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What to do in the Riviera Maya

sunrise mexico

The Riviera Maya is one of the most popular destinations in Mexico, and it’s easy to see why: crystal clear Caribbean waters, pristine beaches, beautiful little beach towns and Maya ruins galore. Add to that the unique natural feature of this region: cenotes, which are underwater sinkholes, the unique underwater world, which includes turtles, and plenty of adventure activities, and you’ll want your vacation to never end. If you booked your vacation but you’re still not sure what to do in the Riviera Maya, read this articles for some ideas (and to get you excited for your trip!).

I’ll share some of the best things to do in the Riviera Maya and how you can have the best vacation of your life. No matter if it’s the first time you visit this region or the second or third time – there’s always something new to discover.
riviera Maya

Prepare for your trip to the Riviera Maya

To make sure your trip goes flawlessly, it is essential to take some precautions and prepare for your trip. The three main things to consider are:

● Buy travel insurance.

This is especially important if you’re planning to do partake in any adventurous activities: ziplining, diving, snorkeling – but even swimming in a cenote, or visiting Maya ruins. In Coba, for example, you can climb to the top of the highest pyramid, and accidents can happen.coba main ruin mexico

● Get money on arrival at the airport.

You could try to pay with US Dollars everywhere, but then you’ll be charged a “tourist tax” – meaning you’ll be charge more than the actual price in pesos. I don’t recommend exchanging money at a Money Exchange, especially not at the airport, because they take a big commission. Get money out of the ATM instead. On that note: familiarize yourself with the current exchange rate. You don’t want to end up taking out $2.60 in cash because you didn’t know how much 50 Mexican pesos are.

1 US Dollar currently buy you almost 19 Mexican pesos – I recommend taking out at least US$200 (MXN3,700) for a week long vacation – this’ll cover tips, meals in local restaurants that don’t accept card payment, ice cream on the beach and snacks. If you are planning to visit some cenotes, check online to see if you have to pay in cash (Tripadvisor is a great resource, GoogleMaps reviews are also helpful).

● Buy eco-friendly sunscreen.

Be considerate of the environment and buy eco-friendly sunscreen prior to your trip. The underwater world of the Caribbean Sea is fragile, and if you’re planning to swim with turtles in Akumal, you should be conscious of what kind of sunscreen you use. Sunscreen is usually more expensive in tourist destinations, so it makes sense to stock up before your trip. Amazon has several eco-friendly sunscreens.swimming with turtles

Transportation

The closest airport to the Riviera Maya is Cancun International Airport. Cancun has direct flights to most of the major hubs in the U.S., including Chicago, New York, Miami and L.A. It is easy to get from Cancun airport to all popular destinations along the Riviera Maya, and Cancun Airport Transfers service bring you to Playa del Carmen, Akumal, Tulum, or whatever your destination is in that area.

These are the distances from Cancun airport to the main tourist destinations:

  • Playa del Carmen (45 minutes / 35 miles)
  • Tulum (90 minutes / 73 miles)
  • Akumal (75 mins / 57 miles)
  • Puerto Morelos (20 mins / 15 miles)
  • Bacalar (4 hours / 208 miles)

You can also rent a car in Cancun if you’d like to be mobile during your stay. The roads are in good condition, and it’s easy to drive in this part of Mexico. Because the attractions, beaches and towns are quite spread out along the Riviera Maya, having a car will give you more flexibility and enable you to explore at your own pace.Riviera Maya Road Trip

Places you should see in the Riviera Maya

Playa del Carmen

Playa del Carmen is the most popular tourist destination in the Riviera Maya, and you’ll find everything you could possibly need in Playa: a number of malls and excellent shopping, especially along Fifth Avenue, the main pedestrian street in Playa del Carmen. World-class dining – in addition to Mexican fare, you can also find international cuisine in Playa. No matter if you’re looking for high-end dining options or local street vendors – Playa’s got you covered! There are also movie theaters, spas, beach clubs and nightclubs in Playa.

If you want to visit Holbox island, the ferry for Holbox also leaves from Playa.playa del carmen

Isla Mujeres

Isla Mujeres is easy to visit – you can either take an organized boat tour from Cancun, or simply hop on the ferry and spend a day there. The island is tiny, and the best way to get around is by golf cart. You can rent them right near the ferry pier. If you don’t want to explore but just enjoy some of the best Caribbean beaches in all of Mexico, head to Playa Norte, which is just a short walk from the ferry.

Things to do in the Riviera Maya

Tulum

Tulum is known for two things: the breathtakingly beautiful Maya ruins, which overlook the turquoise Caribbean Sea, and the picturesque beach with soft, powdery, white sand. I recommend visiting the Maya ruins early, because around 10am, all the tour buses from Cancun arrive and it gets crowded. The earlier you can get there, the less people will be there, and the more you’ll be able to enjoy the ruins. It’s also a good idea to visit the ruins early because it gets hot later in the day – and that’s when you’ll want to be on the beach. Tulum ruins open at 8am and close at 5pm.

If you have a car, you may also want to add the Gran Cenote to your visit, one of the most scenic cenotes in the Riviera Maya.tulum castillo

Hotels and resorts in the Riviera Maya

There are plenty of hotels and resorts along the Riviera Maya – when choosing a hotel, it’s important to consider what you like in a hotel. Most of the larger all-inclusive resorts are further away from the town, so you won’t be in walking distance to local restaurants and local shopping, but if you prefer the amenities of a large resort, some of them are absolutely stunning. Just be aware that you’ll need a car or hire a taxi to visit other places along the Riviera Maya.

If you want to be close to restaurants and nightlife, I recommend staying in Playa del Carmen. For the best small boutique hotels, check out Tulum. One of my favorite hotels in Playa del Carmen is the Grand Hyatt Resort.

If you don’t need the amenities hotels and resorts offer, check out Airbnb. There are plenty of vacation rentals along the Riviera Maya, and smaller towns like Puerto Morelos and Akumal present a much more “local” experience than Cancun’s hotel zone.hyatt playa del carmen

Cenotes and beaches in the Riviera Maya

These natural sinkholes, usually created through the collapse of the ceiling cave, are one of the unique features of the Yucatan peninsula. The Yucatan is full of them – there are thousands of cenotes here. Many of them are located right along the Riviera Maya, and these sinkholes make for perfect swimming spots. The water is usually crystal clear and begs you to swim in it, and if you visit several cenotes, you’ll discover that no cenote is like the other. They’re vastly different – sometimes you can’t even see the sinkhole from above and have to enter through a tiny entrance! If you dive, you should not only plan a dive in the ocean, but also seek out a cenote to dive in (there are various cenotes in which you can dive) because that way you’ll be able to explore even more of these fascinating creations of nature and see spectacular underwater stalagmite formations. Here are some of the best cenotes to visit in the Riviera Maya.tulum gran cenote
 

Water Parks and Eco-Parks in the Riviera Maya

If beaches and cenotes aren’t enough, check out one of the eco-parks in the Riviera Maya, like Xel-Ha and Xcaret. Xel-Ha offers amazing snorkeling in an inlet that flows directly into the Caribbean Sea, a scenic lighthouse from where you can enjoy amazing views over the Riviera Maya from 98.5 feet (30 meters) high before descending in a spiraling waterslide, a cliff climb and jump, and several cenotes. You can zipline (and end the ride in the water!), explore mangroves and jungle trails, and for kids there’s a “Children’s World” full of adventures. You can swim with dolphins and snorkel with manatees, and even have a stingray encounter. At Xcaret, you can swim in underground rivers, enjoy the vistas from a scenic tower, snorkel with stingrays, and get close to turtles. There is a designated Children’s World, where kids can swim in shallow cenotes and wading pools, and nature lovers can see flamingos, jaguars, deer, manatees, spider monkeys and saraguato, bats and tapirs. Both parks are massive, so if you go, definitely set aside an entire day for your visit.

If you are looking for an adrenaline kick, visit Xplor, where you can enjoy ziplines, go on a jungle ride in an amphibious vehicle, take a ride on a raft through an underground cave, and other thrill rides. Rio Secreto is another great place to visit if you’re feeling adventurous: a huge underground cave system, where you swim through spectacular cave formations.Riviera Maya

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What to do and see in Cancún

mexico our coconut tree and ocean

Cancun is a wonderful destination that you have to visit if you want to see the most beautiful beaches in Mexico. One of the reasons why people decide that Cancun is the perfect holiday destination is because of its incredible location: Cancun is located near many of the attractions that you will be interested in visiting to learn a little more about the Mayan culture, and of course its stunning white beaches. There’s more to Cancun than Maya culture and beach, though, so read on to find out the best things to do in Cancun.

Cancun is also a great base for day trips to some of the best places to visit in the Yucatan: Marvel at one of the seven wonders of the modern world – the pyramid of Kukulcan in Chichen Itza, get to know Playa del Carmen, a city with a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere, or take a bike ride through Tulum, one of the most stunning places in the Riviera Maya.

Hundreds of tourists arrive in Cancun every day with the sole purpose of spending an incredible vacation, and I can assure you that you will see places that will leave you breathless. So without further ado, here are the best things to do in Cancun:things to do in Cancun

Mayan Museum of Cancun

carved head

If you’re a history buff, one of the best things to do in Cancun is visiting the city’s Mayan Museum, where you will learn everything about the Mayan culture in the interactive rooms and the small archaeological zone inside.

The Mayan ruins of San Miguelito are known for their authenticity and the important role they play within the Mayan culture.

How to get there

This museum is located in the hotel zone, so if you are staying in one of the nearby hotels, it will be very easy to get there, either walking or with a Cancun private transportation service or taxi.

Scenic Tower of Cancun

In the hotel zone, just after the Calinda bridge, you will find Cancun’s Scenic Tower, which offers stunning panoramic views of the hotel zone, the Nichupté lagoon and of course the Caribbean sea that surrounds Cancun and made this city so popular.

Ferris Wheel

The Ferris Wheel, “La Gran Rueda”, is one of the best things to do in Cancun if you have children – but not just kids love the spectacular views over Cancun from 60 meters above the city! Each of the 42 cabins offers space for up to 6 people, and it’s easy to get there, since it’s located right in the heart of the hotel zone. Tip: For an especially romantic moment, take a ride during sunset.

Plaza La Isla

One of the most famous places in Cancun is Plaza La Isla, a beautiful open air shopping mall with a unique feature: canals! You can experience a trip through Venice-like canals in Cancun and at the same time enjoy of the views over the Nichupte lagoon that this place offers.

Inside the mall, you can enjoy activities such as swimming with dolphins at the local aquarium and visit restaurants, a wax museum, a movie theater, boutiques and souvenir shops as well as a number of coffee shops. There’s something for everyone at La Isla, and you can easily spend an entire day here.Plaza la Isla, Cancun

Ka’yok Planetarium

The Ka’yok Planetarium is the most sophisticated planetarium in the area, and a must-visit place for anyone with an interest in astrology. You can even take a simulated space trip during which you learn about the orbits, the planets, and the entire solar system with a detailed explanation.

Places to See Near Cancun

Isla Mujeres

Don’t miss the best experience of your life in one of the most beautiful paradise islands in the world! Only a few kilometers long, Isla Mujeres promises to seduce anyone who visits the island, no matter if they’re spending a day there or an entire week.

How to get from Cancun to Isla Mujeres

You can take a ferry from the Cancun pier near the Calinda Bridge and next to the scenic tower. Ferries depart every 30 minutes to sail to this beautiful island. Make sure to book your tickets in advance. isla mujeres

Tulum

Tulum is one of the most beloved destinations on the Riviera Maya. The bohemian beach town is famous for its paradisaical beaches, the Mayan ruins overlooking the ocean, and its many boutique hotels. You can visit Tulum as a day trip from Cancun or you can spend a night there if you’re planning to visit more than just the Mayan ruins. There are also several cenotes (underwater sinkholes) around Tulum that are worth checking out and deserve more than just a quick visit.

How to get from Cancun to Tulum

If you don’t want to drive yourself, you can book a transportation service from Cancun to Tulum. Roads are excellent though, so I recommend to rent a car in Cancun and take a road trip to Tulum. That way you have more flexibility and can make some stops along the way – for example in Playa del Carmen (see below).tulum ruins

Playa del Carmen

Playa del Carmen has it all. It has picture-perfect beaches, pedestrian streets lined with bustling shops and restaurants, and plenty of entertainment. It’s easy to explore the main area of the city quickly since it is not very big – no matter how much time you spend in Playa, don’t miss Quinta Avenida (the main pedestrian street) and the 3D Museum of Wonders.

How to get from Cancun to Playa del Carmen

It takes only 30 minutes to get from Cancun to Playa del Carmen by car. There are several shuttle services that cover this route, for example this Transportation from Cancun Airport to Playa del Carmen.dani playa del carmen

I hope this article has given you some ideas for your next trip to Cancun!

Cancun Riviera MayaPhoto Credit: Plaza la Isla by 72eViL1A Gerardo Revilla on Flickr.com

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Polaroid Of The Week: Bacalar, Mexico’s Lagoon Of Seven Colors

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week mexico bacalar lagoon

Have you ever heard of the Lagoon of Seven Colors? This lagoon in the far southern Yucatán peninsula, close to the border with Belize, isn’t on the main tourist trail in this popular area because it is quite a drive from Playa del Carmen or even Tulum, which are very much the center of the Yucatan’s tourist trail.

I wouldn’t have known about Bacalar had I not lived in a small fishing village not far from there for a couple of months in 2012. Back then, I had to pass through Bacalar on my way to Chetumal, the border town with Belize, every time I went for a big grocery shopping.

I have to admit though that, since I was living right on the Caribbean, I never made an effort to truly explore Bacalar and the beaches of this marvelous lagoon, which is the second largest lake in all of Mexico. Having my own private beach with ocean views that offered similarly mesmerizing shades of blue, I never felt the need to spend much time in Bacalar.

Luckily, this oversight has finally been rectified. I was not only completely smitten by the lagoon with its beautiful blue-ish tones, which result from the varying amounts of sand on the bottom of the lake, but also by the little town itself. Small Mexican restaurants blend in effortlessly with hipster L.A. style gallery /cafes and fancy lagoon-side eateries where you can swing in hammocks right at the shore. Because the lagoon is such a unique feature, Bacalar was rewarded the ‘Pueblo Magico‘ status, making it one of Mexico’s famous ‘magic villages’, of which there are now 111.

There is only one small free public access to the lagoon, but we found two good beaches that are well worth paying for (one of them was only $0.50, the other one around $1.10 – so those were almost free, too!). One was a bigger camping area right in the center of town which had a long pier into the lake and a couple of man-made wooden islands to sunbathe on. The other one was a smaller camping area outside of town where you have some swings right in the water! This is where I took the above picture of what might be the most scenic tent I’ve ever seen.

Admittedly, I am not a big fan of camping, but this tent, in its glorious location, would convince even me to spend the night!

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Polaroid of the week: Izamal, Mexico’s Yellow City

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week mexico izamal

I still can’t believe I’m in Mexico!

This sudden change of travel plans has made me very happy though – I just love this country. This is the third time in the span of a year that I find myself in Mexico – and none of the three trips had been on my agenda originally. However, all three of them turned out to be amazing, including this one, which happens to be another road trip around the Yucatán.

While last year’s road trip was a bit rushed, at only eight days, this time around my friend and I have two entire weeks, which is enough time for a circle around the entire Yucatán peninsula, including some spots I’ve never made it to.

One of those places is Izamal, which is, along with my beloved Valladolid, one of two ‘Pueblos Magicos’, or magic villages on the Yucatán. It’s easy to see why Izamal was declared a ‘magical village’ – a place declared by the Mexican Secretariat of Tourism to be a village that offers visitors a “magical” experience – by reason of their natural beauty, cultural riches, or historical relevance.

And it is easily one of the most beautiful Mexican villages I’ve ever seen. All the buildings are yellow!

I could have spent days wandering the streets photographing the beautiful yellow buildings, the only thing that made it hard to stay outside for long periods of time were the defeatingly hot temperatures of 100°F (38°C).

A remarkable Franciscan convent marks the center of town and is bordered by two town squares, and only a few blocks from here there are several Mayan temples right in the heart of town. These remains of ancient Mayan temples give the town a second nickname: City Of Hills. In fact, the convent was built right on top of a Mayan temple.

I’ve never been to a town where Mayan ruins blend right in with the colonial architecture – a fascinating contrast.

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

valladolid-mexico

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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Isla Mujeres: Finding Paradise in Mexico

isla-mujeres-dani

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

Can you see why?isla mujeres beach mexicoThe second mistake I made? I waited nearly six years to 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 norteI didn’t find many hotels that I loved on Booking.com, but saw a great selection of AirBnb apartments, most of which looked better than the hotels. Check out AirBnb rentals on Isla Mujeres here (if you’re not signed up with AirBnb yet, use my referral code and get $30 off your first booking!) Check out hotels on Isla Mujeres on Booking.com here.isla mujeres jump

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

hyatt playa del carmen

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

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

The Grand Entrance

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rooms

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

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

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

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

The Showstopper of the Grand Hyatt

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

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

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

The Award-winning Cenote Spa

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

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

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

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

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

Food & Drinks

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

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

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

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

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

Extra Fun!

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

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

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

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

Location, Location, Location

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

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

The Verdict

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

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

Details

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

Grand Hyatt Resort Playa del Carmen Mexico

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The Best Place to Stay in 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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