From Playa del Carmen to Akumal to Cancun to Tulum – we have well and truly travelled Mexico’s beautiful East Coast. I’ve been to these parts of Mexico twice before with my parents but it’s a completely different ball game when you’re backpacking with friends. I feel grateful to have had both experiences and don’t doubt that I’ll make a 4th, 5th and even 6th visit in the future. Quintana Roo is one of Mexico’s most popular tourist destinations and here’s why…
PLAYA DEL CARMEN
Playa del Carmen was the first stop on our Mexico tour. We caught a bus from Belize City to the border near Bacalar and then continued on to Playa. We arrived at the bus station ridiculously early in the morning with no idea how near/far our hostel was and whether or not it was safe to walk there at night. We decided to wait in the station until sunrise but got bored waiting and left at 4.30am to catch a taxi. The taxi driver told us that the address we had been given was a walkable distance from where we were, so we threw our backpacks over our shoulders and went to find hostel ‘The Yak’.
When we arrived there was nobody on reception but there was a night manager who told us that we wouldn’t be able to check in until 2pm but were free to sleep on the sofas until then. Considering 2pm was 8 hours away at this point we decided that the sofas were our best bet and tried to get some rest.
Breakfast was served at 8am and hostel guests started piling into the common area, disrupting our sleep. We couldn’t complain though because they let us have cereals and bread (even though we technically weren’t officially guests yet). I say we couldn’t complain but we actually did complain because their milk was really mouldy – they even opened 3 more bottles for us and every single one of them was lumpy. This all just reaffirmed why I don’t like to drink milk #herecomesthevegan… We lounged around on the sofas for most of the morning before finally mustering up the courage to get ready and go to the beach – it made more sense to kill time there than inside of the hostel!
After an hour or so of sunbathing we had Mexican food for lunch and then went back to the hostel to check in. Once we dumped our bags in the dorm we explored the rest of the building. There were hammocks, 2 kitchens, a TV room, a library and an amazing roof terrace – we’ve been having such good luck with hostels recently!
We spent a few hours reading on the roof terrace before being approached by a guy called Josh. Turns out that Josh has my dream job – he’s a creative director and has worked on a ton of art, fashion, travel and photography projects. He was super inspiring and shared his top tips for cracking the industry. He also reminded me that the end goal takes a lot of hard work and determination and that it takes 99 rejections before you get that 1 gig. I love this part of travelling – seeing those digital nomads who move around the world, living the dream whilst working from their laptop. It makes my ambitions seem more achievable all of a sudden and sparks the drive in me to keep doing what I love.
Josh came with us for dinner at an amazing vegan restaurant right next door to our hostel. The food was some of the best I’d ever tasted and got a thumbs up from everyone.
The next morning we went shopping before hiring sun loungers on the beach in the afternoon where we ordered far too many drinks and plates of food from the bar. It suddenly sunk in that we were having a very glamorous day. This was then officially named ‘LUX DAY’ and any extravagant decision we made would be justified on the basis of ‘well, it’s lux day, so I can’.
We went to Akumal from Playa del Carmen for the day. It was easy enough to get there – we just caught a ‘colectivo’ heading for Tulum and asked the driver where to get off. There are quite a few stops along the way including a ton of touristy adventure parks (zip lining, tubing, caving etc) that we would have loved to have done if they didn’t have $120 entry fees!
The main purpose of our visit to Akumal was to swim with the turtles. We paid for snorkels and life jackets (these are compulsory to prevent people diving down) but it would be a free activity if you had your own equipment. The water was a bit murky at first and we weren’t sure if we would see any turtles but as soon as we swam further out we saw 10 of them all at once. It was a once in a lifetime experience to see them up close in their natural habitat and I would encourage anyone travelling through Quintana Roo to make a stop off in Akumal!
Akumal beach is also pretty sweet. It’s very popular with tourists though so don’t expect any peace and quiet but because of it’s popularity it also has a bunch of restaurants and shops close by. We ate at an adorable cafe (that served vegan ice cream!) and Abbie was given a Coca-Cola can with her name on it… completely by chance! We told the waiter what had happened and he came back smiling with a can for me that said ‘hermano’. I know people sometimes think me and Abbie are related (and that’s definitely a compliment) but to be given a can that says ‘brother’?! I think that’s maybe an insult….
This section is gonna be short and sweet because we only stayed in Cancun for one night after our flight back from Cuba. We hadn’t really intended to stop in Cancun at all (it’s definitely overrated) but we needed to break up our journey, so we gave in. The main strip of Cancun is jam packed with 5* resorts, massive nightclubs and themed restaurants. It’s hugely popular as a party destination but, to be honest, it doesn’t really have much else to offer.
We stayed far away from the glitz and glam of the beach in the suburban part of town. Our hostel was very average but there isn’t really much choice for backpackers here. We spent our evening in the plaza where we ate delicious street food and ended up watching a children’s dance show for 2 hours. We were the only tourists in sight and actually ended up having a really fun evening without having to pay $30 to get into a nightclub!
From Cancun we caught a bus to Tulum – it took less than 2 hours to get there. In fact, Playa, Cancun and Tulum are all relatively close to each other so it wouldn’t be hard to base yourselves in one of them and do day trips to the others (instead of temporary stays in each place) if you prefer that option.
We stayed in a hostel called ‘Mama’s home’ and it really did live up to the ‘home’ part. It has been voted one of the best hostels in Mexico and the Americas, which is a pretty big deal – there’s a different breakfast dish served every day made from scratch by the chef, the rooms are really comfortable and there is something going on every single night. Everyone is super friendly and it’s not uncommon to find staff and guests hanging out together in the common areas or at the bar across the road.
There was an older guy in our room who we’d been told was a long term guest and had been falling out of bed at night. He was in the bunk bed above me (why was a 60-something year old assigned a top bunk in the first place?) and he would spend every night getting extremely drunk and watching conspiracy theory videos on his laptop in bed until 4am in the morning. One night I heard a massive bang and looked up to see him dangling by his trousers from the bed. Abbie shot across the room to help him and we tried to get him down safely but he was far too drunk – all he could do was stumble backwards onto the floor and start mumbling creepy compliments to us.
I know it’s normal to encounter strange people when you stay in hostels but there was something super strange about this guy. Back in Panama, the owner of our favourite hostel ‘Bambuda Lodge’ told us this story about a guy called Larry who stayed with them for a while. Eventually they asked him to leave because he was way too involved in conspiracy theories and started acting strange but instead of leaving he hid in the jungle for a whole month, stealing peanut butter from the kitchen at night to survive. One day he disappeared for good and so we had to ask ourselves if we’d found Larry in Tulum?!?! Maybe we should have asked him if he was a fan of peanut butter? Or we could have just asked for his name…. but, whatever, we’re gonna say that was him.
Tulum is a really great city – street art is everywhere, it has a hippy vibe, there are endless white sand beaches, there’s a lot of environmental awareness (vegan food/anti-litter campaigns) and the locals are super laid back.
I think the best way to give you guys the full story about our time in Tulum is to break this down into bullet points. Here’s everything that we got up to:
- Beach chills
Obviously we spent a lot of time on the beach… no surprises there. It’s easy to pass hours and hours sunbathing in Tulum because it’s ridiculously picturesque and the weather is amazing. We hired bikes to get to the beach but it’s pretty cheap to get taxis from the town centre too. There are dozens of beachside bars and restaurants which vary in price depending on which part of the beach you’re on and if you want to rent chairs (instead of slumming it on the sand like us) then there are plenty of opportunities to do so.
- Night out
So, this wasn’t a night out like a club night out. It was just a bar crawl around town with some of our hostel friends. We met some really fun Irish guys who were knocking back passionfruit mojitos like there was no tomorrow. We visited this one bar that had a keyboard player in the corner and absolutely 0 people on the dance floor. We approached him and asked if we could play some Taylor Swift to help get the party started but he told us to go away. He clearly wasn’t a Swiftie. It was a ridiculously fun night and I particularly like the fact that they serve sugarcane sticks with every drink here – I spent more time munching on them whilst everyone else got absolutely hammered. I felt drunk though but in retrospect it was probably just a sugar rush….
Pronounced see-no-tays, these are ‘natural pits resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath‘ (yeah, that’s from Wikipedia). We hopped on our bikes, cycled along the main road and stopped off at two cenotes: Gran Cenote and Cenote Calavera. Alice was suffering from the night before so she started to deteriorate as the day went on (can’t say jumping into pools of water and snorkelling in caves is a suitable cure for a hangover, really). These pools are so magical, though! There’s tons located all over the East coast – some are free, some you have to pay for, some are rammed with tourists, others are local secrets and usually empty. Wherever you are in Quintana Roo or Yucatan, just ask your hotel/hostel where the nearest cenotes are and get exploring!
Probably the most famous tourist attraction that Tulum has to offer – the beach ruins. You have to pay an entry fee, but if I can remember correctly it wasn’t too extortionate. Something like MX$35, which is less than £2! The ruins and this particular part of the beach are really stunning – a photographers heaven! It was interesting to read the information plaques by each ruin but if you’re looking for a more in-depth description of the history then there are guided tour options which you can purchase at the entrance.
And so, our time in Quintana Roo has come to an end – we need to crack on and explore the rest of Mexico! Unfortunately, due to our spontaneous Cuba trip we’ve had to cut Merida from our itinerary and shorten our time in Mexico City but hopefully we’ll still be able to make the most of every second. Stay tuned for more adventures!