A week in the Riviera Maya

After 25 years in the US – yes, it really has been that long, August 2022 was 25 years! – I’ve never had the chance to travel south of the border to Mexico. Ironic, considering that Mexican food is probably our favorite cuisine here!! So when our India plans fell through this December, we decided to treat ourselves to a little Mexican vacay! Of course, our plans were almost derailed by the severe winter storm that swept the Mid-West a day before our flight – temperatures plummeting to negative craziness. Seriously, it was a frigid negative 9degF when we left Peoria that morning – we parked our car at the St. Louis airport, and the 5-10 minute wait for the shuttle to the airport – it felt like I was never ever going to be warm again.

We did thaw out somewhat in the airport – and a short 3 hour flight later, we were ready for a week in Paradise! By the way, speaking of airports, ever notice how by the time you drive to the airport, park your car, lug your luggage to the terminal, then stand for ever in the check-in queue, then head through the security check – whew! – you have always, without exception, worked up quite the appetite? And of course, there are all these lovely options available – and if you are willing to give up an arm or a leg, you might just be able to feed your starving child. Over the years, after having been in this situation once too often – we have a well-tested solution. There is usually a sandwich shop – think Subway or Jimmy Johns – within a few miles of the airport – and the quick stop to pick up a meal is totally worth it. Trust me, that soggy sandwich is going to be the best meal of your vacation!

In Manasi’s words, thanks to ‘Mamma and her tourism’ – we packed quite a bit into the week we had. Instead of doing a blow-by-blow of all the days – I’m going to go back to the format I used for the Amsterdam post. More of a travelogue, a DIY guide to a week in the Riviera Maya. Riviera Maya on the eastern coast of Mexico, is the stretch of coastline along the Caribbean Sea, starting south of Cancun all the way down to Tulum, and a little further. White beaches, turquoise seas, palm trees, azure skies – truly a slice of Paradise! Interestingly, the western coast of Mexico is known as the Mexican Riviera – time to plan that trip next!! So here we go – a week in the Riviera Maya!

Cancun – Cancun days book-ended our week – and this was where we planned to shop for souvenirs! There are several high-end malls here with all the name brand stores – but we were looking for the markets with little stalls – where bargaining is a must to walk away with great deals! Using our trusty GPS, we walked to Market 28 – and absolutely loved it! Not only does it have all kinds of souvenirs, there are several ‘restaurants’, serving local food and strong drinks! There’s even a fun ‘Cancun’ sign to pose for photos! As expected, there’s a vibrant night-life – head to Cancun central for a complete street party – and a variety of clubs! The funnest place we ate at was appropriately named ‘Mextreme’ – we were just commenting on the strong ‘Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara’ vibe – when to our delighted surprise, the DJ played the song ‘Señorita’!

All-inclusive resorts – Checking into an all-inclusive resort is by far the most popular activity here! The entire coastline – from the ‘Zona Hotelera’ in Cancun, all the way down the coast – is dotted with lavish resorts – take your pick!! After much deliberation, we decided on the Hilton – a ocean facing room with a private pool! It’s fairly common to spend an entire week or even more at these all-inclusives, and then planning ‘excursions’ to the various attractions in the area. And although, it is amazing to live in the lap of luxury for a bit – there really is no way to get any local flavor here. So, it was only the first 3 days that we spent here – really looking forward to lounging on the beach or by the pool with an endless flow of fruity drinks – with our luck, it rained both days that we were here!

No beach or pool meant that all those holiday-makers were forced indoors – and the lobby of the hotel was packed to overflowing. Bartenders were really busy the entire time, although the the alcohol content in these drinks was questionable – there’s no way I can put away 5 martinis and still walk back to the room! – and it felt like all we did was plan which restaurant to eat at next, and check the weather on our phones! The resort was a great throw-back to all our exotic Asian vacations – excellent service, great food, and a room with a view. We did manage a walk on the rain-swept beach – but our little paddling pool remained unused. Just a minor quibble – and I’m sure this is not just me – is there anyone who doesn’t want a good, solid door with a lock for the bathroom? The glass doors might be aesthetically pleasing – but please, can we place a little more importance on privacy here?

Moving around – There are several tour companies who will provide a comprehensive itinerary, including pick-up and drop-off from hotels and the airport – even the all-inclusives arrange day-trips. Very convenient, but we have always loved having our independence and flexibility – so we rented a car from Europcar – Ajey got a really good rate online. Our flight got in about 5pm, quick shuttle ride to the rental car place, and then enjoy our first evening in Mexico, right? Well, we hit a tiny snag. Once we got there, Europcar wanted us to to pay another $100 a day for ‘insurance’ – that worked out to almost $900 additional to what we had already paid for the reservation. Plus $2500 charged to our credit card as ‘security deposit’! And no, so sorry, there was no refund if we wanted to cancel. Rock, meet hard place. Ajey finally negotiated it down to $50 per day – and we drove away in our Kia 3 hours later with a not-so-good taste in the mouth. So if you do rent a car, make sure you get the final price confirmed up-front!

Having the car was wonderful, though – we must have driven over 500kms during that week! The roads were good, actually, much better than expected. Does anybody remember driving days with paper maps, or maps printed from Mapquest? Asking for directions? And at least once, driving miles out of your way because you missed a turn? Google Maps and GPS has made all this a thing of the past – the world is yours to conquer – as long as you have a signal, of course! And although the roads were good, the road signs, mile markers etc are a little scant. We had a bit of a scare on one of the highways – there was literally this smooth road cutting through a densely wooded area, no exits, no signs, nothing at all for almost couple of hours – no cell signal either to gauge how far civilization and the nearest gas station was – because, of course, we were running low on gas!

Currency – The currency in Mexico is the Peso, with an exchange rate of about 18.5 pesos to a US dollar. Almost all stores, even gas stations, were happy to accept US dollars – nevertheless, it’s always a good idea to have a stash of local currency available. Easiest to exchange dollars at one of the several money exchanges – at the airport and dotted through the tourist areas, or for a small fee, use your US debit card to withdraw pesos from an ATM machine – we found that the Bankorte machines had the best rates. Having pesos is especially important when driving on the local highways – we had to depend on the kindness of a French-Canadian family to give us pesos in exchange for USD when we didn’t have enough to pay the toll.

Puerto Morelos – A short drive away from Cancun, first stop on the Riviera Maya, is the small fishing village of Puerto Morelos. A much quieter destination than either Cancun or Playa del Carmen – the main attraction again is the beach, and other marine activities. This would have been perfect place to stop for lunch, with several restaurants lining the beach – we drove through on a rainy, windy day – and just stopped for a quick picture. A beautiful photo-op for sure, but these signs have mushroomed everywhere now, kind of reducing the novelty!

Playa del Carmen – We had one of the best nights of our vacation here – Ajey and I were celebrating our 23rd anniversary! Down by Playa Central is a huge pedestrian area, with all kinds of restaurants and night clubs – the streets are all lighted up, with loud music and flashing lights spilling out invitingly. Plenty of souvenir shopping, don’t forget to bargain! The city is quite crowded to drive around – but there is an elevated express highway if you want to completely bypass the traffic. After days of Mexican food, we were able to find a Punjabi restaurant to satisfy our daal-rice craving! And in the sweetest gesture, Ajey bought me a bouquet of roses from a street vendor!

Akumal – Swimming with turtles was high on our list for this vacation – and Akumal is the absolutely best spot! If you check online, there are several tours that offer this – and they include hotel pick-up and drop-off – watch out for hidden fees like dock fees or equipment rental, though! The ‘Akumal Natural Park’ dive center gave us a great deal – 400 pesos per person, including snorkel gear and a pass for the day at the beach – that ‘day of the beach’ thing is a bit of a scam – technically, the beach is open to the public, and if you are experienced enough, you could snorkel in the bay by yourself without a guide.

Now here’s where I say that this was the absolute highlight of our vacation – and seeing the turtles in their natural environment was a life changing experience etc etc. I’m not going to lie – wading into the water, I completely panicked – what am I doing now, swimming out into a choppy ocean, and then putting my head into the water, breathing though this flimsy tube – no, thank you! Not my proudest moment, but our guide then pretty much towed me around the bay, me hanging on for dear life onto a life preserver. But yes, I did see the turtles – man, are those things huge – and starfish, and stingrays, and a school of electric blue fish – and it really was amazing! Done and dusted! The beach was really crowded but we did enjoy a nice lunch at the Lol-Ha restaurant!

Tulum – At the far end of the Riviera Maya, is Tulum – the best place to start exploration into the Mayan ruins in the area. It was another rainy day – good thing we had those rain ponchos with us! The visible structures are not very well preserved, and you cannot really get too close – but the location is impressive. Situated on a cliff, dropping to a pristine beach and a vast ocean – Tulum was an important Mayan port. The Wind-God temple is the first one one the route – I’m always struck by the similarity between ancient cultures – worship of nature is such a common factor! The most important structure is the Mayan pyramid, a temple to the God Kukulcan. It would have been better to have a guide, as there really aren’t that many signs explaining the history or other features – all we could do was admire the sights! In hindsight, the rainy day turned out to be perfect – it wasn’t as crowded, and there really isn’t much shelter at the site – would have been a scorching trek on a sunny day! It is quite a walk, so comfortable shoes are a must!!

Our adventure doesn’t end here – we ventured inland into the Yucatan peninsula – a new addition to the Seven Wonders of the World beckons!! Watch this space for the next post!!


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