Por que no? Por que si!
As a New Yorker I’ve always wanted to visit Mexico. Growing up in The Big Apple had appropriated me to Mexican culture, the cuisine, and Mexican people to a certain extent. I just never suspected it would take nearly 30 years to finally make the trip.
Similar to last February, we planned another winter escape with our friends Jess, Jason and their son Jasper. This year’s destination would be Mexico’s Playa del Carmen (as it edged out Curaçao by majority vote). Located in the famed Yucatán peninsula, Playa del Carmen offers numerous attractions and activities that are perfect for families with toddlers. From historic Mayan Temples to gorgeous white sand beaches, to adventure-bound activities and a culinary haven, we would have much to do and see on our stay. Some people say the best Mexican food (outside of Mexico), can be found in California or Texas. Personally I think great Mexican food can also be found throughout NYC, and soon my passion for tacos would turn into a daily obsession south of the border.
The direct flight from New York touched down at just under 4 hours (to Cancun International Airport). A short drive south (under an hour), placed us at Grand Coral Resort (Mareazul apartments), our abode for the ensuing 7 days. Our stay was very comfortable and the grounds were quite impressive boasting an enormous 30,000 square foot swimming pool. We spent one full day there but part of me wishes we had dedicated more time to splashing around in that piscina!
In addition to the gargantuan pool (located feet from the beach), there was no shortage of adventures in Playa del Carmen. Our first was a day trip to Tulum (about 1.5 hours south of PdC), visiting Mayan Ruins set on picturesque cliffs overlooking the turquoise Caribbean Sea. The complex comprised numerous temples, some very well preserved attesting to Mayan architectural ingenuity capable of withstanding 1,000+ years. The complex at Tulum served as a port to other Mayan temple sites located throughout the Yucatán Peninsula. Another temple ruin site we checked off the list was Coba, in contrast to the Tulum ruins Coba’s temples were scattered throughout a dense jungle. Transport bikes guided there way through the greenery stopping at several temples along the way. Notably, the Nohoch Mul temple pyramid (137 feet high), is the tallest on the Yucatan Peninsula and can still be climbed (unlike most other temples). The adventure seekers in our group (Brigitte and Jason), took little time to summit the pyramid, and benefited from views of the jungle stretching into the horizon. The way up was “easier” (per the dynamic duo), as their descent appeared to be a calculated series of guarded steps, steering clear of the potential peril of tumbling down the steep incline (side note: the most famous Mayan pyramid of Chichen Itza can no longer be climbed as a tourist fell to her death in 2006).
Our adventures to the temples were paired with some fun in the water on both occasions. In Tulum, we set upon the Playa Paraiso where the hours ticked by slowly and the frozen drinks kept the body temperature in check. Olivia and Jasper had a blast playing in the sand and taking dips in the sea. When it came to cooling off there was a bit of something for everyone. In addition to the Caribbean Sea and our swimming pool, the Yucatán is littered with natural sinkholes (called cenotes), many with fresh water at their cores. Apparently there are thousands of cenotes serving as popular attractions for swimming, snorkeling, diving or just cooling off. The Gran Cenote was one of our stops and served us well; the kids were also able to enjoy a dip and then penetrate one of the cenote’s caves (home to bats and some fish). The opposite end of Gran Cenote held a wider aperture with deep clear water, offering visibility into an intricate landscape of stalagmites (and an underground cave system). This part of the Cenote was busier but there was plenty of swimming room for everyone.
With only a couple of days remaining on our vacation, we planned a day trip to the island of Cozumel followed by a visit to Chichen Itza on our last day. The morning ferry from Playa del Carmen to Cozumel (40 mins one way), docked in the heart of San Miguel, the main town on the island. From there we hired a taxi and headed south for about 25 minutes to Playa Palancar, a beautiful beach equipped with a restaurant and beach amenities. We spent a relaxing day there splitting time between lounging on the beach and splashing around in the sea. We also enjoyed another delicious lunch of fresh seafood right on the water’s edge. Cozumel was a perfect day trip!
As our last day rolled upon us (too soon, always too soon), Brigitte, Olivia and I set out for Chichen Itza. Jess, Jason and Jasper headed to Puerto Morellos to do some shopping for the day. The 2.5 hour drive to Chichen Itza cut through the verdant countryside and numerous villages where signs of everyday life permeated the margins of the road. Souvenir and local crafts stands stood out along with an occasional grocery store, implying a quieter way of life (vs a place like Playa del Carmen or Tulum).
Chichen Itza attracts thousands of visitors daily, offering a glimpse into ancient Mayan life. Arriving early and traveling back in time (crossing time zones from EST to CST), paid off. We enjoyed a stroll among the ruins devoid of the soon arriving hoards of tourist buses. The temples are impressive and impeccably well preserved. In contrast to the previous ruin sites we visited, Chichen Itza is set on an open plain magnificently displaying the temples and their strategic layout. This design corresponded with the night sky and inspired the astronomical Mayan calendar. Also incorporated within the stone structures were local animals, believed by the Mayans to be soul companions. El Castillo or the grand pyramid (Temple of Kukulkan), stood erect at nearly 100 feet in the middle of the plain. Within the complex dozens of local vendors displayed the finest Mayan masks, fabrics, stonework, and other crafts/souvenirs, enticing visitors towards their next purchase. After a couple of hours at the grounds, we headed to the nearby town of Valladolid for lunch followed by a walk in the main plaza. We also learned the town was home to a cenote (Cenote Zaci), which later helped define our afternoon plans. A nominal fee (30 pesos or $1.50 US pp), bore access to the massive sinkhole and its seemingly bottomless pool of water. Zaci was less kid friendly but nonetheless we all enjoyed its cavernous and imposing beauty.
On our last night in Playa del Carmen we opted for dinner at the same restaurant as on our first night, El Fogon taqueria (which came recommend by our VRBO’s owner). El Fogon actually has several locations in PdC. The al pastor tacos, margaritas and other yummies brought our trip full circle. The next morning would see us off to the airport headed back to the US, inevitably daring us to dream of a return to the land of the Maya.