As we were in the general vicinity of Mexico (in Cuba) with some time to spare in September 2017, we hopped over to the Yucatan Peninsula (and coincidentally dodged Hurricane Irma). We spent 10 days there – split between Playa Del Carmen, Mérida, Isla Holbox and Cancún, a perfect balance of traveling and relaxing.
Playa del Carmen:
We started off in Playa del Carmen, which is conveniently only 50 minutes drive from Cancún airport, and a great base for traveling all over the Yucatán Peninsula – if you were to choose just one place as a base, this would be a good option. Playa (del Carmen) is lively and touristic (although it was quite the shock to my system after spending 10 days in Cuba). It has beautiful white, sandy beaches, is filled with nice hotels, is less honey-moony / resort-centred than Cancún and the main tourist street is lined with souvenir shops and tour desks – mixed in with some great restaurants. It’s bustling, around the clock.
For getting from the airport to Playa del Carmen, I recommend you get a collectivo which costs around $316peso, rather than $1000peso for a private taxi (we got slightly ripped off on this one as we weren’t prepared and didn’t know the exchange rate- we had concentrated our efforts on getting TO Havana airport, instead of from Cancun Airport to the hotel, but no harm done). A taxi takes about 50 minutes and was direct, as opposed to the collectivo stopping at any hotel on demand.
Stay at – Palm at Playa
Palm at Playa is a gem in the heart of Playa. The hotel is well located, just off the main shopping street (Avenida 5) and close to restaurants, bars, nightclubs and supermarkets. The rooms are clean, the staff are friendly and the facilities are dreamy- I would have spent all my time at the rooftop pool area if I could have. So picturesque and instagrammable! The concierge, Sandra, is very helpful- she gave us a lot of valuable advice about trips and tours. The staff in the restaurant are very helpful as well and rushed our order so we could eat before an early departure- not to mention the breakfast is top class.
Eating out in Playa del Carmen
Head to Karen’s on Avenida 5 where you can sit on swings at the bar. The mango daiquiris are to die for, and the staff are super nice – although watch out for the guy who takes your photo and then comes back with your pic on a bottle of tequila for you to buy (he doesn’t like hearing ‘no’!). There was a great live band and I’d 100% recommend the nachos (when in Mexico!!!)
Palm at Playa does good shrimp tacos and steak sandwiches on the rooftop terrace/ pool – you can buy a day pass for the pool and get a discount on food. The restaurant on the ground floor connecting the the hotel is a fish bar, but also does amazing breakfast/ brunch. I recommend the omelettes pr the Mexican style English muffins with Chipotle Cream (don’t recall the menu item name) is mouth watering – all accompanied by coffee, juice, fruit and yoghurt. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay.
100% Natural does fab salads , smoothies, juices, omelettes and Mexican food (and it’s all natural ingredients!!), plus they offer 2 for one cocktails at happy hour (2 for 90 pesos).
Daytrippin’ from Playa
There were various options for day trips from Playa – including Isla Mujeres and Cozumel, the latter of which is one of the best scuba dive sights in the world allegedly (but be sure you’re comfortable with reef/ drift diving with strong currents). Isla Mujeres is supposed to be a nice day trip – where you can rent golf carts to explore the island and it can be combined with snorkelling at the underwater museum “Musa“. As we had been to an island in Cuba and were travelling onwards to Holbox, we passed – but friends have recommended it. Tulum is about 1-1.5 hours away from Playa and is a nice half day trip to see Mayan ruins that overlook the ocean – a lot of people recommend you go early to avoid the crowds. But what did we do while we were in Playa?
On day one, we had a pool and relax day – because our hotel was dreamy and the rooftop pool and in-water beds and hammocks were amazing. Check out the Palm at Playa for the most Instagramable hotel I found in Mexico! (And order a fresh strawberry or mango daiquiri while you’re there!!).
Friends had strongly recommended the Xcaret adventure park – so we looked into going there, but it was super expensive and my other half preferred the adrenalin-inducing Xplor park ($110)- with ziplines, ATVs and underwater caves. Sandra, our tour specialist recommended Maya Adrenaline as a cheaper, half day alternative, meaning we could spend the rest of the day in the pool, so we went for that – for a hefty $70. Up we got at 7am, only to be collected at 7.30 from the hotel, then drove around collecting others, and transferred bus, and then drove for another hour to the jungle. On the itinerary was ATVs through the jungle, ziplining and swimming in a cenote. The ATVs and especially the cenote made it worth it, but the activities take place in a jungle- so bring mosquito repellent, and regardless, expect to be eaten alive by mossies! #welcometothejungle
Our guide, Johnny was a complete joker and his enthusiasm really added to the tour! The ziplining was so so and the rappel was around 5metres worth of an abseil! (the mosquitoes really took from these experiences), and I’ve had better adventure days at home – but swimming in the dark through the cave, surrounded by stalactites and stalagmites with bats flying overhead, was unforgettable, so I’m pretty glad we did it (now that the mossie bites have faded!).
On day three, himself had a lie in while me, the avid diver, went scuba diving with Dive Mike (Calle 8, c/ Avenida 5). I really wanted to dive Cozumel but hadn’t been diving in quite some time so talked it through with them and elected to go on a two-tank dive trip to Tortugas and Baracuda – the water was crystal clear and we saw a handful of turtles. The instructors were great and I’d wholly recommend the place if you’re looking to do some diving whilst in Playa.
From Playa, we booked a trip to Chichen Itza and Ik Khil Cenote with Easy Tours for $43 (DON’T pay more than that – we were quoted double by some guides!). Although it was great value for money, I reckon the tour could be done privately, saving a lot of time- they collected us, moved us to another bus, drove an hour to a stop off point to charge $35 for water and overcharge anyone wanting breakfast, then 2 more hours to the cenote for an hour (this was fantastic), a stop off at a lunch with no frills and cringe worthy entertainment- with no drinks included – then a short drive to Chichen Itza which was incredible. There was an English speaking tour guide waiting – but he said he was voluntarily providing the tour, and expected a tip at the end of the 40 minute tour.
I would recommend booking a car and doing it by private tour – which would save you half a day!
Chichen Itza and Ik Khil
One of the 7 New Wonders of the World, Chichen Itza is a village home to arguably the most famous Mayan pyramid, where, much like our passage tombs in Ireland and the UK, the sun aligns perfectly twice a year (21 March and 23 Sept) to signal the equinox (equal hours of day and night). It was spectacular to see (even in 40 degree heat!) The main pyramid was built on top of a cenote- a natural pool formation over 65ft deep – 1000+ years ago, using the same logic as the Egyptians used to build the pyramids (blocks laid on top of each other at 70 degrees), and it is still a puzzle as to how they managed to build it – essentially on top of a lake. Our tour guide spoke English and gave us a whistle stop tour and overview of the history which was nice – but just wandering and snapping pics was a highlight for me. Tip: bring lots of water, a hat and sunscreen – it’s a sun trap!
Admittedly, I had not heard of Mérida prior to researching travel plans for Yucatán. So rich in colonial heritage and colourful culture, it is well worth including on the itinerary. As we had only one day in Mérida, we elected to do a walking tour to fit in as much as possible – and Pink Cactus helped us do just that. The tour is roughly 2 hours long and brings you to all the main sites around the Cathedral, Plaza Mayor and Parque Santa Lucia. The tour guide’s English and knowledge of the city are impressive and the tour was very enjoyable. The tour runs at 09.30 every morning from in front of the Cathedral in Plaza Mayor (look out for the pink tshirts).
After the tour, we headed to Monumento a la Patria on Paseo Montejo, and this was a definite highlight for me in Mexico. Strolling up the avenue made for a nice walk – surrounded by luxurious villas. The monument itself, although it’s actually a roundabout, is breathtaking. It depicts the history of Mexico and is ever so detailed – top of my list of things to do in Mérida.
Where to stay – Luz en Yucatan
I highly recommend you book into Hotel Luz en Yucatan – it’s a hotel right in the centre of the city, run by an American and an Irish guy, who are exceptionally helpful – as is Esteban who works there. They give you a wealth of tips upon arrival, and a welcome beer, and there’s a liquor cart in reception for whenever you feel the need! Plus, the grounds are beautiful- it’s colourful, clean and tranquil – with a small pool and hammocks in room and around the casa for you to relax or escape the afternoon heat. We booked through booking.com – at around $65 per night (€55 for a queen room). I saw it accurately described as a Boutique Hotel disguised as a Budget Hotel.
(See end of post for info on getting from Mérida to Holbox)
Isla Holbox (pronounced “Holbosh”) is arguably my favourite part of Mexico / Yucatan – it’s the perfect place to relax, unwind, forget every care in the world, and forget you even have a job (!).
Getting from mainland to Holbox
The ferry from Chíquila (on the mainland) to Holbox is $140 each and takes 25 mins. See the pic below for departure times- they’re essentially every hour, and the Holbox Express is every hour on the half hour. Not sure how much this is or how long it takes- but the short trip didn’t warrant it in my eyes.
It was $40 for a taxi to/ from the ferry to our hotel on Holbox – we walked from the terminal as we arrived at night, but texi’d back – worth it with luggage!
Holbox bucket list
Be sure to catch the sunset from the pier in front of the H O L B O X sign on the hotel side of the island- it’s just incredible, buy a drink in the store and sit at the end of the pier enjoying the tranquil beauty. Lie with your head hanging upside down off the pier looking at the sunset for a surreal view (but watch out for splashes!)
The whale shark tour is unmissable- they’re friendly, 12 meter long creatures (the largest of the family!) and off the coast of the Yucatan peninsula is home to the largest shoal of whale sharks in the world (April- Mid Sept only), unfortunately Hurricane Irma rendered the waters too rough for us to do it, but others spoke about it with true excitement. A whale shark (Triburón Ballena) tour should cost $100-120USD (1650pesos for the latter price) for a half day excursion (07.00-13.00) There’s also a nice 3 island trip where you can visit the island where the Flamingos and all the birds live- we had already been on several boat trips but if you’re just doing Holbox, I’d certainly elect to do it.
To rent a golf cart on the island should cost $200 for an hour, $600 for 3 hours (though you could prob bargain down to $500-550) or $1000 for 24 hours. Head to the south side of the island to escape to deserted beaches, home to hundreds of iguanas. Go (north?) past all the hotels, and keep going until you emerge into the south side (does that make sense?!! Going off where the sun sets!)
There are hammocks in the water by Hotel up along the beach (north from the pier) with a Holbox sign which makes for a great insta pic (Ref below).
If you’re a puppy lover like us, and feel like getting some steps in or being a Good Samaritan, head to El Refugio animal home (opposite Tribú hostel, near the pier with the H O L B O X sign – ask anyone where Tribú is) and volunteer to walk some doggies for an hour.
Other activities on the island involve chilling out and doing absolutely SFA, renting bikes, kayaking and paddle boarding. And most importantly, enjoying paradise!
Food guide – Holbox:
Restaurante Calibri does great smoothies and frappés- and has fab brunch and breakfast options.
The pizza, long islands and strawberry daquiris (fresh fruit!) at Babula Yei Yei (Main Street down from the pier) are super – and not too costly ($55 for ginormous cocktails!) and the pizza was from a fire oven, thin crust and deeelish!
We ate at a Gin and Tapas place called La Chaya just behind the pier on the last night – it was empty and the service was quite slow. The cocktails were only so so but they do a cocktails of the day 2 for $90 and the mini burgers and coconut (boneless) chicken was just amazing. Honestly, the cocktails weren’t great but the food made up for that – plus they had swing pods!
Eat on a budget by opting for crepes in the main square for $35 (one filling) $55 (two fillings).
Getting around Yucatán
From Playa del Carmen to Mérida, via Chichen Itza
To save time, we purchased the tour we wanted to do- to the cenote, Chichen Itza and Valladolid with Easytours for $43 (a lot less than other quotes of $79/99 we got) and requested that we bring our luggage and stay at Valladolid, which is only 2hours from our desired destination, Mérida, the regional capital. However, at 16.30 when due to depart from Chichen Itza to Valladolid, having consulted the map and taken time into account, we jumped ship and hopped on a bus to Mérida (second class bus- El Oriente cost $128/ ticket). The first class ADO actually pulled up before ours, and had I known, we would likely have chosen that option. El Oriente stops wherever it’s flagged down and whenever anyone wants to exit, but luckily the aircon worked and more luckily, himself had a hoody for me to steal (which he needed to reclaim when it started raining on him inside the bus!!). It was cool riding through the Mexican countryside, watching a massive thunderstorm ( a distant relative of Irma?), watching kids play in local playgrounds and teens paint graffiti with paintbrushes in rural villages. At one stage, a guy got on with a guitar and busked on the bus, and another guy got on with a tray of empañadas for sale. It was good to experience the local transport – although this tagged an hour or so on to the journey. We arrived after 3 hours, rather than the 1hr45 the first class ADO bus takes, but with more memories 🙂
From Mérida to Holbox
There are threads and threads of discussions on Trip Advisor about how to get to Holbox from Mérida. The issue being there allegedly is only one direct bus per day- an ADO at 23.30 which takes 6 hours, connecting you to the 5.30am ferry at Chiquila, the mainland destination you want to look to go to if you’re doing to Holbox. However, there is also a bus at 7:45 and, allegedly at 10.00/11.00am which our hotel owner told us about, but I don’t know much more than that- and suggest you ask at your hotel/ hostel for them to make inquiries by phone or advise. We took the easy way out and decided to invest in a private car to Chiquila, in order to allow us to a) see Mérida and b) make it to Holbox for our hotel reservation, though honestly I think the night bus would have been our option of choice had we not already booked the hotel. The car cost $2400 (roughly €115) and took 3.5hours, rather than 5-6 by direct bus. There is another option to get any of the Cancún buses and get off at El Ideal, then either wait for the bus to Chiquila, or get a taxi/ collectivo which takes 1hr06mins- but you are rather at the disposal of the taxi drivers and although it should cost $35ish by taxi, you can’t guarantee you’ll get that price, or when the bus will come. We didn’t fancy wasting time with buses and connections, or standing around in a small village in the beating sun- so we forked out, because sometimes you’re sanity is worth more!!
From Isla Holbox to Cancún
We elected to get the 13.45 ADO (first class) bus, which meant the 13.00 ferry. The bus was stopping first at Cancun airport ($306 to the airport) or supposedly $230 to Cancun, because of the inconvenience of having to go via the airport I guess?! We bought everything at the ferry ticket booth on the island and the helpful lady told me it took around 2hours to the airport, 2,30 to Cancún. The bus was quiet, super comfy, airconed, with a working toilet (no tissue) and USB charging sockets, plus tv screens. Not quite like the first class trains in Taiwan that give you cake, water and coffee, but not bad at all! Bring a jumper if you’re prone to the cold (or get your other half to so you can steal it).
Check out some of my snaps from the trip below – and don’t forget to leave a comment 🙂 x