My first international trip was to Mexico and it forever holds a piece of my heart – the bold colors, the gorgeous beaches, daily rainbows, ancient Mayan ruins, and, let’s be honest, the guacamole and pico de gallo! I can never get enough.
Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula, primarily Cancún, has long been a favorite destination for international tourists, especially Americans, so yes, there are plenty of touristy shops selling all kinds of kitsch, overpriced restaurants and peddlers trying to fill excursion boats/buses with as many tourists as possible, but there’s a reason that the Yucatán has for so long pulled many a tourist its way and hopefully you’ll see that in my suggested itinerary below. You can still find some hidden cultural gems in this special destination.
I recommend basing yourself in Playa del Carmen, a town on the coast about 45 minutes south of Cancún. It’s a short transfer from the airport (45 minutes) and once you unpack your bags and take a step on the beach, you’ll know you’ve arrived in a unique place!
As far as accommodation, check out the Gran Porto Resort and Spa right on the beach and steps from Avenida Quinta (the main drag that runs parallel to the beach). It is an all inclusive as many hotels are in this area, but I love the smaller size and the fact that it’s located right in town so if you prefer to head out for dinner one night to change it up, it’s super easy. Perfect for families with kids as well as it offers a kids club, a few different restaurant options and a gorgeous pool practically on the beach.
Day 1: Playa del Carmen – As soon as you’ve settled in to your hotel, enjoy a dip in the clear blue water or take a stroll down Avenida Quinta to see the variety of shops and restaurants on offer for your stay. Be sure to check out some of the side streets and discover some of the colorful murals dotting the town. End your stroll at the lovely Parque Fundadores and peak in the adorable white stucco Capilla Nuestra Señora del Carmen located on the corner of the park. Perhaps enjoy a fresh fruit snack from one of the vendors that surround the park and don’t miss the Voladores de Papantla (the flying pole dancers) that put on performances daily – ask a vendor when the next performance will be.
Day 2: Tulum and Cobá – Head over to Chez Celine, a French café, for a delicious breakfast before taking a taxi to Tulum (45 minutes) or join an excursion and spend the morning discovering this ancient Mayan complex located on the water! Don’t forget to bring bathing suites, a hat, sunscreen, water and some snacks so you join the locals and head down to the picturesque beach at the base of the ruins. For the adventurous travelers, continue on to Cobá, another ancient Mayan site where you can rent bicycles for a small fee and even still climb one of the pyramids which is not allowed at any of the other major sites.
Day 3: Isla Mujeres – Take an organized full day excursion to picturesque Isla Mujeres just off the coast of Cancún. You’ll board your catamaran at the dock in Cancún and enjoy snorkeling off the boat before arriving in Isla Mujeres for a typical lunch on the beach, some time to swim or check out the small town before heading back to the mainland. I recommend wandering down one of the side streets off of Avenida Quinta for dinner tonight and finding your own new favorite haunt.
Day 4: Chichén Itzá – Today, visit the large Pre-Colombian complex of Chichén Itza, one of largest Mayan cities of the Terminal Classic period. It’s main temple in the shape of a pyramid (El Castillo) is more majestic in person than photos can reveal, but don’t forget to visit El Caracol (observatory) and the Gran Juego de Pelota (the largest ball court in all of Mesoamerica) as well and observe many of the striking designs carved into the ruins. I recommend hiring a taxi for the day (negotiate to get a price of around $15/hour) rather than an organized tour so that you can go at your own pace. You can hire a guide outside of the site to get more detail for a reasonable price. Alternatively, many guidebooks provide excellent information on all aspects of the site. After your visit, stop at Ik Kil Cenote (natural sinkhole) just a couple kilometers from Chichén Itzá for a refreshing swim. Finally, continue on to Valladolid, an authentic colonial town along the route for late lunch or snack and beverages at the delightful Restaurante el Mesón del Marqués situated on the main square before heading back to Playa del Carmen.
Day 5: Free day – Enjoy a free day to relax at the beach or the pool of your hotel, and perhaps enjoy some last minute shopping before your final dinner. Check out nearby La Parrilla for some delicious Mexican cuisine.
Day 6: Return home – Return to airport and fly home.
As an estimated budget for this 5 night/6 day itinerary for a family of 4 would be as follows:
Accommodation: Standard Room from $175 per night x 5 nights = $875
Food: $400 (for meals/snacks outside of the hotel)
Transportation: $400 (taxi rentals and transfers to/from airport)