Mexico has long been on my travel list, famed for its nonstop nightlife, breath-taking sunrises and exquisite vibe. The magnetic town of Playa del Carmen had us mesmerized as soon as we entered. The crowded town eats, drinks and party’s until the wee hours of the morning and then it is business as usual when the sun comes up… beach, food and shopping on the famous 5th avenue.
But before I get carried away, let’s start at the beginning ; let me provide you with some useful travel tips.
The local currency is the Mexico Peso (MEX), however US Dollars are also accepted. The sign for the Dollar and Peso can be very confusing as both use the $ sign, so always ask if you are not sure. I do not recommend payment in US Dollars as you will attract a lower conversion rate; rather change your forex funds to the local currency. Money exchanges are located just outside the airport but the conversion rate is very low; I found the best rate in town. It’s not hard to find a money exchange in town, they are around almost every corner.
R1 = $1.6 (exchange rate: January 2016)
How to get there
Unfortunately, there are no direct flight to Mexico from South Africa. You will have to fly via Sao Paulo, New York, Paris… you get the idea. Don’t be disheartened, this is actually a great way to get to see other cities en route, albeit an aerial view or the airport lounge. I love flying via New York, it’s my favourite city for shopping. A ticket to New York will set you back R 11 000 – R 15 000 depending on whether you travel in season or out season. From New York, daily flights are available to Cancun on American Airlines, Southwest and Delta. Expect to pay about MEX 5 000 per person return.
Where to stay
There is an abundance of accommodation to suit every budget. I would recommend that you stay as close to 1st street (1 Avenida Nte) as possible, however do take heed of the loud music played until the early hours of the morning. If peace and quiet is what you are after, then I recommend rather staying in Cancun in Play del Carmen. Many of the hotels provide an all-inclusive rate (this includes room, breakfast, lunch and dinner) but if you have the option to pay for specific services only I would suggest specifying a booking on a room only basis. You would be spoiled for choice sampling fresh street food; see vendors in action as they prepare the most scrumptious and mouthwatering Mexican dishes on every street corner.
Choosing a mode of transport is highly dependent on the activities you want to engage in. If you choose to mostly relax on the beach and just see 1 or 2 sights, then I would recommend using the tours offered by the hotel or hiring a taxi, although this could be very expensive. Another option to consider is using the local public transport bus system. However, should you wish to explore the sights at your own pace then I would recommend hiring a car.
Now before you start to get all stressed out about not having mastered your Spanish yet, let me ease your mind by telling you that hiring a car in Mexico is relatively simple. We managed to communicate quite adequately, despite my Spanish being extremely basic and the sales man not being able to understand a word of English.
There are several ways to organize car hire: pre book, ask the hotel to make the arrangements on your behalf or simply just walk into one of several car rental companies in the area. Just some tips to remember when hiring a car:
• Credit cards are not compulsory but you will have to pay a refundable deposit of $500 (USD) or the equivalent in pesos. I have also heard that some places may ask for double or triple that amount.
• Third party Liability Insurance is mandatory.
• Ownership of an international drivers licence is not compulsory; all you need is a valid driver’s licence.
• Most petrol stations do not accept credit cards so ensure that you have cash readily available.
Where to eat
Where do I begin… Firstly let me say that Mexican cuisine is tantalising to the taste buds! Maybe it’s because I love spicy food, my taste buds thoroughly enjoyed every meal. Food is relatively cheap and on par with the South African standard and pricing.
Here are some recommendations of places that serve delectable meals, all within walking distance of 1 Avenida or the famous 5th Ave:
$$$ La No. 20 Cantina is an upscale restaurant and bar, with stunning decor. It is strategically situated on the second floor of Calle Corazon plaza, overlooking 5th Ave.
$$$Sonora Grill is a popular steakhouse. Indulge in a rib eye, fillet or lobster paired with some Malbec.
$$ Wah Wah Beach Bar can be found between Juarez Avenue and Second street (Calle 2 Nte.), right on the doorstep of the beach. Live music, scrumptious food, affordable drinks and an ocean view to compliment your perfect meal
$$$ – Above MEX 350$$ – Between MEX 100 – 350$ – Below MEX 100
What to do
The sun, sand, beach and party life is all consuming of your time. I must admit it that for the most part exploring the many sights Mexico has to offer makes it a worthy and notable holiday. There’s far more to do then just frequent restaurants, take retail therapy to a whole new level, drink and dance. Let me take you through my list of things to do in Playa del Carmen:
This is a list topper. Never in my life have I experienced such an exhilarating thrill of relaxing in a cool temperatured cenote after a day of adventuring in the ruins. Cenotes are a range of sinkholes and caves in which one can swim, snorkel and dive. There are over 7000 cenotes in the Yucantan Peninsula. You don’t need to swim to enjoy the cenote, just pop on a life jacket and enjoy. Most places provide lockers (MEX 20 -30), snorkel gear (MEX 15-25), life jackets (MEX 35- 45) and towels (MEX 10-20) for a small fee.
My top 3 cenotes are:
IK KIL: This venue is on the way to Chichen itza; a visit to these cenotes form part of most tours. This historical site is a must-see, even though you only get 10 minutes to enjoy the cenote. Rather take a taxi or hire a car and enjoy an hour or two at the cenotes. Entrance is MEX 70.
Gran Cenote: This can be found between Coba and Tulum. Again it would be better to hire a car or get a taxi to drop you off. The bat infested cave makes a visit to this cenote extremely interesting. Entrance MEX 120.
Azul: This cenote can be accessed via public transport. Board the bus at Calle 2 Norte between Avenida 15 and 20. Entrance MEX 100.
2. Ancient Mayan archaeological sites
Mexico is renowned for some of the most magnificent ancient archaeological sites. Ever dreamt of exploring archaeological sites like the movie character Indiana Jones? Well, now’s your chance. There are over 150 accessible sites in Mexico, so feel free to roam about and indulge in an adventure or two when visiting the ruins. From Playa del Carmen, the sites below are easily accessible and even if you aren’t a fan of history you will still find plenty of beauty hidden in these ancient archaeological gems.
1. Chichen Itza – although it’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Playa del Carmen, it is worth each and every minute. It is one of the 7 wonders of the New World and known as the focal point of the Mya civilisation.
2. Tulum – widely accepted as the last inhabited city of the Maya. Located on the Caribbean coast this magnificent splendour will enthral you with breath-taking sea views. Take your bathing costume along to enjoy the very beautiful, blue and intimate beach located just below the ruins.
3. Coba is not a well-known tourist destination due to its remote location and the fact that some of its sites still remain hidden amidst trees and sand, waiting to be excavated. But unlike Chichen Itza and Tulum these ruins can actually be climbed. Climbing 120 steep stone steps is what it takes for you to get to the top of the largest pyramid in the complex.
3. Adventure Parks
There are a number of Eco parks within a 20km radius of Playa del Carmen. These private parks include some smaller archaeological ruins, forming part of the attractions; they are pricey and attract larger crowds due to the diverse range of actives offered. Activities include swimming with dolphins, zip lines, diving, snorkelling and much more. If you are interested in these type of activities, Xcaret or Xel-Ha are the way to go.
We opted to visit a more natural authentic type park called Rio Secreto; it is the longest semi sunken cave system in the Yucatan Peninsula. We had tons of fun walking, swimming and floating in the alluring turquoise waters and learned about the stalactite and stalagmite formations. We paid 79 USD each, which included hiring wet suits, life jackets and water shoes (if you haven’t carried your own gear, I always carry my own), the guide and a personalised photographer. No cameras are allowed. You may order photos, although this will cost you almost as much as the ticket itself.
What to buy
Try not to leave without buying:
• Tequila, whether is chocolate, vanilla or hazelnut, any type of tequila can be found here. Don’t leave without purchasing a bottle or at least doing some tequila tastings.
• Clothing and jewellery –wander around the famous 5th Avenue where you will find everything from designer stores to flea market type stalls, catering for every budget.