The Ancient Mayan culture, Caribbean sea, tropical fruit, delicious taquerias and lush landscapes, who wouldn't love the Maya Riviera? Located on the Yucatán peninsula in the state of Quintana Roo, this area of Mexico has experienced tremendous growth and popularity in recent years. Cancun has been a spring break destination for many years but Playa del Carmen and especially Tulum are two of the fastest growing places in Mexico.
I'd never been to Mexico before last year. Call me crazy but it might have been because I didn't grow up in the Mainland U.S. and most of my summers were spent in Japan and winters were in Hawaii so there was never a draw to go there. Even though I made friends in college from Mexico, it still didn't strike a fancy. Fast forward about a decade when my friend and I were deciding on what to do for our birthdays. Our birthdays are five days apart and because they're in February we decided we wanted to go somewhere warm. She'd already been to to parts of South America and although she'd spent an extensive amount of time during her childhood in Mexico, she'd never been to the Caribbean side. Hence, we came up with the ultimate birthday trip: Mexico and Cuba. I never remember how these ideas come up but I love travel so I was on board. Mexico seemed logical since it was close for her, our other friend and even me. Cuba was totally out of the blue for me. I don't think I'd thought of Cuba until I met a Cuban-American. I mean sure, I knew of Cuban cigars, the embargo and Fidel Castro, but to travel there, never once crossed my mind.
Anyway, we started to plan this birthday trip in the fall on 2015. We set our sights on where to go and started saving accordingly. At the end of January of last year we all flew separately to Cancun. My one friend flew from Albuquerque on the same day and we stayed one night in Cancun. When I arrived at the airport after just experiencing a massive snowstorm (Jonah anyone?) in NYC, an ineffective heating system at work, I was ready for the tropics. The balmy breeze, cold cervezas and Mexican food were a wonderful welcome. It was just about a four hour flight from NYC to Cancun direct. Four hours?! That's closer than LA or San Francisco! Anyway, that entire fall and winter, I worked hard to improve my Spanish. I would watch Telemundo and listen to Latin Pop/Bachata/Reggaeton a lot. Given that most of the people I spoke Spanish with were Mexicans, it seems fitting that my Spanish accent would also because quite Mexican. Their slang is too catchy, trust me. I probably wasn't learning the most ladylike Spanish but given that I had learned French in college and spoke Japanese, I had no basis for Spanish. Even the words I'd known when I visited my father in Colorado were learned from a Mexican man. I mean, I'd been to Barcelona and Ibiza but for a few days total so there was no way that would stick.
So we check into our hotel in the hotel zone of Cancun. Yes, the same area that goes crazy every year in March for spring breakers. The hotel was quite modern and flashy but close to the water. It was really an easy area to get to the airport by taxi. The first dinner was at this waterfront restaurant serving fresh seafood, cold beer and tequila. We had grilled shrimp and a nice steak, a sort of surf-and-turf, plus some cocktails. Fantastic dinner! I mean, what a way to start of our trip. If every meal was going to be this delicious (definitely not this fancy), then I was over the moon!
The next morning we went to Isla Mujeres. A little island off the coast of Cancun, it means 'Island of Women' and it's easily reachable by ferry. We had some breakfast while we waited for the ferry. I had enchiladas rojas and a massive horchata (rice milk with cinnamon). Isla Mujeres was a lot of fun. We rented bicycles and go to bike around most of the island. At certain points it was extremely windy which was difficult but it was such fun. We grabbed beers at a little rental house owned by a woman from Texas full of visitors from all over. Everything was colorful and cutely painted.
Once we were back in Cancun we went to get our friend from the airport. There was a little (or big depending on who you ask) situation that happened when we were trying to leave the airport but we managed to get back a different way but much later than planned and therefore very hungry. We had dinner at a nearby Mexican taqueria and then got to bed early as we had a long day ahead.
The next day we had to help our friend take care of an important matter. Her passport was about to expire and she didn't realize this till she was on her way to get to the airport to come to Cancun. We managed to get an appointment at the extension of the American embassy in Cancun and we had to zip about to get photos etc... Once it was all said I looked up some restaurants and found one in a nearby hotel. This dinner was nicer than the night before but we were all together and that was cause for celebration. We ordered some white wine and enjoyed a relaxed and tasty dinner.
The following morning we got a taxi to take us to Tulum. About an hour and half way from Cancun, this was once a little town off the side of the highway, a pit stop for hippies, was now the hot spot for celebrities, yogis, beach lovers and Americans. We stayed at a hotel near the Tulum Ruins on the north part of the beach road. I chose it because it had direct access to the beach, reasonable as well as being close to the ruins. We got settled into our room and then headed straight to the beach. We ate a late lunch on the beach at a restaurant run by a nearby hotel. We had guacamole and smoked marlin tacos which were incredible. We had beer and tequila while we basked in the afternoon sun.
That night we met up with another friend of mine from New York City. He was staying in town and was at the beginning of his travels around Central America and the Caribbean. I find it delightful to meet up with friends in other countries and cities than that of the one you live in. I feel as if it creates a deeper bond because of the time you spend together, inside jokes you have and the memories you make. Anyhow, that evening we walked around Tulum pueblo (town). We found an Argentine parilla restaurant but since we'd already had dinner we got drinks at the bar. A DJ was spinning some tunes and we got acquainted with the cool and friendly bartender. She made us some mezcal and tequila based cocktails. I had what they called a "rojito", tequila with jamaica (hibiscus) juice. My second cocktail with was tequila and passionfruit. I love passionfruit in almost any form but nothing says tropics quite like passion fruit. The bartender had all this fresh fruit along with jicama to cut and use to garnish cocktails. I was reminded of a snack in Hawaii of pineapple and powdered li hing mui (salty and dried plum) and she made something that was similar with pieces of jicama, hibiscus flowers and a hint of chili powder. I loved it! Many restaurants in Tulum are open-air and this was among the nicer, more airy spaces with a high, tin roof ceiling and open decor. The floor was gravel so it's hard to know you're in the middle of town but that's the appeal.
The next morning we spent some time on the beach. For lunch we ate at a family run restaurant known for its seafood. Some items sell out by noon so we were told to get there early. We ate ceviche, fish and of course chips and guacamole. We also enjoyed a couple cold cervezas on the warm day.
In the afternoon, once our friend had finished her important errand in Cancun, we visited the nearby Mayan ruins which over look the ocean. It was probably the hottest moment of the trip but the view of the ocean was breathtaking and to be amongst ancient ruins was incredible. We were planning to go on a little boat/snorkeling trip from the beach but we missed our departure time and were rebooked for the following morning.
That evening we had dinner at what I think is one of the best restaurants in Tulum. Cenzotle Jardin Secreto. Note- we actually tried to go to Hartwood (twice) but it was full. Cenzotle has a wonderful ambience with mixed and matched furniture and it's definitely like being in someone's garden. The Argentine chef prepares vibrant, delicate yet full flavored dishes with local and fresh ingredients. We ordered a cocktails named after French and American actresses of the 50s and 60s and share a few appetizers. The biggest hit was our entree of fresh fish, a mixed pepper and cilantro sauce topped with puffed quinoa. We enjoyed it so much that we ordered a second.
The following day we got to the beach and we got on a fairly small diving boat. The two men running the boat were two young, very tan men. They took us off the coast about 20 minutes until we anchored and snorkeled around for awhile. Caribbean fish, eel and sea urchin. I had fun but as is always the case with snorkeling (which I never use fins for) I retire early because other than surfing and swimming, I prefer to be on the boat. The view of the ruins from the ocean were amazing too.
The following day we visited a nearby cenote. Cenotes are collapsed sinkholes that expose groundwater. The Yucatán peninsula has thousands of them. They are especially refreshing when its hot out. You pay an entrance free and you can hang out for a couple hours or the whole day. There are so many cenotes to choose from but ultimately we choose one that was easy to get to. The Gran Cenote is about a 15 minute taxi ride from our hotel. While the Caribbean ocean is basically unmatched in terms of temperature and beauty, I've always liked fresh water since it's usually cooler and you don't have to worry about the salt. I highly recommend you visit at least one during your stay in the Maya Riviera!
For our last meal in Tulum, we went back to Cenzotle. It's just that incredible, honestly. This time we had a spinach salad, octopus ceviche appetizer and our entree was a steak with such exquisite presentation.
There is so much to write about Maya Riviera especially since I return to NYC and decide to move to Tulum for a couple months to explore the food even more. Next I'll tell you about my first trip to Cuba which a focus on Havana. Stay tuned!
Have you been to Maya Riviera before? What did you like most? Where did you eat?