By Ruth Bayang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
When you hear “Cancun,” what is the first thing that comes to mind? For me, it was beaches, and warm and sunny weather.
Cancun is in the northeast part of Quintana Roo (QR), a Mexican state on the Yucatán Peninsula, known for its nightlife. I celebrated my birthday there in 2020, just before travel came to a standstill due to the coronavirus.
More than a year later, I was eager to explore other parts of QR that offered a different experience. So in late March, I flew into Cancun International Airport on a direct Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle. I arrived just after 7 p.m. local time and aside from the other passengers on the same flight, the airport was deserted. I had only a carry-on and after clearing immigration, I was among the first to exit the building.
A private shuttle driver took me to Naala hotel in Tulum, almost two hours south of the airport.
I chose that particular hotel for its location along Avenida Coba—the road to the beach (there’s only one!)—between the pueblo (downtown) and playa (beach). I decided against renting a car as I didn’t feel comfortable driving alone in an unfamiliar place, so my modes of transportation were walking, bicycling, or colectivo—little white vans that go up and down Highway 307 from Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, and Tulum.
Bicycling is an extremely popular way to get around town and it was a bit unnerving at first, sharing the road with pedestrians, ringing the bell to warn other people that I was coming up from behind them, and braking and stopping when necessary. A good portion of the sidewalk was also uneven. A scooter rental would have been better, but I don’t know how to ride one.
I rented my bicycle from Ola Bike Tulum, which was literally steps away from my hotel.
It cost 150 pesos ($1 ≈ 20 pesos) for 24 hours, with proof of ID (I gave them my Washington driver’s license), and a refundable deposit of 500 pesos. They are very busy and you need to make a reservation ahead of time, sometimes a day or two in advance.
I wasn’t able to get a bicycle until two days after I first arrived in town.
It took me about 30 minutes to pedal from my hotel to the entrance of the Tulum Archaeological Zone. My recommendation is to go first thing in the morning (I was the first one at the gate!), so you can avoid most of the crowds and the hot sun. Bring water, a hat, sunscreen, and exact change for the entry fee (80 pesos) as they don’t give you change.
You have the option of walking around by yourself or to go with a tour group. There were also tour guides standing at the entrance, offering their services. One man wanted 2,000 pesos for a 90-minute long guided tour and I declined. I believe I could have negotiated a better price, but I wasn’t willing to expend the energy to do so.
Tulum is quite different from other Mayan sites in that the ruins are situated on stunning cliffs overlooking the ocean. I felt like I got enough from walking around sans guide, and reading the informational plaques, written in English and Spanish, in front of each structure that detailed the history and how each building was used. The Tulum ruins include sacrificial temples, a castle, watch towers, and trading posts.
I am a sun lover so, of course, I had to visit a beach club or two to bask in the sun, near the Caribbean Sea. Taquería La Eufemia, along the Hotel Zone, was a gem I learned about through several travel groups—there was no club fee nor a minimum spend amount, and they served cheap (and tasty!) tacos and drinks. Their cabanas are still open, but it appears their beachfront bar is now closed and they will be relocating, according to their Facebook page.
Overall, I spent an average of $10 for dinners—with tips and non-alcoholic drinks included. I chose local mom and pop restaurants over chains, and grew to love a variety of tacos with fresh, local ingredients. I rarely eat Mexican food when I’m at home.
Most of the pueblo’s hotels, restaurants, bars, shops, and the ADO bus station were within a two square mile section of town—everything I needed was within walking or bicycling distance. The Chedraui supermarket was a short walk from my hotel—that’s where I bought water, food, fruit, and snacks for my breakfast and lunches, and kept the perishable items in the fridge in my hotel room. Chedraui also had ATMs where I could withdraw pesos—I highly recommend carrying small denominations of pesos (instead of U.S. dollars) for tipping and also to buy goods from small, local businesses.
If you absolutely must pay or tip with USD, use bills that are pristine, and don’t use coins. Here in the U.S., we can draw all over our bills and still use them as legal currency. That’s not the case in Mexico. I found the Mexican people to be friendly, kind, and courteous to a fault, and they will accept your payment without complaint. But in short, it can be a pain in the butt and costly for them to exchange your USD for pesos.
Wifi was an important consideration for me when booking, as I wanted to work. The rooftop restaurant and pool area of my hotel had a decent wifi signal—I mostly worked poolside or on the balcony outside my room overlooking a lush courtyard with trees and a water feature, and made phone calls over wifi using WhatsApp or Google Voice.
Tulum has grown in popularity for digital nomads, so there is an abundance of co-working spaces and internet cafes if your hotel wifi is lacking. While it was adequate for casual browsing, I found the wifi on the beach to be spotty and unreliable for things like Zoom calls.
Using “Airbnb Experiences,” I booked a snorkeling excursion in Akumal Bay (use reef-safe sunscreen!), and a cenotes (naturally occuring undersea caverns) tour in Chemuyil—both were about a half hour drive north of Tulum. Each time, I rode the colectivo (catch it just outside 7-Eleven, at the corner of Avenida Coba and Highway 307), which costs 40 pesos each way. A taxi would have cost at least 500 pesos, one way.
I met a family of five from North Carolina on the cenotes tour and they told me they had to get two taxis for all five people to get to Chemuyil. They rode back to Tulum with me on the colectivo, as there were no taxis around for a return ride. They were thrilled to spend a fraction of the amount they had spent to get there.
Playa Del Carmen
I made a second trip to QR a couple of weeks after my time in Tulum—-this time to Playa Del Carmen (PDC).
There were some differences I noticed this time around.
At SeaTac Airport before departure—Alaska Airlines required all passengers to complete a health declaration form and scan a QR code while waiting at the gate. This flight was more full.
Upon arrival, I noticed that Cancun Airport was a bit more crowded.
PDC is an hour south of Cancun, and again, I opted for a private shuttle to take me to my hotel, which was a stone’s throw from the main drag, Quinta Avenida, and only 50 feet from the beach.
The sargassum (seaweed) issue was considerably worse. Crews did their best to clean it up, but at times, there were piles of it baking in the sun, and it smelled.
One of the highlights of my PDC trip included dinner at Alux Restaurant—which was inside a cave with a cenote! Reservations were required, and I didn’t know that, and the bar was not open due to COVID. But my boyfriend and I walked in and were seated almost immediately after agreeing to spend at least 5,000 pesos—well worth it, in my opinion, for a special date night.
It was warm and humid—you’re in a cave after all—and thankfully, there were massive fans placed strategically among stalactites and stalagmites, to circulate and cool the air.
The restaurant even had a Mayan ceremonial hall for weddings or vow renewals, a wine cellar, and private vaults if you wanted a more intimate and private setting.
Other culinary delights included La Cochi Loka (open 24 hours) where I satisfied a 5 a.m. hunger pang with three delicious tacos for 130 pesos; El Fogon, where my boyfriend ate what he described as “the best burrito in the world,” ceviche at El Doctorcito; and Aldea Corazon in a jungle-like setting on Quinta Avenida, where we ate grilled tikin xic fish with pickled onion, avocado salad, and roasted plantain.
We also enjoyed an hour-long, beachside massage near our hotel for 500 pesos each. In Tulum, I found a massage for a similar price, just down the beach from La Eufemia.
More Mayan ruins
I didn’t have time to visit the Coba ruins during my Tulum trip, so it was a must-do this time around. I rented a car for one day and we drove for an hour and a half to Coba.
The entrance fee is 75 pesos (they do give change unlike Tulum), and this time, I hired a guide once I walked past the turnstile. I don’t remember what the cost was, but it was half of what the guide outside the gates wanted to charge.
Also unlike the ruins at Tulum and Chichen Itza, the Coba ruins are more spread out.
Instead of walking, we opted for a “bicycle limousine”—a sort of cart with two seats in the front while the driver, who has to pedal, sits behind—for 150 pesos. Regular bicycle rentals were 50 pesos.
I was eager to climb the Ixmoja or Nohoch Mul pyramid but my guide said that was off-limits, due to COVID restrictions. So a return trip is in my future! This pyramid has seven levels and each level was built every 52 years, so the Mayans built Ixmoja over 364 years.
Other important information
You will need a negative COVID test result, taken 72 hours or less before your flight back to the United States. Antigen (rapid) tests are accepted, and cost less than PCR tests. I paid $40 in Tulum and $50 in PDC. There are many testing sites in the touristy areas, and no appointment is needed. There is a testing site at Cancun Airport, but the Mexican government urges you to use that only as a last resort, in case you don’t get your results back in time, for example.
You need to fill out a health declaration form (Alaska Airlines provided a link to all passengers) prior to departure, and show that form as you go through the security line, along with your boarding pass. I noticed a lot of people skipped this or weren’t aware, and had to step aside to complete this step.
I strongly urge that you buy travel insurance, in addition to any trip insurance you get from your flight and hotel booking. It is fairly inexpensive and be sure to include COVID medical coverage and medical evacuation, in case you do test positive and need to quarantine. A number of resorts will also provide free lodging if you have to quarantine (beyond your original booking), and free COVID tests before your return flight.
As of Aug. 5, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) listed Mexico’s travel advisory rating at level 3—“high” risk. Level 4 is “very high” risk. The CDC advises travelers to be fully vaccinated before traveling to Mexico.
Ruth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.