Mexico has always been on my to-do list (how could I not pay homage to the country whose national cuisine is tacos?) but it wasn't until semi recently, in typical millennial style, that I saw a cenote on Instagram (an oftentimes vibrantly aquamarine body of water created by sinking limestone - cheers Wikipedia) and decided that I must be in Mexico immediately.
My sister and I have started a tradition of going on a holiday together every year, given that she now lives in London and I, Melbourne. As she will tell you, my method of choosing holiday destinations is thus: seeing a beautiful destination on Instagram, booking a ticket, making her do the same. First Ubud, then Annecy in France, and most recently, Tulum.
We spent six days in Mexico (in Quintana Roo province) in the middle of a trip to The US, and all I can say is that 6 days is absolutely nowhere near enough. While comparably I am an absolute Mexico novice, I thought I would impart what little wisdom I have so that everyone can go and enjoy what is surely one of the most vibrant, lovely cultures I had the pleasure of experiencing. I also want to spend hours looking through my travel snaps with a half legitimate reason for doing so, but we won't go too deeply into that.
PLACES WE STAYED, LIKED (AND DIDN'T) IN QUINTANA ROO
During our little 6 day trip, we visited Cancun, Isla Mujeres, Playa Del Carmen, and Tulum. Landing in Cancun from New York, we decided to stay one night in the party town to see what all the fuss was about. That, and the ferry for Isla Mujeres leaves from a port about 20 minutes out of town. Convenience aside, we felt it was a mistake.
Staying only one night, we didn't quite ever get a grip on Cancun. The town itself was hard to come to terms with (I don't think we ever found 'the town') and, even according to our concierge, the restaurants and 'attractions' are all in 'the hotel zone.' I have always been personally wary of 'hotel zones' because I am unsure exactly why I would want to fly 20+ hours from straya and yet still be in the West. This is exactly what the hotel zone in Cancun was - Westerners eating eggs benedict and drinking vodka cranberries on a beach. No thanku. If you're after a taste of Mexico and not into partying, I would give Cancun a miss, and get straight off the plane and head to Isla Mujeres or Cozumel, another (apparently, we didn't go but heard glowing reviews) gorgeous island off the coast.
Onto Isla Mujeres. We had planned to stay only one night on 'the island of women' but, upon disembarking the ferry, were so enamoured that we immediately decided one night was not enough. (for that matter, neither was 2) While admittedly Isla Mujeres is likely not the most authentic taste of Mexico you'll encounter, it is impossible not to fall in love with. For starters, a meagre $20US dollars a day (a small price to pay for the experience of a lifetime) buys you A GOLF CART to transport yourself around in, for a whole 24 hours. While we stayed at super central Pocna Hostel (and ended up in a private room because we're 25+ and our hostel days are done) and were close enough to walk to most tourist things, I could not recommend hiring a golf cart any more than I do because IT WAS THE ACTUAL BEST. Please see the photo below of my sister going through a bottle-o drive thru IN THE GOLF CART. Case closed.
There are a number of things to do on Isla Mujeres (aside from experience the vibrantly coloured township and bluest water I've ever seen) - most of which we did not achieve because we were too busy either hooning around in a golf cart, drowning ourselves in cocktails, or indulging in a not even illegal combination of both. Here's a photo of me holding my sister's driving beer for her for reference.
Apparently there is great snorkelling on the island, and there is a bunch of underwater human sculptures to explore. There is a ruin on the more local side of the island, although I would only go if you've hired a golf cart and have spare time, because the drive there was gorgeous but the ruin was mainly reminiscent of a pizza oven. Sorry I am a pleb but it is true.
PLACES TO EAT:
We shamelessly ate breakfast at Lola Valentina two days out of two, and while it's not all local cuisine, it's dishes were inspired by local ones, they had iced almond milk lattes, and the staff were outrageously lovely. Think Melbourne style brunch with a Mexican flare in Mexico.
Bastos grill was more towards the local side of the island, and a recommendation given by our lovely waiter at Lola Valentinas. Apparently every taxi driver on the island will know where it is, and if you drive your golf cart around for long enough (and have Google Maps handy) you'll eventually find it. It was absolutely delicious, simple Mexican cuisine, with some of the best guac I've ever had.
PLAYA DEL CARMEN
Because we were only in Mexico for six days, Playa Del Carmen suffered at the expense of Isla Mujeres, meaning we only stayed for one night. I have to say, we didn't mind all that much. Playa Del Carmen, as we experienced it (one day makes it hard to get into the nitty gritty) was another tempered slice of America in Mexico. The main street was lined with Zara and Sephora, pasta restaurants and sushi. While it was certainly more interesting than Cancun, and I wouldn't say go out of your way to avoid it, if it's not in your path, I wouldn't be too sad. Having said that, I had some delightful smoked tuna tacos there, so that counts as a win.
Oh boy, Tulum. All I can with real certainty is that I would need a solid two weeks in Tulum to be able to say I had properly explored all it has to offer. The township itself is inland from the beach, and spread out over an enormous walking distance. We arrived at the bus station (buses in Mexico are probably nicer than buses in Australia FYI, as long as you make sure you get the ADO ones, they have air con and a loo and everything) and then got a taxi to our hotel, which was on the beach. I have to say, with all the smack I talked earlier about hotel zones, the hotel area in Tulum is pretty special - a big ol' hike from the township (which we didn't really have time to explore) but wow!
The drive is set along the aquamarine coastline, weaving in amongst palm trees, little boutiques and healthy vegan ice cream stores. Most of the hotels are yoga and healthy food focused, and you can often rent bikes from your hotel to hoon down the road, stop for an ice cream or a taco, and get a bit of heat relief from the breeze. This was probably my favourite activity while we were there.
We stayed at Sanara Tulum which was in the hotel zone, set right on the beach. As in, you get off your sun lounger, and you're at breakfast. Amazing. The restaurant that accompanies the hotel, The Healthy Coconut, offers game changing Mexican cuisine, with coconut flour tortillas, coconut cheese, and a whole variety of gluten free, sugar free offerings that cater to the vegos and non vegos alike.
The vibe is beachy chic with an emphasis on healthy eating, yoga, and general rejuvenation. They had a bunch of detox cleanses on offer, as well as the regular menu at The Healthy Coconut. They also had a number of spa and holistic treatments available in a gorgeous lil room overlooking the aquamarine coastline.
We had the loveliest hotel concierge at Sanara, a gorgeous European girl who had moved to Tulum six months earlier. She gave us a list of things that the locals would do in Tulum, and whie we didn't have enough time to accomplish them all, we gave it a red hot crack.
Casa Jaguar was gorgeously Pinterest style decorated bar and restaurant. We only had a cocktail there in the spirit of trying everything, and I, as a cocktail aficionado, was definitely not disappointed.
Gitano was another recommendation, and although we didn't end up going (it was closed on our last night) it definitely looks gorgeous and well worth checking out.
Taqueria De Eufemeria is a funky, cheap taco place right on the beach in the hotel zone. Call me a pleb, but as tourists passing through Mexico so quickly and without really doing any research, these were probably the best tacos we had. Simple, delicious, served on the beach, and backed up with super strong margaritas. Bliss.
Gran cenote was our favourite of the two cenotes we visited. If you are in Tulum for the cenotes, allow at least a week I would say. There is sometimes quite a distance between them, and so many different ones to visit. I'd also recommend doing your research depending on what you want to do/see - in some cenotes you can scubadive through the cavities underwater (my idea of hell on earth) and some entail only some light snorkelling (better) Gran cenote was gorgeous and of the light snorkelling variety - I would recommend getting there early, as we had about ten other people in there with us, and it kept the magic alive a little bit.
Dos Ojos is another cenote, one that we didn't enjoy nearly as much as Gran cenote. It means 'two eyes' and there are two cenotes that are interconnected by underwater tunnels. The cenotes themselves were covered by a large rock formation and quite dark - I think the appeal is swimming through the cavities, which did not appeal to us remotely. It is also a fifteen minute drive down a desolate dirt road to get to the cenote from the entrance, so please don't call the bluff of the driver offering to take you. Just pay up.
La Playa Tortuga (turtle beach) is a pretty touristy setup, but a really cool experience nonetheless. It's a bit of a walk from where the collectivo will drop you, and a lot of people will harass you on the way, suggesting they are the only licensed guide, etc. Keep walking. Of all the things you'll be hassled to buy or hire on the way, I would highly recommend a life jacket. It seems stupid (the water is shallow) but it really allows you to get right into the turtle watching without disturbing them. A snorkel is also absolutely necessary, although we hired ours from Sanara. The beach is a naturally occurring turtle habitat, so when swimming in a designated area, you'll bump into a huge amount of big ol' turtles doing their thing. Pretty cool. Another hot tip: Put sunscreen on your shoulders and bum. Floating on the surface will get ya.
These are all the recommendations we were given in our short but blissful time in Tulum - I am 100% sure there are loads more and I would encourage you to stay AT LEAST a whole week, if not two, to suss out everything this ridiculous place has to offer.