It seems like such a long time ago now, but back in February we’d finally done it, we’d quit our jobs and booked a one way flight out of London. Arriving in Cancun some 18 hours later we immediately left – far too touristy for us – and headed to Playa del Carmen – still equally touristy (they have two, yes TWO Victorias’ Secret stores on the same street?!?!) but a little less intense and better beaches.
If you’re after a 4 day itinerary in the Yucatan Peninsula that includes getting your Open WAter PADI cert and visiting one of the most amazing little chocolate shops EVER, then below is by no means an exhaustive list, but certainly ticks some of the must do big ticket items on offer along the Caribbean side of Mexico.
The history of the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico is an interesting one, around 550AD many great Mayan cities were established in southern Yucatan, but 500 or so years later they began to fall as incoming Toltec power from Central Mexico took over. The Maya continued to quarrel amongst each other, and so the Spanish conquistador Francisco de Montejo the Younger took advantage of this and conquered the area in 1540. Two years later he, his father; Francisco de Montejo the Elder and cousin Francisco de Montejo (I think we get the idea now) founded Merida and brought the region under Spanish rule. With that the Francisco Trio set to work dividing the Maya land, and putting to work the native Maya as indentured servants. Understandably this didn’t go down very well, but it wasn’t until 1821 that Mexico gained independence from Spain, now although technically free, the Maya were still enslaved and indebted to the rich landowners.
Forty years later, after nearly 3 centuries of Spanish rule, the Maya rose up in a huge revolt, resulting in the war of the castes, causing a violent and bloody war lasting more than 50 years. Once a truce was finally agreed, it was still a further 30 years until the region would be under official government control. Having said this though, there are still Maya to this day who do not recognise this sovereignty.
In more recent times, Cancun in the 1970s underwent expansive development with huge swathes of the beach being brought for private land development. With this mammoth purchase, sadly many fishing villages and livelihoods were lost, but in recent times many of the local population have been turning to eco and aquatic tourism, and promoting their region for all the magic that is has to offer.
Were to Stay: By the time we’d got our bags and made our way from Cancun airport to Playa Del Carmen it was already dark. A straw gate with two large padlocks on it, detaining what seemed to be an army of cats in amongst someone’s extensive collection of cacti had our hostel address on it. After spending a good 10 minutes working it how to get in with little success, we ventured around and came across our hostel just next door. The same thick straw adorned the roofs of the apartments and a stuccoed wall with a beautifully illuminated sign welcomed us to Apart Hotel Casa Ejido. Yes, at last we had found the right spot.
Mozzie net intact above the bed, fan and air con on we immediately blasted the bugs from the room – we were in Mexico after all so were going to have to get used to this. For 397 MXN (Mexican Pesos), $21USD/£16* a night for a double with private bathroom air con and fan with comfy double bed, a pool outside, and large kitchen with breakfast included, we really weren’t complaining. They even helped us secure another room for the last night as we decided to add on an extra day. The only slight downside is it is a fair walk from the town, so with a heavy bag this can put people off.
Transport: Next morning, bright and early we were off to Cozumel Island to meet with two of the famed women of Mexican chocolate – Megan and Isabella of Chocolateria Isla Bella. To read about their gorgeous little chocolate shop please see my other post Isla de Cacao, I highly recommend you visit them if you are in the area, you will not be disappointed! Isabella had recommended we get the blue and yellow ‘Ultramar’ passenger ferry company and book the 10am or 1230pm crossing as they are the best, she didn’t tell us why, but we soon guessed, as on the 10am we were serenaded with a brilliant mariachi band and really felt we were travelling to Cozumel in style. The crossing takes approximately 45 minutes and costs 163 MXN one way $9 USD/£7*, or 300 MXN return $16 USD/£12* pesos day return. Your first ferry from PDC is 9am and your last one back from Cozumel is 7pm, they run approximately every 30 minutes.
Activities: We started by walking the quaint cobbled streets of the island’s main town, San Jose de Cozumel, full of beautifully colourful houses and shop fronts, frequented by the occasional inquisitive iguana! After spending the morning trying all the possible chocolate options on offer at Chocolateria Isla Bella, it was time for some fantastic snorkelling towards the north of the island. In addition to the snorkelling, Cozumel is dotted with Ceynotes and covered in dense jungle that takes over around 75% of the island, so you really are spoilt for choice in terms of activities here. We were advised to steer clear of the south of the island as this is where the offensively large cruise ships come in and drop people off, and whilst you can hire a scooter to take you around the island, traffic is so wild down south that it’s advised to maybe just opt for a taxi to take you north and then just use your feet to get around, if you are travelling light with a day pack. If we’d had more time in Mexico, two days on Cozumel would definitely be worth it, with a further 3-4 in Playa del Carmen to get your PADI, although there are also some great dive shops on Cozumel island too.
Eating: In addition to the fine chocolate available on the island, you really are spoilt for choice when it comes to any form of sea food, but there is a great selection of vegetarian options too! For lunch we ate at Buccanos, next to Playa Azul Golf Resor, who offered fantastic margaritas, vegetarian main courses and ceviche if like us you love swimming with the fishies, but also find them quite tasty too (a constant moral dilemma I am battling with, so please don’t judge me!). After lunch we sunned ourselves before jumping off the pier to explore the underwater world and once returning to the surface we’d worked up quite an appetite. We said goodbye to our new found Cozumenl chocolate friends who left us at one of the lobster restaurants, La Cabana del Pescador “Grill” Lobster House, where we had one lobster tail each, with sides and a beer, costing more than our budget would allow, but I guess we were feeling rebellious! Full and immensely satisfied we hailed a taxi for our short ride back to the ferry port to make our way back to Playa del Carmen.
Playa del Carmen:
Activities: Next morning it was time for the first open water dive of my referral course. I’d completed my theory and confined water drives with Dive Wimbledon in London, UK – which I highly recommend doing as you then don’t waste a couple of days doing classroom based stuff and practice dives in a pool. Do you theory in your spare time using the PADI app, and complete your confined water dives in a local leisure centre pool near you! On the advice of an expert diving friend I then decided to complete my referral which included my open water dives in PDC as she advised “it’s affordable, there are lots of learners and the companies are very supportive of newbie and learner divers” she was 100% correct. I dove with Playa Scuba, completing my 4 open water dives over 2 days – 2 dives a day I was in small groups of 3 both times, meaning my instructor was my buddy and the other two divers buddied up together. They were aware there would be a newbie in their group and were so supportive and excited I had decided to take up diving. We were treated to a fine display of underwater activity, seeing turtles both days and a vast selection of fish and other animals, you just feel you are in an episode of David Attenborough under water. And if (by some crazy feat) you managed to get bored of sea diving, then there is ceynote diving too, and according to my partner Sam who dove with Scuba Mobile Dive Centre, it was heaps of fun! Huge underwater caverns full of stalagmites and stalactites. You do need to be already Open Water certified to dive these tho, and ideally to Advanced level with a good idea of your own buoyancy control as depending on the ceynotes they can be very confined spaces to get through.
As well as diving there are some amazing street art murals dotted around the town that make for some amazing shots, and if you’re up for a bit of an adventure you can head south to the famous Tulum ruins. Impressive and expansive and also very well repaired and rebuilt, and given they are at the beginning of what some like to refer to as ‘The Gringo Trail’ they are extremely touisty.
Eating: There’s an excessive amount of eateries in Playa del Carmen, you have your typical American fare such as Taco Bell, Subway, Mucky D’s etc, then your typical Mexican chains, but really, who wants to eat there? Your best bet for good cheap food with decent portions to eat like a local, not at the tiny little taco stands at the side of the road, but follow your nose, sniff out those lightly dusted corn tortillas being warmed on the skillet, see the smoke and catch a whiff of the lightly grilled chicken and you will find it. We found El Nero and it did not disappoint. Given our lack of Spanish tho, it was a little unnecessarily complicated to work out how to take a seat and how to order anything. Once we did tho, we had an extra two servings as the food was JUST. THAT. GOOD. while we watched a stand up comedian dressed as a clown give the crowd what they were asking for. Price off the top of my head I can’t remember, but even for a budget backpacker (and after last nights splurge) this was more than happily affordable.
Transport: To get to our next destination, Caye Caulker in Belize, we took another ADO bus leaving at 7am from the bus station on Avenue 20 Y Calle 12 BIS, for 272 MXN/$17/£11* for the two of us to take us one way for about 4 hours to Chetumal for our water taxi to Belize, for the next chapter in our wild “Long Way South” adventure as we move our lives from London, UK, to…somewhere in New Zealand.
Peace, Love and Chocolate.
PS: Did you dive in Playa del Carmen or Cozumel, who did you dive with? And if you visited Isla Bella Chocolateria on Cozumel recently I’d love to know what you thought.
*all prices listed are accurate as of 1st May 2018 and are rounded up to the nearest whole unit for ease. Please feel free to comment below if the prices you experience are different.