Our trip to the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico in 2009: Snorkeling and sunbathing on Isla Mujeres, Mayan Ruins of Chichen Itza, and remote beaches in Tulum
In 2009 we were on a tight budget but were craving a tropical beach vacation. We had also never been to Mexico (other than Paddy’s quick visit to Tijuana back in 1989). So we chose the Yucatan Peninsula during the low season in September.
Going in the low season definitely had it’s pros and cons. The pros were the low prices and lack of crowds. The biggest con was the sweltering humidity that ended up giving Paddy a heat rash towards the end of our trip. I wouldn’t go back in September again, but it was still one of our favorite trips.
We arrived in Cancun in the morning after a night flight with a layover in Miami, on the day of Paddy’s 40th birthday. Our first destination was Isla Mujeres, a small island off the coast of Cancun. I had scheduled a shuttle with Best Day shuttles for $8.00 each to the Isla Mujeres ferry dock, and everything went as planned.
**Tip: People accept US dollars here as well as pesos. Bring some $1 bills with you so that you have some small bills to tip with when you arrive. Tipping in Mexico is a big part of the culture and will be expected. This began the second I got off the plane and went to the restroom–there was a lady handing out paper towels for tips. Tip your shuttle drivers, hotel maids, bartenders, and your restaurant servers. We always tip at least 20%.
After a 30 minute shuttle to the ferry, it wasn’t long before the next boat arrived. We purchased our tickets and got some cash from the ATM at the ferry terminal (the guidebook told us that sometimes the island ATMS occasionally run out of cash to dispense). A short ferry ride later, we walked off the pier to the town of Playa Norte and found our hotel.
Our hotel was Suites Los Arcos in the center of town. After reading Tripadvisor reviews about street noise, we had requested a room at the back of the hotel and they honored our request. Check in was easy, and the room was immaculately clean. It was a great deal for $60 a night, with a deck, air conditioning, a mini-fridge, coffee maker, and microwave.
Click on any image below to view larger
Above: Suites Los Arcos from the street
Below: Room interior and deck
**Note: Stock up on bottled water the second you arrive. Don’t ever drink the tap water and brush your teeth with bottled water. If venturing outside of a touristy area, don’t eat raw fruits and vegetables as they may not be treated to remove the bacteria that makes foreigners ill. Also avoid ice outside of tourist areas. You can always ask your server if the ice is purified.
After a shower and a nap, we headed out into the humidity to find some food and walk around. We had dinner at a little beach bar by the pier, then ended up having some celebratory birthday margaritas and shots at a little Tequila bar not far from our hotel. If you like tequila, I recommend Aja Toro Anejo. It’s a top shelf tequila that is very expensive in the US, but is reasonable in Mexico. It’s so smooth you can sip it.
We arranged a snorkel tour with a guy offering snorkel tours across the street from our hotel. We had to put $20 down and then pay $20 the next day, and he wrote us a voucher. We weren’t sure what to think, but his shop was right in front of our hotel and we figured at worst we would be out $20.
The next morning we had some huevos rancheros at the little cafe across from our hotel and met up with the snorkel tour, which was completely legit. They took us out in a boat with some other tourists down the coast of the island, and we snorkeled back along with the current.
**Tip: I bought a waterproof waist pouch online before this trip, for storing money and keys so I didn’t have to leave valuables in the empty boat with the guides. I’m sure they were trustworthy, but you can never be too careful. Also a good idea for going into the water when at the beach. You don’t want to leave your valuables on the shore.
One of our guides was feeding the fish tortillas, which is why there are so many of them in this video:
After seeing lots of colorful fish, we got back in the boat and I promptly got a bad bout of motion sickness while we waited for everyone to get in the boat. Fortunately I didn’t puke, but spent some time with my head between my knees when we arrived at the beach. We stopped at a beach on the southern part of the island for a delicious barbequed fish lunch before heading back.
After we arrived back to Playa Norte and took a rest in the air-conditioned oasis of our hotel room, we walked around the town a bit.
I was in love with the local cemetery. The colors, individual trinkets and offerings to each person’s resting place were so personal and endearing.
Below: Handcrafted “Catrina” dolls for sale in our hotel. I really wanted to buy one, but didn’t think it would survive the trip home.
I don’t remember what we had for dinner, but I do remember that we only spent about $15 each including drinks. I was nervous about consuming ice but whenever I asked our server if the ice was purified,(hielo purificado) it always was. We never got sick.
The next day was our last full day on Isla Mujeres and we weighed our options of what to do. We could either rent a golf cart (there are no cars on the island except the few owned by locals) for $40 and see the rest of the island, or we could spend the day at the gorgeous beach in the town. We opted for a beach day.
Most of the beach chairs were owned by some of the beach front hotels, but we found a row of them that were owned by the proprietor of a small restaurant on the beach. We approached the chairs and he came dashing over to explain the deal. We could sit in the chairs as long as we wanted, as long as we spent $11.00 over the course of the day. No problem at all.
Below: the view from the water facing the distant bar/restaurant that owns the beach chairs
Getting a chair and umbrella was imperative. The September sun was so scorching hot that even with SPF 50 sunscreen on we felt like we were going to burst into flames. When we weren’t in the water, we would move our chairs along with the shade and pull all our extremities into the shade like vampires.
We spent the late morning and early afternoon reading and swimming and taking in the beautiful powdered sugar beach and crystal blue water. It is truly one of the nicest beaches I’ve ever been to. The fact that it is in the town and in walking distance from everything is a huge plus as well.
The guy from the restaurant came around a few times in the morning to take orders. We weren’t hungry yet or ready for a beer and he didn’t pressure us. Around noon we asked for menus and ordered some fish tacos, nachos, beers, and margaritas. We each had a couple drinks over the afternoon, and as more people arrived we watched our poor waiter hoof it back and forth across blazing hot sand in the midday sun to fetch food and beverages for everyone. When we were ready to leave, we asked for the bill. All that –drinks, food, service, and use of beach chairs for a total of $25.00. You sure can’t get that in Hawaii. We made sure to leave a fat tip for our hard-working friend for his excellent service.
On the way back to our hotel that afternoon we ran into the snorkel tour guy from the day before. He asked us what we were doing tomorrow and we told him that we were headed to Tulum. He asked us how we were getting there and we told him that we were planning on catching a bus in Cancun. He said there was a resort just outside of Playa del Carmen that pays him a commission to send tourists there to check it out. We asked if it was a timeshare deal and were told that it wasn’t. He said that in exchange for visiting the resort and hearing their sales pitch, he could get us a free personal shuttle to Tulum. After some deliberation we agreed. He gave us another voucher and told us his associate would pick us up at the ferry terminal in Cancun.
After we got back into our hotel room, I decided to re-cap the situation. We were going to meet a dude in an unmarked van at the ferry, who was to take us to some resort just to “check it out,” and then drive us to Tulum. I became convinced that we would be mugged and dropped off in the middle of nowhere. Paddy didn’t think so. He said he had a good feeling and that the snorkel guy was trustworthy.
That night we found an Argentinian restaurant where Paddy had a perfectly cooked filet mignon for $15.00. Gotta love Mexico.
The next morning my apprehensions remained and I wrapped a credit card, my driver’s license, and a few pesos in a piece of a plastic bag and attached it to the top inside of my underwear band with the hotel sewing kit. That way I might still have something if my paranoia ended up being legit.
We met our dude in a white unmarked van who seemed to speak little to no English. My high school Spanish gets us around okay, but doesn’t do so well making conversation. So we drove for an hour in silence.
Finally we arrived at an immaculate mega-resort, and were “checked in” by a small kiosk in the parking lot that told us they would store our bags. We kept our small backpacks with our valuables with us and our driver left. Soon we met a very smooth talking man who took us to the breakfast buffet, and showed us around the resort and some of the empty “show rooms.” We politely shined him on and asked questions as if we were interested. After an hour the tour was over and we were led to a large room with tables full of salesmen and tourist couples. Yep, a timeshare trap. Well, at least it wasn’t being mugged and left out in the jungle.
We shined him on some more and let him know we were budget travelers and don’t take luxury vacations. He acted like he understood, then told us that he would get us set up to head out soon, he just had to have his manager come talk to us first. He left, and another guy showed up. This guy started getting really aggressive with the sales pitch. We stopped being polite and told him we were not interested and wanted to leave. He kept pursuing, telling us he could put the $3,000 down payment he was requesting on multiple credit cards for us if we wanted. We got irritated and he told us he would get us on our way. Then he took us to another table with another guy. The sales pitch went on. Finally I got really snippy with him and we were sent to get a voucher for our shuttle to Tulum. On the way out we shared a shuttle with a honeymooning couple who got suckered into the same deal. They were staying at a nearby resort and were promised a fifth of Cuervo for listening to the timeshare pitch. They were dropped off at their resort with their bottle of Cuervo, and then we continued another hour down the Yucatan Peninsula coast to Tulum. A waste of a day, but we didn’t have anything else planned anyway, and we got a free shuttle. We won’t be doing that again though.
We arrived in Tulum in late afternoon. Our beach bungalow at Tierras del Sol was far from the town at the end of a long road and our shuttle driver seemed lost. Fortunately my map showing our accommodation and my limited Spanish got us there. Once we arrived, the days’ trials and annoyances were forgotten. The beach was the most beautiful beach we’d ever seen, and our bungalow was perfect.
I would love to tell you the website for Tierras del Sol, but unfortunately it appears to be closed. There are a lot of beach bungalows and accommodations on the Boca Paila coastal road in Tulum, however and the beach is the same gorgeous beach. Consult Tripadvisor for reviews on other accommodations on the beach.
We were hungry and thirsty, and town was a long way away so we thought we’d head up the road a ways to see what there was. We found a tiny little panini shop that appeared to be closed. Just when we were about to leave, a younger European guy came out and offered to make us a sandwich. There wasn’t a menu, so we told him what we liked and he made us some paninis and gave us some ice cold Mexican beers with limes and a little saucer of kosher salt. He instructed us to rim the can with the lime and squeeze the juice in, and then sprinkle the salt on top, Mexican style. Whenever I think about the best beer I’ve ever had, none of the top-notch Northwest micro brews come to mind (and I do like me a good micro brew). It was this one, on a sweltering humid day in Tulum on the side of a dirt road, a cheap Mexican beer with a little lime and salt after a long day’s journey and obnoxious time-share pitches. I drink beer like that at home every summer now.
We went back to the bungalow and spent the rest of the afternoon/early evening at the beach. The sand was powder soft, just like at Isla Mujeres and there were no coral or rocks in the water at all. It was amazing. The best part though, was that we were the only people there.
The electricity was off in our bungalow between 5:00 AM and 5:00 PM, which is common for Tulum. Soon the sun went down and the lights came on, and we headed up to the little restaurant for dinner. Our host was from Argentina, and he was the cook and the server. There was no menu, he just told us what meat and fish he had got fresh that day and we told him what we wanted. We were brought three different lightly dressed salads, one with radishes, one with corn and peppers, and one with just lettuce which we dished up family-style. The main entrees were Argentinian BBQ vegetables and meat or fish, and all of it was outstanding. Beer, wine, and margaritas were available as well. A small surprise dessert was served at the end. The price ended up being very reasonable and we were told just to pay the night before we left.
The next morning we wanted to see the Mayan ruins of Tulum, so we got up early, had breakfast in the restaurant and asked our host to call us a taxi.
**Tip: Taxis aren’t metered, it is best to ask the price of the taxi (and your hotel host what price to expect) before you get in. Also, make sure to have plenty of small bills. Taxi drivers will often tell you they have no change, whether it’s true or not.
We arrived at the ruins around 10:00 and started a self-tour. The ruins were very interesting, but there was very little shade and even with Paddy’s hat and my sun parasol, we quickly began roasting in the hot sun. I literally had sweat pouring out of every pore in my face at a constant drip. There wasn’t any point in even wiping it off, it was just going to keep pouring out of my face non-stop.
The Tulum Ruins are definitely worth a visit. If we go back when it’s not so hot I’d like to spend more time there. The view of El Castillo on the cliff over the most brilliant blue water and white sand beach you will ever see was pretty amazing. When I planned this trip, I had thought we might go down to the beach below and spend some time, but as we were already sweltering, the thought of climbing back all the stairs in the midday sun was not very enticing. Especially when we had such a great beach back at Tierras del Sol. So we grabbed some water at the gift shop and went into town.
The town of Tulum is very nice, and if you choose to eat at restaurants there the prices are very cheap compared to the beach hotel restaurants. We walked around and looked at the shops and bought a couple tiny bottles of Aja Toro tequila for later that evening.
Still roasting to death, we headed to the main grocery store Super San Francisco to pick up some beverages and snacks to take back to our bungalow. The one large inconvenience of Tierras del Sol with it being so far from town was that there were no coolers in the room and no ice provided. (Drinking water was available to re-fill water bottles with for free in the restaurant area though). It was understandable that with no electricity during the day, a mini fridge was not a viable option to put in the bungalows. However, a cooler and some ice would have been awesome. (I believe the restaurant kitchen may have had a generator during the day).
Luckily, we found a styrofoam cooler and ice at the grocery store, and loaded up water, beers, and some bread, meat, and cheese for the morning as we had plans to get up at 5:00 am before the restaurant was open. The Super San Francisco is the local taxi dispatch as well, so walking out the door and right into one of many waiting taxis to take us and our cooler back to our bungalow was no problem.
We got back to our bungalow and spent the rest of the afternoon at the beach. Unfortunately, Paddy began to develop some small itchy bumps all over his chest that day, which we eventually realized was heat rash. We managed to enjoy the beach anyway, keeping up with our vampire routine of moving our beach loungers along with the shade of the palapa umbrella.
That evening we ate another amazing Argentinian BBQ of fresh fish and pork cooked by our host, and got to bed early.
One of our number one priorities while visiting the Yucatan Peninsula was seeing the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, one of the seven wonders of the world. It’s a popular tourist attraction, but I could only find tours from Cancun or Playa del Carmen. After much internet searching, I found Wayak Bus, a company offering shuttles and small bus transport all over southern Mexico for a low price. They market mostly to the younger backpacking, hostel-staying set. I booked a shuttle with them to pick us up at our bungalow in Tulum and take us the three hours to Chichen Itza, and then another shuttle to take us back later in the afternoon. I was a bit nervous as the site said no refunds or cancellations, but it seemed to be the best option. Total cost: $100 round trip for both of us, which for such a long trip was a great price. Full day tours on a bus packed with other tourists would have cost much more.
The gods must have been smiling on us for Chichen Itza, because it ended up being a perfect day. The shuttle that came to pick us up was a very nice Mexican couple that didn’t speak much English, but were more than happy to make conversation with the limited Spanish I knew. We were the only people on the shuttle, which was a small air conditioned van.
We showed up at Chichen Itza at 9:00 AM right when it opened. We tipped our drivers and they confirmed to meet the next Wayak shuttle in the parking lot at 3:00 PM. When we walked away from our shuttle, however, they didn’t go anywhere. We wondered if they had other people to meet at the same location, but there was no one around. We headed into the ruins and we had almost the entire ruins to ourselves. It was hot, but not unbearable yet. It was amazing.
How many other people have a photo of the Kukulkan Pyramid with no one in it?
At 11:30, we had seen all but one small part of the ruins, and only a few other people were in the ruins with us. We were getting hot and hungry, so we headed back to the main entrance area to get some lunch in the restaurant.
As we approached the main entrance, we were met by a gigantic crowd of people all entering at once. The tour buses had arrived. And now it was busy. We went into the air conditioned restaurant that had no one in it and had a quiet lunch by ourselves. When we came out, we stepped into sweltering humidity and massive crowds. We looked at the last part of the ruins, bought a couple souvenirs (the best prices on brightly painted ceramic sugar skulls and other mass-produced trinkets was actually here, of all places) and wondered what to do with two and a half more hours to kill in the heat. Paddy had a suspicion that our shuttle drivers were waiting the whole time in the parking lot and were the same ones who were taking us home. We decided to check.
We found our drivers relocated to a shady parking space, sitting and talking to another tour bus driver and fanning themselves in the heat. They had sat out there in that hot parking lot for who knows how long (maybe they left and went into a nearby town for awhile?) waiting for us for the last 4 hours. And they were planning on waiting two more. We couldn’t believe that they had been there all day just for us, and you can imagine their delight that we were ready to leave early.
On the way back, they pulled over in the Spanish colonial town of Valladolid so that we could take a quick photo of the Catedral de San Gervasio, which was very nice of them.
We learned that our drivers actually lived in Cancun, and had been up around 3:00 AM to drive two hours to Tulum to pick us up and would be driving two hours back after they dropped us off. We were glad we left early so they could get home–what a long day! We made sure to tip them well for all their trouble.
That evening, we decided to head down the road and see what other restaurants there were at the other nearby beach hotels. We walked down a ways and decided to try La Zebra. The place was packed with a wedding party but we were able to squeeze in near the bar. It was a beautiful property, but the food was way overpriced and pretentious. I don’t remember what we ate, but I do remember a tiny expensive side of guacamole with one chip standing artfully in the center of it like a sail on a boat. Seriously….ONE chip.
The next day was our last so we thought we’d try to see a little of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere next door. As we were on foot and it was hot, we didn’t really have any major objectives other than to check out the cenote near the entrance. Cenotes are large sinkholes that are the surface connection to large underwater lakes and are found all over the Yucatan. Many companies offer tours of swimming and snorkeling in the cenotes.
We signed in and paid a very small fee at the park station, then located the short trail to the small cenote.
We could see clear to the bottom, and it was very deep. The water was colder than the ocean, which was really refreshing. We didn’t stay long though. Maybe it was because we were there alone, but it was kind of….creepy. I think a larger cenote with people around on a snorkel tour would be a little bit more comfortable.
After that we had lunch at Casa Banana down the road and it was excellent. Very reasonable prices and great food.
We spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the beach. As usual, there was only one other couple on the beach with us at any one given time. It was truly amazing to have such a big beautiful beach all to ourselves.
The last night we just decided to eat some fresh Argentinian BBQ again from our host. It was always excellent, and the price was right. We sat on the beach in the warm wind and watched the waves in the starlight, then fell asleep listening to our chirping gecko friends running around our bungalow.
The next morning our Best Day shuttle showed up on time and drove us back to the Cancun airport. It was an amazing trip and we can’t wait to go back and see more of the Yucatan, hopefully when it’s not so hot. Paddy’s heat rash had worsened, and by then he was ready to go back home. We’ve been to a few tropical locations since this trip and his rash never re-appeared, giving real testimony to how hot and humid the Yucatan is in September. I wouldn’t recommend that time of year unless you can really handle heat and humidity.
On our list for a second Yucatan Peninsula trip in the future: Isla Holbox, snorkeling with whale sharks, Celestun, more Mayan ruins, and exploring bigger cenotes. Stay tuned…