My alternative itinerary for the Mexican Caribbean
If you want to stay off the beaten and most touristy path, this is an itinerary for you!
Head to Holbox for tranquillity instead of Cancun
Cancun has an international airport and we can all be thankful for that, as travel to this amazing part of Mexico is now very easy. Most of the time I arrive with budget airlines from Mexico but even major European and American cities offer direct flights to Cancun. In fact this airport has seen significant growth in the last couple of years and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Cancun has indeed become a city easy to reach but let's not forget that Cancun is far from being the best destination in the region, unless you want nice all-inclusive hotels in which case Cancun is perfect for you. I am very lucky because it's already the third time I visit this region and I managed to see a few of the nicest spots here, alongside the Caribbean coast of Mexico. This year we decided to check out Holbox as it's becoming a hotspot, visit a number of colonial towns, Mayan pyramids and cenotes.
We headed to Holbox and weren’t disappointed. You are as close to nature as it gets - there are no cars on the island, only one village with a slight hippy vibe and a long beach perfect for relaxation and kayaking. The island has beautiful flora and fauna with some rare animals to spot e.g. shark wales. The popular food on this island is the lobster pizza and lobster in general and prices are down to earth as well.
Discover Cobá instead of Chichen Itza
This is a controversial point. I don't mean to say that Chichen Itza is not great, it is considered as one of the seven wonders of the New World for a reason. Having been there years ago, it's an amazing site, visiting its grounds really helps to get a glimpse into what an ancient Mayan city was like. That said, the biggest differentiation between Chichen Itza and other archaeological sites is the size of the main pyramid. This year we decided to visit Cobá (would have loved to go to Ek Balam as well, but didn't have enough time). It's really one where you need to decide if you want to visit the super popular site or go with a slightly less famous one.
I would encourage visiting Cobá for a number of reasons:
Climb, climb, climb : while the main pyramid in this site is smaller, you can still climb it! This is no longer an option in Chitzen Itza, where the pyramid there has been closed from climbing for years now.
Cycle through 3 Mayan villages : you can rent a bike at the entrance for 50 pesos, a great way to enjoy the forest and cool down with the breeze while riding between the three villages’ ruins.
More shade: the sun can be excruciatingly strong in this part of Mexico and Cobá is tucked away in the jungle so you are not exposed to the sun almost at all.
Tranquillity : if things haven't changed in the last 5 years, Chichen Itza will be full of vendors, trying to sell you souvenirs, sometimes quite annoyingly. There was none of that in Cobá, and while there were many tourists, the place still had a rather peaceful atmosphere.
Cobá was a fantastic experience, I can't wait to go back to this part of Mexico and visit more of the low profile archaeological sites!
Colonial Mexico : Merida, Izamal & Campeche
Not that laying on the beach and enjoying the waves isn't a great thing, but some of us itchy types, we need to make things more varied and include some more active fun throughout the holiday.
If you are anything like me, you would want to experience another side of Mexico while in the Caribbean. The bad news is that these cities are a bit of a drive away from the beach but the they are totally worth putting up with the hours in the car.
Merida is about 3 hours away both from Cancun and Tulum, so can be a day trip, although that would be quite a long day. Even better, make it an overnight trip and stay in a colonial hotel in central Merida! It's a beautiful colonial city which colourful buildings, a cathedral in its centre and magnificent government buildings around the main square. The market (Mercado Lucas de Galvez) is a gem that presents an authentic Mexico. You can see how they make tortilla, repair shoes and of course sell a huge variety of fruits and vegetables typical for the region.
Izamal is a small town about 70 km away from Merida in the direction to Tulum/Cancun, so it makes for a good stop on the journey. It's a Pueblo Magico (one of the many Mexican towns offering a magical experience thanks to their cultural heritage) and is truly special: the whole town centre is yellow! In the centre of the town is the church and convent, more detailed information is here on the Unesco's website.
Campeche is a longer drive away (another 2 hours in the car from Merida), but if you have the time, it’s worth going. As one of our friends from Campeche said ‘it’s the place where time stands still.’ In the colourful colonial town centre you can walk in peace, enjoy the balmy night and most likely find some entertainment e.g. a live concert. Campeche is by the Gulf of Mexico where the beautiful and calm sea compliments the usually blue sky.
Roam the cenotes
Probably the most unique characteristics of the region are the thousands of cenotes (a sort of sinkhole that contains crystal clear fresh water). Visiting a cenote is an absolute must and the good news is that there are so many cenotes, it's going to be easy find one almost anywhere on this peninsula. We visited two cenotes recently. The first one is a rather small one(Cenote Zacil-Ha) and we didn't manage to take a dip because we arrived just around closing time. Cenotes do close quite early, typically at 5pm or 5.30pm. We visited one of the larger and more prominent cenotes, called the Great Cenote. Unfortunately my pictures are not great and definitely don't show the amazing colours these sinkholes produce. They are quite deep and refreshingly cold.
I won’t offer an alternative for Tulum, I have a special place in my heart for this place. I heard a lot of amazing things about Bacalar and other places south towards the Belize border, but we didn’t have the time to venture further south yet. I am still in love with Tulum, a place that enormously changed in the last 6 years, since I first came here. Back then we stayed in an eco hotel by the sea and while they were already expensive, we somehow found a deal that made it possible to stay here 2 nights. Most of the eco chic hotels are down by the beach about 20 minutes drive away from the town and now that we drove down there to go to a beach club, I realised how buzzing this hotel strip has become, no wonder these accommodations are pricey. If you have a larger budget, I would say it’s worth staying by the beach around here as these beaches are long and beautiful.
The town itself has changed as well, but I still see its charm when walking to the main square with all street food stands and icecream shops. Also, Tulum centre has some really nice food options where local traditions meet a more upscale setting such as El Arte del Cafe and El Canaston. It’s important to remember that food and drink prices in the beach hotels will be much higher than in town, so it’s worth taking all aspects into consideration when choosing where to stay in Tulum. If you stay in the town of Tulum like we did, then you need a car or a bike to reach the beaches, this time we went to Playa Maya. If you walk all the way to the northern end of this free beach, you can see the famous Tulum ruins. While Tulum is not such a remote destination, it has stunning beaches, a lovely town centre and is still a great base to explore the southern part of the peninsula.
Stop at Puerto Morelos before heading home
Most people fly to and from Cancun airport. Before heading to catch the flight home, why not stop in the small fishing village called Puerto Morelos. It's only a 20 minutes' drive from the airport so it's easy to plan your prompt arrival while maximising the time by the beach and most importantly, having some good food.
On the main square (Jardin Principal), there are a couple of nice places to eat. We had breakfast at El Nicho, which had a great selection of Mexican dishes, good coffee and great service too. Since I love being by the sea so much, I had a nice walk to the pier and alongside the beach… the best way to finish a holiday!