A Gypster’s Guide to the Yucatan Peninsula – Will the real Dos Equis please stand up?
Let’s play a little game: when you imagine Mexico, or more specifically the Yucatan Peninsula, do you think party-hearty Cancun, historic Tulum, or chill-axed Playa del Carmen? While these destinations still hold a place in every beach-seekers heart, sometimes the sheer number of people in search of their own private palm tree can be a bit much. Enter Puerto Morelos (pronounced Porto-Morelo) and Isla Holbox (pronounced I-La-Hobosh).
Although situated within the state of Quintana Roo, these hidden gems are tucked away from the snap-happy tourists of the Mayan ruins and spewing spring-breakers. But the best part is that the only Taco Bell you’ll ring is the one for your daily fresh-caught reef fish taco order at the local shack.
A Guide to the Yucatan Peninsula – Isla Holbox
Swimming with massive 14 metre-long polka-dotted grey fishes, otherwise known as whale sharks, is a towering experience that one won’t soon forget. Fortunately, Isla Holbox is the place to make these memories happen, however bracing, in addition to some other far less heart-racing ones. In fact, in a funny sort of extreme versus relaxed contrast, Isla Holbox aptly covers each end of the travel spectrum; yes there are nerve-racking yet completely safe whale-shark experiences but then there are hammocks, bathers, crystal clear water and basically everything you could ever need for pure holiday zen. Apart from the backdrop of majestic pink flamingos, occasional “slow service” food shacks and local reef travel peeps, this northernmost Island is as close to a Robinson Crusoe type Mexican escape as you’re going to get.
A Guide To the Yucatan Peninsula Isla Holbox – Getting There
Mayan buses run twice daily from the main bus station in Cancun to the small port town of Chiquilá. From there, catch one of the ferries that run nine times daily to Holbox (around $10AUD). Once on the island, porters in bicycle carts – who wait portside to meet the ferry – can be hired for a handful of pesos to take you to your hotel.
A Guide To the Yucatan Peninsula Isla Holbox – See/Do
Get up close and personal with Whale Sharks…Even if they are gentle giants, shit gets real when you’re snorkelling with something longer than a bus. This really is a once in a lifetime experience that isn’t offered in many other places around the world. Be sure to go in season (usually May through October) to catch them. Tours are run from Isla Holbox daily during peak season through Holbox Whale Shark Tours. Be sure to book ahead.
Grab some Binoculars and Go Bird Watching…Isla Pajaros a.k.a. Bird Island is an island located in the Lagoon Yalahau, about 30 minutes by boat from Isla Holbox, renowned for it’s birdlife. Many birders from all over the globe make pilgrimages to this little island to add pictures to their collections. You can find, depending on the time of the year, Flamingos, White Ibises, Spoon Bills, Cranes and a host of multi colored species. Tours can be arranged in one of the small tour shacks in the village. A day tour will set you back approximately $20 AUD.
A big fat nothing…Laze by the amazingly calm and shallow waters that seem to stretch endlessly into the horizon. After a couple of hours you’ll understand what they meant when they said “all your worries seem so far away”. This place is professional relaxation 2.0. Little or no tourists visit the island itself as there are no large-scale hotel resorts in sight. The most you’ll get are the day-trippers looking for the whale shark experience.
Hire a golf-buggy…(no other forms of transportation are allowed) and explore the islands fauna and secret beaches. All 42 kilometers of it. Grab a picnic of fresh Tacos and make a day of it.
A Guide To the Yucatan Peninsula Isla Holbox – Stay
La Palapa…Situated right on the beachfront at the northern tip of the island, this 16-room hotel offers lodging ranging from simple bungalows to second-floor suites. A shabby-chic Bungalow (which is literally a hop, skip and a jump from the water and comes with air-conditioning) is decked out with quintessential Mayan interiors and will cost you around $70 AUD/night.
Casa Sandra Boutique Hotel…This beachfront boutique hotel is one of Holbox’s most elegant, with just 12 European-style rooms, each whitewashed and replete with luxurious details like deep bathtubs, original art and high thread-count linens. The suites feature great views of the ocean. A typical suite will set you back around $205 AUD/night.
A Guide To the Yucatan Peninsula Isla Holbox – Eat/Drink
Casa Lupita…Casual beachfront joint dishing out Tex-Mex grub like fajitas – chicken, beef, fish or shrimp – burritos and quesadillas, along with tourist staples like hamburgers. They also do a really fresh ceviche.
Zaraband…This thatched-roof shack serves grilled whole fish, lobster with garlic sauce and Yucatan specialties like Sopa de Lima.
Viva Zapata…is half a block west of the main square. It is a fun spot that gets thronged with both locals and tourists, who come for the seafood dishes cooked over a charcoal grill and the cheap cocktails. Head to the second floor terrace for balmy breezes and views.
A Guide to the Yucatan Peninsula – Puerto Morelos
This quiet little seaside village is so memorable that in the summer of ‘09 its greatness was forever preserved in the eternal beauty of a Haiku, made up by my travel partner at the time. He proceeded to sing this little Spanish-Japanese jig at the top of his lungs, non-stop, to any living being who would listen. Favourite Haiku bust-outs include the time he shouted it while swiftly retreating from a couple of not so happy guard dogs, and the time he serenaded the bartender at our hotel. I am pretty sure every single local knew the song by the end of the trip; it should have been adopted as the unofficial village anthem.
It went a little something like this:
Es Bueno, jardin al Mar
Which effectively means:
It is a great, garden by the sea
…You get the gist.
A Guide to the Yucatan Peninsula – Getting To Puerto Morelos
From Cancun airport take the Riviera/ADO bus to Playa del Carmen, which runs hourly from 10:30. The bus departs from Terminal 2, east end (terminal faces north). Buy a ticket for Puerto Morelos just inside the terminal or on the bus. Ask the driver to stop at Puerto Morelos.
A Guide to the Yucatan Peninsula Puerto Morelos – See/Do
Hire a bike …and roam around the place, view the colourful neo-modern Spanish Colonial architecture of some of the holiday homes in the village outskirts. Watch out for guard dogs. The Port itself isn’t big, and it’s your best form of transportation getting to and from your digs. Try not to drunk/cycle. Hire Bicycles from $10AUD/day from DiversPoint.
Go snorkelling…along the coral littered reefs directly opposite the port. Go to the village and walk up to the most eager-looking dude with a tinny you can find. Offer him $10-15AUD to take you out. You won’t regret it.
Go green in the Botanical Gardens…Jardin Botanico to be exact. Most noteworthy claim to fame is being the birthplace of the aforementioned Haiku in this article. Oh and the fact there’s many different native plants and animal species. Plus it’s really pretty. Be sure to bring your mosquito-repellent and watch out for monkeys! You can take daily tours to the Jardin Botanico for $8.50 AUD from Puerto Morelos using www.ecosur.mx.
Visit the Mayan Handicraft Centre…Where you can see local artists working in their shops as they create something special. Buy a kick-ass blue and white turtle thingy like I did!
Take a clichéd photo…of the slightly lopsided lighthouse located next to the Port. It’s Mexico’s version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa!
Go Fishing…Puerto Morelos offers world-class fishing for Marlin, Sailfish, Dordao (Mahi Mahi), Bonito and Barracuda. Tours can be arranged through the local dive shops or right under the Pier. If you’d rather let someone else do it for you, stroll to the Fishing Co-Op on the square and reel in the catch of the day for a low price.
Bask in the awe-inspiring Cenotes…which are ‘underwater caves’ or scientifically termed ‘sinkholes’ which have etched themselves into the native limestone. They are filled with crystal-clear groundwater; some are large and deep, while others are small passages through a cave. Inland from Puerto Morelos, many Cenotes are accessible along the road from P.M. to Central Vallarta, some with blissfully enchanting swimming in clear blue water.
To take the local transport to the Cenotes, take colectivo bus “jacinto kanek” from Puerto Morelos to the other side of the highway get off at pemex station (colonia zetina gasca) once there go to the main zocalo two blocks west of 7 eleven and take the bus heading to Leona Vicario, they leave Morelos at 7.00, 8.00, 9.00AM and return from Leona at 12.00,13.00,16.00,and 17.00PM you can get off at Boca del Puma, just past central vallarta at km16.
And if the above instructions make your head spin, just join one of the 48597 tour groups that go from PM each day for around $25 AUD.
Put on your Chef’s Hat…At The Little Mexican Cooking School. The school offers a fun day of learning how to cook quintessential Mexican favorites such as fajitas and cerviches. It also preaches about the flavours and ingredients used in what is probably one of the best cuisines in the world. Especially for hangovers. Avenida Rojo Gomez 768 (On the main avenue facing the beach).
A Guide to the Yucatan Peninsula Puerto Morelos – Stay
Hotel Hacienda Morelos…This charming yet simple getaway hotel has 30 rooms with beautiful ocean views and direct access to the pool. It is located directly on the beach in the center of Puerto Morelos, at half a block from the town square. Each room has two double beds and bathroom with shower. This isn’t luxury at its finest but it’s not the most budget option either. All rooms have ceiling fans and air-conditioning. Rooms from $68AUD/night.
Excellence Riviera…The Excellence Riviera Cancun is an adults-only, all-inclusive Resort & Spa. This is the mother of all Riviera beach resorts so if you like boutique and intriguing this isn’t going to be your cup of tea. On the contrary, if your ideal holiday is to gravitate between your room, the pool and the beach, with the entertainment and cocktail nights all planned for you – this is for you! Inclusive packages start from $350 AUD/night.
A Guide to the Yucatan Peninsula Puerto Morelos – Eat/Drink
Posada Amor…has great Mexican food, and the best ceviche in town. This restaurant – the oldest in Puerto Morelos – has retained a loyal clientele for nearly three decades. In the palapa-covered dining room with its picnic-style wooden tables and benches, the gracious staff serves up terrific Mexican and seafood dishes, including a memorable whole fish dinner and a rich seafood bisque. Sunday brunches are also delicious.
Que Hora Es…Is a little hole in the wall bar that is a popular nightspot among expats. It doesn’t have an address per say, but it’s in the village next to Posada Amor. If you get stuck just ask a local.
Bara, Bara Bar…Is located 1 block to the left of Puerto Morelos Park. It’s an urban style bar playing reggae and hip-hop popular with the younger crowds.
Café Finca la Chiquilla…is a one of a kind place, and a great little spot with occasional live music. It has a full bar and coffee that is not only freshly ground and roasted, but even grown and picked by the owners from their coffee plantation in Puebla. It’s very popular with locals and tourists alike. Avenue Rojo Gomez, Puerto Morelos.
La Aldea del mar Cafe..is a shack on the beach just next to the port that serves the most refreshingly cold Dos Equis and Coronas. It’ll entice you to settle in for a lazy afternoon session in the shade.
A Guide to the Yucatan Peninsula – Tried and True Tips
1. Put your hand up if you’ve seen Sex and the City – The Movie? Nod your head if you saw Charlotte’s quick descent into food poisoning hell? This is still a very real problem and is only an iced water or shower swallow away. Be careful. It’s not fun to live in the bathroom on your holiday.
2. If you’re on a budget, visit in Mexico’s summer. Not only will you half your hotel budget form will peak times, there will be even less people around to distract from your being at one with the palm trees. Be prepared for some fairly serious humidity though. Get a room with air-con for a much-needed respite and you’ll be all systems go.