The insider advice on this page is from Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for Mexico: Zachary Rabinor and Brady Binstadt of Journey Mexico.
Mexico is filled with secret white-sand beaches, charming boutique hotels, award-winning cuisine (and cocktails), delightful colonial towns, world-class cultural opportunities, and much more that most travelers don’t seem to realize is there. An elite guide in Mexico for more than two decades, Zach learned everything about what sophisticated travelers really want there but can’t easily find, then founded his own travel firm to deliver exactly that. With offices in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico City, and Cancun, Zach and trusted deputy Brady Binstadt keep up-to-the-minute on the country’s dramatic array of coastlines, resorts (including intimate all-inclusives and historic haciendas), rental villas, wildlife reserves, ancient monuments, inventive kitchens, and thrilling activities (Zach’s a big surfer). Their deep relationships with local hoteliers, communities, and fixers of all kinds translate into room upgrades, special-access visits, and off-the-beaten-path experiences that travelers wouldn’t know about otherwise. Zach and Brady pride themselves on finding exciting new ways to visit even the most overtouristed locales and sneaking a bit of cultural appreciation into family-friendly beach getaways (both have well-traveled young kids).
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
Originally built as a private residence for European royalty, Hotel Esencia has been transformed through the passion and significant investment of owner Kevin Wendle, who acquired the estate in 2014. All 39 rooms and suites (along with two exquisite private villas) are steps from the fine white-sand beach and inviting Caribbean Sea, several enjoying views of the turquoise sea. The dining options mirror the laid-back, intimate, yet ultra-high quality of resort; be sure to visit Mistura—a beautiful open-air, beachfront restaurant under a magnificent thatched palapa—for their signature dish of Ostras de Ensenada.
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’s Cave), in Playa del Carmen, is my favorite place for a Mexican breakfast. A natural vibe pervades the locale, from the decor—an open-air dining room in a lush setting—to the ultra-fresh food. 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.
Las Hijas de la Tostada receives rave reviews for its fresh approach to the tostada, a classic Mexican dish. Arrive early for lunch, as the best seats get taken quickly by regulars. If you are fortunate, you can get a spot at the bar to watch as the expert crew bustles around the restaurant, making you feel welcome with their warm service and house recommendations. While they mainly serve tostadas (they do a have a few other dishes, such as a tuna burger and fish and chips), the menu is large and creative, and will leave you wanting to return time and again to try it all.
One of my favorites is the Camarón Roca: breaded and fried shrimp topped with red cabbage, black sesame seeds, and a chipotle mayo sauce. Almirante Pech, at 5th Ave and Calle 30, is the place for trendy locals and visitors seeking Mexican food with a fusion of international flavors and aromas. Favorites include beets with goat cheese and roasted ceviche appetizers, gourmet Yucatan panuchos, barbecued lamb, grilled fish with lentils, and slow-roasted pork. The amply stocked bar includes a sophisticated selection of tequilas, mezcals, and wines.
The Tikin xic-style fish at Yaxche Mayan Cuisine restaurant. Tikin xic-style fish is a traditional pre-Columbian recipe featuring staple Mexican ingredients such as chilies, garlic, purple onion, tomatoes, and local sour orange juice. The base is a piece of fresh, local fish that has been marinated in annatto (a colorful orange-red seed) and wrapped in a green banana leaf before being slow cooked.
What to See and Do
Every June to September, whale sharks gather in the warm, clear Caribbean waters off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. This is your chance to swim with these gentle giants, the largest fish in the sea—guaranteed to be a highlight of your trip.
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, 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.
Take a trip to the bohemian town of Puerto Morelos. Free of the pumping club music, loud crowds, and party atmosphere common at many of the region’s beach scenes, Puerto Morelos offers a more relaxed, laid-back atmosphere where you can still listen to the sounds of waves and wind in the palm trees. Visit Unico Beach Club to enjoy food and drinks with your feet in the white sand. There is no minimum consumption charge; you just pay for the things you order from the varied menu of salads, ceviche, sandwiches, tacos, burritos, seafood, and more, along with excellent cocktails and fresh fruit juices—and, of course, cold cervezas.
Skip the manmade theme parks in the region and explore the natural beauty that is everywhere in the Rivera Maya. Snorkel in a secluded cove, or hike into the jungle to a hidden cenote. While the area is busy, you can get off the beaten path with a little bit of creativity and insider information.
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, or hire a local operator to take you snorkeling or scuba diving on the world-class reefs.
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 $5) 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 a bit calmer on weekends, particularly Sundays.
If you are after a meal, try the Mercadito Restaurant, known for its Caribbean lobster and fresh fish. Bring along a healthy helping of patience with your appetite, as the service is as laid-back as the food is delicious—but worth the wait!
Starting a week after Easter Sunday through June, and then late October up until the Thanksgiving week: Rates are low throughout the Riviera Maya, resorts not too crowded, and the weather is pleasant (mid to high 80s) with little 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.