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Planning a short trip to Mexico: The Yucatán Peninsula

May 19, 2023 2 Comments

Mexico is a beautiful and diverse country rich in history, natural beauty, and culture. Between its stunning beaches and bustling cities, it’s no wonder why Mexico is the 7th most visited country in the world. While the beaches of the Yucatan Peninsula and the Pacific coast are definitely the country’s biggest draws, there’s a lot more to know about Mexico beyond the resorts. I’ve always puzzled why so many people keep traveling to Mexico. The closeness to the USA, the food, the beautiful environment, and the affordable costs must have a role. But it’s really everything! Mexico will have a hypnotic effect on you, making you want to explore Mayan ruins one minute and lounge on the golden sand the next. 

I think a short trip to Mexico is an excellent starting point for a longer trip around Central America but it can also work well for a short getaway from North America. The diversity of experiences that it has to offer makes it perfect for any duration of stay. Something to note is that Mexico is HUGE. So you will need to make a decision about which region or area you want to spend most of your time in unless you have months to spend in Mexico. 

In this post I will outline details of where I stayed, what I did and what everything costs as of December 2022 on my short trip to Mexico. 

FIRST IT’S TIME FOR A BRIEF PPG (PANDA’S PROGRESSIVE GEOGRAPHY) LESSON!

The great civilizations the Olmec, Maya, Zapotec, and Aztec all originated in Mexico. These civilizations thrived for more than 3000 years before the arrival of the Europeans. 

Between 1400 and 400 BC, the Olmec civilization flourished, and then the Maya culture took off. The Maya erected numerous enormous temples and pyramids. The last great civilization before the arrival of the Spanish was the Aztec Empire. They took control in 1325 and remained in charge until 1521. 

Hernan Cortes, a conquistador from Spain, defeated the Aztecs in 1521, converting Mexico into a Spanish colony. Smallpox and other diseases that the Spanish brought with them led to illness among the Aztec people. Additionally, Tenochtilán, the Aztec capital, was taken by the Spaniards and destroyed. Up until the early 1800s, Spain governed the country for 300 years. Local Mexicans rose up in rebellion at that time against Spanish control. Father Miguel Hidalgo’s renowned shout of “Viva Mexico” served as the declaration of Mexico’s independence. Mexico overthrew the Spanish in 1821 and achieved complete independence.

Mexico’s official language is Spanish and their currency is the Mexican Peso. Mexico and the United States are divided by a 3,169 km long border in the north. Along with Guatemala and Belize, Mexico also has maritime borders with Cuba and Honduras.

[Source]

When should I visit?

Between December and April, when there is essentially no rain, is the best time of year for a short trip to Mexico.  The coolest months are between December and February, however during the dry season, average temperatures can still reach 28°C. In the south, the wet season starts in May and lasts through October.

What to do about money?

The local currency is Mexican Pesos. However, US dollars are also accepted as currency in SOME places. Card payments were widely accepted in most places with the exception of the cenotes.  

Visa information for a short trip to Mexico

South Africans require a visa for a short trip to Mexico. . However, I did not apply for one. Instead I entered Mexico with my valid USA visa. It makes the most sense to have a valid US visa as you will most likely need to transit in the USA. Note that weak passports can use the following visas to enter Mexico:

a) Valid multiple entry visa from Canada, the United States of America, Japan, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or a Schengen visa.

b) A document certifying permanent residence in Canada, USA, Japan, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, any of the countries of the Schengen Area or member countries of the Pacific Alliance.

How to get around Mexico?

I found getting around different cities in Mexico relatively easy by using the ADO Bus. I used the website to check the bus schedules and then bought the bus tickets on my day of travel. 

Uber was non-existent in the areas that I visited. Taking a taxi in Cancun and Tulum is RIDICULOUSLY expensive so please try to rent a car if you’re in these areas!

Bacalar- which was my favourite area- had far more reasonable prices for taxis, but they’re not easily available. Try to keep a taxi driver’s number on hand; you can use Whatsapp to communicate with them (and Google Translate if needed). 

Accommodation 

We stayed at two places on our short trip to Mexico that I would recommend:

XscapeTulum

A small boutique hotel located in a tucked away street on Tulum. There’s parking available and it’s within walking distance of the main strip (with restaurants and shops). The service and food were good!

Royal Palm Bacalar Cabañas & Lagoon Club

I was a bit skeptical when we pulled up to this property but it actually exceeded my expectations. A locally owned family establishment, a 7 minute walk from the lagoon where you can borrow kayaks for free. The family can help you organize any activities you want to do or point you to the nearest restaurant. 

Did you feel safe on your short trip to Mexico?

I think the parts of Mexico that I visited were incredibly safe and solo female travellers would not have an issue with safety as long as you keep your wits about you. 

DAY BY DAY ITINERARY

This is the route we followed for our short trip to Mexico, starting in Cancun and ending in Chetumal (where we boarded a boat to Belize). 

Day 1 

Stop 1: Arrival in Cancun

Most international flights land in Cancun, Mexico so it serves as an excellent starting point for your trip around the Yucatan Peninsula. 

It was a very smooth entry into Mexico with my US visa and once outside, we walked to the Hilton Cancun airport hotel (as we landed late at night). The hotel was perfect for one night to shower and rest after a long flight. 

Day 2 

Stop 1: Breakfast at El Huerto del Edén

For our first meal in Mexico, we heade to El Huerto del Eden in Downtown Cancun. It has a pretty plant-filled patio where we enjoyed a Mexican breakfast. They do have an English menu but we were the only non Mexicans visiting as far as I could tell. If you’re going on a weekend, try to get there before 11am which is when the huge families start arriving. The food is delicious!

Stop 2: Buying bus tickets and travelling to Tulum

After breakfast we collected our suitcases from our hotel and made our way back to the airport. We bought tickets for a bus to Tulum and only had to wait a little while before one arrived. You can check the bus schedules on the Ado Bus website

Stop 3: Collect rental car

Once we landed in Tulum, we found a taxi outside the bus terminal and made our way to our hotel. In the afternoon, we went to collect our rental car. I will not recommend the rental company we used as their quality of service was subpar. However there are very few rental companies in Tulum so try to book as soon as you can. If you don’t drive, transport will be your biggest cost as it’s quite expensive to taxi everywhere. For a more comprehensive post on renting a car in Mexico, here is the blog post that helped me. Pay attention to the parts about insurance!

Stop 4: Dinner at Los Aguachiles

Simple yet delicious flavors at this unassuming eatery recommend to me by a Mexican friend. You won’t be disappointed eating here and its very budget friendly!

Note: Depending on where you’re flying from and what time you arrive into Cancun and Tulum, your timeline might be different. However, for me, because I flew 16+ hours from Qatar to Cancun, I needed to take the first 2 days to recover and adjust to time zone differences and jet lag. Day 3 was when my itinerary really got going!

Day 3

Stop 1: Drive to Chichen Itza

My advice here is to leave as early as possible to beat the crowds at Chichén-Itzá. It’s around a 2 hour drive and the roads are well marked and well maintained. I wrote an entire blog post about this so do refer to it for more details on how to make the best out of your day trip to Chichén-Itzá

Stop 2: Swimming at Ik Kil Cenote 

Cenote Ik-Kil is one of the most popular cenotes  in the Yucatan Peninsula and Instagram has helped it get more notoriety. Its emerald waters, which are encircled by luxuriant foliage and vines that dangle downward from its walls, speak for themselves. If you only have time to visit one cenote in Mexico, make it Cenote Ik-Kil since it is so close to the nearby tourist attraction of Chichen Itza. For more details, I will refer you to my blog post on how to make the best out of your day trip to Chichén-Itzá. 

Stop 3: Enjoy brunch at IX CAT IK

Ix Cat Ik Mayan Cuisine is a special location where you can learn about the Mayan cuisine basics and sample some traditional Mayan foods. It’s a straightforward establishment that focuses on employing local staff, using traditional Mayan products and cooking techniques; it’s one of the best meals I ate in Mexico!

Stop 4: Swimming at Oxman Cenote

In contrast to some other cenotes, Oxman is situated within a hacienda (Hacienda San Lorenzo Oxman). What was once an agave (henequén) plantation is now a spot to spend the afternoon, enjoy the sunshine, get some food, and go swimming in a cenote.

The property’s outstanding feature is that Valladolid is only 10 minutes away, so if you are staying there or returning from Chichen Itza  you can easily add Cenote Oxman to your itinerary. All the details are in my blog post about tips and ticks to visiting Chichen Itza!

After a long day out, try to make it back to Tulum before the sun sets completely. 

Day 4 

Today we headed to Akumal Beach, around 25 minutes away from Tulum. Akumal Beach is where the turtles can be spotted, and is located at Akumal Bay. Akumal means “Place of the Turtle” in Mayan.

Stop 1: Breakfast at Lol Ha 

We started our day with a delicious breakfast at Lol Ha  which is the most established restaurant in Akumal. Lol Ha is located directly on the beach on Akumal Bay and has a very casual outdoor Palapa Bar and Restaurant that is open year round. The service is excellent, food is delicious and the views are fantastic. If you eat at Lol Ha, you gain access to their parking for free!

Stop 2: Swim with turtles at Akumal Bay

Just a few steps away from Lol Ha is Akumal Beach, where one can swim near turtles. There’s a lot of different information out there regarding this activity so here is what we did- we brought our own snorkel masks and paid 20 USD each for a guide and the use of a life jacket (the water is shallow but you don’t want to put your feet down as you risk hurting the turtles and destroying the seagrass). The private guide was 100% worth it as he knew exactly where the turtles would be and he even pulled us along for a bit when the current threatened to sweep us away. He also explained a lot of facts to us about the turtles.

It’s not necessary to book this in advance- in fact if you see this tour online or at hotels, it can cost around 50-70USD! All you need to do is show up on Akumal beach and you’ll find enough official guides that you can hire. Click on my Instagram video below which shows just how you close you can get to them without harming or touching them of course:

Stop 3: Visit Gran Cenote

Twenty minutes’ drive inland from Tulum, on the way to Coba, is where you’ll find Gran Cenote. As the name suggests, this is a sizable cenote that is surrounded by lush jungle vegetation. The caves that can be accessed from the cenote are among its attractions. And by accessible, I mean that you can get to the majority of them without diving or scuba diving. You can discover underwater stalagmites, stalactites as well as turtles and fish in Gran Cenote. 

A top tip for Gran Cenote is to go in the later afternoon (it wasn’t too busy). Once you’ve paid the 150 pesos entry fee you’ll see some showers (you need to shower before entering the cenote) and next to them, a staircase leading to the cenote. Don’t use this one; instead, look for the furthest staircase around 50m away and go there first. This is the quieter part of the cenote which most people easily overlook. It’s perfect for taking photos. 

Stop 5: Dinner at Crazy Shrimp Tulum

A new restaurant in Tulum but one with a great vibe and delicious food. Its more of a party atmosphere than a romantic dinner but the place is good, service is attentive and the food was delicious.

Day 5

Stop 1: Art & shopping in Tulum City Centre 

The Tulum street art culture was ignited in 2014 by an urban art project started by a local business owner. Tulum is covered in murals in countless styles by local and international artists. It’s 100% worth walking around the town centre in the early morning to discover and admire the local art scene.

You can’t miss the art if you drive/walk around the city centre! You might want to also use this opportunity to purchase a few small souvenirs. The prices in Tulum aren’t the cheapest so if you are travelling elsewhere, you might want to hold on.

Stop 2: Breakfast at Xscape Tulum

Despite staying at this hotel for the entire time of our stay in Tulum, we only ate at the restaurant once. Thankfully we were not disappointed! 

Stop 3: Return rental car and get bus from Tulum to Bacalar

We returned the rental car and headed to the bus station to get our tickets and wait for the bus to Bacalar. The bus terminal is open air and thus, is quite hot so be prepared for that! The drive to Bacalar was around 3 hours. 

At the point where the Ado Bus drops you off in Bacalar, there will be a lot of taxis waiting. It’s advisable to take the number of one that you like in case you need to get around Bacalar.

I can recommend the lady we used- Oralia (+5219838338958). I just whatsapped her when we needed to get around and she would show up on time with a smile. Her prices were extremely reasonable. 

Day 6

Stop 1: Rest and Relax at Lake Bacalar

The reason to come to Bacalar was because nearly every Mexican I spoke to said it was their favourite spot in the Quintana Roo region. 

Some reports claim that the Maya people believed that this location was where heaven originated. And honestly it’s not hard to see why that! The Lagoon of the Seven Colors, or La Laguna de los Siete Colores in Spanish, is the name given to this freshwater lake that shimmers with a variety of colors. The lake’s water ranges in hue from emerald to turquoise to light blue. The variances in the lagoon’s depth have an impact on the variety in water colour.

We used our time here to swim, relax and rest. People looking for nightlife and a party atmosphere might find themselves disappointed in Bacalar which is quiet and peaceful. 

Stop 2: Sunset Boat Ride 

A sunset boat ride on the lagoon is a lovely opportunity to unwind and take in the breathtaking surroundings. Because of the limestone rocks, the water is clear and the bottom is white. A typical boat excursion involves a trip through mangrove woods and a stop at canals that were formerly frequented by pirates centuries ago. Additionally, swimming, snorkeling, and bird watching are options. It is not feasible to rent a boat or catamaran on your own; the hotel you stay at can easily organize this for you. It would be a shame not to enjoy these breathtaking views at sunset, while visiting Bacalar. 

Price: 20USD per person

Day 7

Stop 1: Taxi to Chetumal

We got up early on our last day in Mexico and headed off to Chetumal port with our pre-arranged taxi driver. It was a 25 minute drive from our hotel.

Stop 2: Take boat to Belize

We checked in for our boat ride to Belize; handed over our luggage and were stamped out of Mexico. I was NOT asked to pay an exit tax even though I had read that some people have to when exiting Mexico. Passport control was very smooth! 

A short trip to Mexico has something for everyone with its sunny beaches, lush jungles, mystical cenotes, and vibrant towns. I honestly felt sad to leave and I wished I had more time to explore. But I think no amount of time in Mexico would ever be enough! If you’re going to visit, get ready to eat your weight in tacos, swim to your heart’s content and make memories that will undoubtedly last a lifetime!

My other Latin American blog posts are here:

Take a trip to El Salvador: A Hidden Gem

Planning a 7 day trip to Guatemala

A Short and Sweet Itinerary for Belize

If you want more detailed information, you can find me on Instagram and check out my Mexico highlight. If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to pin it using the pin below:

Have you visited Mexico before? Or have I inspired you to take a short trip to Mexico? Let me know in the comments below!

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2 Comments

  • Pree May 24, 2023 at 1:07 am

    Will need to refer to this post for the day I visit Mexico! Such a wealth of knowledge as usual 😉

  • habari September 27, 2023 at 8:15 am

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