You’re familiar with it. That glorious slice of land where the Yucatan Peninsula meets the Caribbean Sea. The iridescent turquoise water lapping onto the white-sand, palm-lined beaches. Mexico’s Caribbean coast…the very definition of “tropical paradise.”
Is there a bad time to visit? Probably not. But when temperatures begin their frigid decline and images of a sultry retreat invade, unbidden, into your consciousness, that’s probably the most desirable time. But there’s also the shoulder season just before or after the September rains. And even though summer heat can be steamily humid on the Yucatan Peninsula, many people must take their vacation due to company holiday shut-downs or children out of school. All things considered, there really is no bad time to pack your swimsuit and head south to the land of sun and sea.
Mexico’s Caribbean coast can be a cost-effective retreat from many locations in the U.S. And from Cancun in the north, down through Playa del Carman, to Tulum in the south, the number of things to do is endless, fitting every pocketbook from budget to luxury.
1. Enjoy the temperature.
At an average of 73°F, the climate in the coastal Yucatan in January and February is considered ideal – warm enough for swimming, yet comfortable enough for sightseeing. However, the hot summer months are appealing to those who prefer water sports like scuba diving and snorkeling, and as mentioned above, the lower price tag of autumn can be very appealing.
2. Explore Tulum.
It may not be the most expansive or highly excavated of the Mayan ruins, but Tulum is arguably the most unique and stunning. The Mayan’s only seaside archeological site, Tulum was built in the 13th century. The iconic Castillo structure is perched on a cliff, standing sentry over the brilliant turquoise of the Caribbean Sea. Guided tours are available, but it is also possible to walk through the ruins at your own pace.
3. Learn about Mayan culture.
There cannot be a more fun way to experience Mayan culture than at Xcaret Park. The numerous live shows enact various scenarios from the Mayan and Mexican way of life, such as the Mayan ball court, Papantla flying men, Viva Mexico show, and an open-air theater with performances several times a day. There are caves, a Mayan village, butterfly pavilion, aquarium, bat cave, beaches and pools. Try swimming with dolphins, sharks and stingrays, float along the underground river, or make chocolate from cocoa beans. If you are fortunate enough to be in the park on November 2nd for the Day of the Dead celebration, be prepared for a broad spectrum of amazing special events and traditional food-tasting.
4. Swim next to whale sharks.
This is one of the most incredible and memorable experiences in all of Mexico, perhaps in the entire world. Migrating just off the coast of Isle Mujures near Cancun, these behemoth creatures are gentle and don’t seem to mind humans snorkeling close to them. Whale sharks are filter feeders and eat only plankton and can grow to 40 feet long. Their visits are seasonal, though, so make sure to check with a tour and see if they will be in the Yucatan area before visiting
5. Get a fish pedicure.
Garra rufa fish, also known as “doctor fish” are becoming increasingly more popular as a means to remove dead skin from the feet. The tiny fish are added to a sterilized communal footbath for each customer. Having no teeth, they literally suck the dead skin off, making the surface of your feet smoother. Disclosure: if your feet are ticklish, the fish pedicure is literally torture!
6. Jump into a cenote.
Pronounced “say-NO-tay,” a cenote is a natural sinkhole created when the ceiling of a cave collapses, partially exposing an underground river or water hole. Cenotes were considered sacred by the ancient Mayans. The water is fresh and cool and provides various heights for jumping from platforms or cliffs.
7. Enjoy the local cuisine.
Regional Yucatan food is delicious and inexpensive. Salbutes, empanadas, tamales, churros, nachos, tacos, quesadillas and chimichangas may be familiar to most travelers and certainly worthy of consuming. But do try the fresh local street food. Or a Mayan traditional dish like Filete de Yucatán, a pork fillet marinated in tamarind seeds, chile peppers and sour orange then sautéed and served with pickled onions and black beans.
8. Dive the underwater museum.
It’s surreal. 500 magnificent life-sized underwater sculptures created by British sculptor Jason de Caires Taylor and submerged 30 feet below the ocean surface in the Museo Subacuático de Arte, or MUSA, off the coast of Cancun, Mexico. The collection, entitled “The Silent Evolution” was generated as an alternate dive site focused on the creation of a new artificial reef. The relatively shallow depth also makes MUSA a good option for a first-time scuba dive.
9. Party hearty.
There’s plenty of partying to be had, particularly in Cancun around the convention area known as the “Party Zone.” The nightlife can get pretty raucous, as night turns into morning. Some hot spots are Coco Bongo, Carlos ‘n Charlies, Senor Frogs, Congo Bar and Palazzo.
10. Speedboat through the mangroves.
Drive your own 2-person speed boat through the mangrove-lined channel. It’s fun to catch some air as you accelerate along the 45-minute ride in Cancun’s lagoon. As part of this tour, you’ll go out to Punta Nizuc, part of the world’s second-largest coral reef for a snorkeling opportunity with vibrant marine life.
11. Fly high in a jetpack.
If you’ve ever dreamed of flying, here’s where technology will let you live out that fantasy. This is pure adrenaline rush. Strap on a water- propelled jetpack and begin the process of soaring up to 40 feet above sea level. Disclosure: getting up over the water is actually very, very difficult, although the instructors (one talking to you via a microphone in your helmet and one in the water with you) are quite patient.
12. Visit an eco-park.
For a fun-filled day of water-based fun, head straight to Xel-Há, an ecology and aquatic themed park. The name comes from the Mayan words “Xel” meaning “birth” and “Ha” meaning “water.” The scenery, flowers and fauna are gorgeous, and there are tons of things to do in this great natural wonder. Swim or snorkel in the cove, cenotes, lagoon or caves. Try a traditional zip line or perhaps the new “flying bicycles” where you are strapped into a bike-like contraption in which you can peddle around in the air attached to a zip line. Interact with dolphins, test your balance on the floating bridge, get a fish pedicure, hike along the many lush paths, or hurl yourself into the water from various height cliffs. Or – my personal favorite – grab an inner tube and take a one-hour float down the lazy river. Xel-Há is that sort of soul-refreshing place frequently sought after.
13. Get pampered at an all-inclusive resort.
The Caribbean coast of Mexico is awash in all-inclusive resorts. While the initial cost can look high, these can actually be a good value, especially for those who are inclined to have higher food and alcohol bills. They also tend to be the more upscale resorts. But don’t fret if you’re not a big drinker – many resorts also offer a rate that doesn’t include meals or drinks. My favorite luxury resorts are the Grand Velas Resort in Riviera Maya and the JW Marriott Resort in Cancun. For a tight budget, try the Mia Cancun – oceanfront with gorgeous views from the turret room…if you don’t mind climbing five flights of stairs.
14. Bargain hunt at the outdoor markets.
Some people do not like haggling for bargains at the markets, but it can actually be a lot of fun and a win/win for both parties if you adhere to the unstated rules. First of all, many of the products are already selling for much lower than similar products in the US markets (if you can even find them in the US), so you’re already ahead of the game. Second, the shopkeepers expect you to counter with a lower price, so have fun. Negotiation is part of the process. Keep in mind, they need to make a living too, so don’t make an insulting, ridiculous offer and expect it to be taken.
15. Chill out on a hammock
When you tire of doing all the above, seek out an empty hammock – preferably next to one of the beaches, which many consider to be among the prettiest in the world – and let the tropical breeze and sound of the surf lull you to sleep. Ahhhhhhhhhhh.
Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of Xcaret during her stay in Mexico, but as always, the opinions, reviews and experiences are her own.