a small hole in the ground. What all of them have in common? Mineral-rich, fresh water, and incredible underwater rock formations. The water is usually crystal clear, which makes for splendid snorkeling or even diving in the bigger ones, where the small opening often doesn’t even reveal how far underground their cave systems reach. In some cenotes I saw divers appear seemingly out of nowhere; it made me almost want to give diving a try (it’ll happen one day, I guess!).

The word cenote means ‘sacred well’, by the way, and cenotes were used by the Mayans for sacrificial purposes long before we used them to cool off from the hot and humid temperatures of the Yucatan. What makes these swimming holes so special are not just the underwater rock formations and the stunning stalactites in the closed cave-like cenotes,  but also their surroundings – usually lush green jungl-y scenery. Sitting on the edge of the limestone rock looking out over the crystal clear water never ceases to amaze me, no matter how many cenotes I’ve visited.

On this trip, I visited Cenote del Jardin (pictured above), an open cenote south of Playa del Carmen, Cenote Zacil-Ha (also open) near Tulum, el Gran Cenote, which is partially covered and partially open (also near Tulum), and two closed cenotes near Valladolid: Cenote Samula and Cenote Xkeken. You might think one would tire of cenotes after a while, but they are all so different from each other that each and every one is an awe-inspiring experience – at least my fellow globetrottergirl and I were in awe in every single cenote we visited, and we would’ve happily visited more had we not been on such a tight schedule.

Stay tuned for one last dispatch from Mexico next week!

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Our Top 5 Favorite Beaches of 2012

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This year will go down in history as the year of the beach for the two of us!

All those days in the office before we started traveling long-term, our thoughts would drift to what it would be like to live on the beach and wake up to the crashing of waves on the shore, the sound of seagulls and being barefoot through the sand. Well in 2012 we certainly got our wish in a year that saw us living over five months on the beach. We spend longer stints in Mexico and Costa Rica, and took trips to the sandy shores of Singapore, Malaysia, India and our number one spot that often gets overlooked by its famous neighbor Thailand.

Read on for our five favorite beach experiences of 2012:

5. Varkala, India

While we didn’t see what all the hype was about on the beaches of Goa and Kerala, we did fall for the cliffs of Varkala, about an hour north of Trivandrum in the far south of India. What the laid-back village lacks in culture is easily made up for by walking the paths along the gorgeous cliffs, looking out over the wide beaches below. There are plenty of hotels and restaurants for every traveler’s budget, and the sunsets here were breathtaking.

Varkala Beach India4. Samara, Costa Rica

Long-time readers will know that Samara has been a favorite beach of ours since we first ended up there on whim back in 2011. This October we were lucky enough to return for a few days and were excited to find that this Costa Rican beach hasn’t lost any of its charm. Although the waves of  Samara are perfect for newbie surfers, the long stretch of sandy beach feels empty even in the high season, with restaurants and hotels well hidden behind the palm trees that line the shore. In a country so popular with international tourists, Samara is one of the few secret spots that combines a great selection of accommodation and relatively few tourists.

Samara Beach Costa Rica3. Langkawi, Malaysia

We had never even heard of Langkawi, an island off the Malaysian coast in the Andaman Sea, but somehow we found ourselves promising a Canadian expat we would go there when she so passionately insisted we visit the favorite part of her adopted country. We ended up spending a week there, and Cenang Beach was by far our favorite beach on the island. Powdery, soft white sand, clear and shallow water, palm trees and incredible sunsets. This is really the perfect vacation island for travelers from near and far.

Langkawi Malaysia2. Mahahual, Mexico

Odds are, you have never heard of Mahahual, unless maybe you have taken a short Caribbean cruise. A popular cruise port once or twice a week in high season, Mahahual is otherwise a small, relaxed fishing town on the Yucatan peninsula with incredibly warm, turquoise water. This was the closest place from the remote beach house we housesat this past summer, and we found every excuse to make the trip. Making sure not to be there on ‘cruise ship day’ we would lay in the rows of empty sun chairs lined up along the beach, working on our tans and sipping cool Mexican beer. Heaven on Earth!

Mahahual Mexico1. Otres Beach and Koh Rong, Cambodia

Cambodia takes the crown for our favorite beach in 2012! There are actually TWO beaches here that tie for first: Otres Beach, on the mainland, and Long Beach on the little known island of Koh Rong. Just a quick tuk-tuk ride from the popular beach town of Sihanoukville, a trip to Otres Beach means avoiding the touts selling tourist trinkets, and focusing on what is important: relaxing in your sun chair with a cool coconut, staring out at sea. The few restaurants and bars here are of better quality than in town and somehow it feels like the sunsets are, too!

Otres Beach Sihanoukville CambodiaFor those of you who are serious about your deserted beaches, Koh Rong’s Long Beach was an amazing experience. The small island two hours off the coast of Sihanoukville only has a handful of guest houses and not much to offer in the way of diversion, but with the seven mile stretch of crystal clear water on the other side of the island, we could have cared less. We were particularly unimpressed with the side of the island where the port is and even considered leaving a day early, until we were told about a path that leads over to the other side of the island. It is an hour-long hike across an entirely untamed islands, which included much tripping, a bit of falling, profuse sweating, more swearing and a 75m descent straight down by clinging to a rope that mysteriously appears the minute you need it to finish the way down. Walking out into the clearest water we have ever seen, however, made the hike entirely worth it. Of course, we found out later you can rent a boat, round-trip, for $25 to take you and ten of your closest friends from the port on a 15-minute ride around to the otherwise deserted Long Beach. But we preferred working hard to reach our absolute favorite beach of 2012!

Koh Rong CambodiaNow we want to know from you – what is the best beach you visited in 2012? Better yet where is your favorite beach in the world?

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Why you need to see Mexico…now

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Surrealist painter Salvador Dali said he couldn’t live in Mexico because it was too surreal for him – a piece of information sure to stir up intrigue in anyone familiar with the artist’s work. But what made him say this? And why should you visit the very place this mind-bending artist couldn’t handle? Read on to find out why a holiday to Mexico could make you glad of the persistence of memory…

Mexico City Street ArtMexico’s weird and wonderful landscapes are one thing you are unlikely to forget once you’ve seen them, and the country’s views could well have inspired Dali’s ‘surreal’ label, with breath-taking mountain ranges, sprawling desserts and tropical rainforests all vying for attention. In fact, the second-largest remaining tropical rainforest in the Americas stretches through Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, and is home to equally enthralling creatures such as the white-lipped peccary, the tapir, the scarlet macaw, the harpy eagle and the howler monkey. Also, The Nature Conservancy reports that five large cat species live in the lush greenery there.

Tulum ruins But let’s take a step back and look at Mexico’s position on the map, and what this means for the holidaymaker. This stunning country is bordered by the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, the US and Guatemala. While the majority of the Mexican northern and central territories are located at high altitudes, the yearly temperature average doesn’t normally fall below 20 °C, but does reach up to 28°C. In other words, Mexico is nestled in surroundings that make it a diverse and interesting landscape and it enjoys lovely weather that is not unbearably hot.

For those who want a holiday full of fantastic sights and activities, Mexico is perfect. Tourists can go diving to explore part of the world’s second largest coral reef at the Parque Marino Nacional Arrecifes de Cozumel, or snorkel with whale sharks in Cancun. History buffs can enjoy the city’s rich selection of museums or visit the ancient empire of the pre-Hispanic Aztec capital – the ruins of which were found under the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral – and see two religious temples, pyramids, serpent carvings, and shrines.

Palenque ruinsIf you want to laze around on a stunning sun-kissed beach, Mexico can deliver the perfect backdrop to your holiday snaps with its 450 different beaches.

Food in Mexico is a vibrant melting pot of different influences from South America, the Caribbean and Africa, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have its own clear identity too. Dishes based on corn and vibrant, spicy foods with tongue-tingling chilli flavours are available in abundance in Mexico, and a new and exciting food experience is always around the corner if you’re prepared to be adventurous!

Mexican Street FoodWithout wishing to argue with one the most famous artists of all time, thanks to it’s beautiful landscape, exciting and colourful food offerings and amazing history, perhaps there’s a better word to describe Mexico.

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Polaroid of the week: Our cheeky gecko in Mexico

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polaroid of the week mexico 2012 geckoWe may not have had many neighbors around in our remote little beach house, we had plenty of roommates. Dozens of geckos of all sizes were always wiggling around our walls, helping to rid it of mosquitoes and other little bugs. Jess loved the little tiny babies – not even an inch in length – that just recently joined the house party, but this green little gecko was our favorite – he loved hanging out around us and watching us while we were cooking, reading or having dinner. He also was very photogenic and instead of running away when we got to close, he seemed to enjoy posing for the camera.

This morning we said goodbye to him and all the other geckos and of course our beautiful dog and left the beach house. One last time we drove down the dirt road that leads to the remote little paradise that we called home for the last two months, watching the sun rise in the rear view mirror. Even though we are excited to return to Mexico City tonight, we are very sad to be leaving the Costa Maya – there’s no doubt though that we will be back.

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Polaroid of the week: The beauty of the Caribbean

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polaroid of the week mexico 2012 the beauty of the caribbean
We have been back in Mexico for almost two months now and have realized that we are so happy here not only because we love Mexico. After traveling to so many beaches around the world, we now know we prefer the Caribbean: its crystal clear Caribbean water, non-existent waves and soft, white sand.

Of course we find beaches that we love in other places, like on Koh Rong in Cambodia or Samara in Costa Rica, but the Caribbean combines true beauty and utter relaxation in a way that we just can’t resist. And even though we’re leaving this beautiful patch of Mexican playa next week, I am sure it won’t be long until we’re back on the Caribbean sea.

Where is your favorite beach in the world?

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