This is the third (and last) part of our week-long trip around Riviera Maya and Eastern Yucatan about the towns and natural wonders of Riviera Maya. The first part is a summary blog-post that provides a complete overview (itinerary) of our trip and the archaeological sites in Eastern Yucatan, and the second one is about the islands in Quintana Roo state. (coming soon)
Cities and towns
Tulum is definitely the pearl of Riviera Maya. The main draw for tourists are the white sandy beaches and the crystalline waters of the Caribbean Sea, not to forget the Maya ruins directly on the beach.
Tulum is composed of three parts: the inland village, the coastal hotel area, and the archaeological site. The village is not very interesting and I wouldn’t suggest to stay there. On the other side the beach zone is really beautiful, full of beachfront hotels (from small to large but mostly boutique) and restaurants / beach clubs. The beach is public, but they’re not making it easy to access it. To reach the beach one either needs to cross one of the hotels / beach clubs (some hotels even charge for that ) or try to find a gap between them. So my recommendation is either stay in one of the beach hotels or enjoy the day at one of the beach clubs… it’s really worth it 🙂
Even after seeing many archaeological sites, the Tulum ruins were still worth seeing. The best thing is that they are on a cliff above the beach, providing stunning views of the old structures combined with the pristine waters of the Caribbean. It is even possible to descend the cliff and take a swim in the waters just below the ruins.
The Tulum ruins are rather small, it took us about 1h to see it all in a very relaxed way. The entrance is 65 pesos and the signs and paths are in a really good shape, especially compared to the other sites we’ve seen. On the downside they are really packed with tourists, especially the queues for the tickets are immense. They charge 160 pesos for parking (a real rip off) and the walk from the parking lot is quite long.
Akumal is a very small town and beach about half an hour North from Tulum. The beach area of Akumal (the town is inland on the other side of the highway) is a long road along stretching along the Akumal bay with many very nice holiday houses. At the beginning of the road, just off the highway, there is the actual Akumal beach and a small village/area with restaurants and shops. At the end of the beach road there is a lagoon, called Yal-Ku, that is excellent for snorkelling (entrance fee 280 pesos).
Akumal means bay of turtles in Maya language and there are many turtles swimming in the sea at the beach. In order to see them you need to swim passed the buoy barrier, which is about 20 meters away. The issue is that there are guards on the other side and they chase you away as soon as they see you cross the barrier and you don’t have a life jacket. They say you need to wear a life jacket for the protection of the turtles, but I’m not sure if that is not just a way for them to make money. When I crossed the barrier I didn’t know that and it took a while before I actually heard the guard shouting at me; well, I was focused on seeing some turtles… and I did 🙂
All in all Akumal is a VERY tranquil area and we loved it for that. We were there to relax and Tulum is just 20 minutes away by car for more exciting night life. Tulum is also very useful for shopping (there’s a big Chedraui) and for withdrawing cash at bank branch ATMs. In Akumal, and also other parts of the area, cash is the king. Not many restaurants/hotels accept credit cards and on top there are not many ATMs either. In Akumal there are two ATMs close to the entrance to the beach area, one distributing pesos and the other one US dollars (many restaurants/hotels accept US dollars), and they charge 100 peso commission 😦
Playa del Carmen
In Playa there is a very nice and long sandy beach and the main port for ferries to Cozumel island. The Quinta Avenida (5th avenue) is a long street that runs just a block away from the beach, and has all shops, restaurants, bars and clubs and on southern end there is the ferry pier for Cozumel. It became the mecca for younger party travellers over the last years.
We only stopped at Playa for a quick look for a couple of hours on the way from Cozumel. We didn’t have to time to go to the beach or test the nightlife at this point, and I would like to come back for a weekend to give Playa a chance.
The main city and largest tourist destination in Riviera Maya. The city is relatively new, it became popular among foreign tourists only in the 70s of the last century. The city itself is inland and the hotel area is one a thin sliver of land surrounding a lagoon. Cancun is known for its white beaches (although now artificial after several hurricanes), big hotels and very active night scene. We didn’t plan to stay in Cancun as most of my friends and colleagues advised to avoid it.
Anyway, since Cancun has the region’s main airport we had to pass through there. On the way back to the airport, we passed through the hotel area and stopped at the Intercontinental hotel beach to see and judge it for ourselves. Indeed, Cancun does feel/look like Miami Beach or Las Vegas, but there is also a very beautiful beach and many good hotels (all the large hotel chains seem to have their properties there). It’s also close and convenient to the airport and Isla Mujeres is just a short ferry ride away. Based on this very short experience of Cancun I can’t say I disliked it, but I can see why many people do. Maybe one day in the future I’ll give Cancun another chance.
Natural wonders of Riviera Maya
Muyil and Sian Ka’an natural reserve
Muyil is a small Maya village at the entrance to a very large natural park called Sian Ka’an, which in Maya means ‘where the water starts’. There is a small archaeological area, but since we’ve already seen many we didn’t bother with this one anymore. The purpose we went to Muyil for was to take a ride on the lagoons and to float down a river. It is not on the main tourist trail and it was a recommendation by some friends that have done before.
To get to the tour, you need to take a very small dirt road off the main Tulum-Chetumal road just after the archaeological area (on the left if driving from Tulum). Drive some 300m and at the end of that dirt road there is a small pier where the tours depart. It is all very informal. Just talk up to one of the local guides and agree on the tour. They charged us 600 pesos per person and we were joined by two other people on the same boat. Yo can leave most of your belongings in the car.
Once on the motor boat, we first crossed the Muyil lagoon then we passed through an artificial canal dug by the ancient Maya connecting it to the Chunyaxche lagoon (quite awesome engineering) and then crossed that lagoon to a river flowing from it towards the ocean. The ride over the lagoons and the canal is really interesting. We saw the vast mangrove forest, the changing colours of the lagoon waters and hills made by animals. The guide gives some information about the history and nature of the area. These canals and rivers were all used by the old Maya for trade and they had small trading outposts around the whole area.
After crossing the seconded lagoon the boat stopped at the beginning of a river and our guide explained how to use the life jacket to float down the river. He recommended to wear it as a diaper (lol), that way you basically sit on the water and let the current take you downstream. The river is about 2-3m wide with mangroves on each side and sand on the bottom. The water is quite refreshing and extremely clear light green colour. The float takes about 30 minutes and is quite an amusing and unique experience. Most of the way it is also covered by mangroves so you’re not completely exposed to the sun. At the end there is a wooden platform where the guide waited for us with our footwear to walk back to the boat on a wooden walkway across the mangrove forest (quite a nice walk).
I would highly recommend this experience to anyone interested into seeing the nature from very close and enjoy a unique experience. You might be able to do the same in one of the commercial parks (like Xcaret) but the experience in Muyil is so much more pristine. However, I have to say that we were slightly apprehensive of any possible crocodiles in the mangroves. The guide said the crocs in the area come out at night, but I wasn’t sure if that was just a tale to calm us down. At the end all went well and I took home an unforgettable experience… I wish I had a gopro camera with me.
Cenotes (sinkholes in English)
Cenotes are basically caves with underground water/rivers that have collapsed and now they look like a hole in the ground with water inside. There are different types of cenotes, some are closed with only a small opening and inside it still looks like a cave, others are more like natural swimming pools (not a scientific classification).
The Yucatan peninsula is full of them and many are accessible for swimming and as a tourist attraction. First we visited cenote Calavera (entrance fee 150 pesos), which is just a couple of kilometres from Tulum towards Cobá. The name is due to its form as it resembles a skull with one big opening and two small ones. It doesn’t seen to be that popular, when we arrived only other 3 other people were there.
At this cenote you can jump inside from the edge (maybe some 4m jump) or descend down a ladder, if you’re not brave enough to jump. Once inside the water, you can swim around and to see the cave formation or snorkel to see the floor. It is a closed type cenote and quite small as well. The opening is not very big, so not much sunlight gets inside and it can get quite chilly in the water. We liked this cenote because it was small and not many people were there, but on the other side it was quite cold as well so we only had a couple of jumps and left.
On our last day we wanted to visit another cenote on the way to Cancun. Between Xpu-Ha and Puerto Aventuras there are several cenotes just along the road. Initially we wanted to go to cenote Azul, but there was a long queue of cars trying to get in (maybe because the entrance fee is only 80 pesos). We also approached a complex of cenotes called Chikin Ha, where there is an open cenote and a closed cenote and an underground river. For 300 pesos you can see is all of it or for 600 they provide a guide, and it includes a zipline and a lunch. It sounded very interesting, but we didn’t have that much time. I would like to go there the next time though.
Just in between these two cenotes there are cenote Cristalino and cenote Eden. Without any research, we went to cenote Eden (entrance fee 100 pesos), which looks like a big swimming pool. It is a large and open cenote with steps on several sides and a high rock formation on one side, where you can jump off into the water. The jump was quite high and lots of fun. There were many people at this cenote, including some divers learning to dive in darkness. We really liked it, the water was not too cold and the snorkelling was interesting.
Restaurants and bars of the area
Coco hotel & beach club, Tulum
Coco is a small hotel with cabañas of the beach and a beach club with a bar/restaurant. Initially, we only entered the beach at Coco as they didn’t charge us just to pass through. We walked a little bit around to see which beach club would be nicer, bit honestly, Coco looked the best in the area so we decided to stay there. They required a minimum spent of $25 and since we planned to have lunch we didn’t think that would be a problem. Fortunately we arrived early, as the beach club filled-up quite quickly afterwards.
The beach club fits perfectly on this beautiful beach and the atmosphere great, with a young crowd enjoying music, beach and drinks. It was lovely to relax on the beach there and order food and drinks from the bar. The menu was small and simple, but they have exactly the dishes you want to have on a beach – ceviche, aguachile and tuna tostadas (and guacamole obviously). The food was very good and the prices were very decent for a beach club. The only downside was that the service was very slow. It looked like there was only one server and he was clearly not managing to deal with all the customers on a busy Saturday afternoon.
Los Aguachiles, Tulum and Playa
Los Aguachiles is a really simple fish restaurant with plastic chairs and a tin roof, but somewhat quirky decor (the bathroom doors). Their main menu items are aguachiles (obviously), ceviches, fish/seafood tacos and tostadas, etc. We tried several dishes from the menu and they were all very delicious. Surprisingly none of the dishes were spicy, but fortunately they have a great selection of salsas and a very good habanero oil (very spicy). We visited Los Aguachiles at their Tulum branch first and we liked it so much that we stopped for lunch at their Playa branch as well.
Buena Vida, Akumal
Buena Vida is a restaurant & bar on the beach along the Akumal bay road. It is pretty much the only place after the little village at the entrance to Akumal and also the only bar that opens late. The restaurant is very simple open-air with wood furniture and some tables under palapas directly in the sand. The atmosphere is very beach like, similar to other Akumal places we’ve seen.
It seems to be very popular. We wanted to go there for dinner one night, but it was really full and the wait would have been 45 minutes, so we rather returned the next morning for breakfast. The breakfast menu has a selection of the typical Mexican breakfast dishes and some international ones. Both the fruit plate and fruit bowl (this one included yogurt, granola and honey) were sizeable and the huevos motuleños (local egg dish) were nice. All in all, we really enjoyed the relaxed breakfast on the beach with a beautiful view of Akumal bay.
La Cueva de los Pescadores, Akumal
This is one of the restaurants in the small complex at the entrance to Akumal. The place is very simple with wooden tables in the sand and very close together. As it was a day before New Year’s Eve the restaurant was very full and they ran out of several items. The menu is extremely simple and has only a handful of fish and seafood dishes. The seafood platter for two was really nice and included a grilled fish, shrimps, calamari and octopus (quite big for two). The food was fresh and the restaurant was a pleasant experience.
Turtle Bay Bakery, Akumal
This cute Bakery is also in the same restaurant area in Akumal. The decor is very cute and perfect for a breakfast. Their menu includes a selection of the usual breakfast dishes (Mexican and international) and inside they have a nice Bakery selection (don’t forget to have a look). We were served by an American lady and she was very nice and well organised. The food was decent, but not excellent unfortunately, I assume it was catered for the non-Mexican taste. I had huevos rancheros and I didn’t really like the artificial yellow cheese (aka nacho cheese) on top, but the bakery products were good. All in all, the bakery is really worth a visit and I hope they could improve on the quality of the food.
Que Onda hotel, Akumal
Small and nice hotel at the end of the beach road in Akumal. There is a pool in the middle and rooms are around in a one/two floor buildings. The rooms are very simple but nice and there is air conditioning. All of the rooms have access from the pool area with a little porch in front of them, which is very nice for evening drinks with your friends. We had a room upstairs, with a large terrace in front of it, so we even decided to have a dinner there one night.
Our stay at the Que Onda was very pleasant. The hotel has an Italian restaurant where we only had a breakfast (convenient package for 200 pesos). The hotel staff were extremely nice and helpful. They were also happy to provide us with cutlery, plates and glasses from the restaurant. Unfortunately, the only thing was that the cleaning service was VERY lousy. In 3 nights we stayed there they didn’t change any towels or even bother to clean the bathroom sink, shower or the mugs and glasses.
It is very hard to access the beach close to the hotel, one needs to go through an abandoned plot of land, as the houses are so close together that there is no path between them. The beach is also very rocky, so one really needs a car if staying at Que Onda to go to Akumal beach or elsewhere.
This is the end of an amazing trip around Riviera Maya and Eastern Yucatan.
I’m posting this, part 3, first and will soon follow with the other parts so hold on.
Map of our travel
All the places we visited, restaurants and hotels we stayed at can also be seen in this map: