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Mexico Vacation Ideas

Updated on November 15, 2015

Cancun is reminiscent of a dirtier, drunker, less inhibited Girls Gone Wild commercial

Mexico has vibrant tourism and exciting night life.
Mexico has vibrant tourism and exciting night life. | Source

Cancun is played out. Keep going south

Over the past 20 years Cancun has become the go-to spot for college spring breakers and beautiful weddings. In fact, it has become increasingly hard to digest. Along any strip the vendors aggressively badger strollers for massages, diamonds, time-shares, and souvenirs, sneering at rejections. It is a very competitive world for the locals, they need sales. Fortunately, Cancun does not represent the real Riviera Maya. Idyllic retreats like Playa del Carmen, Xal-Ha, and Tulum offer amazing experiences away from aggravating crowds. The real side of Mexico and the Caribbean comes alive in all its dazzling color when visitors venture away from the tourist-driven town of Cancun.

The Caribbean side, La Costa Maya, has never been dangerous

The Yucatan peninsula is safe for tourists and locals alike thanks to a constant Marine presence along the states's highways and jungles.
The Yucatan peninsula is safe for tourists and locals alike thanks to a constant Marine presence along the states's highways and jungles.

Is Mexico safe?

Large concerns for visitors to Mexico are the reports of danger to Americans and other tourists. This fear could not be more misplaced. The Mexican government is fighting a war with new and old cartels, trying to put an end to the black market drug trade, however, the areas where operations are concentrated are hundreds of miles away on the Pacific coast and central Mexico. The residents of Monterrey, Juarez, and Los Cabos, among many others, are forced to live in the scariest types of environment possible, all because of the American dependence on drugs.

Tulum, Mexico: the author of this article lived there for 8 months

Getting the 411

It IS possible to learn things from the locals without seeming suspicious or nosey, it just takes a little common sense. Go into local bars that are open to the street (Mexico has plenty of them), this way the crowd inside is easy to see before you commit to going in, and there are exits readily available in the event one is needed. If traveling alone, talk to the bartenders. Oftentimes the others at the bar will chip in and offer to help the bartender with input of their own.

This will open a window of dialog that has made it clear you are unfamiliar with the area. They expect some basic questions. Ask what's fun to do, where you should go the next day. Ask if there are areas of town or bars you should avoid. Ask if it is safe to swim at the beach and whether there had been shark attacks reported recently. I want the info, but I also want to give them the satisfaction of providing it; fan the pride, so to speak.

First hand experience

The human aspect should never go unnoticed. That being said, the writer of this article spent eight months exploring every area here described, living and working among the residents, ravenously absorbing every part of the lifestyle and modern, international culture. On the east coast of the Yucatan peninsula there are no visible conflicts, other than those between other drunken tourists, which would make someone feel unsafe or uncomfortable. There is a strong military presence along the coastal highways due to government attempts to stifle smuggling routes along Mexico’s Caribbean borders, similar to that found in areas patrolled by the US Coast Guard. While these Mexican Marines are a highly-trained force of peacekeepers and guardians, dressed in combat fatigues and toting assault rifles, they are always smiling and waving at pedestrians and tourists. Their presence is itself a visible deterrent to crime and violence. Every city has its seedy underbelly, not unlike the cities every reader comes from, but the Mayans and Mexicans living on the Caribbean maintain a carefree and positive existence, embracing the love of nature and the bonds of companionship.

Typical Collectivo Taxi

Transportation is simple and cheap in Mexico if you know what you are doing.
Transportation is simple and cheap in Mexico if you know what you are doing. | Source

Navigating the airport in Cancun

To really get away from the hustle and bustle of touristy Cancun, planning a trip more southerly can add many levels of depth to a vacation in Mexico. After stopping at the baggage claim, get the required Corona con limon at the concession outside the terminal. There are men that will ask you right away if you have transportation waiting or if you need a taxi. There are individual taxis that cost a little more, and there are collectivos. The collectivos are vans that usually have three rows and are shared by two or three couples. A private taxi is the best and fastest way of getting out of the overcrowded city but don’t get taken for a ride by the driver. The cost to go to the next city south, Playa del Carmen 45 minutes away, should not cost more than $25 USD in a private taxi. It is possible to arrange for transportation ahead of time, and most of the nicer hotels will offer airport shuttles. For people trying to save money or just looking for a more comfortable experience, the Ado (sounds like audio) bus line runs strait down Highway 307 to all of the major cities on the Caribbean side of Mexico. Outside of the main terminal at Cancun Airport, to the left, is the waiting area for the free shuttle to the bus depot. It is fair to say the busses are large, roomy, and clean with soft pilot chairs and cold air conditioning. A ticket to Tulum, roughly three hours south, is only $17 USD.

Playa is what Cancun once was... Paradise

This beast, and it's twin, work every day of the week to take locals and tourists alike from Playa to Cozumel and visa versa

UltraMar ferry from Playa del Carmen to Cozumel
UltraMar ferry from Playa del Carmen to Cozumel | Source

Europeans don't want us to know about Playa

Playa del Carmen is the European Spring Break Hotspot
Playa del Carmen is the European Spring Break Hotspot

Europe's little secret: Playa del Carmen

Heading south away from Cancun, the first city worth checking out is Playa del Carmen, or Carmen Beach. This growing city, referred to locally as simply Playa, has become the travel destination for Europeans that want the beauty of Mexican beaches without the frat house environment of Cancun. Playa del Carmen is located on the picturesque shores of Mar Carib directly west of the island of Cozumel. It is from here that visitors and locals make the short 20 minute ferry ride to Coz from the mainland on one of the modern Ultra Mar ferries. The city boasts a bountiful selection of hand-crafted artisan sculptures, jewelry, and ceramics thanks to an active and vibrant Maya population. The locals are tourist-friendly and go out of their way to please. The city is large enough to accommodate a Sam’s Club and Home Depot for easy shopping, and the main drag at 7th Ave is bustling with cafes, shops, luxury restaurants, and nightspots. The shimmering backdrop of Caribbean water is never far away in Playa del Carmen. As one walks the avenues and streets the ocean hides itself between buildings and walls, re-appearing at every cross street to remind the visitor how lucky they are to be in Mexico. For accommodations check out the Grand Velas Riviera Maya at The photos to the right include a suite at Grand Velas and a picture of their infinity pool on the ocean.

Take a dip in the pool.

Many high line resorts boast luxurious amenities like saunas, wet-bars, and spas.
Many high line resorts boast luxurious amenities like saunas, wet-bars, and spas. | Source

Xel-Ha, Mexico, is a breathtaking natural aquarium teeming with exotic marine life and vibrant flashes of color

Xel-Ha boasts crystal clear water and breathtaking views of wildlife and nature.
Xel-Ha boasts crystal clear water and breathtaking views of wildlife and nature.

The natural wonder of Xel-Ha

The next point south on the map is Xel-Ha, and it is one of the most undiscovered locations on the globe. The ‘X’ is pronounced as ‘sh’, so the name sounds like Shell ha. This is an all-inclusive resort at the mouth of the largest underground river in the world. The clean, beautiful water meets the ocean to form a lagoon that is known as the largest natural aquarium ever seen. Snorkel with fish of every color, drag a finger across the hundred-year-old shell of a tortoise as it silently glides by, or relax in the most tropical environment ever discovered. Either way, this can be the most adventure filled experience for escaping lovers or families with kids to entertain. Check out their website for all of the details and a streaming live camera of their attractions.

Tulum: The Jewel of the Caribbean

The next city is the most amazing of them all, frequented by celebrities that want to vacation on the down-low, and bundles everything amazing that Mexico has to offer. Tulum is a city that has resisted becoming another Cancun, insisting on eco-friendly tourism and conservation development. The locals are an international mixture of Mexicans, Mayans, Italians, Portuguese, and French and seem to share an ideal of common welfare. Everyone, excluding a shop owner, is generous and open-minded, always inventive and exploring new alternatives to the way things are. This contagious collective of curiosity is the cornerstone of progressive change and shifting of common opinions. Tulum embraces all of these concepts and philosophies to become the most eco-chic spot on the Riviera Maya.

Tulum Centro

The area collectively known as Tulum is actually three parts that consist of Tulum Centro, the Hotel Zone, and the Ruins Zone, and each is unique to a certain purpose and location. Centro is located approximately two miles from the water and is the governmental seat of the city. Walking the street there are bars, restaurants, hostels, and boutique shops lining each side of a four-lane avenue that thrives for 15 minutes each direction before tapering off into sporadic shops and obscure strip clubs. To either side behind the main strip of Tulum Centro are the residential areas of the town. Small streets with smaller houses fill every inch on each side with an occasional corner store at every other intersection. The local Maya celebrate throughout the year with week-long festivals and carnivals that honor dances and ceremonies thousands of years old. It is not uncommon to hear the far-away music of one event or another during a walk through town any time of the year. Locals, dressed to impress and chattering in fast staccato Mayan, hurry by to join the revelry. The town has one or two decent hotels but for the most part caters to backpackers and budget-sensitive travelers.

Hotel Zone

The Hotel Zone is exactly what it sounds like and consists of a long road running south down the Caribbean coast in sight of the water and dotted with hotels of every type. This is where the most exotic, extravagant designers put their expertise to work to make decadent suites that overindulge every sense. Glass doors look out on waves breaking over the reef 200 yards offshore; natural wood rafters are exposed along the ceiling; third floor pools are glass-walled and spill over the ocean side to cascade down the wall. There are also affordable hotels that provide the same level of quality without the pomp, with access to the same beaches. The hotels own the land they are on and can enforce trespassing rights on their property, however, the actual waterline and beach is federal property and cannot be controlled by hotel owners or celebrities. Although anyone may legally be on any part of any beach, the beaches of the Hotel Zone are deserted. Visitors can walk for miles and encounter less than a handful of other people.


Ruin Zone

The Ruin Zone is on the same coastal road as the Hotel Zone but running north rather than south. There are several beaches and cabana rentals on the way to the Mayan temple such as Playa El Paraiso and Zazil Kin. Cabanas are very Spartan rooms with very little comfort to offer. Most provide gender specific communal bathrooms and showers. They also offer perfect, unobstructed access to the most untouched beaches in the world. From a spot on the sand at the beach El Paraiso, sunbathers can see a 2000 year old Mayan temple sitting proudly on a cliff overlooking the sea. Small boats take scuba divers to and from the reef, only a couple hundred yards offshore and boasting a beautiful array of exotic fish and lobster. Continue down the road another 5 minutes and the actual archeological area begins and visitors must pay for access. Guided tours are available at a convenient additional cost, of course. The ruins are crowded with catamaran tours from Cozumel that stop along the beach and usher guests through the Temple like sheep, and then load them back onboard the boat for the trip back to the island. While the site is definitely worth seeing, it should only be enjoyed in small doses.

The way a Caribbean vacation is supposed to feel

While Cancun offers everything party-goers want and some very nice resorts away from the action, the cities of Playa del Carmen and Tulum offer something unique. Each has a local flavor and pace that fosters relaxation and comfort. It takes time to unwind from the everyday speed of life and enjoy a vacation, the stress-free attitudes and breathtaking vistas of the Caribbean work like a salve to soothe the weary traveler. Before being lumped into a catamaran and herded through a series of carefully choreographed guided tours, unless that is the desired result, look further into Mexico’s incredible beauty.

S.P. Kelly

Riviera Maya


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