When people (i.e. Europeans) think of Mexico, what usually springs to mind is the region of Yucatán – a peninsula in the southeastern part of Mexico. It comprises all the classic places such as high-pulse Cancún, European favourite Playa del Carmen, chilled out and beautiful Tulum, love bird paradise Isla Holbox, hippie-like Isla Mujeres and impressive Maya ruins Chichen Itzá.
A few years ago we were lucky enough to travel here together with some Mexican friends who knew exactly where to go and what to do – meaning we sure spent two amazing weeks partying on rooftops, swimming with dolphins, dancing to mariachi bands on the beach, devouring Mexican street food and admiring the remains of the great Maya civilisation.
Here’s an overview of our itinerary and favourite places in the region:
First of all, there’s an important distinction to make between the historic old/local town of Cancún and the zona hotelera which is basically a strip of sand populated only by hotels, clubs and tourists. We tried a bit of both: we headed to the old town for the best authentic food, but kept to the zona hotelera for the beaches and nightlife.
Cancún is not for everyone: it’s got little to do with Mexican culture or way of life and is not particularly pretty or charming. However, if all you’re craving is beaches, cerveza and some hard-core partying, then you’ll have a great time. We recommend chilling at the beach during the day, drinking Corona and eating quesedillas with a big side of guacamole. In the evening you’ll want to head to a rooftop terrace for some drinks and shisha before heading to one of the clubs such as raving Dady’O (blvd. Kukulcan km 9.5) and the crazy circus of Coco Bongo (blvd. Kukulcan km 9.5). The latter venue is the most well-known in Cancun – it’s massive and every half an hour or so they have shows on. Expect big queues (we recommend getting VIP tickets with queue jump and open bar) and a lot of drunk Americans.
PLAYA DEL CARMEN:
Playa del Carmen has a completely different atmosphere than Cancún and is more preferred by Europeans. It appears more Mexican than Cancún, but bear in mind that it is largely constructed this way solely for the purpose of tourism rather than being inhabited by natives. Nevertheless, the pace of life here is chilled and in many ways a more comfortable place to stay than Cancún.
While our Mexican friends were sound asleep, we usually made our way to Starbucks in the town centre for a coffee and light breakfast, and had time for some shopping before our friends joined us. We then headed to our definite favourite place: Mamita’s beach club (Calle 28). Rent one of the massive cabanas, listen to the chill beats of the DJ, and order nachos, sushi and daiquiris from the menu. The beaches in Playa del Carmen are very much a “see and be seen” place which makes it fun to observe. It’s obvious that the people parading the beach in small bikinis and shorts spend a lot of time in the gym, to put it that way.
Come evening, head to the small Cuban bar La Bodeguita del Medio (Quinta Avenida) for the best mojitos you’ll probably have. It’s such a cool place with the graffiti all over the walls, Cuban music and lovely owners. From there, head down a side street to a local restaurant and try some Mexican street fare such as tortas or just classic tacos with chorizo and cheese (yum). The nightlife in Playa del Carmen is fun and diverse. You might want to check out a lounge such as Santanera (Calle 10 Norte), a more club-like place such as Mandala (Calle 12 Av. 1ra) or slip off your shoes and hit the sand for a beach party at one of the many beach clubs. We definitely suggest you try the latter.
Need a break from city life, catch the ferry that runs between Cancún and this quaint little island. If you’re lucky, there will be a mariachi band on the ferry playing some classic Mexican tunes! There are no cars on Isla Mujeres, only golf carts, but you’re almost better off walking. The island measures only 7 km by 650 metres and is a true Caribbean island with its gorgeous white beaches, turquoise water, hammocks and reggae bars. The (in)famous Poc Na hostel (Av. Matamoros 15 Mz 26 Lte. 3) is a good spot to head to if you want to meet up with fellow travellers, drink a few beers or attend a yoga class. Alternatively, buy some Coronas from a local shop and just sit down at the beach or on the molo and soak sun until sunset – which is the most gorgeous event in itself.
For your cultural input, this is the go-to place of the region. Yes, it’s crammed with tourists, but it’s still somewhere you shouldn’t miss. Especially not as it a few years ago was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World! The Maya people lived here 1400 years ago and built temple upon temple in the midst of the jungle. We recommend hiring a guide as you’ll learn so much more about the truly interesting history of the Maya people and their impressive civilisation (although, being guided around for 3 hours in the burning sun when being incredibly hungover, was tiring to say the least…).
Also worth checking out: Xcaret theme park (Carretera Chetúmal-Puerto Juárez Kilómetro 282) outside of Playa del Carmen. Here you can snorkel in underground rivers, swim with dolphins and go for a walk in a butterfly sanctuary surrounded by butterfly species in all beautiful colours and shapes. If you still have some energy left at the end of the day, head to the amfi theatre to catch a performance showcasing both the Mayan history and presenting the specialties of the different regions in Mexico. Mexicans are extremely proud of their country, and especially their particular regions, so our Mexican friends wouldn’t stop cheering and shouting when their region was presented on stage. A special experience.