We just returned from our first trip to Mexico. It won’t be our last. “Eso que ni que”. Literally means “That that not what” but is really Mexican slang for ” No Doubt About it”.
We flew out of Albany airport as the world and Mexico was waking up to the news that Donald Trump was the President-Elect. After a 3 hour layover in Baltimore, we arrived in Cancun about 3:00 PM.
What is your best guess? How many pesos does it take to rent a car for a week in Mexico (with full insurance coverage)? At the Hertz car rental counter, we discovered just how may pesos it would cost to rent our car. We had been prepared for the rental to be super expensive, but it actually cost a bit more than we expected. MP$ 18,620 pesos, or a whopping US$ 931.00!
We didn’t really need a car but we wanted to travel around a bit to find those hidden beaches and cenotes, so we climbed into our well-worn VW Jetta and set out on our Mexican adventure. The truth is no matter where we go in the world we love renting our own car and never regret the added expense.
The drive to our hotel in Playa was easy and took only an hour. After leaving the airport both of us were surprised by the number of run-down and apparently abandoned buildings we could see along the side of the highway. Oh no! This didn’t look like paradise at all! As we passed by the entrances to the many resorts, we were sure that the area was beautiful, although the view from the highway was not.
We caught our first glimpse of the ocean as we navigated our way to our hotel in the heart of Playa del Carmen, the Acanto Boutique Hotel and Condominiums. Our room was spacious and lovely, with a kitchen/dining/living area and a separate bedroom. We parked our car in the secure, underground parking beneath the hotel and unpacked our bags and out the door we went! We made our way to the famed Quinta Avenida (5th Avenue) which was just a few steps from our Hotel.
Our first impression of Quinta Avenida wasn’t great. The overwhelming number of street vendors on Quinta Avenida made it very difficult to appreciate the gorgeous weather and ambiance of Playa. Walking down the street felt like running a gauntlet. Starving and tired and we choose a tourist trap restaurant for our first meal in Mexico and it was so delicious. Discovery! Tourist trap restaurants can be pretty good and cheap.
Nick and I are early risers, but we need a couple of cups of coffee to jump-start our day. For this trip we packed our favorite coffee, knowing that our room would have a fully equipped kitchen. It was heaven to enjoy a good cup of coffee in our room on that first morning, and every morning of our vacation. Once fully caffeinated, we headed straight for the beach for a better view.
A block over from our hotel, Avenue Constituyentes provided a straight shot to the pier with ferries to Cozumel and access to the beach. The Avenue had two enormous hotels, one on each side. Buses lined the street that morning and the hotel guests piled into them for their tours of the Mayan ruins at Tulum and Chichen Itza. We hustled past to avoid the diesel fumes and get to beach. At the end of the street, we were greeted by the most amazing shades of Caribbean blue. We walked south until we reached the end of the beach and returned to our hotel via 5th Avenue.
We found that there weren’t as many vendors on 5th Avenue early in the morning, and that they were less aggressive in their efforts to sell their merchandise. We enjoyed our walk, stopped in a few stores and purchased some eco-friendly sunscreen, a six pack of beer and a few other things.
As we neared our street, a young man said “Hey! How are you today? Don’t you remember me? From last night? I served you Margaritas!” We had been so tired the night before, we didn’t remember who had served us. Not wanting to be rude, we said of course we remembered him. He asked us into his family’s jewelry store and showed us some very expensive jewelry. We politely looked at the jewelry and said that maybe we would come back later to buy some but 24,000 pesos was not in the budget.
After we left the store, Nick and I agreed that neither of us remembered this young man, and that the whole experience felt like a scam. We quickly learned (after being approached 6 more times) that this approach was pretty common on 5th Avenue, likely because it’s so effective.
Back in our room we changed into our bathing suits. We packed up a little bag of stuff and headed back to the beach, this time heading north to spend the day at one of Playa’s famous beach clubs. For a modest fee, the beach clubs offer lounge chairs, the shade of an umbrella and drink service on the beach. We planned to go to Mamita’s, but we spotted a row of palapas with their thatched roofs of dried palm leaves. The Mahekal Beach Resort cost 1,000 pesos for the day, but that included a 600 peso credit for food and drink. We settled into our lounge chairs and enjoyed our first Mojito before heading for the water.
As beautiful as the Caribbean is to look at, it is delightful to swim in. The waves broke gently near the shore, so once we got out shoulder-deep it was lovely to swim and float in the warm water. We spent the afternoon lounging in our beach chairs, swimming in the ocean and enjoying cocktails on the beach. We finished up our day at Mahekal with a swim in the pool and some taco’s before settling our bill and taking short taxi ride back to our hotel.
The beach clubs are wonderful, and I think they are a good value if you’re going to spend all day at the beach, but beach access is public in Playa del Carmen. You can simply place your towel, chair and umbrella on any part of the beach, as long as you stay between of the boundary of the beach clubs and the ocean. Folks opting for this less expensive day at the beach don’t have all of the beach club amenities, but they have a front-row seat to those beautiful Caribbean views.
We did the same for the rest of our vacation and packed a small cooler we purchased at the Walmart in Playa with Margarita’s made with Tequila also purchased at, you guessed it, Walmart. Wish our Walmart sold really good Tequila for less than $ 10.00 US – Only 180 Pesos — “Estoy crudo.” Literally I am raw : Mexican Slang I have a hangover!
Since our room had a full kitchen, we wanted to go to a local grocery store to stock up on some basics. The truth is, we love to go grocery shopping on vacation. Grocery shopping can be kind of fun in another country, you really learn a lot. We walked to the Mega grocery store, about 4 blocks away from our hotel, but worlds away from the tourist-trap vibe of 5th Avenue. We were careful not to load up with a lot of heavy groceries since we didn’t bring the car this time. We bought whipping cream for our coffee, bread, ham, and cheese. It felt good to have some food in the fridge.
For dinner that night, we went to a “locals” restaurant I had learned about on Instagram called “El Fogon”. There was a short line when we arrived, but it moved quickly and there was a party atmosphere in the air. We spoke to everyone in the line and shared stories. Lots of Mexicans and Texans on a long 4 day weekend vacationing in Playa. We watched the staff carve thin slices of pork from a hunk of meat roasting in the front of the store. They would expertly slice a little bit of queso off of a block, flip it onto a small tortilla and place the thinly sliced pork on top.
Once we were seated, we noticed that the menu was entirely in Spanish. That’s always a good sign in a restaurant! I ordered the pork tacos with queso and Nick ordered a mixed grill platter. We both had a creamy plantain beverage (delicious and good to re-hydrate) along with a couple of shots of tequila. A young man set up a karaoke machine and entertained us all by singing a few songs. El Fogon was a vibrant, wonderful experience and the food was delicious. It was my favorite meal.
The next morning we drove to Tulum to see the Mayan ruins. Driving in the Mexican Riviera is pretty easy. There’s one major highway that goes north and south, and the signage is pretty good. BUT BEWARE OF THE TOPES!!! Topes are speed bumps that pop up when you least expect it. Some of them are mere bumps but most are car-eating monsters. Yes, there are signs to alert you, but it you aren’t paying attention and go over a tope at less than a snail’s pace, I can almost guarantee that you will seriously damage your rental car. No, that did not happen to us, but we developed a serious respect for topes. Nick drove. I looked for the topes warning signs and alerted Nick when I saw one.
Many people pay admission to the ruins at Tulum solely to go to the beach that is only accessible from the site. We decided not to walk down to the beach after our tour was done, but it did look beautiful. On the walk back to our car, we saw a little restaurant across the street from the parking lot and stopped for a beer and tacos before driving back to Playa del Carmen.
On the way home, we stopped to pick up some more groceries, this time at the Walmart store. This Since we had the car, we were able to load up with wine, beer and water as well as a small cooler, some snacks and the fixings for a dinner at home later in the week.
The next morning we visited one of the many cenotes we had seen on our way to the ruins. A cenote is a freshwater limestone pond, often in a cave. Many believe that cenotes have mystical healing powers. After a quick google search, we selected Cenote Azul.
We pulled in, paid our admission in pesos and headed down a one-lane dirt track through the jungle towards the parking lot. We had an immediate emotional response to the beauty of the cenote. Nick immediately slipped into the cool, deep water and swam a short distance into a small cave. Less adventuress, I sat in the shallows on a rock and worked up the nerve to join him. It didn’t take long until the desire to join him in the beautiful cave outweighed my silly fears, and I plunged into the deep water and joined him.
The rocks around the edges of the cenote had been scrubbed to remove any slippery stuff and shone white in the beautiful blue water. The cenote teemed with tropical fish from minnow-size to a foot long. If you lingered in a spot, the littlest fish would nibble at your feet and legs, tickling. A small cliff provided a spot for the brave to jump into deep water. Butterflies and dragonflies flitted about as we swam. Honestly, I felt like we were in an animated Disney movie, it was so unbelievably beautiful. We explored the nooks and crannies of this lovely cenote and floated in the clear blue water. By the time we toweled off and left, the cenote was crowded with local Mexican families, enjoying their Saturday afternoon. Swimming in Cenote Azul was definitely one of the highlights of our trip.
The day was still young, so we headed to Akumal to check out the beach. We paid a few pesos to park our car and took our small cooler and towels to the beach. Akumal is a much smaller than Playa del Carmen and has a very different vibe. Playa is a big, touristy, party town. In Akumal, the main attraction is snorkeling in the turtle bay which you access from the main public beach. To swim with the turtles, a life vest is required to prevent people from planting their feet on the sea bottom and damaging the ecosystem. Without a life vest, you can only swim out a short distance from the shore, about shoulder deep.
The sand on this beach was packed down and hard. People had already claimed most of the shady spots under the palm trees, but we found a spot and laid out our towels. I don’t know how anyone could sit on a beach and look at that beautiful Caribbean blue water and resist the urge to swim in it. There were really no waves on this beach. The water was gentle and family friendly. And we learned a valuable lesson – car remotes do not like being dunked in the ocean. We spent the rest of our trip trying to beat the car alarm as we unlocked the car doors with the key instead of the remote.
We ate at home that night. Our hotel had gas grills on the roof top terrace for guest use. Nick made a simple but delicious dinner of steak, zucchini and salad. We uncorked a bottle of red wine and enjoyed watching the sun set on another day in paradise.
Sunday is NFL football day for us, so we spent the early part of the day relaxing in our room, shopping, and hanging out on the beach before heading to a sports bar on 5th Avenue to watch a football game. It was fun to be out watching a game with other football fans, eating wings and enjoying a few beers. We watched the Patriots/Seahawks game in our living room that night. We are Patriots fans, but those Seahawks brought it on! Was that one of the most physical football games you’ve ever seen? We were surprised by the popularity of American football in Mexico, and more surprised that we were able to see all of our favorite teams on TV.
The next morning we headed south again on the main highway towards Tulum. Although we had seen the ruins, we had not gone into Tulum proper. Once there, we found ourselves on a narrow, local road lined with small hotels, beach clubs, yoga studios and restaurants. Almost all of them had walls that prevent you from enjoying their magnificent ocean views, and many had security staff at the entries. It was not obvious why this level of security was necessary, since it seemed upscale, eco-friendly and safe with a strong hippie vibe.
We caught a glimpse of a gorgeous ocean view through the entrance of a café and pulled in. We enjoyed a lunch of margaritas and quesadillas and soaked up the magnificent scenery of Café Tita Tulum. In addition to the Café, Tita Tulum had small eco-friendly beach front cottages that would be worth checking out for our next trip to Mexico.
Our next stop was the public beach in Tulum. It was easy to find thanks to the good signage and the line of cars parked along the side of the road. We grabbed our cooler and towels and took the short walk from the road to the beach.
The sand on this beach was perfect, soft and white like sifted flour. Unlike the beaches in Playa or Akumal, there were no jet skis or boats creating noise and fumes. There was no shade to be found, but the beach was uncrowded. Small waves broke close to the shore, making it easy to get out into the warm, beautiful blue water. I had heard that the beach was dog-friendly and was happy to see a dog playing in the surf. We spent the rest of the day swimming, drinking margaritas from our cooler and soaking up the sun. I can’t describe the feelings of peace, joy and happiness we felt in that place.
On our last day of vacation and it was easy to decide what to do. We got in our car for the 45 minute drive back to the public beach in Tulum. It was as delightful as the previous day and the perfect way to finish up our vacation. We drove through a neighborhood close to the beach and imagined what it would be like to live there before heading back to our hotel.
So, that was our Mexican vacation. We returned to a couple of lovely late-fall days in upstate NY before the weather turned cold and blustery. We missed Bella something awful, so it was nice to be back together with her, but it is easy to imagine ourselves sitting on the beach in Tulum, enjoying the warm sun, sand and ocean.
What we learned:
— Mexico is safe, at least we felt safe in the areas that we were in.
— Rental cars are super expensive. I was glad we had a car so that we could explore, but I would probably try not to rent one for our entire stay next time.
— It’s easy to drive in Mexico. Drivers are considerate and the signage is good.
— Next time we would stay in Tulum. We preferred the laid back hippie vibe of Tulum over the touristy party-tow of Playa del Carmen.
— Visit a cenote. We only went to one, but will definitely visit more next time.
— You’ll need to get pesos. Many places are cash only. They’ll probably accept your dollars, but you’ll pay a tourist price. There are ATMs everywhere.
— In addition to a small cooler, we should have purchased a beach umbrella, a couple of lightweight beach chairs and snorkeling masks at the beginning of our vacation.
— The Mexican people that we interacted with with almost all genuine, open-hearted and hard-working.
— Be aware that some people will try to take advantage of you. I paid the dollar-equivalent of $75 to top off our tank with just a few gallons of gas because I allowed myself to get distracted and flustered.
— We can’t wait to go back!!