What is there to do in the Mexican Caribbean besides lay on the beach?
SIGHTS & ACTIVITIES IN MEXICO
One of the 7 wonders of the world and probably the most popular tourist spot around the Cancun area is Chichen Itza or Xichen Itza (as you might see on tour buses). The site of Chichen Itza contains many buildings and structures of stone in various stages such as palaces, an observatory, temples and markets from pre-hispanic Mayan times. The ruins are magical and this activity was probably my favorite thing from my trip to the Mexican Caribbean. If you are interested in seeing Chichen Itza, I would highly recommend purchasing a tour bus package with the company, Experiencias Xcaret before you leave for your vacation to save a few extra dollars. I’ve found that booking tours and trips in the hotel does run you about $10-$40 more per ticket than booking in advance. Experiencias Xcaret is a well known fully insured tourist/destination company that has been in business in Yucatan for years. Not only does the tour bus pick you up from your hotel and drive you the 3 hours there and back in a nice comfy air-conditioned charter bus with a bathroom, but for the price of the ticket they will also feed you coffee, breakfast/lunch, lots of beer and water, and a buffet dinner in Valladolid. Almost every single tour will also take you on a trip to a cenote as well. You can’t take a trip to Mexico and not visit one of the many cenotes! You’ll definitely want to jump in and swim around in the cool natural pools for a while before embarking to the next tour bus stop.
Here are a few tips for visiting Chichen Itza:
- Purchase a package before you leave on vacation, unless you have a native friend or family member that can drive you around and play your tour guide. The bus and tour is worth every penny after such a long day. It’s also nice to have a tour guide around to clear an area for pictures or viewing, answer your questions and show you where the best places are for pictures, or to take your picture for you.
- Bring a towel from your hotel if you plan on jumping in a cenote. All of the tour buses will stop by one or another cenote as part of the package, however, sometimes the buses have towels and sometimes they don’t. (ours didn’t)
- Bring along a power bank to charge your phones or cameras. You will be out the ENTIRE day and your phone will lose power. We left our hotel at 6am and didn’t return until 10:30pm.
- Wear a hat, sunscreen, bug repellent, sunglasses, and walking shoes. And bring extra sunscreen and repellent along!
- Bring cash for souvenirs. There are tons of tents and stands with artisans set up inside Chichen Itza selling handmade goods. Don’t be afraid to haggle prices!
- Eat a little something before you leave. The bus tours do feed you an early lunch (10-11am) with coffee as well as a buffet dinner, but we were starved by 8am since we left so early in the morning. I would grab a muffin or something to tide you over until you’re fed.
Valladolid (Saki’ in Maya) is a very old and very beautiful city situated in the southeastern part of the Mexican state of Yucatán of the Yucatan peninsula. In 1545, Valladolid was built atop a Maya town called Zaci. Throughout the city you’ll find that most sites are well marked with bi-lingual signage and most restaurants and stores selling goods make it a hospitable place for English speakers. Most locals, police, and shop owners are very friendly. This makes it a truly great city to spend your day exploring the culture, taking leisurely strolls, and shopping.
In the midst of downtown you’ll find the main city square, which is eerily reminiscent of the french quarter in New Orleans. In the square you’ll find a colonial era cathedral church (shown in picture) which was built between 1552 and 1560, a quiet square park with seating where you can sit and enjoy the sights of passerby’s during a peaceful afternoon, and plenty of shops and restaurants surrounding the square to visit.
Xcaret is a beautiful natural water park with sea life and lazy rivers to float down. My favorite part of this Six Flags sized park were the lazy rivers because you just strap on a life jacket and float away for about an hour or more down a beautiful natural river. You’ll find some interesting things like blue finned fish swimming right past your legs, or parrots squawking overhead along the way!
Xcaret has different areas with activities and animals such as sea turtles, a dolphin cove, and a large beautiful aviary with waterfalls. There are “paid-for” activities within the park that cost various fees in addition to your entry ticket, which can be paid for inside the park entrance once you arrive. Those activities include things like a crazy speed boat ride, swimming with dolphins or sharks, scuba diving, and much more. They also have beaches and coves that have chairs or hammocks for lounging around in the sun and drinking a beer.
Our trip to Xcaret we booked the same type of “bus tour” with the same company, Experiencias Xcaret. Xcaret will be an ALL DAY event. Think of it like you would visiting Disneyland or an actual water park. You’ll be leaving around 8am or 9am and returning 9pm to 10pm on the bus, so plan your days wisely! With the tour bus you’ll also be fed a buffet style lunch or dinner within the park that includes one beer per adult.
The very best part about Xcaret is the nightly show called Xcaret Mexico Espectacular. I think the show alone is worth the price of admission. The show goes through different stages of Mexico´s History starting from the the pre-Hispanic Mayan times (that includes a fabulous game of the Mayan “Ball Game”) and reaching up to the modern days of Mexico. It is an absolute gorgeous showcase of Mexican traditions and cultures. Don’t miss it! You can also upgrade your package to include a served dinner during the show, and the cost would be in addition to your ticket price. Check out pricing for that on Xcaret’s website: click here.
Here are my tips for a successful trip to Xcaret:
- Bring with you, NO exceptions:
- Bug repellent
- Bathing suit under your day clothing like shorts and a tank
- A change of dry clothes for the evening
- Water shoes (they cost a ton of money if you buy them there)
- Towel from your hotel (they also cost a ton of money to purchase there)
- Underwater sport camera or iPhone water bag for pictures!
- Power bank!! You’ll run out of battery fast!
- A hair brush and some wet wipes
- Purchase a bus tour once again. It is pricier than the regular entry tickets, but again it includes travel both ways, all you can eat buffet style lunch or dinner with a beer, and a locker at Xcaret. The taxi prices to travel there would have been the same anyway.
- Eat breakfast before you leave! You’ll be hungry on the bus ride, and since they only feed you once with the bus tour ticket you’ll be thankful that you did!
- Once you arrive put your extras like your evening clothing and bags into a locker near the entrance and check out a lazy river. (Rio Azul is the best) Send things like your towel and sunglasses up the river in a bag that the staff takes care of and will be waiting at the end for you when you arrive.
- If you’re on a budget, skip all the extra “paid for” activities within the park. Instead check out things like the sea turtle exhibit (they are as big as a pony!) and watch a few people swim with the sharks.
- Don’t spend too much time at their beaches, there is plenty more to see!
- Skip all the mini day shows scattered throughout the park, because they will all be included in the big nightly show.
- Don’t miss the ACTUAL Mexican cemetery inside the park. It is a beautiful walk looking at all the artwork and memorial on the headstones.
- Don’t miss the aviary. It is an absolute GORGEOUS caged in aviary with a variety of native birds as well as parrots and macaws. There are 3 natural waterfalls within the aviary that make really good picture backdrops.
- Check out the butterfly garden – but don’t forget to spray on bug repellent before you go in. The mosquitos are CRAZY inside the garden.
- Absolutely under no circumstances, miss the night show. I can’t emphasize enough what a great show it is. You won’t be disappointed.
Tel Ha is another natural water park with the same ideas in mind as Xcaret. Again beautiful lazy rivers, snorkeling and extra paid for activities, but there are a few minor differences. #1. Xel Ha does not have a night show like Xcaret. #2. If you purchase a bus tour they do offer all you can eat and drink (alcohol too) buffets that you can visit as much as you want. #3. With admission they give you all day snorkeling gear rental, no extra cost required. #3. They are the smallest bit more child-friendly. Many of the snorkeling pools are pretty shallow for kids, and they have a few dedicated kiddy pools.
I would follow the same list of dos and do-nots as I pointed out for Xcaret.
Here is a link for more info on Xel Ha: click here.
(Image above and below courtesy of Mesoamerican Picture Gallery Image Copyrighted by Historylink101.com)
Tulum is another Mayan ruin much like Chichen Itza, but this particular one is settled right on the coast of the Caribbean Sea. It isn’t quite as extravagant or touristy as its counter-part Chichen Itza, but it is equally as beautiful. You do have the opportunity to purchase a combo bus tour of Xel Ha and Tulum from Experiencias Xcaret. Click here for more info about Tulum.
Cozumel is large island known as the “safest island in Mexico” which is located just off the coast of Playa Del Carmen (you can see it from the shore), very famous for its diving and snorkeling because of the magnificent coral reefs that are only a short distance from the shore. They hold a big “Carnaval de Cozumel” each year, which is similar to Brazil’s Carnival celebration. Many different companies offer cruises to the island and back for day tours, so you can get there by boat from the caribbean shore in abut 30 minutes. There are also many different tours you can take while you’re on the island such as snorkeling tours, off-road jeep or ATV tours, scuba tours, and fishing tours just to name a few. Cozumel can take an entire day to sightsee so I would suggest doing some research about the island and the activities it offers so you can plan your day accordingly. Here is a link to a well known company that offers spectacular tours in Cozumel: click here.
A beautiful 3 mile walk along cobblestone streets parallel to the beach in Playa Del Carmen. Lots of vendors selling candies, tequila, leather goods, hats, purses, and the list goes on. Toward the center of the strip there is a nice two story mall that has a Sephora and Michael Kors along with a few other major brand retailers. Prices in the mall are significantly less than in the states but they will not haggle with you like the rest of the vendors on the street. Reserve haggling for street vendors or small stores. There are tons of restaurants and bars lining the major and side streets so making a pit stop for a $10 bucket of beer is a nice way to kill an hour or two.
Here are a few things I recommend to check out while walking along:
- Fish Pedicure: also known as a fish spa, where you dip your feet in a tub of water filled with small fish called Garra Rufa. Garra Rufa are sometimes referred to as “doctor fish” because they eat away dead skin on your feet and ankles, leaving fresh skin behind. It’s a really fun way to kick your heels up and relax after a long walk on the strip. These sessions can cost anywhere from $15 to $30 for an hour. You’ll see the tubs of fish outside of the shops.
- Portal Maya Monument (Maya Gateway): Take a right on Calle 41 and down to the beachside to see the Portal Maya Monument. The Portal Maya is an iconic piece of artwork that stands over 50 feet high, built to commemorate the end of the Mayan calendar in December of 2012. It portrays a man and a woman, being pushed upwards by a spiral of wind and water, and holding hands. All around the spirals, the sculpture includes depictions of other elements important to the area including a jaguar, shells, people from the past and present, and two rings from the Mayan ball game.
- Mexican Candy & Snacks: After taking a few pictures of the beach and the monument grab a snack at one of the street vendors there on Calle 41 next to the beach. They have small hand carts with women selling chicharrones, fruit in cups with tamarind sauce drizzled on top, fresh popcorn, and various Mexican Candy. For about $3 or $4 ask for some chicharrones in a bag and a cup of mixed fruit. Be sure to ask for the sauce on top, you won’t regret it! Or try your hand at some Lucas (small cylinder of spicy and salty flavoring that you shake in your hand and lick off) or La Rosa (peanut and sugar candy circles with a rose on top). Then have a seat and enjoy the view of the beach.
- Hair Braiding & Henna Tattoos: You will also see plenty of vendors that can braid hair or paint henna tattoos on you. I think these types of souvenirs are the most fun because they last quite a while and you’ll be able to show off your awesome vacation to your friends and family when you get back. The hair braiding starts at $10, they can do your whole head, or just a side part, or simply a few strands. The henna tattoos start at $3, but can go up depending on how much artwork you want.
- Tequila Barrel Bar & Grill: About half way through our walk we stopped here for a refresher and grabbed a bucket of beer for $10 and had some of their REALLY delicious wings. Their wings come in different flavors and come fried or baked. We ordered the fried wings with the original hot sauce on top. MY GOD, those were the best wings I’ve probably ever had, and a must have item after walking 2 miles! We also ordered a couple glasses of Michelada mix to go with our beer that were so refreshing I’m craving one as I type this.
- Cuban Cigars: If you are into cigars in any capacity you should stop by one of the smoke shops and purchase a cuban cigar, because when else are you able to come upon one legally? You won’t be able to take them home with you no matter what the locals tell you about their permits or availability (unless of course your home is Cuba) but you are free to enjoy one while walking around or inside one of the many cigar bars.
- Tequila: Buy a bottle of amazing tequila to take home with you or simply take back to the hotel! The silver tequila was my favorite (in any brand) and lots of shops that are selling the larger bottles will let you taste test (just ask in advance). These also make amazing souvenirs!
- Locals & Barkers: You will find locals walking around offering variations of items especially as the day comes to a close and the sun begins to set. They will walk around and shout over to you to get you interested in many different things such as cuban cigars, jet ski rentals, charter cruises to Cozumel, etc. For small-towners it may seem pushy or overwhelming to see all this action, but don’t fret, if the calling does bother you the very best way to react is a simple “No Thanks” and a smile, and continue to walk. We ran into one or two men that offered us drugs, but a simple “No Thanks” sent them on their way. Some of the tactics that they use to lure you in are:
- calling you out by your hotel wrist band that you are forced to wear throughout your stay. They know the colors by heart and will tell you that they are from your hotel and have something “for you”.
- They shout things out like “Almost Free” and “Hola Chicas!” to get your initial attention or ask you to check out what they are selling.
- The oh so clever “Chica, you dropped this” targeting mostly females. They yell out behind you to grab your attention and show you a handkerchief or small item that of course is not yours, asking if you dropped it, then try to sell you something.
- Coco Bongo Club: A VERY fun and lively nightclub that costs an entry fee. The vendors on the street will attempt to sell you tickets and many of them are legit. We found a pair of tickets on the street for about $50 per person. Coco Bongo has lively entertainment with different types of celebrity impersonators, a jumping dance floor, and strong drinks. The club is located within the same tourist area and definitely worth the trip!
BEACH & WATER ACTIVITIES
Parasailing, Jet Skiing, Snorkeling, Scuba Diving, Fishing, Kayaking, and Paddle Boarding. With most all-inclusive hotels you get the day use of snorkel gear, kayaks, and paddle boards free of charge with collateral left at the beach stand. Leaving an ID or room key will allow you to rent the equipment for day use, having to return them before sunset. Other activities such as Jet Skiing, Scuba Diving, or Parasailing is also available from any of the many vendors walking around offering the activities at a cost. The extra beach activities average about $60-75 per person.