Due to numerous cheap flights, many Western travellers either enter or exit the Latin World via Cancún, Mexico. If you are like me AKA not-keen-on-resorts kinda person, you will want to skip the city in order to find a more – let’s call it – authentic locations. Mayan Riviera unfortunately doesn’t come with many of those but if you head further inland, you might find few suitable places.
To be honest, Mexico wasn’t really on the list for this particular trip of mine but during the few days I spent in there, I’ve managed to get to feel sorry for myself that I haven’t reserved more time to explore the country a bit more. In other words, I loved those non-resorty parts of Yucatán, even from the little taste of the place, I’ve managed to get. The cuisine, the people, the atmosphere, it was all suddenly somehow different to most of the places I’ve seen south of its border. However, I’ve had only 10 days to end my trip, so I can’t exactly call myself an expert of the region.
FYI, I’m mainly going to talk about about the few places I’ve visited (Bacalar, Tulum, Playa del Carmen and Valladoid). This text is therefore suitable mainly for a person who’s ending their trip in Latin Americas and want’s to get a little taste of Mexico with limited time left in a no-rush mode, because the mode of resting for few days before heading back to the work-life is already on the table.
My first taste of Mexico was a small town of Bacalar and within minutes I loved the place. About an hour drive from the town of Chetumal on the Belizan border, Bacalar serves as a first stop for many travellers arriving from Belize or from the south-eastern Guatemala. We are apparently talking about a classic Mexican colonial town of a small size. It’s very friendly and after Guatemala’s Flores it’s also affordable. Well, except the accommodation, which wasn’t cheap at all.
The major attraction in Bacalar is its lagoon. The 43km long and 2km wide shallow turquoise waters are reminiscent of Maledives, from the beauty’s perspective. Just pick one of the many tour operators and they will take you to all basic attractions the lagoon comes with, covering various lake cenotes and the Pirates Channel, all just in few hours.
FYI, the lagoon’s shore is filled with luxury mansions and hotels. The further away from the lake one goes, the more authentic as well as economic it gets. I’ve stayed in the city barely a block and a half from the main square, the shore however appeared as a very romantic place so don’t be shy to spend few extra bucks if you were around with your loved one 😉
Tulum is arguably the first resort in Mayan Riviera or even in the whole of Mexico. Instead of rich Mexicans and Americans, this resort was built for Mayan kings long time before the Spanish showed up in the region. Nowadays, there are however as many as “3 Tulums“, all withing a short distance from each-other.
Reachable by numerous collectivos (shared taxis) that continuously run between them the whole day, the “3 Tulums” are: the famous Tulum ruins, Tulum Pueblo AKA the town surrounding the highway as well as the modern Tulum Playa area filled with flashy hotels and restaurants.
Except the Caribbean cost, the major attraction however still remains to be the archaeological site. The ruins of Tulum stand out mainly because its location. The site that reached its peak between 13th and 15th centuries has by the way managed to remain independent for about 70 years since the conquistadors began occupying Mexico.
From the tourist point of view, prepare yourself for large crowds when visiting this attractive archaeological site. I have managed to wake up early to beat the masses to the place and I must say that I was delighted to have the place nearly for myself for a while.
From the last picture in the gallery picture above it’s however quite clear that it didn’t take long before it felt like any other overcrowded tourist attraction in the world. So wakey wakey – it’s 7am – grab a coffee and a croissant from the local bakery and get moving 😉
Playa del Carmen
I admit, this was my first major research error, when searching for a non-Cancún place within the close proximity to the international airport. I won’t bother you with extended description of this place. Playa del Carmen is a classic busy resorty destination with a bit of a toxic atmosphere, where predatory tourist industry rules everything. It’s basically a smaller Cancún.
The city’s main gringo strip is Quinta Avenida AKA the 5th Avenue. It is a pedestrian cobblestone street that spans for 20-odd blocks, filled with million restaurants, bars, clubs, shopping centres, drug dealers, “massage therapists” and other various overpriced services. Not being my cuppa tea, I left the town asap.
Valladoid, on the other hand, is a pretty colonial town of nearly 50 000 people. Compared to the coastal places, it’s less touristy, cheaper and the overall feeling makes it feel like more real Mexico. I wouldn’t know what a real Mexico is yet but that is what the locals told me. The whole city had overall a good and friendly vibe. Not too much, not too touristy – just nice, friendly, slow and welcoming – I like Valladoid.
Valladolid or Saki’ in Mayan was set up in 1543 by conquistadors. The city’s vibrant history is projected in a form of animated movie every evening on a iconic building of Convent of San Bernardino de Siena every evening for the spectators. This is also where the city walking tour ends so the tourists can enjoy their coffee, Margarita or Corona in a beautiful park surrounding the convent.
Except the strolls around the town combined with drinking coffees and enjoying the local cuisine in one of the stylish restaurants, one can enjoy swimming in the stunning cenotes (natural subterranean swimming pools), the whole region is filled with. Paradox is that the least busy and arguably the best of all of them was Cenote Zaci, the one that is right in town. For a small fee of 30,- Pesos (€1.45) you’re in for a unforgettable treat.
The neighbouring cenotes of Xeken and Samula are reachable by collectivos that are located near the city’s bus terminal. You can also walk there or rent a push bike if you can deal with the heat. The entry fee for both of them is just 125,-Pessos (€5.90).
As I’ve mentioned above, there’s certain contrast between the arriving travellers and those who are ending their trip here. For me personally it was funny and also a bit melancholic feeling to see people in a mood I’ve been nearly 8 months ago when I started my journey around Latin Americas in Santiago de Chile. But the experience of swimming in Cenote Zaci was the ending of an epic trip I could not have hoped for 🙂
Other possible locations to visit in the area
Yucatán is a large peninsula and there’s certainly plenty to see. I was told to head to the northern coast that’s apparently less touristy (it still is touristy, only a bit less) and there’s not sea weed problem that has been giving headaches to the hotel owners on the Western coast.
How to get there
Public transport as well as the quality of roads in this part of the world is at the 1st World level. There are numerous connections – just ask at any bus terminal.
- Flores (Guatemala) – Bacalar: (via Belize City): 9hrs @ 270,-GTQ (€31)
- Bacalar to Tulum: 160mins @ 202,-MX (€9.30)
- Tulum to Playa del Carmen: 80mins @ 88,-MX (€4.10)
- Playa del Carmen to Valladoid: 160mins @ 138,-MX (€6.40)
- Valladoid to Cancún Airport: 3hrs, excl the change in Cancún BUs Terminal @ 296,-MX (€13.60)
- Bacalar: Posada Palma Cola de Pescado. This is an Airbnb place, located just a block and a half from the main square. Private room with AC, a cute little coffee table, shelves as well as some sort of wardrobey thing to hang clothes, this was wee bit more than just a basic place. With shared bathroom it was @ $22 USD/per night. Given the price (2nd lowest I found) and location for what Bacalar had to offer it was OK. It could do with a paint job though but I’d pick the place again if I came back.
- Tulum: Casa Jungla, private room @ 257,-MX (€11.80). One of the cheapest places to stay in Tulum Pueblo. It’s located in a residential area about 7-10 minutes walk from the city centre, more important fact to be aware of however is that it’s a bit of an informal place. In other words, it’s not exactly a Hilton. If you are liberal and non-conformist kinda person, you will most likely like it. Run by a friendly Chilean dude. I’d recommend the place to my alternative friends
- Playa del Carmen: PERFECT SPOT *downtown *close to beach *CASA PIÑA. This is an Airbnb place. Close to the centre, 5 mins walk to the beach. Well organised, well maintained, run by a friendly Mexican dude. It came fully furnished, with few homey touches. At 11.25 USD for private room with shared bathroom, it was also one of the cheapest options in Playa del Carmen. I’d recommend the place to my mates
- Valladoid: Valladoid Hostel, formerly known as Spanglish Hostel. Nice private room @ 220,-MX (€10.10), one of the cheapest in town. Friendly staff, clean place with nice garden and not so clean pool. The room came with some concrete shelves and table, private bathroom. I’d recommend the place to my mates on a budget
- Guatemala: Nada. Zero. Guatemala is the only Central American country without any border fees. Congratulations Guatemala.
- Belize: Exit fee of $17USD, if you stay for less than 24hrs, after that it’s extra $7.50
- Mexico: 558,-MX (€26.50) entry fee, if you are planning to stay in the country for 7 or more days. This fee is normally included in your flight upon your arrival to Mexico by plane. Some airlines include that fee even in your exit flight. However, if you are entering by land, you apparently have to pay that fee on the border. FYI, there was a couple who’s flight out of Mexico had that fee included and they had to pay the fee anyway.