The insider advice on this page is from Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for Mexico: Zachary Rabinor of Journey Mexico.
A guide in Latin America for more than two decades, Zach founded Journey Mexico in 2003. The New York City native lives in Puerto Vallarta and spends about a quarter of the year traveling around Mexico—from its well-known resort locales to its hidden corners—testing out the country’s wide array of hotels, activities, restaurants, and sites. His deep relationships with local guides, communities, and hoteliers often translate into room upgrades, special-access visits, and off-the-beaten-path experiences that travelers wouldn’t know about otherwise. He prides himself on finding new and exciting ways to visit even the most touristy and crowded locales. Zach was also included in Perrin’s People, Wendy’s award-winning list of top travel specialists, which was published annually in Condé Nast Traveler magazine from 2000 to 2013.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
Hotel Esencia is one of the finest boutique hotels on the coast, with relatively uncrowded beaches, as it’s bordered by private homes to the south. Watch for third-night-free promotions, which give you a 33 percent discount over advertised rates. The super-personalized service makes you feel like royalty; you are, after all, staying in the former home of an Italian duchess.
Restaurants the locals love
Coco’s Cabañas, about seven miles north of Playa del Carmen, is owned by a Swiss/Mexican couple (Helmut and Silvia) who serve a mixture of European and Mexican food. They are widely known for their wood-oven pizzas. If you feel adventurous, try the lamb mixiote (lamb wrapped in a banana leaf, marinated, and then cooked in its own juices for hours).
La Cueva del Chango (the Monkey Cave), in Playa del Carmen, is my favorite place for a Mexican breakfast. An air of the natural pervades, from the decor—an open-air dining room in a lush setting—to the ultra-fresh food. I like to start with a lassi (a yogurt-and-fruit smoothie), then a great cappuccino, and finally chilaquiles (a house-made tortilla with chicken, egg, and the delicious chile morita, or smoked jalapeño). It can get crowded on weekends, and the service is slow, but the food is worth the wait.
Tikin xic fish at Restaurant Yaxche. Tikin xic is one of the most traditional methods of food preparation, featuring pre-Hispanic ingredients like chilies, tomatoes, and the local sour orange. The fish is marinated with annatto, then placed on a fresh banana leaf and topped with sliced onions, garlic, chilies, and tomatoes before being baked. It has the juiciest texture I have ever tasted.
What to See and Do
Though it’s slightly outside the Riviera Maya (the boundaries of which are Puerto Morelos and Tulum), the Museo Maya de Cancun is well worth the trip. Designed by Mexican architect Alberto García Lascurain, this modern white building is in startling contrast to its contents: Mayan ceramics, jewelry, carvings, and other artifacts from the state of Quintana Roo (of which Cancun and the Riviera Maya are a part), as well as pieces from the farther corners of that ancient empire—which once stretched to present-day Honduras. Skip the ruins outside; they’re unrestored and pale in comparison to the sites at Tulum and Coba.
Xel-Ha bills itself as a so-called “natural aquarium” for ecotourists to swim around in, but it has nothing to do with the appreciation of nature. All of the coral in the lagoon is dead, and there are virtually no fish; it’s basically now a giant swimming pool stuffed with tourists and surrounded by tacky gift shops, restaurants, and bars.
Take the ferry to Cozumel on a day when no cruise ships are in port (have your concierge call the “Capitania de Puerto” to check: 52-987-872-2409). The boat trip—about $15 for adults, $10 for kids—gives you incredible views of the coast, the Caribbean, and the reefs around Cozumel. Once ashore, head to Pescadería San Carlos for some tasty ceviche.
Walk among the archeological sites at Tulum or Coba—both once-great cities of the Mayan empire—before they are open to the public, with a professional archaeologist as your guide to help explain your surroundings. The huge numbers of visitors who flock to these famous ruins during opening hours really detract from the experience; being there without anyone else—including pushy hawkers and even the site’s staff—allows you to imagine these mystical places as they were when inhabited by the Maya.
Take a cab to the beach club at Maroma Paradise (15 minutes from downtown Playa del Carmen), and pay the 100-peso (approximately $7.50) entrance fee for access to one of the best beaches in the Riviera Maya. Though the place can get busy with activities (everything from snorkeling to camel safaris) during the week, it’s calmer and makes for a good spot to chill out on weekends.
Starting a week from Easter Sunday through April, and from November to mid-December: Rates are low throughout the Riviera Maya, resorts not too crowded, and the weather is pleasant (mid to high 80s) with no rain.
Avoid summer for a number of reasons: It’s very hot, crowded with families, and there is always the chance of a hurricane. Hotel rates are highest during Christmas, Easter, President’s Day week, and spring break.
Mexican Vanilla, available both in extracts and whole beans, is among the best in the world. My favorite brand is Usumacinta, which you can buy at Hacienda Tequila Playa del Carmen on Fifth Avenue between streets 14 and 16. (The shop also stocks tequila, should you wish to bring that back too.)
Watch out for dishonest gas station attendants. Even though the stations are full-service, stand by the pump while the attendant fills your tank. Make sure the meter is zeroed before he starts pumping. Don’t pull out your pesos until the gas has been pumped, so that the attendant can’t see what denominations you have. When the attendant is finished, check the meter and pull out the appropriate amount. Hold it up, making sure the attendant knows that you know what bills you are holding. The typical scam is that the attendant takes a 200-peso bill from you, palms it, and comes up with a 20-peso bill, then claims you made a mistake. Same thing with a 500-peso bill switched for a 50. Be on guard, as there are variations; this can also happen in restaurants or small shops.
Tips are supplemental income to the low wages most workers earn. It is customary to tip anybody who provides you with a service, right down to the kid who packs your groceries. Bring one-dollar bills and use them for tips during your stay; percentages are in line with what you’d tip in the U.S.
Aqua socks or water shoes for rocky beaches and snorkeling.