Three weeks ago we finished booking a last minute trip to Cancun and Playa Del Carmen. Two weeks ago there was shooting at a night club in Play Del Carmen. Then there was an attack on a police station in Cancun involving grenades. The next day I sent an email to Delta checking on the flight cancellation policy when your vacation involves risking life and limb.
They took 3 days to respond with an email saying that I needed to call them.
Thank goodness for crappy customer service. After several days the initial worry had worn off. The poor Utah air quality, 3 feet of snow and 8 degree temperatures forced us to finalized travel plans for the Hyatt Zilara and Mayakoba Andaz.
The Hyatt Zilara
Over our past few hotel stays I’ve fallen in love with the Hyatt brand of hotels. Their higher level of customer service combined With 2 free nights expiring at any hotel in the world meant the all-inclusive Zilara was an easy choice. The Andaz was a more difficult find. Both proved to be incredible but very different experiences. The Zilara is not crowded by any means, but carries a very definite high energy, free alcohol, party vibe. However, it’s not spring break or drunk people everywhere crazy which is great for those of us who don’t imbibe.
We did partake in the perfectly groomed, white sand beaches with chair side drink service (water for us), perfect temperatures and 5 foot ocean swells. 50 feet out in the ocean the water would be waste and then shoulder deep as the waves moved in and out. A constant stream of failed attempts at body surfing confirmed that a life spent in the high mountain desert results in a dearth of the appropriate skills required to be anything but a dork at the beach.
I was a happy dork. I would very much liked to have had the chance to try a paddleboard in the waves, but the hotels know better than to provide glowing white tourists with more tools with which to kill themselves. I assured Callie that my life insurance was sufficient should my body never be found but my attempts to drown over and over and over resulted in little more harm than salty boogers and an overwhelming burning sensation throughout every cavity in my skull.
Cancun’s hotel zone is like Las Vegas meets Baghdad with police riding around in pickup trucks armed with automatic weapons. The image might seem menacing but the area is probably the safest in all of Mexico. Tourism is Mexico’s second largest industry and the Cancun area brings in 40% of that revenue.
We walked around at night without worry and visited the small shops along with the luxury stories with all the brands that we see plastering the malls in the United States. Consumerism is global.
The Mayan’s gave us cacao. It seem appropriate to sacrifice US dollars to honor their gift. And so we found a chocolate store, which led to finding more throughout our trip. There are a lot of carefully selected, single origin, hand made bars of Mexican chocolate in the cargo hold of the airplane I’m sitting in right now that I’m hoping survived the heat of the tarmac.
We spent two nights at the Zilara which really only equals one day but it gave us time to experience the incredible service and great food. It’s the only place I’ve ever stayed that could make the smooth that I eat every day for breakfast right down to the flax seed and kale. (Don’t judge. I’m going to live longer than you). If your ideal vacation is hanging out by the pool (it’s perfectly heated), sitting on the beach, or swimming in the ocean this is the place.
We were sad to leave but excited to explore Isla Mujeres. We left our bags at the hotel and set off with sunscreen, snorkeling gear and flip-flops to catch the ferry out to the island. The ferry ride is short and always includes a version of La Bamba. In fact a lot of bus rides, and restaurants usually include someone with a guitar and their own flavor of La Bamba and everyone knows the words (except me).
We aren’t much for plans other than let’s go somewhere and see what happens. Luckily, Isla Mujeres rewards wanders without plans. We exited the ferry terminal and chose a direction. Luckily, we chose north which took us to a white sand beach protected by a reef island off the north short. The water here is clear and shallow. It’s an area dotted with small hotels that are barely a step above hostels. They are clearly popular with both locals and tourist from all over the world and perfect for the adventurous. We out as far as we dared with our bags sitting unprotected on the beach. The water never rose above my waste. It’s a perfect spot for kids and there were plenty of families in the area.
We continued walking around to the east side of the island where the beaches transform to rocky shores pounded by relentless ocean swells. You don’t swim here unless you want to die. You also don’t walk here without something on your feet. This side of the island is picturesque near the water but unrefined a few steps from the water. A decaying concrete boardwalk stretches along the coast dividing the city from the rocks, waves and water. Carefully maintained homes and tiny hotels sit next to abandoned concrete shells and heaps of rubble and trash. It’s a start reminder of the contrast between luxury and poverty repeated throughout the Caribbean.
From there we wandered through the center of the city past a church and the city square. A tiny grocery store provided some kind of carbonated apple drink and the smell of fried cheese. By then we had exhausted the allowed mileage on our flip flops and elected for a golf cart to improve our exploration speed. Small trucks and even smaller taxicabs and hundreds of golf carts cruise around the island in a chaotic Indy 500 at 20 mph. Pedal to the medal we quickly found our way out of the main city, past the marina, the Mexican Navy training facility and into the rural sections of the island. Cared into the vegetation next to the road, carefully maintained luxury homes sat next to cinder block shells with piles of rubble. We spend along not knowing where we were going but eventually ending up at the southern tip of the island where a hundred feet above the water the view is breathtaking. Note that along the road you won’t find public beach access, but if you have time and money ($50 a person ish) there’s small resort with zip lines and stairs down to the water where you can snorkel in protected water.
We’re easily distracted and in spite of golf cart rental time running short we split of the main road and headed down a narrow finger of land that forms a small harbor on one side just enough beach for a few resorts on the other side. We found one open to the public with restrooms, which is always a pleasant miracle since public restrooms are not easy to find.
With 30 minutes left we turned and headed towards town with the intention of returning the golf cart on time to avoid Callie’s license from being held hostage. A side road again distracted us and we found ourselves in small neighborhoods perched along the rocky shores of the west side of the island. Here boutique hotels found a place next to tiny vacation homes. Turnouts along the road provided spectacular views over 50 foot cliffs down to the water. Out of time, we traded cliffs and waves for traffic and narrow streets and returned just in time. Knowing that we still had to catch ferry and then a bus to return to the hotel we chose to wander the streets a little longer stopping in a little shop and paying too much for a couple of colorful beach towels. Our last stop at an OXXO convenience store was routine but it’s a cheap place to pick up sunscreen plus they have various Kinder treats including something that resembles a Ding Dong.
Covered in sunscreen we showed up at the Zilara to collect our bags. Moving between hotels is a pain especially when you need a shower. Uber is now operating in the Cancun area and since we had use it earlier to get to the ferry we decided to give it a shot to get to Mayakoba.
As it turns out Uber provided our next adventure. An older lady called worried about a taxi stand at the hotel. I didn’t understand but assured here that the hotel had no problem with her picking us up. We were surprised and relieved that our enormous bags fit in the trunk of her Civic and jumped into the backseat for our drive to the Riveria Maya. On the way, Maria, our driver, explained that Uber has not quite been accepted in the area and it was not uncommon for the police to pull over and harass people that look like Uber drivers so while speed down the highway Callie climbed into the front seat and we got to know Maria better so that if we were pulled over we could explain that we were good friends and Maria was helping us make our way to the hotel. Note that Uber can’t operate outside the hotel zone.
We arrived at the Andaz Mayakoba after dark and were treated to a unique experience unlike any hotel I’ve ever stayed at. The lobby is a “sanctuary” very modern in design meant to resemble a cenote, a sinkhole common in the area. The bellman takes your bags, which you won’t see again until arriving at your room. In the mean time the receptionist brings you a drink, gets you checked in and then escorts you down a narrow path, through thick vegetation to your room via golf cart.
The rooms are colorful, modern and minimal in a “I’m in a cologne ad” sort of way. The do not disturb sign is a stuffed coati in a rainbow hammock. If you want someone to come clean up your mess there’s a green strip of fabric that you tie to the door handle. Creative knots are encouraged. Anything non-alcoholic in the minibar is free which is awesome for us non-drinking folks. There was a lychee soda produced by Velvet Soda that I found amazing. Everything is global these days so I assumed Amazon would keep my addiction fed once I got back to the states, but as far as I can tell I’ll need to take another vacation to Mexico to partake in my new, favorite tasty beverage.
The area known as Mayakoba is an eco-resort owned by a large construction company. The Andaz sits alongside the Fairmont and the Rosewood all of which are tucked into mangroves along a number of man-made channels. We took a boat tour of the property, which is much more interesting than it sounds. The lagoons are crystal clear and filled with turtles and crocodiles. Swimming is not permitted. The property is very proud of the exotic bird population, which you observe while cruising around in their electric boats.
Our room was on the beach, which meant easy access to two restaurants next to the ocean side pool. We tried the taco place the first night, which was very good. After our boat tour we tried the ceviche restaurant. Before this trip I don’t think I would have ever considered eating a plate of raw fish in a country where no one drinks the water. I ordered a plate of yellow tail, which was delicious. Callie ordered the only non-raw fish item on the menu, a grilled bass large enough for two. It was amazing.
The beach around Mayakoba was beautiful but not as user-friendly as Cancun. In Cancun I was able to spend a day getting crushed by 6 foot without feeling like I would pay for the good times with my life. The area around Mayakoba drops off fast and the sea bottom isn’t especially friendly to delicate feet. I walked out until the water covered my shoulders but gave up and came back to shore. The resort advertised paddleboards. Before the trip I was totally stoked at the prospect of getting on a SUP in the ocean again. Utah is covered in snow and it will be June or July before I dig mine out of the garage. Unfortunately, the boards hadn’t arrived yet.
We opted for a walk along the beach.
5th Avenue Playa de Carmen
Whenever you travel as a parent you are obligated to return with souvenirs. 5th avenue in Playa de Carmen can supply you with everything from kitschy skulls and clay animals to giant paintings by local street artists.
There are more gelato shops along the road than there are Starbucks in Seattle. We found an Amorino, one of our favorite gelato places from both Paris and New York.
Some of my favorite art by Daniel Violante Paramo
Our last full day in Mexico we booked a tour of Tulum and Chichen Itza. Both are spectacular in their own right. Besides the ruins, Tulum has an amazing beach and spectacular view of the ocean.
Chichen Itza is awesome and disturbing at the same time. It’s a city built around human sacrifice.
Our last morning we stole a couple of bikes from the room next to us and set out to explore the property. There’s a nature trail around Mayakoba that includes a cenote.
Our last stop was a little village on the property where we found more Christmas ornaments and slightly less kitschy skull earrings for our daughters.