Photo’s are here or you can just click on the photograph above.
The Mayan Riviera was certainly an entirely different Mexican experience than our more recent ventures into the Central Highlands and a previous trip to the Pacific Coast a few years ago. It wasn’t a trip entirely entered into with the full enthusiasm of most of our adventures but was more the result of having to forfeit our much loved annual skiing vacation in Colorado due to a knee injury. There were tears and tantrums but eventually we conceded that a less physically active vacation would have to take the place of our pre-planned trip to Breckenridge. So, I stuck a pin in the map and came up with an alternative destination for picture-perfect February weather on the Mexican Caribbean island of Cozumel.
To be fair, the weather was absolutely perfect. Puffy white clouds drifted across bright blue skies and a warm Caribbean breeze gently fluttered the curtains of our well-padded, hibiscus flower-adorned cabana bed overlooking the translucent turquoise waters at our hotel (The Explorean) on the west side of the island in the hotel zone. Aside from Coz Coffee (purveyor of the worlds most delicious vegan peanut butter coffee in the world… and probably the only purveyor of said coffee in the world), the town centre of San Miguel de Cozumel offered few delights. It is a concrete jungle of cheap bars, grim divers hotels and jewelry stores (as per every major cruise ship destination in the Caribbean).
So we rented a Jeep and headed off in search of beaches on the wild east coast of the island. It was a quality vehicle with a hand painted interior, copious quantities of mold in various stages of bio-hazard growth and a gearbox with more play than a 1973 Austin Allegro 😉 There are pretty much only 2 roads on the island – the coastal road running around the periphery of the island and a central road which crosses through the jungle – so Cozumel doesn’t really require a lot of time or effort to explore.
First stop was the (allegedly) ancient Mayan village of El Cedral dating back to 800 AD and subsequently discovered by Spanish Conquistadors who razed much of it to the ground (as was their wont). Aside from a small portion of a fertility temple which looked about as exciting as a dilapidated garden shed with bars at the window there didn’t seem to be any sign of anything vaguely ancient remaining in the village. On the upside, of course, we could have bought a Mexican hat or some ceramic ornaments if we had so desired 😉 Now, the village is full of weekend holiday homes for wealthy Mexicans, a few tourist shops and a tequila museum where Geoff sipped his way through a not inconsiderable quantity of samples before weaving his way back to the Jeep and continuing around the coast until we reached our first (and what should have been our last!) beach club at Punta Moreno.
Here, Geoff bee-lined to the nearest massage table on the beach and was charged the exorbitant sum of $90 for an hour slumbering in the breeze. Left to my own devices I marveled at how the locals were unilaterally attempting to destroy what would once have been an absolutely beautiful deserted east coast beach. Maybe once, 20 odd years ago, there would have been a palm leaf topped beach bar filled with character and charm. To be fair most of the island is still undeveloped but what has been developed has not been done with the greatest taste in the world. The coastline is littered with Disneyesque water parks of varying degrees of commercialization and none of it remotely attractive or appealing to the eye. I know that we are old and miserable now but we prefer not to spend our days lounging on the beaches with 100’s of other tourists in regimentally laid out regulation sunbeds getting slowly sozzled on beer in plastic cups. Concrete swimming pools and kids slides, multicolored plastic inflatables and parks where you can swim with unhappy looking dolphins is an abiding memory I could take home from Cozumel, but I won’t, because there were still pockets of loveliness and we did have a very relaxing vacation 🙂
Any day starting with a dip in the warm transparent waters, snorkeling along the Dzul-Ha Reef directly outside of the hotel, followed by ceviche and fish tacos for lunch at the beach bar and then ended sipping pina coladas and mojitos watching the sunset from the cabana bed is obviously a good vacation day. However, unless you are a die-hard diver or are trying to entertain a family of kids at one of the endless Disneyesque theme parks this is unlikely to be the Caribbean island of your dreams.
When we did actually tear ourselves away from our cabana bed with a view, I will concede that it was an absolutely beautiful drive on the east coast: crashing waves, sandy beaches, coral reefs and water in every shade of blue and turquoise. Happily, we stumbled across the almost deserted beach of San Martin where we laid claim to one of 4 or 5 palm covered shades so that Geoff could resume lazing and dozing in the sun and I could walk on real sand. The west coast hotel zone is largely reef with no sand which is why it’s big for divers and snorkelers as they can leap straight off the hotel docks into the water. However, what I really wanted to do was paddle about in the warm waves, soft sand between my toes, without my senses being assaulted by some hideous manmade, multicolored monstrosity designed entirely to relieve the tourists of their pesos.
Back at the hotel on Dzul-Ha Reef, thank goodness, the snorkeling was fabulous. Sunfish, Eagle Rays, Stingray, Yellowtail Snapper, Blue Tang, Horse Eye Jacks, Sergeant Major fish, Durgeon, Great Barracuda, Honeycomb Cowfish, Triggerfish, Parrotfish, Reef Butterflyfish, Grouper and Tilefish, Blue Chromis, Blue and Yellowhead Wrasse – the list goes on…. none of them hung around long enough to do any modeling shots but they were happy to let me snorkel amongst them at the surface.
The coral was a little brown and trodden down (the legacy of decades of divers and snorkelers before us since Cozumel was first made famous back in the 50’s) but the fish were entertaining… all except the jellyfish, of course, which seemed to find me inordinately attractive because I rarely left the water without having an encounter with one or two of the irritating little creatures swiping their transparent tentacles at me 😉 Geoff tended to head to deeper waters and spent most of his time free-diving whilst I dodged the jellyfish at the surface 😉
Columbia Reef at the bottom of the island was far more interesting and less trampled – partly because it was accessible only by boat.
A brief 30 minute ferry ride from San Miguel de Cozumel to Playa del Carmen on the mainland and an unbelievably overpriced Jeep rental (pushing $200 per day… hence the reason we only took 2 day trips on the mainland) saw us out and about doing what we like to do best – exploring the offerings of the country.
Firstly, however, we felt obliged to make a quick tour of Playa del Carmen which, in the end, comprised a desperate search for a coffee shop recommended by a friend (Ah-Cacao Chocolate Cafe where I indulged in a mayan hot chocolate 🙂 ) and a quick stroll down Calle 38 which was a pretty tree-lined avenue with great looking bars and street cafes in shady courtyards. The beaches were very narrow and wall to wall log-jammed with people so we headed north to the attractive fishing village of Puerto Morelos. Understandably, the town has fought hard to prevent hotel development, high rises and the slippery slope of the ubiquitous “beach clubs” from springing up along their waters. As a result it was probably the most authentic place we visited in our 8 days in the Mayan Riviera. It also had a very appealing vegetarian friendly cafe (El Nicho) which made us feel slightly less guilty about all of the fish tacos we had eaten back at our local beach shack 😉
Heading south of Playa del Carmen again we passed mile after mile after mile of massive conglomerate golf/spa hotels all, no doubt, with pristine parcels of jungle and immaculate white sand beaches. We were looking for something a little more accessible, rugged and slightly less enormous. After a few u-turns and frantic googlemap searching we finally located a dirt track with a hand painted sign pointing to the beach I was looking for. We could have gone to the beach club next door with the loud music and sat with the melee of other tourists and backpackers in their regimental rows of sunbeds but I was determined to find a less commercial ingress to the beach. It still cost $1.50 each extorted from us (I say this tongue in cheek as I have no objection to a little free enterprise) by a young girl sitting in her garden who diligently wrote down our license plate and then lowered the rope across the dirt track to let us pass through the family land until we pulled up at the end of the track, dumped the car in a ditch and emerged onto the most beautiful mainland beach we were to see for the entire vacation – Xpu-Ha. I have to say it was the best $3 we spent in 8 days 🙂
Another beach, another massage cabana, naturally! Poor Geoff endured yet another hour of pummeling with the breeze wafting through his hair, listening to the softly breaking waves whilst I frolicked in them like a child 🙂
Sufficiently rested we headed up to Akumal famous for it’s protected turtles nesting on the shore. Another horrendously touristy enclave with beach bars and chaos and locals trying to sell you guided tours of the waters. We were categorically informed that without a paid guide we would have no hope of finding even a single turtle… hmmm… we took our chances and headed away from the people soup and found 3 turtles within 30 seconds grazing on the grasses as far away as they could get from the noisy families and tour guides 😉
To round off a day of non-stop excitement, we threw in a side-trip to Cristalino Cenote. A cenote is a natural swimming hole in the jungle formed by the collapse of porous limestone bedrock. Many of them have subterranean rivers which you can dive and snorkel. They contain groundwater, tiny freshwater fish which nibble at your toes and they are absolutely brain-numbing freezing! In essence, you are swimming amongst the mangroves and tropical flora in crystal clear water teeming with fish… which felt a lot like swimming in a fish tank.
Back at the ranch, Geoff took it upon himself to teach the bartender how to make Bushwhackers and then plied his offerings to the other hotel guests until no-one could stand upright any longer 😉 The end to a perfect day!
Another day, another overpriced Jeep – this time we headed further south on the mainland to the ancient Mayan ruins of Tulum which has been on my bucket list for a while due to its stunning location on the coast. Despite our ridiculously early morning (6am – which is completely unacceptable on vacation!) we still didn’t manage to avoid the crowds… and by crowds I mean more people than I’ve even seen in my life trolling through the various ruins and sights. It was a miracle we managed to get any photos with as few people in them as we did. Once upon a time it must have been a fantastic place to have discovered and explored – ancient ruins in the jungle against a backdrop of spectacular white sand beaches and electric blue and turquoise waters. Now, the lawns around the ruins are mown flat and there is a constant stream of half naked people heading to the beach under the ruins which ruined the ambience somewhat! Actually, if I’m honest, there really isn’t any ambience – it’s just a hot, sweaty photoshoot opportunity in the jungle with 20,000 other people 😉
Happily, the day trip didn’t end there! I had my heart (and stomach) set on locating Raw Love on Tulum Beach south of the ruins. A vegan cafe, steps from the beach in an eco-resort serving the best carrot cake known to man 🙂 If we ever return to the Mayan Riviera it will be to Tulum Beach. The sandy beach road is lined with beautiful boutique stores with palm leaf roofs, creative and unusual bars, coffee shops and restaurants tucked into the jungle overgrowth. Totally bohemian, half back packer, half luxury eco-resort. We loved it. This is where we should have been hanging out for the week 🙂
I wouldn’t be as complimentary, however, about the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve not 10 minutes drive away. Allegedly a pristine piece of natural real estate – a World Heritage Site renowned for its flora and fauna. The literature promises jaguars, deserted beaches and an escape from the commercial world.
Again, I was aiming for a specific beach – Playa Akun – apparently the pièce de résistance of Mayan Riviera beaches. Our real world experience wasn’t quite up to expectations, however. We tried to pull up at the side of the road (where indicated from my various blog researches) and were moved on by a local selling boat trips under a palm tree opposite. We were directed to a beach club (big mistake) where the sign said we could park for $5. That was fine – after all this beach was the beach to end all beaches 😉 As the owner of the bar sauntered over to us we explained we only wanted to walk on the beach and swim and didn’t want to use his facilities – whereupon the price doubled – an entry fee per person – now $10. Hmm… OK… I told Geoff it would be worth it and the owner spent a good 2 or 3 minutes telling us how gloriously beautiful the beach was and that it was a small price to pay for such beauty… blah… blah… blah… The word “clean” was used relentlessly in both languages so I felt sure all would be well. We grabbed our towels and headed across the dune to be faced with 3 feet deep of rotting seaweed as far as the eye could see liberally strewn with litter – bits of old plastic, bottles, parts of boats, discarded mechanical parts… you name it 😦
Whilst I seethed in the afternoon sun, Geoff thought he’d make the best of it and use one of the beach club sun loungers under a palm tree. I don’t think it was as comfortable as Geoff led me to believe as the base was broken and had a nasty looking list to one side 😉 Frankly, the biosphere and the El Ultimo Mayo Tulum beach bar was an utter disgrace. I went off to rant at the owner at how disgusting his property was (in quite impressively constructed Spanish, if I say so myself !) and even he finally conceded through a toothy grin that the beach was filthy.
Anyway, I could take no more and suggested we try to retrieve the day by speeding all the way back up to Xpu-Ha beach for a final massage and a dip in the briny before we headed home. Thank goodness for Xpu-Ha 🙂