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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 travel to Isla Mujeres again, 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 also have time to visit 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! Have I convinced you to visit Isla Mujeres?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. visit Isla MujeresBut 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’. Don’t expect shopping malls or anything like that when you visit Isla Mujeres!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 $9 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 stumbled upon during my first visit to Isla Mujeres, 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 travel 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 norteThe number of hotels on Isla Mujeres is limited, but you can find a great selection of apartments on Airbnb. 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!)

The top-rated hotels in Isla Mujeres are:

  • Nomads Hotel & Beach Bar – Stunning hotel with a seaside pool-bar, sun-beds & hammocks. Aimed at a younger clientele. Dorm bed from US$12, king room with balcony from US$109
  • Casa Barco Boutique Hotel – Small boutique hotel with a rooftop pool and stunning ocean views. Rooms start at US$65 per night
  • Casa Azul Maya – Spacious rooms with fully equipped kitchenette(fridge, microwave, coffee maker), dining area, and a private bathroom. All rooms have AC and a flat-screen TV. Rooms start at US$100 per night
  • Hotel Secreto – Artsy hotel with stylish suites and an infinity pool overlooking the ocean. King Room with Garden View from US$127; Junior Suite from US$138
  • Hotel La Joya Isla Mujeres – gorgeous waterfront hotel with outdoor pool, barbecue facilities. All rooms have balconies / terraces. From US$140 per room per night
  • Izla Beach Front Hotel – New beachfront hotel with large swimming pool near Paraiso Beach. From US$188 per room per night
  • Privilege Aluxes Adults Only Resort – Stylish hotel with 2 outdoor swimming pools right on Playa Norte (ALL INCLUSIVE from US$230 per couple per night)

Check out all hotels on Isla Mujeres on Booking.com here.

Villas & Apartments in Isla Mujeres

  • Villas Najo’ Isla Mujeres – 1-bedroom apartment with a patio and pool views, a living room, flat-screen TV, kitchen equipped with microwave and fridge. Shared outdoor pool. From US$125 per night.
  • Casa Santosha – Modern 3-bedroom villa with an outdoor swimming pool, a beautiful terrace, and a garden. The lounge has a flat-screen TV, the kitchen has a microwave and a fridge, a washing machine, and there are 4 bathrooms with a shower. Starting at around US$420 per night.
  • Aruma – luxurious villa with a private pool. The villa has 5 bedrooms and 6 bathrooms, a flat-screen TV, a dining area, a fully equipped kitchen, plus a balcony with sea views. From around US$700 per night.

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33 Things I Love About Mexico

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I spent around nine months in Mexico—a country I know I’ll visit over and over again. I have traveled along the Pacific Coast, done several road trips in the Yucatan, I’ve eaten my way around Mexico City, and visited more Maya ruins than I can remember. I have so much love for Mexico—and I’d like to share some of the things I love about Mexico with you:

things I love about mexico
1. Mexican Food – Mexican food is completely different to what we expected, but it turns out we love almost all of it! From Tlayudas and panuchos to bean quesadillas and potato tacos plus chilaquiles and tortas (filled sandwiches – Mexico City has the biggest ones) it has been amazing to discover the food here!
 
2. Driving golf carts around the island of Isla Mujeres. This little island in the Caribbean is one of the things I love about Mexico the most—one of my favorite places in the entire country.

isla mujeres mexico

3. Mexicans – Friendliest people on the planet!

4. Markets – Though at times they can be shocking (squealing pigs the minute before their eventual slaughter and large yellow chicken feet spring to mind) the markets in Mexico are amazing to explore. The 20 de Noviembre market in Oaxaca was our favorite for the best selection of food (including the hundreds of mounds of deep-fried grasshoppers!) and mezcal.

5. Huevos motuleños – Yes, yes, we already said we loved the food, but this all day breakfast food quickly became our favorite after we discovered them during a long wait in Palenque for a bus to Merida. Huevos motuleños involve a fried tortilla topped with black beans, fried eggs, sauce and plantains, plus ham for the meat-eaters out there. Heavenly!

6. Cenotes – considering we had never even heard of these underground waterholes, swimming in the cenotes on the Yucatan felt a bit daring and definitely refreshing.

cenote mexico

7. Victoria beer – There, we said it. We love Victoria beer!

8. Mexico City – It’s a magnificent mega-metropolis which requires some patience and understanding, but Mexico City is a hub of creative, forward-thinking groups and individuals with art, markets, and music everywhere you turn. Sure it has its problems, but what city doesn’t? It’s the combination of it all that makes the city so great: Posh areas like Polanco are offset charming bohemian areas like La Condesa and by more run-down parts of the Centro Historico where culture and tradition seep into your soul. How cool to see Mariachis and Mayans catching cabs, Mexican rock bands headbang on a plaza next to a salsa club, sleek and stylish club-goers passing by happy families in the park until the wee hours and openly gay men and women walking hand in hand with their partners more often than in any U.S. city we know of. Frida and Diego (Kahlo and Rivera that is) can be found everywhere, and there are hundred of art museums, exhibitions and co-operations with institutes world wide. Mexico City is chaotic, yet quaint, crazy and creative. We miss you Mexico City!

Mexico City

9. The Caribbean coast, especially Playa Norte on Isla Mujeres, where you can walk 40 to 50 meters out into the crystal blue water and it only comes up to your knees… but there are so many beaches along the Caribbean coast that are stunning – including Tulum, Akumal, and our own private beach in Xcalak.. they all deserve their own spot in my list of things I love about Mexico, but I’ll try to keep this short 😉


10. Valladolid – we fell in love with this little Pueblo Magico (magic village) on the Yucatan, but we’d like you to please not visit Valladolid.

11. Mariachi Bands – always fun to listen to, even if they don’t quite hit the notes.

things I love about mexico

12. Agua fresca – We might actually be able to slowly wean ourselves off Diet Coke thanks to these giant one liter drinks of water blended with fruit. We especially like Cantaloupe and Guayaba ‘aguas’.

13. Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul – Stuffed with her art, personal belongings and pictures, it makes you feel like you really get to know her, plus the gardens are gorgeous.

14. The cattle in front of our house in San Luis Beltran, Oaxaca.

15. The colorful traditional clothes worn throughout Mexico, from the many wool variations to be found in Oaxaca and San Cristobal de las Casas to the beautiful long white gowns embroidered with flowers that the woman of the Yucatan wear.  Oh, and real life cowboys!

Sure, we know this continues on from Guatemala down through South America, but there is also something so unifying about how even the non-indigenous men/women will wear very traditional Mexican clothing rather than identifying with global fashion. It seems like for many here, people are Mexican first, class/race/socioeconomic status comes second.

16. Diego Rivera Murals in Mexico City – The murals are so insightful into Mexican history and culture, and you could spend more than a day hunting them all down throughout Mexico City. Diego’s influence as an artist was enormous here.

17. San Cristobal de las Casas – the prettiest colonial town we have seen so far.

san cristobal de las casas

18. The tacos from the taco vendor in Calle Uruguay – Near the bakery Pasteleria Ideal in #74  in Mexico City, you’ll see the large group of people crowded around the vendor – that’s the spot. Try an agua fresca here too – delicious.

19. Lizards galore! Mexico is filled with lizards big and small, from our pet gecko in our apartment in Playa del Carmen (and its subsequent tiny tiny little babies), to the giant iguanas in Tulum, Valladolid, Isla Mujeres and Chichen Itza. Plus we have come within a few feet of countless crocodiles, something we never thought was possible!

20. The historical ruins – The Mayan and Aztec ruins in Mexico are so majestic! We visited Teotihuacan near Mexico City, Monte Alban near Oaxaca, Palenque in Chiapas, Tulum and Chichen Itza on the Yucatan.

palenque mexico

21. Mexican bakeries  – Even just window-shopping makes our (read: Dani’s) mouths water. Cakes, fresh fruit and yogurt parfaits, cupcakes, sweet breads and freshly baked rolls are all delicious. Special shout-out to Pasteleria Ideal in Mexico City!

22. Cheladas and Micheladas –Beer mixed with tomato juice, salt, pepper and hot sauce. This is basically like a Bloody Mary but beer replaces vodka. Genius!

23. The tuk-tuks in Oaxaca.

24. Mexican buses –  The buses in Mexico are top standard, reliable and clean. ADO, OCC and Oriente all provide great service, though ADO’s films and air-conditioning are good for longer trips (more expensive, though).

25. Hostal La Candelaria in Valladolid. The best hostel we stayed at in Mexico. Clean rooms, two kitchens (one outside), a gorgeous garden, and very friendly owners. Plus two of the cutest little Chihuahuas of all time.things i love about mexico

26. Free wi-fi – In any public park or square in even the smallest city/town, at least a dozen people can be found with their laptops, not only using the free wi-fi, but also charging their computers. The parks have outlets for charging! Who needs Starbucks, when you can have free wi-fi in the park!

27. Lucha Libre – Mexican Wrestling rocks. Yes, it’s fake, but the crowd goes crazy and we loved it!

28.  Policemen, on horses, preferably with sombreros.

29.  Fruit in a bag, freshly cut and topped with spices & lime, for $1.00. One of the things I love about Mexico most!

30. Getting our laundry professionally washed – For less than $4, a lady with a brand-new washer and dryer will scrub out stains, wash and dry your clothes and then iron them all down, flat as pancakes, leaving you with a stack of clothes a quarter of the size of the dirty, stinky ball you brought to her.

31. Mexican mannequins. How can you not love ‘em? 😉

things I love about mexico

32. The Beaches on Mexico’s Pacific Coast – the Riviera Nayarit is gorgeous!

33. Road tripping in the YucatanSpanish-colonial villages, fantastic food, beautiful Caribbean beaches, cenotes, Maya ruins galore, lush green jungle – the Yucatan is spectacular, and the roads there are in good condition, which makes it easy to drive there.

What are your favorite  things about Mexico?  Let’s reminisce together in the comments below!

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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 Yucatan road trip.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 mosquitoes 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 Playa Del Carmen

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 at the Grand Hyatt Playa del Carmen

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

Grand Hyatt Playa del Carmen: 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

Grand Hyatt Playa Del Carmen: The 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

Tip: Booking.com often has special discount rates for the Grand Hyatt Playa del Carmen.

Grand Hyatt Resort Playa del Carmen Mexico

 

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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. What better way to do this than taking her on a Yucatan road trip!?dani coba ruins

Why 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. And because I know this region of Mexico well, it was easy for me to map out a Yucatan road trip itinerary.tulum beach mexicoI knew I could give her a great taste of Mexico in the Yucatan, 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 valladolid

Planning the perfect Yucatan Road Trip

Once I started to map out my dream Yucatan road trip in detail using my itinerary planner, 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.

yucatan road tripIf you have more time than we did (ten days), I recommend you take this slightly longer route for your Yucatan road trip, 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 itineraryIf 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 Yucatan road trip 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 during our Yucatan road trip. Playa del Carmen is a great base for some beach time and to explore a couple of cenotes, because 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 very Americanized and tourist-focused, but I know that other people like it and return to Playa year afer year. 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.yucatan road tripOur 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 akumalAs 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. Tulum was a stop on our Yucatan road trip I was especially excited about, because here we would visit the first (out of three) Mayan ruins which I had planned our Yucatan 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 treeThe next stop on our Yucatan road trip was Cobá. Cobá 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.yucatan road tripValladolid was the stop on our Yucatan 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. The final, grand destination of our Yucatan road trip 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!):

yucatan road trip

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  – something to keep in mind when mapping out your own Yucatan road trip.

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The Best Beaches in the World – Globetrottergirls Edition

caribbean vacation

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 to find out what the five best beaches were for us in 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 India best beaches in the world4. 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 Rica

3. 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, and we’re not sure why Langkawi hasn’t made it on any of the many “Best Beaches in the world” lists yet.

Langkawi Malaysia best beaches in the world2. 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 Mexico

1. 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!

best beaches in the worldFor 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 Cambodia best beaches in the world

Now we want to know from you – what are the best beaches in the world for you?

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Notes from the beach house | Week One

our beach in mexico

We are writing today from the shores of Mexico’s Caribbean coast, just three days in to a two-month housesit in Mexico. These are views from just about everywhere on the property:

housesitting in MexicoThe sun has burned away most of the morning cloud cover, and the wind rustling loudly through the palm leaves makes for a perfectly cooling sea breeze despite hot and humid temperatures. I alternate between typing and gazing out at the shallow water just barely covering the barrier reef that stretches 200m out to sea. I watch the waves crash way out there where the shelf drops off starkly and the deep blue of the ocean begins. We can snorkel right in our own backyard among the shades of azure, cobalt, sapphire, teal and navy blue water. The house-sitter staying a few doors down says she tries to go everyday. I imagine we will too, but the homeowner is still here and we have a lot to learn before he leaves us to our own devices for eight weeks.

mexico our coconut tree and oceanLiving out here in some of the most remote reaches of Mexico isn’t exactly just a day at the beach, and the level of responsibility is higher than other housesits we have had (this is our 11th housesit in two years). But the pristine beauty of the area is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and once the wheels were in motion, we could not turn the opportunity down. We applied for this through housecarers.com, with the application process beginning as they always do – on a whim; just a glimmer of possibility.

“Hey, wanna go down to Mexico for two months for a housesit after Tracey’s wedding (my best friend got married in Denver in June)?” Dani asked one day a few months back. She was going through the Housecarers notification emails – as she does every day – and out of the 30 or so choices that day, this one understandably caught her eye. She explained that it was a beach house, it was very remote, the ad mentioned snorkeling right off the private beach and that the house was almost entirely off the grid.

“Well, we have experience with solar power from our Bavarian housesit last year,” I answered, “and we do need some peace and quiet to get a bunch of work done…” As we looked back and forth between the ad and each other, there was no flooding of excuses, no ideas why we shouldn’t at least apply… Cut to two weeks later when we received an email and it turned out, of all the potential housesitters who applied (and this time, like all other times, there were dozens if not hundreds who had) Dani and I were chosen. Emails went back and forth, references were checked and plane tickets were purchased. We were committed to spending the summer months in Mexico.

housesitting in MexicoNormally, a two day handover is required before the owners leave, but this case is different. Here, we’re learning how to maintain a house that runs almost entirely with solar energy in a very remote location. Though we didn’t step into this blindly, the word ‘remote’ can be a relative term. Someone from Manhattan might consider Iowa City remote, while a cowboy from Montana would apply the word to a 10 hour ride into the mountains reachable only by horseback. We are somewhere in between, but much more to the side of the cowboy. Several times on the ride down here, the owner would turn onto another perfectly straight road, flanked on either side with miles of sprawling green trees and mangroves and we would mutter another exasperated ‘Wow’, mesmerized by just how much wide open space laid behind, in front and on the sides of us.

“Didn’t Angela* tell you how remote it was?” Tom* asked each time. “Yes of course,” we would reassure him in unison. Truth be told, however, there was no way to know just what we had gotten ourselves into until we finally pulled in to the drive and brought our bags in to our temporary abode.

mexico shell and our beachLuckily, it is better than we dared to imagine. The beach house has hot water (even a rain shower head, my favorite bathroom accessory), a full kitchen with a stove, fridge and freezer, a double bed, plenty of closet space, a couch and two tables inside, and a set of beach chairs on a patio outside, all with a clear view of the ocean, obscured only by palm trees. The property is kept clean and neat and seems much newer than its nine years. There is an outdoor palapa off to the side with a table, chairs and even electricity sockets to plug in and work, plus another gorgeous table and chairs fashioned out of driftwood down at the water’s edge.

“The hardest part of your morning,” Tom jokes, “will be deciding where to have your coffee…”

So far, we couldn’t be happier with the prospects of spending two months here alone with our guard dog and the three or four fellow housesitters in neighboring houses along this strip of beach. We will post about the highs and lows of housesitting and all our beach house adventures over the next few weeks, so stay tuned and please feel free to ask us any questions you have about housesitting worldwide in the comments below.

housesitting in Mexico

For anyone who is interesting in housesitting – we found this housesitting gig through housecarers.com.

*Names of homeowners and certain details of our location will be changed to respect their privacy and maintain anonymity during our stay.

Continue reading about our housesit in Mexico:

Notes from the beach house, week 3

Notes from the beach house, hurricane edition

Break Free on Amazon.comStart housesitting today! Find out more about the most comprehensive book on the subject here, written by us for you.

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Notes from the beach house: The hurricane edition

Mexico bad weather

Our time at the beach house has gotten considerably more intense since our last post.

Do we stay or do we go

The most notable change was the arrival of hurricane Ernesto in Mexico last week. The storm itself is said to have reached Category 2 as it hit land just 20 miles north of the beach house, ripping through the jungle and knocking down all the power lines in its path.

But it was the build-up to the hurricane that was so intense. Speculation as to whether what was then tropical storm Ernesto would turn into a hurricane or fade out into a tropical depression. And if it did become a hurricane, would we stay or would we go.

It began almost a week before the storm with an email from the homeowner whether we had heard about the possibility of Ernesto coming to visit. At this point it was laid back, a possibility, something to keep an eye on and a topic of discussion with the neighbors.

These were the sunniest of days spent relaxing in the water, working from the hammocks or right on the beach. A possible hurricane seemed surreal, but emails kept coming from the homeowners in the States and the whole hurricane threat slowly kept building.

beers in the ocean
Two days before the hurricane – a storm seemed impossible.

We went over how we would pack everything up, including whether or not to knock all the coconuts out of the palm trees in the front so they didn’t end up shattering windows.  And then, slowly but surely, everything got technical.

Avoiding the ‘Dirty’ side

Email chains turned to information about storm systems. I found myself calculating latitude and longitude and possible points of contact using online meteorological tools to estimate best and worst case scenarios.

The local expats started talking about the chances of being on the ‘dirty’ side of the hurricane – meaning the hurricane hits south and winds hit counterclockwise and cause much more destruction.

Suddenly all we wanted was for the storm to hit north. There was no doubt now that the storm was coming, and not only would it be a hurricane, it could possibly pick up speed to become a Category 2, which, according to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale on Wikipedia, means that ‘extremely dangerous winds will cause extensive damage’.

We looked at our options. We could stay in a house not 30 feet from the beach, hours from any sort of real assistance, no phone or internet waiting out a possible Cat 2 hurricane that could take up to 18 hours to pass overhead.

Or we could leave.

So we left.

There had been some heavy rain the day before, but the morning we left, the water was calm, the birds were chirping, and the only indication that something was a bit ‘off’ were the dozens of dragonflies that were hovering around.

Mexico hurricane Ernesto
An eerily calm ocean on the morning of the hurricane.

In fact, we almost felt foolish for leaving. Many of the expats were staying and the homeowners kept saying it was ‘our call’, which to us meant they would stay if they were here. Our Mexican neighbors to the south had been boarding up and made their escape that morning too, and as we made our way through the village, watching the sun glistening off the bright blue ocean out the windows of the truck, we passed all the fishing boats which had been called in, and passed by the clapboard houses all boarded up and empty. The locals had fled.

As we made our way north, several Army pick-up trucks filled with Mexican soldiers sped past us, back toward where we came from, and in fact much of the Costa Maya was evacuated just a few hours after we left to head to Playa del Carmen.

(Bitter)Sweet Civilization

After five weeks down in the middle of nowhere it felt great to rejoin civilization again for a few days and made us realize just how isolated we have been and how ready we will be to leave here in two weeks. But it will be bittersweet.

cake in playa del carmen
A piece of cake in Playa del Carmen – Dani’s first cake in weeks!

This is the longest we have ever stayed anywhere in over two years (previously that was our lovely Canada housesit last summer). This is also the longest we have ever had to bond with a pet, too, and leaving Loba will be gut-wrenching. We seriously love this dog. She is full of personality and has some of the most adorable habits, like when she hops through the shallow Caribbean water hunting for fish, looking more like an antelope springing up and down across African plains. Dani taught her to give paw, and we spent hours playing with her, or watching her sprint laps around the beach like a race dog. No matter where we are in the world, we will always think about her all the way down here guarding the beach house.

Loba on the beach in mexicoWhat seemed like an endless stretch of summertime has now whittled its way down to less than two weeks left here at the beach house. The countdown begins. Only two more times filling water in the solar batteries, four more times with the generator, a few more dinners with our awesome new Kiwi friends / fellow house-sitters and not enough time to catch up on all the snorkeling we wanted to do when we arrived…

Next Stop: Costa Rica

There might be some snorkeling to be done though on our next stop: Costa Rica! That’s right, we have been accepted for our sixth housesit of 2012. This time it will be a two month stint in a beach town on the Nicoya peninsula…a new puppy, a new house and much more civilization – relatively.

Stay tuned for our final Notes from the Beach House – Mexico edition – in two weeks’ time. Let’s hope for a hurricane-free time until then!

Start housesitting today! Find out more about the most comprehensive book on the subject here, written by us for you: Break Free – The Ultimate Guide to Housesitting.

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Our journey through Mexico in pictures

chichen-itza-dani-jump-mexico

Mexico was  only the second country of our trip, but we (unexpectedly) fell in love with the country and extended our stay there again and again – in the end we spent 88 days there, and traveled more than 3600 kilometers (2370 miles) through the country.

Reminiscing (yes, again), we looked through our thousands of photos of Mexico and decided to take you on a photographic tour of our journey through this fabulous country:

Upon arrival in Mexico City, we were welcomed by Mariachi bands & folklore groups…

We discovered some great street art…

… and enjoyed the fantastic views from the Torre Latinoamericano.

In Xochimilco we enjoyed a ride in one of the famous trajinera boats…

… and in Coyoacan, we not only enjoyed the bohemian flair and the market, we also visited Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul.

photos of Mexico

The archeological site of the Aztec town of Teotihuacan was a Must on our list.

photos of Mexico

Soon after we headed to Puebla where  we were we discovered a town that had, until 2003, manufactured the famous VW Beetles…

… and we admired the many tiled houses throughout the city.

photos of Mexico

We got to Oaxaca in time for its famous Guelaguetza festivities in July…

photos of Mexico

… and spent a  great couple of weeks in this beautiful colonial town, not leaving without having visited the glorious Maya ruins of Monte Alban.

photos of Mexico

Our next stop was the sleepy beach village of Mazunte on Oaxaca’s Pacific coast, where we were met with a subtropical climate for the first time on our journey.

After a couple of relaxing days we moved on to neighboring Zipolite, before leaving the coast for our next colonial town: San Cristobal de las Casas.

Mexico photos

In San Cristobal we came across more fantastic street art…

Mexico photos

… and the large presence of Chiapas’ indigenous Maya people was noticeable throughout the entire town.

photos of Mexico

We visited the Mayan villages of Zinacantan and Chamula, where we were shown how the Mayan women weave their clothes and make their tortillas.

We visited Sumidero Canyon where we saw the breathtaking Christmas tree waterfall and dozens of crocodiles…

photos of Mexico

On our way to Merida we stopped at the beautiful waterfalls Agua Azul and Misol Ha:

… and one of our favourite Maya ruins: Palenque, tucked deep into the jungle.

photos of Mexico

In Merida we arrived in time for some heavy rains and floodings…

photos of Mexico

… but the August heat came back quickly and we enjoyed the town’s magnificent churches before…

photos of Mexico

… heading to Cazuma, where we explored our first of the many cenotes (underwater sinkholes) on the Yucatan peninsula.

Our next stop was Valladolid, which turned out to be our favorite town in all of Mexico:

We were intrigued by its friendly people…

Mexico photos

… and the mysterious hold that its charming architecture has over us…

Mexico photos

Chichen Itza was another impressive Maya ruin we visited…

Mexico photos

… and the Cenotes Xkeken and Samula are only a short bike ride from Valladolid.

Mexico photos

We settled for four weeks in Playa del Carmen, just up from the hoards of tourists where we had the beach practically to ourselves…

photos of Mexico

We did not leave Mexico before a visit to Isla Mujeres, a tiny, gorgeous island off the coast of Cancun, which had a great Caribbean feeling to it…

… although the cliffs on the southern end of the island reminded us more of Scotland and Ireland…

… and finally a stop in Tulum, maybe not the most amazing Mayan ruins, but definitely the ones in the most stunning setting, right by the turquoise Caribbean sea.Mexico photos

Our very last stop in Mexico was Chetumal on the border to Belize, where we took off in a speedboat to our next destination: Ambergris Caye, Belize.

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The two faces of Playa del Carmen: A walk up the ‘famous’ Fifth Avenue

5th Avenue non-paved

Anyone who has been to Playa del Carmen knows Fifth Avenue, or ‘Quinta Avenida’ in Spanish. That is, if you ever needed to use your Spanish while you were in Playa.  As we made our way down 5th for the first time, we were shocked at just how Americanized this once sleepy fishing village had become. 5th Ave is Playa’s main street, and has been carefully created for tourists. You can pay in U.S. Dollars everywhere, and the prices at restaurants and in shops lean more toward prices in the U.S. than the rest of Mexico. (Pizza, and there is a lot of Pizza in Playa, can be even more expensive – much to our pizza loving dismay).

We rented an apartment to the far northern end of town, out of this ‘tourist zone’ and we quickly discovered that there are two faces to Playa’s 5th Avenue:

playa del carmen fifth avenue

While the Southern end of 5th Avenue is lined with souvenir shops, Starbucks cafes, fast food chains and fancy restaurants….

playa del carmen fifth avenue

… the Northern end of the street is nothing more than an unpaved dirt road without street lights:

playa del carmen fifth avenue

As soon as the tourist-friendly part of the street ends…

playa del carmen fifth avenue

playa del carmen fifth avenue

… you make your way through car graveyards and…

… the fancy apartment buildings…


playa del carmen fifth avenue

… are replaced by houses that look more like this:

The difference in the appearance of houses inside and outside 5th avenue’s hotel zone is drastic:

playa del carmen fifth avenueTwo different kinds of trash (actual piles of garbage on the left / Senor Frogs on the right).

playa del carmen fifth avenue

No matter where you are on 5th Avenue, one thing is certain: Just to the west is one of the most beautiful white sand beaches in Mexico.

playa del carmen fifth avenue

Have you been to Playa del Carmen’s Fifth Avenue? What are your thoughts on the town’s most famous street?

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Polaroid of the week: Our wireless office in Mexico

polaroidoftheweekphoto11

polaroid of the week mexico 2012 digital nomads at workAs our time at the beach house starts to wind down, we thought we’d share a Polaroid of us working down at the water – the internet reaches all the way to the shore! We originally shared this photo on The Wireless Generation Facebook page. Our friends and fellow digital nomads Christine and Drew Gilbert are just a few weeks short of finishing their full length documentary about this generation of wireless workers, making our way around the globe and working from wherever there is a wi-fi internet connection.

The film, which has been over two years in the making, features 18 digital nomads who packed up their lives to live remotely and see the world and has been gaining popularity across the web. It is fascinating to see how many people are involved in this movement, doing what we do, and how many jobs can actually be done from anywhere in the world. We have to admit that the gorgeous views from our current office make it a challenge to stay focused on work and maintain the self-discipline that is necessary to be a successful digital nomad…

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