To take a break before starting our Neuroanatomy coursework, a fellow med student and I decided to check off a box on our travel bucket list! The Yucatan peninsula holds some of the most significant archeological achievements of the ancient civilization of the Mayan people. With the ever-growing discovery of temples and underground cisterns, the area is ripe with history and adventure. We had nine days to explore the area, so we broke it up into three main areas: Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Valladolid.
Our first day we flew into Cancun International airport, and our first four days would be spent gathering information and planning out which areas we wanted to see. Our accommodation was the Mayan Monkey Hostel, located near the ship harbors and beaches. I have to say, this hostel had to be one of the best I have ever stayed in. Its location was perfect, offered free breakfast and dinner, had a built-in bar and pool, and the rooms were extremely comfortable. Most importantly, it has one of the best taco joints in Cancun right across the street! All of this for roughly $10 USD a night makes it my #1 recommendation for a stay in Cancun.
Usually, I would go out of my way to do intensive research and figure out how to do everything on a shoestring budget. However, this trip was extremely short, and I didn’t want to waste time trying to track down transportation and guides. Therefore we utilized some of the MANY tour agencies available. The Yucatan peninsula has become a huge tourist destination with its many ruins, beaches, and wildlife. There is no lack of adventure companies for almost any kind of activity you could wish for, and with multiple agencies vying for your business you can get a competitive price! For our stay in Cancun, we cooked two tour packages.
The first tour was booked right at the Puerto Juarez harbor, which was a five-minute bus ride from our hostel. The trip included ferry transport to Isla Mujeres, several hours of snorkeling in the surrounding reefs, lunch, and a guided swim around the famous underwater museum, MUSA. All of this for about $50 USD! We decided to make sure to take the MUSA tour that day because the weather in the Gulf of Mexico can change very quickly, and only under very calm conditions can you arrange a tour to see the underwater exhibit.
Our second tour was booked for the next day to Chichen Itza, one of the most famous Mayan villages in the region which has starred in a few Hollywood movies like Apocalypta. The tour included round-trip transportation, a traditional Mexican lunch, swimming in an underground cenote (the absolute best part of Mexico!), and a guided tour of the ruins. If taking this tour, beware the heat and the crowds at Chichen Itza! If we hadn’t got with a tour agency, we would have spent forever trying to get into the site! And what a marvelous site it is! The temples and game courts were omnipotent, and made you question how humans could have built such a thing! Make sure to get a guide so you can an in-depth view of the history and significance of the ruins. The cenote (Xkeken) we went to was an underground cistern that had some of the clearest water I have ever seen! It was incredible to be swimming in an underground lake that was connected to similar rivers that coursed under the earth of the entire peninsula! I would soon come to find that exploring some of the thousands of cenotes in the region would be the highlight of my stay in Mexico!
The next day we took a needed day of rest, especially since we planned to hit the Cancun nightlife that evening. We asked our hostel which club would be the best to go to that evening, and they say we were in luck because the best party of the week was being hosted that night: The Mandala Beach Club. Stand in line entry cost $40 USD, with all you can drink until 3 AM. However, if we booked through the hostel we didn’t have to wait in line, we received free transport to the club straight from our hostel, and we were given a table where the bar service comes to you! The hostel price was $65 USD, and we almost didn’t do it due to the expense. However, in retrospect, it was fantastic that we did! The entire night took little to no effort on our part, and we were able to enjoy dancing the whole time instead of fighting to get drinks from the bar. My particular poison that evening was Black Bear Gin, which would undoubtedly come back to haunt me the next day.
The following day was pain, and I have no idea how spring breakers could handle that level of inebriation for an entire week! Now we could have played dead for an entire day to recover. However, we were short on time and wanted to make the most of our trip! The hostel had a group trip to a local Cenote (Verde Lucero) for $25 USD, and let me tell you, nothing cures a hangover like the crystal clear water of a Mayan cistern. The morning was mainly spent swimming and relaxing by some of the most beautiful scenery on earth, zip line jumping included. That evening we got an ADO bus down to Playa del Carmen for the next stretch of our adventure!
Playa del Carmen
While our hostel was very nice, I would not recommend staying here. We stayed at the Las Hijas hostel, which had excellent accommodation and was basically a mini hotel. The only problem was it is extremely far away (roughly 17 blocks) from the bus station and the main strip. Despite its location, it served its purpose as our base of operations for 2 days. Our first day was a self-guided tour of the Tulum ruins about 45 minutes south of Playa del Carmen, which were gorgeous, but not necessarily worth a trip on its own. Once we were down there, we talked to a local tour agency and arranged for travel to some local cenotes after we finished walking around ($25 USD). The Las Tortugas Cenotes were incredible! It was actually a series of five water holes, three of which were in underground caverns! It was some of the most beautiful swimming areas I’ve been to and had various cave systems to explore. I definitely recommend the detour if in the area! After your done, you just head to the highway and flag down a bus back to Playa del Carmen.
The second day was a tour booked at one of the several agencies on the shopping strip. I will warn you, there is a company here called Xcaret, which is a jungle theme park nearby. They have tons of cool tours and excellent advertisements, but they also have the price to go with it! Its great for families, but expect to pay 2-3 times the price! Our tour was booked for the Coba Ruins, which is another Mayan Village where you can actually climb the main temple! The tour included access and roundtrip transport to the ruins, lunch, relaxation at the beach Playa Paradiso, and some swimming in an underground Cenote (Muul Ich), all for $40 USD. Coba was much better than Chichen Itza for two reasons. First, the village is still overrun by the jungle, so you are shaded throughout your day. Second, there are much fewer people! The guide was fantastic and taught me several things I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate if I had merely toured them on my own. The denote was also incredible, as it seemed to descend forever into a system of underwater caves (I’m sure something lived down there)! It also had a 50ft platform at the top you could jump off of, though it stung quite a bit at the bottom!
My companions headed back two days early, so I had a choice between heading to the Pueblo Magico Valladolid, or head further south to Bacalar. Either trip would have been fantastic, but I was really craving some of that historic architecture and traditional lifestyle of the region. Thus, I headed back to Valladolid for the remainder of my stay. I could have gone straight to the travel agencies and booked another adventure tour, but I honestly needed a legitimate break before I was expected to begin my Neuroanatomy course two days later. I spent the next few days lounging around outdoor cafes catching up on some reading, swinging in hammocks, eating delicious meals at local shops, and taking leisurely strolls around the city. I even came across another underground cenote (Zaci) right in the middle of the town while meandering around. Of course, I had to jump in it. Overall I thoroughly enjoyed my stay, and wish I had used Valladolid as my basecamp for my tours to Chichen Itza and Coba instead of Playa del Carmen. If planning your own trip, I recommend you to make your three basecamps Cancun, Valladolid, and Bacalar! Alas, my short stint abroad came to an end, and its back to the books for me!
My Recommendations for a Trip:
1. Cenotes, as many as you can visit!
3. Coba Ruins
4. Bacalar (Oh how I wish I went!)
5. Holbox and Whale-sharks (If In Season)
6. MUSA and Snorkeling off of Isla Mujeres
Some things to know about your trip:
1. Mexico is safe by the same standards of the rest of Central and South America, though news sources love to say otherwise. The same rule applies when visiting any foreign country. There are areas that aren’t safe to go, and the locals will warn you before you get there. Just keep your head about you and don’t be a dipshit, and you will be fine!
2. Stock up on sunscreen and bug spray as soon as you land. Supermarkets are the cheapest place to get it.
3. You will be infinitely happier if you only have a backpack instead of a suitcase, especially if your hopping between towns.
4. Pay in Mexican Pesos, or you might get a crappy exchange rate.
5. The public bus system and Taxi Collectivos are super cheap and can get you just about anywhere! If making a trip for more than 2 hours, I suggest using ADO travel buses, as they are super comfortable and affordable.
May sure to check out all my trip photos under the photography tab!
Hasta La Vista!