Mexico was the first country I ever traveled to outside of the US. As a Los Angeles native, it comes at no surprise. But ever since those family camping trips south of the border into Baja, I’ve always loved the country.
How could you not? The culture is as spicy and rich as the cuisine. At the K58 campsite, my brother would surf the days away while my sister and I got our hair braided, played on the beach and wandered the cliffs. For dinner, we’d drive into the local town and stuff ourselves with a cheap and delicious seafood dinner. Occasionally, we’d spend the afternoon at Rosarito Beach, a jumbled but lively resort town nearby. We’d ride the rickety old ferris wheel and watch people stumble out of Papas & Beer while chowing down on street tacos. It was the perfect summer vacation.
In high school and college spring breaks, my trips to Mexico were a different experience altogether. A bunch of friends and I would pile into the car, drive two hours south, park and walk across the border, and hail a taxi down to Rosarito. We’d grab a room at the Rosarito Beach hotel and take advantage of the 18 year old drinking age. Needless to say, it was always a blast.
Over the years, other trips have taken me to Cancun and Cozumel, but I’ve never fallen in love with Mexico more than our recent trip to Playa del Carmen and Tulum with Daniel and his family.
The Yucatan Peninsula, on the southeastern side of the country, boasts those turquoise waters and white sandy beaches you dream of. And while Cancun, just north of Playa and Tulum, is a mess of giant resorts and lack of culture, Playa del Carmen and Tulum are still able to retain their Mexican charm, despite the amount of tourists who still visit the area.
Hola Mexico! We miss you!
Living in Luxury
Our first week of the trip was spent at the luxurious Luna Encantada, a spot Daniel’s mom found on VRBO that exceeded all expectations (Anne-Marie you’re a star!). We spent our days lazing around on the beach and exploring Playa. Nights were spent sitting on the patio over looking the water, sipping margaritas and dozing off on the lounge chairs while staring at the stars above. This trip was the definition of a true relaxing vacation. Even as I type this, I’m chock full of envy of myself in January. The power of the vacation is mighty.
Exploring the Cenotes
Playa del Carmen and the surrounding areas are known for their cenotes, an intricate cave system that runs underneath the Peninsula. We took a snorkeling tour of Cenote Chaak Tun, a short 15 minute taxi ride away from the town center, and it was one of the neatest things we did all trip.
Deep into the caves of Cenote Chaak Tun, we found fresh water, frigid temperatures, and the most impressive display of ancient stalactites lining the cave walls. This lesser known cenote is a must see for anyone in the Playa area, it’s less touristy and the guides are incredibly connected to the Mayan culture and rich history of the land.
Akumal Beach – Snorkeling with Sea Turtles
When we pulled into Akumal beach, about 30 minutes south of Playa del Carmen, I did not have high hopes for sea turtle spotting. Tourists were everywhere, and there was no shortage of guides pestering you for $20 to show you the turtles, with a money back guarnatee. I was skeptical at first, it seemed that there was no way we’d actually see a sea turtle amid that mess of people in the water, but we strapped on our snorkels and life vests and walked into the water regardless. We didn’t come all this way for nothing.
MAN was I wrong. Within three minutes in the water, there was a collective burst of excitement as we spotted a sea turtle, wading it’s way through the water, unfazed by our presence. We proceeded to see at least 8 more sea turtles, some big, some small, just existing. It was a truly incredible experience, even with the droves of other tourists. We were all gawking together, and none of the creatures seemed to mind. One of them was so oblivious to our arrival that as he was popping up to the surface for air, he bumped right into Daniel’s mom!
Akumal is not only a beautiful beach full of life, but a sacred place to many of the people who live there, and they are doing great things to preserve the natural habitat. I highly recommend spending a day there. Don’t forget to replenish after your snorkel at the unassuming Imelda’s Ecocina, the freshest fish awaits your arrival (ProTip: they don’t serve beer, so grab some from the market down the street – Imelda doesn’t mind).
Post snorkel bliss. Gracias, Imelda.
Let’s be honest: if there is one reason you should visit Mexico, it’s the food. And if you do one thing in Playa del Carmen, it should be standing in the almost unimaginably long line to eat at El Fogon. I have never had an al pastor taco as good as this, and I’m certain I never will. While we ate at many, many delicious restaurants while in Mexico, El Fogon took the cake. Aside from the tacos, heed my advice and order the chorizo queso and the grilled onions, and literally everything else on the menu. Excuse me while my mouth waters…
As you walk the main drag in Playa, you’ll find an overwhelming amount of restaurant options. Try to avoid the touristy ones and dig into the good stuff. If you wander off of the main drag, there are some great little taco stands and stalls that are cheap and perfect for a quick lunch. For more formal meals, allow me to be of service:
- El Fogon – for every meal you eat while you’re in Mexico…okay, maybe just dinner
- Madrez Cafe for breakfast
- Como Como for breakfast, lunch or dinner (or all three?)
- La Parrilla for dinner
- Mi Pueblo for dinner
Partyin’ the Night Away
Any town that’s ripe with tourists is ripe with places to party. When Daniel and I get together with his family, a lively crew of people who know how to have fun, we always manage to find the best spots for a little drinking and dancing.
But one of the unique parts of this vacation was that we stayed in apartments instead of a hotel (I’m a big advocate for the dawn of AirBNB/VRBO). Many a margarita were made and sipped at Luna Encantada. While our apartment had an incredible ocean-view porch, the second apartment had a huge rooftop patio that was perfect for gathering and hosting. We spent New Year’s eve with a wonderful group (including our best friends Kellie and Kenny who came down from Cancun for the night!), eating, drinking, and dancing the night away on that rooftop.
When the rooftop party wrapped up, we made our way to the infamous Coco Bongo for their New Year’s show. Despite the high price point and large crowd, Coco Bongo proved to be a really fun way to ring in the new year. The club hosts a variety of over the top performances throughout the night on their giant stage, including tributes to Moulin Rouge, Michael Jackson, Star Wars, and beyond, which were all a blast to watch while ripping one too many shots of tequila.
After we said our goodbyes to the family, Daniel and I headed south to Tulum for a few more days of relaxation and exploration. After a 45 minute taxi ride down, we unloaded our bags at Maya Tulum, a small yet peaceful cluster of beach bungalows with sand pathways, a yoga room, and a quaint restaurant that overlooks an unbelievably gorgeous view and serves the freshest coconuts.
While in Tulum, we spent our days on the beach: swimming, reading, and soaking up the sun. We also visited the Mayan Ruins that overlook the sea and learned a bit more about the ancient culture while walking their once home.
For the freshest fish ceviche, stop by the Pinterest inspired El Pez Hotel. The food is just as beautiful as the people who frequent the place. Here is my best attempt at a lifestyle blogger’s quintessential Instagram photo:
But if you want the best meal in Tulum, eat at La Coqueta. It’s a few kilmeters off of the beach (we had to taxi there from our bungalow), but it’s well worth the trek. No joke – we ate there three times in three days. Don’t let the unassuming exterior and roadside location throw you off. And when you’re there, order the fajitas and a margarita and send me a thank you note.