Mexico 2016: Isla Holbox, Valladolid, and Tulum. A quiet laid-back island, the Mayan Ruins of Ek Balam, Flamingos and wildlife at Rio Lagartos, and the beautiful beaches of Tulum
This trip was our second trip to the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. Our first trip was in the low season in September, and while it was one of the best trips Paddy and I have taken, it was also a bit too hot for our comfort. This time we went in the high season in March, and it was a much more comfortable temperature.
This trip we opted to visit the laid-back and a bit off the beaten path Isla Holbox in the north, the Spanish colonial city of Valladolid, a day trip to Rio Lagartos and the Ek Balam Mayan ruins, and finally south to Tulum for our last few days. Our friends Heather and Stephen joined us for most of the trip, they have also traveled with us to Thailand and Las Vegas.
The Yucatan peninsula in Mexico remains one of our favorite vacation spots, and there is still so much left to see.
If you’ve never been to Mexico before, here are a few basic travel tips:
- Don’t ever drink the tap water. Don’t even brush your teeth with it. Don’t open your mouth in the shower, don’t get it in your mouth at all. Stick to bottled water (with an intact seal) and bottled beverages. Make sure cocktails are made with purified ice (hielo purificado).
- Eat cooked food only, raw veggies and fruits that don’t have an outer peel may not always be washed with purified water, so eating raw veggies can be a gamble. It’s a gamble we’ve taken, and not had a problem. The more upscale or touristy a restaurant, the better chance the veggies have been sanitized. If you are at a little local joint, stick to cooked hot veggies only.
- Don’t flush your toilet paper. This is hard for Westerners to get used to, but Mexican plumbing is not equipped to handle TP. Throw it in the trash.
- Credit card theft is common, don’t allow your card to disappear from your site when paying. We typically use a credit card to pay for our hotels, and use our debit cards only to withdraw cash from ATMs to pay for everything else that way. Cards aren’t accepted everywhere, especially small shops and restaurants so paying with cash is the safest bet.
- To get the best exchange rate, pay directly with your card or withdraw cash from an ATM. Paying in dollars or exchanging dollars when you get there will get you a lower exchange rate. Try to only get cash from ATMs at banks, not stand-alones. If possible, use ATMs when bank hours are open, so if the machine eats your card, they can assist you.
- Don’t forget to call your bank and credit card companies before you leave the country! If you don’t let them know you will be using your cards internationally, they will most likely block your transactions.
- Ask taxi drivers for a rate and agree on a price before getting in. If it’s too high, negotiate or ask another driver. It helps if you speak some Spanish with drivers.
- If you don’t speak Spanish, get a travel dictionary and learn some basic phrases and numbers.
- Don’t be afraid. Mexico is a friendly country and the Yucatan is one of the safest places in Mexico right now. The drug cartels don’t target tourists and the drug violence is not going on in the touristy areas. Just be smart, don’t flash your money around, be wary of scammers, and you’ll be fine.
We arrived in Cancun at 4:40 PM (Alaska Air offers a direct flight from Seattle to Cancun now, which is awesome). We had booked a shuttle for the four of us to our hotel in Cancun Centro (downtown) with Eduardo at MyCancunTransportation.com. After a little miscommunication with the pick up spot in the ground transportation area, we met up with our driver and arrived at our hotel El Rey Del Caribe. The cost of the shuttle for four adults was $40.00 total.
We would have opted to bypass staying in Cancun altogether if our flight hadn’t had a late afternoon arrival. We were not interested in the all-inclusive resort culture in Cancun, which is mainly out on the hotel zone peninsula a ways from downtown.
After some research, we opted for the eco hotel El Rey Del Caribe based on it’s stellar reviews and ecological conservation practices. The cost was about $100.00 a night US, and it was a very nice little hotel. We would absolutely stay here again.
The rooms were very clean and comfortable, and the main courtyard of the property was like a mini jungle. A beautiful pool, lush vegetation, and hammocks in various nooks and corners to relax in. All of the staff were very friendly and helpful.
The hotel is in walking distance of the heart of downtown Cancun, and I had all these grand notions of walking around the downtown area and parks, having dinner here, drinks there, etc. However, after getting settled in, finding a nearby convenience store for water and an ATM, we were all starving and tired.
We walked a short ways down Av Carlos Nader and stumbled upon Restaurante El Pescado Ciego. It was empty, which isn’t usually a good sign, but it was early and a quick consult with Tripadvisor on our phones confirmed good reviews.
There are few things better than stumbling upon a hidden gem of a restaurant that your guidebook didn’t tell you about, and that is exactly what happened. The food and service here were excellent. We were brought some fried bread crackers and a dip, and an amuse bouche of a crab soup. We ordered beers and top shelf tequila shots.
Paddy and I had the tuna appetizer, and it was delicious. Our friend Stephen had the octopus tostada, which was phenomenal. Paddy and I also had the Octopus Flanders entree, of which we weren’t exactly sure what to expect but it was outstanding. The octopus was flash fried and crispy on the outside but just the right texture on the inside, and came with a tasty adobo-like sauce on top. It was some of the best octopus we’d ever had.
The restaurant was filling up by the time we left (we were there early at 6:45) and it was one of the best meals of our entire trip. Dinner for four including tip with appetizers, and a few rounds of drinks ended up being about $120 USD. If you are in Cancun for a night or two, we definitely recommend dinner at Pescado Ciego.
After dinner, we were too tired to go out and had to be up early the next morning, so we got some beers at the 24 hour convenience store and hung out back at the hotel.
**Tip: Bug spray with DEET recommended in the evenings/night at El Rey Del Caribe. The lush garden vegetation is a haven for mosquitos.
Breakfast and coffee/juice were included with our room, a choice of four different egg dishes made to order. We had arranged a taxi pick up at 9:00 AM with our hotel at our next destination, Isla Holbox. We sat and waited until 9:30 with no driver, after which I was able to have the front desk lady call our Isla Holbox hotel to contact the driver for 20 pesos. After a few minutes, the front desk lady received a phone call back and we were told that the driver was stuck in rush hour traffic and expected to arrive at 10:00 AM. One thing to keep in mind in Mexico–you are often on Mexican time. Just relax.
I had done some extensive research on how to get from Cancun to the Chiquila ferry terminal with service to Isla Holbox, and the bus options were all at odd times and took a while to get there. Had we had a lot more time in Mexico, we may have figured out the bus, but since we only had a little over a week for our whole trip, we opted for a taxi. The taxi our hotel on Isla Holbox arranged for us was much cheaper than the shuttles that I quoted out. Total price was $110 USD, payable to the hotel in cash at check in.
At 10:00, our driver Pedro showed up, and we all crammed into his sedan. He didn’t speak a lot of English, but we were able to make small talk with our limited Spanish. He was very friendly.
**Note: It is very helpful to know some basic Spanish when taking taxis, most taxi drivers don’t speak a lot of English in our experience.
Two hours later, we arrived in Chiquila, right when the 12:00 ferry was departing, which we missed. We thanked Pedro and walked across the street from the ferry to find a little restaurant called La Sardina Enamorada (The sardine in love?).
Ferries depart once every hour, and often you can get a shuttle to the island from some independent boat drivers at the ferry dock. We weren’t in a huge hurry, and we were hungry. So we relaxed at La Sardina Enamorada and had some beers and delicious and very inexpensive food.
Ferry tickets are 120 pesos each way per person, which is about $7.00 USD. The ride was very smooth and only 30 minutes.
Upon arrival on Isla Holbox, the golf cart taxis line up at the dock to take you to your hotel. There is a large sign at the terminal near the taxi pick up that says what the price should be from the ferry to each hotel, which was helpful. The taxi was only 30 pesos (less than $2 USD) to take us the half mile to our Hotel La Palapa on the beach. It was totally walkable, but our bags were heavy so we opted to take the taxi.
**Note: Bring cash with you to Isla Holbox. There is an ATM in town, but I have read that it is sometimes out of cash. Very few restaurants take credit cards.
Hotel La Palapa is right in town, but also right on the beach. It was probably one of the most convenient locations of all the hotels that we saw. We paid cash at check in (as requested in our confirmation, I think they do take cards but said that sometimes their machine wifi isn’t working so well) and were shown around the hotel and to our room. We had booked a balcony room which was small but very clean, had a balcony on the second floor and air conditioning.
The hotel had a nice beach with a bar and restaurant, and a very nice roof top deck with hammocks, lounge chairs, and a great view. The bed in the room was comfortable, the only issue we had was with the toilet not flushing very well. They sent maintenance up to fix it when we talked to the front desk. Overall we would totally stay here again.
Heather and Stephen were staying down the road at Hotel Takywara, which they were very pleased with as well. Their hotel was slightly more expensive than ours, but included a mini fridge and kitchenette and a breakfast basket delivered with fresh baked bread daily. The beach on their end of the island is very quiet and the hotel had a very relaxing vibe, including nice beach loungers and a meditation area. It was not a far walk from town at all.
Once we settled in and rested for a bit, Paddy and I took a walk around town. We pretty much saw it all in an hour. There was a lot of really awesome graffiti art on the buildings, and the streets are not paved, only sand. There were lots of little shops and restaurants.
We met up with Heather and Stephen around 4:30 and ended up at Restaurante Bar Villa Mar for drinks. There was no one there but us, and the town was pretty quiet. I think 3-5 PM is siesta time. The bar had swings for seats and there were panties hung sporadically around the bar, alluding to a raucous late night party atomsphere.
We ordered a snack of guacamole, chips, and ceviche that the bartender said was small, but it was huge. It was fantastic mixed seafood ceviche, but pretty much ruined our appetite for dinner. If you come here, get the small ceviche. The large feeds a family of four.
I also tried the Rojo Ojo, which is a beer with clamato and spices. Kind of like a bloody beer with Caesar mix. It was pretty good.
The town was slowly waking up as the sun was setting, so after we finished as much ceviche as we could, we walked around a bit and poked around in the little shops on the sandy streets. In the center of town one block from the beach was the “Hot Corner” bar, which was advertising their “soft opening” that night at 8:00 PM with live music. Paddy wanted to check it out, but we had about two hours to kill. So we had a beer at another little bar and then picked up some tequila, beers, and a citronella candle at a convenience store and headed to our hotel rooftop. No one was up there, and it was nice with the light from the candle we bought.
Eventually we made it down to the Hot Corner, which had its soft opening now in full swing. There was a band and drinks were 50% off, and they were handing out free samples of some tuna tartare appetizers with chopsticks. I bought a round of four beers for 50 pesos, which is less than $3.00 USD.
Around 10:00 Stephen had hit the tequila a little hard, so Heather and I decided it was time for some tacos and tortas at Taco Queto kitty corner across the street. After that we found Paddy, who was nodding off at the Hot Corner, kept awake by a conscientious German woman. Perhaps we started drinking a bit too early.
In the morning we had a fantastic breakfast of empanadas at Las Planchas next door to our hotel, three for 30 pesos (just under $2 USD). We over-ordered a bit due to the low price, we thought the portions would be a bit smaller. They were delicious.
The weather was overcast, so we decided to rent a golf cart and tour the island. There are no cars on Isla Holbox, just golf cart vehicles. The island is actually quite large, but much of it is undeveloped. There is only so much you can see in a golf cart, but we thought we’d check it out.
We walked down the main street between the beach and ferry and walked into the first golf cart rental place we saw, which advertised a four hour rental for 500 pesos (about $30 USD). It was probably the easiest vehicle rental I’ve ever done–just pay cash up front, sign a piece of paper saying that you will bring it back in good condition by the four hour point, and that was it. No deposit, no ID, no hassle.
Four of us fit on one cart with two in front and two in the back. We first drove toward the east of the island, past many beach hotels. It seemed that the beach east of town was the most popular and had the most hotels, but all the beach loungers at those hotels were not actually on the beach–they were in front of the hotels behind the road the golf carts travel on, and you have to cross the road to get to the water. In addition, you have people driving by you on golf carts all day. I was glad we stayed at Hotel La Palapa and would recommend the west end of the beach from town for peace and quiet.
We finally reached the end of the road, where we saw a sign telling us not to drive on the beach and to respect the wildlife. We parked and walked down to the sandy beach. It was a shallow sand bar that went on for miles, up to Punta Mosquito on the eastern tip of the island. You could walk for a long ways in the water without going much above your knees.
The overcast sky made the shallow sea blend right in with the sky. I’m sure it looks beautiful when the sun is out and the clouds reflect on the water.
After our stroll on the beach, we headed west to see what was on the other end of the island. We drove inland a bit on the main road past the airport (a landing strip in a loosely fenced pasture) and ended up at a very pretty cemetery.
There wasn’t much past the cemetery besides what looked like a dump. Looking at the map again now it looks like if we back-tracked and took a left and then another left, we might have found the road leading out to the west tip of the island, looking out at Isla de la Passion. We’ll save that exploration for the next trip.
We did back track and turned north back onto the northern beach road. The west end of the norther beach is very quiet and peaceful, there was barely anyone around.
It wasn’t long before we were back in town, and only ended up using two of the four hours of time we booked. We considered driving around a bit more but Paddy and Heather were getting a little motion sick from sitting backwards on the back end of the cart. We dropped it back off and walked around town a bit more, then went back to our hotels to relax a bit.
Paddy and I went back to the beach at our hotel and ordered some very delicious blended margaritas from the bar. We also ordered lunch there, which ended up being the only bad meal of our trip. The restaurant is Italian, with some beach bar items like burgers, sandwiches, etc. He ordered a quesadilla which was very oily and had no cheese on it that he could see. My club sandwich with avocado came on wonder bread with no avocado. It wasn’t bad, but didn’t come as promised. If you want to eat lunch on the beach and are feeling lazy, I’d recommend seeing if you can get some food to go from Las Panchas next door and stick to just ordering drinks from the Hotel La Palapa bar.
We read books and relaxed until evening.
That night we went to Viva Zapata for dinner. A touristy, albeit fun restaurant themed around Emiliano Zapata and the Mexican Revolution. It is a fun, ambient place with murals of scenes from the revolution on the walls, and swings as bar stools.
The Zapata margarita was outstanding, with pepper, cilantro, and cucumber. For dinner we ordered the grilled seafood platter for two, and Heather and Stephen ordered the grilled seafood and meat mix platter for two. Paddy ordered an additional steak skewer which he thought was just a skewer, but came with rice and was actually quite large. It was a lot of food, but so delicious. If you come to Holbox, don’t miss this place.
After dinner Stephen was feeling a little tired and called it a night, and Paddy, Heather, and I decided to walk around and have a couple more drinks. We opted for the roof top bar at The Arena Lounge Bar in the center of town.
There was a great view of the town at the open air bar (it is also part of a hotel) and the drinks were very good.
After that we stopped for another drink at a little reggae bar down the street, but our night out ended when everything shut down at 11:00 PM. It was fine, we weren’t out for a crazy night. Isla Holbox isn’t a place for raucous nightlife, there are bars but everything is very laid back and quiet.
Paddy and I had breakfast at La Isla del Colibri, a Pepto-pink little restaurant in the center of town. It was a very cute little spot, with bright colors and art everywhere. Service was great and the food was good as well. I had the chilaquiles verde, and Paddy had Mexican style scrambled eggs with rice and beans. The orange juice was fresh squeezed.
It had been steadily overcast since we arrived, and we were hoping for sun breaks that afternoon so that we could enjoy time at the beach. We spent the warm, gray morning souvenir shopping and reading in the room and on the rooftop deck of the hotel.
We finally got some sun breaks and I took a walk down the beach before catching a little bit of sun in a beach lounger at the hotel. Heather and Stephen joined us for some margaritas on the beach for a bit. Next door to us on the beach was a little palapa where fishermen were bringing in their daily catch. There was a lot of conch and a small tiger shark hanging from the palapa roof.
The clouds finally began to disappear as the sun sank lower in the sky, and we decided to head further west down the beach to watch the sunset in front of Heather and Stephen’s hotel. There were only a couple other lone individuals on the beach, and the sunset was spectacular.
For dinner that night we went to Los Peleones, a Mexican wrestling (Lucha Libre) themed restaurant in the town. The food is Italian/Mediterranean/Mexican fusion, and it is a fun little spot.
The place mats included a little comic strip about Luchadores rescuing a sea turtle and the importance of caring for the environment.
The food was great. I had the lobster chalupitas, (which were outstanding) and house-made spaghetti with anchovy, chili flakes, and garlic. Paddy had a mole dish that was a bit sweet for my taste but he really enjoyed it.
After dinner I was feeling a bit under the weather and Heather and Stephen were tired so we called it a night. Paddy stayed out for another Zapata Margarita at Viva Zapata, he wasn’t quite ready for bed yet and the Zapata Margaritas are just so damn delicious.
I went to bed with a sore throat the night before, and woke up with a mild cold. I had brought all kinds of remedies for gastro-intestinal distress with us, but no cold remedies.
We had to catch the 9:00 ferry back to Chiquila to meet our taxi driver to Valladolid, arranged by our hotel on Holbox for $110.00. Not many breakfast places are open early on Holbox, so we had breakfast at the Hotel Palapa restaurant on the beach which opened at 7:30. Breakfast was good, and the beach view is always pleasant.
Upon arrival at Chiquila, we saw a few taxi drivers with signs for people, but not ours. We walked to the parking lot and waited about 20 minutes. Finally I walked to the store across the parking lot and the young girl at the counter graciously let me use her cell phone to call the hotel. While the hotel had me on hold calling our taxi driver, Pedro (our previous driver from Cancun to Chiquila) came dashing down the parking lot to locate us. I’m not sure if he fell asleep in his car, or was late, but either way it was fine and we headed toward Valladolid. Mexican time.
We had split up from Heather and Stephen for two days while we visited Valladolid, and they headed on to Tulum. The drive to Valladolid with Pedro was smooth. He spoke about as much English as I spoke Spanish (un poco), but we were able to make small talk during the 2.5 hour drive. We drove through his hometown and by his family farm on the way, he told us about the crocodiles and jaguars in the area. It sounds like farmers may not want to leave livestock out at night.
Finally, we arrived in Valladolid, which is a tangled mess of streets all with numbers as names. Our hotel was on Calle 30, of which there were two on the map. With the help of Google Maps and my map from the hotel, Pedro and I navigated us through the busy Spanish colonial town to Hotel Zentik Project.
Hotel Zentik Project isn’t the cheapest place to stay in Valladolid (rooms are about $110/night USD), but from what I saw in my research, it is one of the most unique.
We were greeted by Guillermo, a young hipster wearing a stylish scarf in the 85 degree heat. Guillermo provided outstanding hospitality during our stay. We were told to sit and offered a complimentary beverage (we opted for coffee and water, but tequila was also offered). Guillermo showed us around the property, which is only 8 months old. The hotel is designed to be an on-going art project, with murals going up by artists from all over the world at any given time.
There was a very inviting outdoor pool, but the prize gem of the Hotel is their underground heated saltwater cave pool.
Guillermo showed us two rooms, an upstairs one with a gorgeous bed with mosquito netting that was suspended from the ceiling by four ropes, making the bed into a swing. The other room looked similar, but with a traditional platform bed on the ground floor. While the swing bed was very pretty and unique, we weren’t so into the idea of the bed moving around, so we opted for the ground floor room.
The room was large with a separate sitting area and a large, firm bed. I wanted to crawl right in.
We were pretty hungry and I was feeling a bit drained from my cold, so we decided to head into town for lunch and then come back and get some massages and relax. Guillermo was happy to book some massages for us at 4:00 PM at very reasonable prices–$30 USD for an hour massage and $25 USD for an hour foot massage.
We walked the mile into town and checked in with MexiGo Tours for our tour the next day, and then went in search of lunch and an ATM. We located a bank right in the central square, and then decided to check out Guillermo’s recommendation of the Meson del Marques hotel restaurant in the square, but when we arrived at the front entrance it was full of tour groups. We walked back across the square and went to the El Atrio del Mayab. Guillermo said he did not recommend this restaurant but Tripadvisor’s reviews were good, so we went for it.
We were seated in a nice shady courtyard, and service was very attentive. We ordered some “Mayan margaritas” which had cucumber and chili and were very refreshing. I was in the mood for a clear brothy soup because of my cold, and the sopa de lima (lime soup–a very typical Yucatecan dish) really hit the spot. Paddy’s pork dish ended up being one of his favorite meals on our entire trip.
After lunch we admired the old Spanish colonial era cathedral in the town square, and I was able to buy some vitamin C tablets and Halls cough drops from the little farmacia in the square before heading back to the hotel. The town is very interesting and I had really wanted to spend more time exploring it and all its history, but I just wasn’t feeling so great. We had an 11 hour tour booked for the next day and I wanted to rest up. A taxi back to the hotel from town was 30 pesos, just under $2.00 USD.
When we got back to the hotel, we took a dip in the pool and then in the cave before our massages. Both our massages were over an hour long, and were in the spa palapa hut above the pool.
For dinner, we didn’t feel like going anywhere, and the hotel restaurant (Naino) had good reviews, so we ate there. We were told there was a band that evening as well. The menu was international, Paddy had a steak and I had the octopus fried rice. We shared the ceviche verde for an appetizer, which was very good. It was a unique take on ceviche, with tomatillos, jalepenos, and olive oil. The octopus in my fried rice was cooked nicely, but the dish was too salty. Paddy really enjoyed his steak, but said the salt was a little heavy-handed as well.
The “band” that was playing turned out to be a lone gentleman with a keyboard playing lounge hits. We enjoyed a couple glasses of wine, but didn’t really feel like we were missing out on much when we turned in early for the night.
MexiGo Tours picked us up for our full-day “Go Flamingos” tour at 6:30 AM. After gathering the other members of our tour group, we made a quick stop at the MexiGo tours office for coffee and pastries. We then drove an hour and a half to the tiny town of Rio Lagartos on the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula.
If you want to see flamingos in the Yucatan, Rio Lagartos is the best place to do it. The flamingos are there year round, eating and nesting. They are often seen during a part of the year in Celestun, where they go to mate. Large tour groups go to see the Celestun flamingos from Merida, as it is closer than Rio Lagartos. Not only do you avoid the big tour groups at Rio Lagartos, but the flamingos are there year round, mostly in the mornings.
Our guide Hilberto was very friendly and extremely knowledgeable. Upon arrival in Rio Lagartos we got into a small wooden boat and embarked out on the lagoon.
We saw flamingos almost immediately. They were a group of pink specks on the water not far from the harbor, and our driver maneuvered the boat as slowly as possible towards them so as not to disturb them. They were truly magnificent. Hilberto told us the older ones have the brightest color, and that babies are completely white when they hatch. They gain their pink color from the beta carotene in the brine shrimp that they eat.
The flamingos were truly amazing and the highlight of the tour, but we continued on in search of other wildlife. Rio Lagartos means “Alligator River,” but there are actually no alligators. There are however a lot of crocodiles. Crocodiles are usually active at night, but we were hoping to find one hiding in the mangroves.
After touring peacefully through the mangroves, we finally spotted a crocodile lazily sunning himself upon a log.
He didn’t pay us much mind, and after admiring him for a few minutes our guide tried to toss him a fish. It smacked him right in the eyes, making him blink and then open his mouth. It was hard to tell if he was inviting another fish toss, or showing us his teeth as a warning. Hilberto handed another fish to one of our fellow tour mates, and unfortunately the second fish missed his mouth and hit him smack in the eyes again. He blinked the fish scales out of his eyes and opened his mouth a little wider. He made no attempt to get the fish floating in front of him, and it seemed that he was making it pretty clear that we were a nuisance and should leave him be.
We left the poor crocodile be, and continued our tour spotting various birds such as herons and black hawks and pelicans. The pelicans took quick notice of the small bucket of fish our guide had in the boat for the crocodiles, and eagerly followed us along until our guide began tossing the fish to them. They would fly alongside the boat until they were almost ahead of us, then sit in the water and open their mouths hoping for fish, and then repeat. They were pretty entertaining. Their diligence paid off, and a fish lunch was had.
We came to a land bank of white clay, where we were invited to take a “Mayan bath,” rubbing the clay on our skin. The clay reportedly absorbs out impurities and leaves you looking younger. The young Scottish couple decided to partake, but all I could think of was how much sunscreen I would have to reapply afterwards, and we opted out. If this was the last stop of the day, we may have went for it, but the day was only part way over.
After our Scottish friends finished their Mayan bath, we bid the flamingos, pelicans, and crocodiles adieu and went back to the harbor to have lunch before heading on to the second half of our tour, the Mayan ruins of Ek Balam.
Ek Balam means “Black Jaguar” in Mayan, and the ancient Mayan city is one of the more recent excavations in the area by archeologists. It is also one of the lesser visited ruins, but I would recommend not missing Ek Balam. There are more excavations in the works, and there is a lot of the city that has not yet been uncovered. Of what has been uncovered, the most stunning attraction here are the intricate carvings on the main pyramid that are still mostly intact. It is mind blowing how intact they are after thousands of years.
Our guide Hilberto was very knowledgeable about the ruins, and gave us a rough tour of the site and the main pyramid before setting us free to explore on our own. I wanted to climb to the top of the main pyramid, but it was hot and windy, there are no hand rails and the steps are narrow. Both of us were a bit too freaked out just going halfway up to look at the carvings and statues, and we decided to play it safe and descend back to the ground. I just had too many visions of a gust of wind knocking my hot, lightheaded self backwards down the pyramid. I’m sure it’s a great view though.
Hilberto told us a lot about what is known about ancient Mayan society: The hierarchy of the royals, how they learned to predict weather and their obsession with time (hence the infamous Mayan calendar), their worship of numerous gods and the sporting games where the winners are sacrificed to the gods in hopes of bountiful crops. Every Mayan city did things a little differently, and it was all extremely fascinating.
It was really hot and Paddy and I were losing steam. We walked around some of the structures we hadn’t seen yet and then went back to the main entrance to get some bottled water and wait for the rest of the group.
The last stop on our tour was the Destileria Mayapan tequila distillery outside Valladolid on the way back. For a small fee, we were able to go in and see the production area where they smoke and juice the blue agave “pineapples” (the heart and root of the blue agave plant with the leaves hacked off—it looks like a giant pineapple) to make the tequila. We were given a taste of the various types of tequila: Blanco (or silver—not aged), reposado (“rested” tequila, aged in oak barrels two months to a year, giving it a more complex flavor and a darker color from the oak), Añejo (aged 1-3 years), and extra añejo (aged over three years).
Of the Mayapan tequila, we liked the reposado the best. I didn’t really like the extra añejo, it was really oaky. The blanco tequila is the cheapest, and the kind you use for margaritas, while the older ones are more for sipping. We like the extra flavor or the reposados in margaritas, but it’s a matter of personal taste.
We concluded our long day and thanked Hilberto for a great tour. I would highly recommend MexiGo Tours in Valladolid. Their small group tours are a great way of seeing the sites if you don’t have a car, and the guides are very knowledgeable.
When we got back to the hotel, I was so hot from walking around the ruins that I jumped right into the pool. It was so refreshing.
For dinner we wanted to go to a restaurant we read about on Tripadvisor called Canato, which Guillermo also recommended but when we told him where we were going he told us that Tuesdays are the days they are closed. Bummer. We asked for his recommendation for good local place with typical Mexican food from the region. He said that most Mexicans get tortas, tacos, etc from loncherias and trucks during the day for lunch, but at night they cook at home. If they do decide to go out, they want something different like pasta (which explains the plethora of Italian restaurants we saw in Mexico). He recommended a touristy place with good traditional dishes called La Taberna de Los Frailes.
La Taberna de los Frailes (the tavern of the friars) is a touristy restaurant near the Convento de San Bernardino de Siena, an old Spanish colonial monastery and convent built in 1560. The prices were reasonable and the food was very regional. We started with some empanadas, and then I had the Pavo en Relleno Negro, which was turkey breast stuffed with a hard-boiled egg in a spicy black sauce. Paddy had the Longaniza Sisal, which was local sausage and beans with a tomato sauce. For dessert we had the flan. Everything was great, and a style of Mexican food we hadn’t had before.
There was a light show going on at the old Convent at 8:00, but we missed it. It was still pretty all illuminated for the evening.
We were pretty exhausted from our long day at Rio Lagartos and Ek Balam, so we grabbed a taxi back to the hotel and called it a night. I took a relaxing dip in the cave pool before bed.
In the morning we were able to enjoy the complimentary breakfast at Hotel Zentik Project, which included a variety of made-to-order options such as enchiladas, chilaquiles, and huevos rancheros. The Mexican coffee with a cinnamon infusion was delicious.
After breakfast we explored the nearby market and then checked out and had the front desk call us a taxi to our next destination, Tulum. The taxi was $50, which was much more than the local ADO bus would have cost, but we only had three nights left in Mexico and we wanted to get to Tulum quickly, without a long bus ride and hauling our bags around in the hot sun.
I really wished we had another day to explore Valladolid, the city has so much more to offer. I would recommend staying here at least three nights if you plan on doing some tours to allow enough time to spend in the city itself.
The drive to Tulum from Valladolid is about an hour. On the way we texted with Heather and Stephen and learned that Stephen had gotten Montezuma’s Revenge and had been violently ill the last two days. He thinks it may have been a glass of tamarind water he had at a taco stand on Isla Holbox before heading to Tulum.
**Tip: It’s best to stick to bottled beverages and sealed bottled waters.
When we arrived at Hotel La Vita e Bella in Tulum at 12:30, we were told that our room wouldn’t be ready until 3:00 but that we could leave our bags at the front desk luggage storage until then. Heather met us in the beach bar and we took a taxi into town for lunch.
This was our second time in Tulum. The Tulum Pueblo is a few miles from the hotels along the Boca Paila beach road, and a taxi or car is necessary to get to and from. The hotels and restaurants in the pueblo are much less expensive than the ones on the beach. That being said, the beach is the best beach we’ve ever been to in all our travels, and the extra money to stay on the beach is worth it. The sand is a soft, powdered sugar texture with no rocks or coral in the water in many places, and the water is electric blue. There are parts of the Tulum beach that are rocky, however. Last time we were in Tulum we stayed at the end of the Boca Paila beach road by the entrance to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere. The beach down there was outstanding, but it was a bit far from the town and other restaurants on the beach road, so we decided we wanted to try the other end of the beach this time. I chose La Vita e Bella after looking at Google Maps satellite view of the beach, and deciding that it was on one of the best sandy beach areas in the northern part of the beach road. It was.
In the Tulum pueblo, we had lunch at La Barracuda, a great little local seafood restaurant on the far end of the main drag. Lunch came with complimentary chips and a tiny cup of a brothy crab soup. We had fish, shrimp, and octopus tacos and they were all outstanding. Prices were excellent—if you are in town looking for food, this place is worth the trek down to the end of the main street.
When we arrived back to check into our room at La Vita e Bella, the girl working at the desk showed us to a very tiny bungalow near the public bathrooms with a view of the bushes in front of the restaurant, just steps from the front desk. Pretty much the shittiest mid-range bungalow they had.
We had booked a “junior suite,” which was described as being large with a large private deck. I went back and asked the front desk girl and she told me that the tiny bungalow was the same price as the junior suite (not sure what that was supposed to mean). She then said that she might have another room available if we would like to look at it. I said that we would.
We were then shown to a room that was exactly the description of what we booked, on the top floor of a four unit building. It had an ocean view, a large balcony with a hammock, and was very private. We opted to move.
We were a bit annoyed that we weren’t put in this room to begin with. Heather had been taking care of Stephen while he was sick the last two days, and wasn’t so impressed with the front desk service. The front desk staff seemed unwelcoming and indifferent, more content to play around on Facebook on the computer than assist guests. Heather did say that the restaurant staff was very helpful and accommodating, however.
We spent the afternoon relaxing at the beach and in the hammock on our deck. It was pretty windy and the snorkel tour we had booked at Akumal the next day was cancelled. I was still recovering from my cold and we were sort of relieved to spend the rest of our last two days relaxing before flying home.
For dinner, Heather, Paddy, and I went down the road a short ways and across the street to Kitchen Table, a restaurant that pops up every night with a wood fired stove, coolers, and a grill to serve fresh food for dinner. The only light is from candles and a few solar powered lights in the kitchen and bar. We had some appetizers and cocktails, and they were outstanding. We knew Stephen would want to come here (he was back at the room trying to keep down some rice and beans) so we made a reservation for dinner on our last night. Note: Kitchen Table is cash only.
**Tip: When eating at restaurants on the jungle side of the beach road, wear LOTS of bug spray with DEET. The mosquitos are particularly bad after dusk.
Since our snorkel tour was canceled due to strong winds, we decided to have a lazy day. Heather and Stephen (who was finally feeling better after his bout with tamarind tap water) had gone to Chichen Itza for the day with Eduardo from MyCancunTransportation.com. We had been to Chichen Itza on our previous visit, and we highly recommend it. We do recommend getting there right when they open in the morning, however as all the tour buses start showing up at about 10:30-11:00 AM. They said that Eduarado charged them about $200 for being their personal driver/tour guide for the day, and he was great. The drive to Chichen Itza from Tulum is about 2.5 hours each way, and they went at their own pace and made stops in Valladolid and at the Gran Cenote as well. Considering that a ticket on a tour bus is about $80-$115 per person, it was a good deal for them.
Breakfast is complimentary at La Vita e Bella, and has a choice of a Mexican style breakfast, an American style breakfast, a “natural” style breakfast with yogurt, fruit, and granola, or a continental breakfast with fruit and croissants. We opted for the Mexican style breakfast, which was scrambled eggs with salsa, beans, tortillas, and rice.
We spent the day reading, relaxing, and walking on the beach.
That afternoon we went to the beach bar in front of the restaurant and sat down in some beach chairs. A staff member came by and asked us what our room number was. We told him 23, and were told that our beach chairs and palapa umbrella were further down away from the restaurant. (It would have been nice to be told that we had our own beach chairs, or anything about the way the beach restaurant/bar operated when we checked in…but that is the fabulous front desk service for you). We asked if we could sit in front of the restaurant as we wanted to order food and drinks and the waiter decided that it was okay that we sat there. I read the sign in front of the restaurant a little later and saw that they charge people 150 pesos to sit at the beach chair, intended for people who are visiting Tulum for the day and want a beach club to hang out at. There were a lot of beach chairs open, and for what they charge for the rooms there, we should be able to sit wherever the hell we want. But I digress…
We ordered some beers and pizzas for lunch, but we couldn’t eat the pizza on the beach, and the restaurant service was separate from the beach service, so there was some confusion at the end when we asked for our bill for the two 7-Ups we drank on the beach and the two beers and two pizzas we ate in the restaurant. It was a little annoying.
That evening we met back up with Heather and Stephen and decided to check out the bars and restaurants further down the beach road. We were easily able to get a taxi upon walking out to the road, and found a little hub of restaurants, shops and bars about two miles down. We were a bit blown away by how developed the beach road had gotten. We remember it being just a gravel road with barely anything on it besides palm-shaded little driveways to little beach hotels back in 2009. Now it was paved for quite a ways and pretty built up. Paddy and I took a walk down the road a little ways while Heather and Stephen went to Mateo’s Mexican Grill for a drink.
We walked down to a rocky section of coast where some locals were fishing in the water. There was a group of seagulls and pelicans following them everywhere begging for fish.
One thing we noticed in this section of the Boca Paila road was an abundance of stand-alone ATMs, all dispensing US dollars. It was pretty perplexing—why not pesos? Are the shops and restaurants trying to cater to the average American tourists who find it too difficult to deal with pesos? Or is it because the peso has fallen recently and they want to accept the stronger dollar as currency to exchange for a better rate later? I tend to suspect the latter, since most of the shops and restaurants offer a poor exchange rate of 14 pesos to the dollar (vs the current rate of 18 pesos to the dollar if you withdraw pesos from a regular ATM).
When we arrived back to Mateo’s Mexican Grill, Heather and Stephen were just then getting the beers they ordered 15 minutes ago. The bar wasn’t that busy yet, so the slow service was a little odd. We ordered beers and were considering ordering food for dinner, but after our beers took 20 minutes and we began to get bit by mosquitos, we decided just to ask for the check. It was a shame, because the ambiance at Mateo’s is pretty nice, despite the mosquitos.
Across the street and a bit north of Mateo’s is a little tapas restaurant called Mi Vida Tapas. Paddy and I love tapas, and it was on the beach side of the road so no mosquitos. We were seated in a little greenhouse type structure on the beach, which was very nicely decorated and lit by candlelight. The glass windows blocked the beach wind. We were the only people eating there and had the place to ourselves.
The food and service were phenomenal. I had the Pulpo y Garbanzos (octopus with mashed chickpeas, garlic, and olive oil), and the Atun Sashimi (seared ahi tuna with tamarind sauce and mashed potatoes). Everyone else had the Mini Brochetas (filet mignon bites), and the Tagliata Pequeña de Res (small beef tenderloin with polenta, parmesean, arugula, and truffle oil), and a few others I can’t remember. Everyone was very happy with what they ordered. For dessert I tried the Chocolate Salami, because I can’t see something called “chocolate salami” on a menu without finding out what the hell that is. It turned out to be a roll of chocolate ganache with little rice crispies in it, sliced to look like slices of salami. A bit comical, but delicious.
After dinner we flagged down a taxi back to our hotel and had a few drinks at the hotel bar before going to bed.
We wanted to spend our last day enjoying the gorgeous Tulum beach, and that we did. We woke early enough to catch the sunrise at 7:00 on the beach, then went back to bed for a while, and then had a lazy morning reading and relaxing.
In the afternoon the wind died down considerably and we enjoyed a great time at the beach. The waves were still pretty big and a lot of fun to body surf in. Mostly, we just spent time getting knocked around by the waves, which is actually a pretty good workout. It was a good last day in Mexico.
We had our last dinner at Kitchen Table, and I think it was the best dinner we had on our whole trip. If you make it to Tulum, don’t miss Kitchen Table. I had the Deviled Avocado and the Pan Roasted Octopus with sweet potatoes and carmelized onions, which was the best octopus I’ve ever had. It even trumped the octopus I had the first night in Cancun, which was hard to top. Everything was outstanding and you can tell that the chefs at Kitchen Table really love what they do.
Overall, it was another great trip to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. I wish we’d had a bit more time in Valladolid. I don’t think we’d recommend La Vita e Bella in Tulum, the service was bad and the mattresses were old and uncomfortable. I think our next trip to Tulum, we’ll stay back down on the quieter end of the beach road again like we did the first time (near the Biosphere). If something a bit more rustic still exists on that part of the beach, we’d love to find it.
On a future trip to the Yucatan Peninsula, we’d like to snorkel the underwater sculpture garden at Isla Mujeres, and go back to Isla Holbox in the summer for a whale shark tour. We loved Isla Holbox’s laid back vibe and that it was a bit more off the beaten path than Isla Mujeres. If we go back to Isla Holbox, we would definitely stay at Hotel La Palapa or Hotel Takywara again.
We’d also like to see some of the west side of the Peninsula, particularly Celestun and Merida. The Yucatan is one of our favorite places we’ve been in this world, and I’m sure we’ll be visiting many more times in the future.