Travel Itinerary: Yucatan Peninsula | Mexico

When I travel I prefer experiencing the lay of the land like both a local and a tourist. I want to visit all the “must-see” sights and attractions, but I don’t want to miss out on the locality of the destination where I’d get to see and know the culture and people as they actually are. When Cormac and I visited Mexico we had the same intentions.

Some of our days looked like something you’d see in a resort catalog, and others looked a lot like trash on the street and 120 pesos worth of burgers and fries, but nonetheless, it was seven days we’d do again.

Day 1: Dinner at El Mortero Restaurant, Fashion Harbour

As I mentioned in the post here, bring a credit card any time you’ve rented a car. Duh, I know. I’m not sure why I didn’t, but it caused a plethora of issues for our first morning in Mexico.

We landed in Cancun and after not being able to pick up our rental that I had booked online for only $20, we came across a random guy who said he’d rent us a car for $300 ($100 we’d get back, and $200 for the car itself). Super sketchy experience. Cormac gave the guy his Irish learners permit, the man took it as a license, and off we went driving a sexy beat-up car that had no AC.

After a first day like ours, the only thing we had on our mind was sleep and food.

The Oasis Smart had a gorgeous pool where we stayed until dinner. We ate at a place called  El Mortero Restaurant in Fashion Harbor. I wouldn’t recommend Fashion Harbor by any means, but I highly recommend this Mexican restaurant. The food was very good and the atmosphere was a lot of fun. If you read here about our mariachi experience, it happened at this restaurant.

Day 2: Playa Tortugas

You obviously can’t do Mexico without a day devoted to the beach. We drove to Playa Tortugas, an area that is quite crowded, but there’s still plenty of room to lay around and people watch. There was bungee jumping, plenty of shops and restaurant after restaurant.

Cormac and I had dinner on a cliff that overlooked the ocean. The food was expensive in this area because it is so touristy, but I was happy to do it at least once.

Day 3: Playa del Carmen, some local beach and Parque Fundadores

Playa del Carmen wasn’t planned but we decided to drive over and see what all the fuss was about. Between Cancun and Playa del Carmen we stopped at a more local beach (roughly 30 minutes from Cancun). I realize this isn’t helpful because I don’t know the name of the beach, but I say this to promote visiting local beaches. We paid 20 USD for two beach chairs, an umbrella, two waters, a massive plate of guacamole and chips, shrimp tacos (this was before we were vegan), a plate of beans and rice, and a coconut. The tacos and guacamole alone cost 30 USD at Playa Tortugas the day prior.

After being at the local beach we drove to Playa del Carmen where we spent some time laying in front of Wah Wah Beach Bar as we watched people parasail and water jet pack.

When we felt our skin tingling we walked a block to Parque Fundadores. This seaside park has a massive mermaid arch sculpture thats the focal point of the square. During our visit traditional dancers from Mexico City had attracted a large crowd.

Day 4: Tulum

After breakfast and our gas-getting incident that you can read about here, we drove about two hours to Tulum. Here we met our new friend Roger who had just been deported from Florida. He sold us a package to snorkel with sea turtles and rays, and upon our return, we’d have an umbrella and drinks. This ended up being an ideal way to relax after swallowing an ungodly amount of saltwater.

The boat tour took us to see a waterfront view of Tulum. We preferred this over a foot-tour because we wanted to kill two birds with one stone and snorkel, but there are options available for either.

After a long day out we had burgers and coke (co-ca as they say in Mexico) at a hole-in-the-wall shop downtown. Another perk of staying local is that this meal cost 6 USD for the both of us.

Day 5: Mass overlooking the ocean and boating to Isla Mujeras

I’m not Catholic, but as there weren’t any non-denom churches on the peninsula, we decided mass would be our best bet. We went to Catholic church Maria Estrella del Mar. There were a few services, but the 9:30 was in English so we felt it suited.

The church overlooked the ocean and sat under a hut-like roof on a slab of concrete. There were iguanas running around everywhere. There were nearly more iguanas at the service than people. If I could go back and do this trip again I would relive Sunday morning one million times. I enjoyed this cultural experience and it sure didn’t hurt that the view was outrageous.

After church we drove just up the street to the ferry that would take us to Isla Mujera, or Woman Island, the island that separates Mexico and Cuba. For 300 pesos each we boarded a little wooden boat and set sail. When we got to the island our captain informed Cormac and I that we were the only two people who would return for free. I was confused by this at the time and I actually still am, but as long as we made it back then all was well.

There is no shortage of restaurants and unique shops on the island. It seemed quite touristy; mopeds and scooters carted people around at ridiculous speeds across the dirt-blown roads, but the island is more traditional than the peninsula itself. It was nice because it wasn’t big enough to get lost, but that kinda allowed for getting lost in doing whatever you wanted. It just felt safe.

There are also tours available on the island to snorkel an underwater museum which sounds cool. We did not do this because we preferred to have a mini photoshoot with our underwater camera on our own time, but if anyone does this let me know what you think so I can work it in to my next trip.

Day 6: Downtown Sushi and ceramics, Mercado 28

As we’d be traveling the last day of our trip, we spent this day close to our base camp. The first half of the day had us laying by the pool, and the second half wandering around downtown.

We had sushi at a restaurant called Irori that is supposedly the best sushi in Cancun. We tried the dragon roll and california roll because we weren’t sure how funky we wanted to get in a country that doesn’t speacialize, but Irori’s sushi was a good idea.

After lunch we walked through Mercado 28 in downtown Cancun. Vendors can be a bit pushy, but I found we had more luck bargaining here than we did anywhere prior. We found a shop with gorgeous ceramics and ended up bringing home probably one too many.

Day 7: Chichen Itza and Mayaland

My favorite tourist day ever. Maybe I was feeling all of the feelings because it was our last day in Mexico, but visiting Chicken Itza was something I wish I could relive again and again.

The drive to Chichen Itza from the hotel we stayed at is about two and a half hours so we started our day early. Well, hit the road at 8ish. That’s early for me.

Sidenote: Avoid hwy 1800 if driving to Chichen Itza. Tourists are asked to pay an outrageous toll. Instead, drive through Valladolid. 

We bought a tour for Chichen Itza midway (literally on the side of the road) that would allow us to park, tour the ruins, eat a buffet lunch and swim at a cenote for 39 USD each.

We drove a little more. We stopped to play with a Chihuahua on the side of the road (a very Mexico experience). We drove a bit more and we were there. We entered Chichen Itza from the Mayaland Hotel and Resort.

We walked down a sidewalk where Iguanas were trolling all over the place. Before even entering the premise, huts were set up with vendors on a mission to exchange their goods for your pesos, camera, shoes or whatever else you’d be willing to trade. One man asked me to trade my Canon 5D Mark IV for a pair of sterling silver earrings. I’ll give it to him, the earrings were cute. Onward.

Once entering the perimeter we realized the whole of the ruins were surrounded by these huts and vendors. They pretty much all sell the same things, so if you stop by each hut you can see who will give you what you’re wanting for the best price.

We toured the ruins and left with two skulls and a piece of leather art for 28 USD.

Bargaining is not easy. Halfway through the day we were famished, and the buffet at Mayaland exceeded every expectation ever. It had local cuisine with fresh tortillas being made on sight, and every 10 minutes or so the men and women serving would balance bottles or trays on their heads and perform a traditional dance.

After lunch at Mayaland we drove only a couple km down to Ik Kil Cenote. The Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series was held here in 2014. Guests are required to shower before entering the cenote, so we hurried under the bath water, grabbed the GoPro and jumped in from the diving deck.

Ik Kil Cenote is 85 ft below ground level and is open to the sky. There is a carved stairway that leads down to the cenote that is about 200 ft in diameter and about 164 ft deep. Vines reach from the opening all the way down to the water. There are black catfish and little waterfalls, and the cenote sits near a larger complex of a restaurants, stores, changing rooms, and cottages for rent.

The stairs to get in and out are slippery. Somehow I managed to make it out without falling, but I witnessed a few others that didn’t do so hot going up and down.

Our last endeavor was driving through Valladolid (the route we should have taken on our way up) and my only regret is that we didn’t have more time to spend here. Children ran around the square that was lined with shops and at the center sat a beautiful church.

We spent a decent amount of time in a shop chatting with a local about Mexican tequila, and an equal amount of time visiting with another local and admiring/playing with his five pups. I’m still wondering if I could have snuck one of them back with me.



Author: Shelby Strickland

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