We had heard about how cool Tulum was prior to the trip, but nothing really prepared us for the ancient ruins juxtaposed with the white sand beach and turquois water. We got off the colectivo from Playa del Carmen and went walked to the entrance. When you arrive at the entrance there will be lots of people trying to stop you and offer tours. You do not have to take a tour, you can pay the entrance fee and walk through the ruins on your own. We ended up going with a company that offered a boat tour and snorkeling out on the reef for around $10 per person. We first walked through the park on our own to see all the ruins you can see from the land. As you walk through this part you get incredible views of the beach and the water. The ruins are all roped off so you can look and take pictures but you cannot climb on or touch them. We were there on a hot, sunny day and saw lots of Iguana’s laying on the ruins.
After our walk through the park we headed down to the beach. We found our tour guide and took a small boat out on the water. We were given a brief tour down the shore to see the ruins which face the water and are not visible from land. After that we were taken out to the reef for snorkeling. All necessary snorkeling equipment was included in our tour cost. We got to snorkel for about an hour. We saw lots of colorful fish, sea turtles and sting rays and got to swim along the reef. After we got back to the beach we decided to walk down the shore for a while. The beach at Tulum is one of the best beaches we have been too. The sand was basically powdered sugar, and the water was clear and turquoise. There are a few restaurants right on the beach so you can sit and enjoy a drink or some food which we would highly recommend. You will need to bring cash because none of them took a credit card while we were there and you need to make sure you have enough cash for the ride back. We regretfully didn’t go into the town of Tulum due to the timing of our trip, but we have talked about making a whole trip to Tulum one day in the future.
We chose to do an all day excursion with the Alltournative Tours company. The Alltournative company gives a portion of the fees they charge back to the communities and local people in the area. They work to offer tours that promote cultural awareness and promote conservation efforts in the area. We chose a tour that spent part of the day swimming in a cenote followed by a lunch of traditional Mayan food. The second part of the day was spent exploring the Ek Balam ruins. The Cenote Maya is the largest cenote in the Yucatan. The area around the cenote is a garden area with traditional Mayan homes so that guests can see how the Mayans lived. We also got to see a traditional shaman ritual before entering the cenote. You have two options for getting down to the cenote; you can rappel down or you can take a staircase. I am scared of hieghts so I opted for the stairs. Ryan rappelled down. Once your in the cenote you can swim, and zip line over the water. The water is fairly cold and also very clear. you can see some small fish swimming around. They will ask that you rinse off in a shower stall before entering the water and to not apply sunscreen before getting into the water in efforts to keep this water source clean.
After lunch we were off to Ek Balam. There are multiple old ruins at this site, which is less visited than other Mayan ruins. While you are visiting you can walk on and climb through all of the ruins. You are given a tour of the grounds with an explanation of what all the different buildings are. This tour is offered in English, we also had French speakers in our group so they split up from us and were given the tour in French. After the tour you have time on your own to walk through the ruins. There is also a small market in the parking lot near the entrance were local people are selling crafts and locally made liquors and other goods. We got to sample a local liquor called Xtabentún. This is made from anise seed and honey. It has a very distinct flavor, we enjoyed it and would recommend trying it while there since it isn’t something we have ever been able to find it in the U.S. The people in the market are very nice and will offer to show you things and explain to you what they are but they will not haggle you or pressure you to buy.
Here is the link to the tour we took with Alltournative Tours
Link to the Playa del Carmen post
For a good balance of a beach vacation and great activities Playa del Carmen is a great place to base yourself to explore the Yucatan. We stayed for a week in a small bed and breakfast in the Playacar area. We were walking distance from the main beach and tourist area full of shops and restaurants. We were also only a short walk from a beach which was less crowded and quieter than the Playa del Carmen public beach. The bed and breakfast offered a rooftop pool and a backyard pool. We spent several evenings on the rooftop by the pool and were the only guests up there. The host did not speak english but did try to be as helpful as possible. Breakfast included eggs, fruit and yogurt as well as coffee and fruit juices each morning. This was not a luxury bed and breakfast but it was affordable and the location was great. We would recommend Bed and Breakfast Buen Dia Playa if you are planning to stay in the area.
From Playa del Carmen you can easily get to the city of Tulum and the Tulum ruins, Cancun, Akumal, take the ferry to Cozumel and many other locations up and down the Yucatan coast. We did not get to all of these areas on this trip. We did get to the Tulum ruins and also did a day long tour that included swimming in a cenote and exploring a Mayan ruin site – Ek Balam. Playa del Carmen itself also has lots to offer so we spent several days there enjoying the beach and the food. Playa del Carmen is about an hour south of Cancun, we flew in and out of Cancun so the last day we traveled back to Cancun and spent the day there so we were closer to the airport to catch an early morning flight back home.
For getting around in the area, you can take the ADO bus to/from Cancun/Playa del Carmen. The bus is very affordable, air conditioned and comfortable. We used it and would recommend it to anyone traveling in the area.
Taking a Colectivo is also a good, cheap option for getting between cities in the area. These are white vans which you can take for a small fee. They depart from the pick up point as soon as they are full. There are several specific pick up/drop off points in Playa del Carmen. They fill the van with as many people as they can so prepare to be sitting very close during the ride. The vans are full of local people going to/from work as well as other tourists. There is a drop off point right at the Tulum ruins so we took a colectivo from downtown Playa straight to the ruins and then back when we were done exploring for the day. They run very frequently so you shouldn’t have to wait long for the next available ride.
Things to do in Playa del Carmen: Our time in Playa was focused on the beach and the food!
The public beach is lined with small restaurants serving cheap food and beer with a view of the beach. We ate at several of these small places during our stay. We had some delicious ceviche and tacos for lunch without ever having to leave the beach. Señor Frogs- super touristy and we would not recommend eating here but, it is located right next to the pier where the ferry boats leave from to head over to Cozumel. We did stop for a beer on our way back to our bed and breakfast several nights. The location offers tables right next to the water and you can watch the ferry’s come and go. For the location and view its worth a stop for a beer or two on the beach.
While wandering through the shopping area we were persuaded to stop in and do a tequila tasting. This is definitely a touristy place but prices are negotiable so don’t just pay what they initially offer as the price. We knew there would be pressure to purchase a bottle but we wanted to try to find some tequila that we wouldn’t be able to buy back home so we figured we would go in. We got to try several different bottles and were shown a lot of small batch tequilas we definately won’t find at home. We ended up buying a bottle that was aged in cherry wood giving it a very different flavor than you typically get in tequila. If you ware willing to spend money on a bottle this store does have a good selection and there are several of these stores in the main shopping/tourist area by the beach so you don’t have to go far to find one.
Alux Cave Restaurant
This restaurant in downtown Playa away from the main tourist/beach area. It is in a cave which was something we had never experienced so we decided to go. This is a nicer restaurant, it was still cheaper than a night out in the U.S but was by far the most expensive meal we ate in Mexico. We would recommend this restaurant for a nice dinner while in Playa, the food was great and its a nice atmosphere. The restaurant is quite large, there were lots of other people there the evening we went but also there was a rather empty portion of the restaurant which we wandered through to get more views of the cave before heading out. We would recommend taking a taxi to/from the tourist/beach area to this restaurant as it is a long walk.
El Fogon – Best tacos in Playa del Carmen
We had read from several different travel blogs and reviews online that El Fogon had the best tacos al pastor in Playa del Carmen. Ryan had traveled to Mexico for work many times before we took this trip but I had never been to Mexico and had never had real tacos al pastor. We had tried to recreate these tacos at home many times before and each time they were really good but Ryan assured me that they were not really pastor. So needless to say tacos al pastor was really hyped up in my mind before we even left for Mexico. We walked to El Fogon one afternoon and it did not disappoint! The restaurant is nothing fancy at all, it has bugs bunny and tweety bird panted an the wall along with some other old cartoons and basic tables with plastic chairs but the food is amazing! You can see the pastor being rotated on the vertical spit and everything else cooking on the grill as you eat your food. The food is also super cheap, we each had two beers, we had multiple tacos and a gringa and the total bill was about $14. Definitely worth a stop or two while you’re in Playa.
La Coronela Restaurant
As we wandered around Playa in the main tourist/beach area full of shops and restaurants we stumbled upon this very small, family run restaurant. Nobody was standing outside trying to get us to come in and eat, which most of the restaurants in the area will do. This place was amazing, everything was delicious and all homemade. We actually loved it so much we ate there twice during the week we were there. We would recommend the pastor style fish. We did enjoy the coconut shrimp but they were a bit sweeter then we expected.
We spent about 3 days of our trip just relaxing and exploring around Playa del Carmen. The rest of our trip we spent exploring further out in the Yucatan. As we said Playa del Carmen is a great place to base yourself as you are not that far from a lot of other activities/cities. Other things we did on the trip include; the Tulum ruins and snorkeling, swimming in a cenote and exploring the Mayan ruin site of Ek Balam and spending our final day in Cancun before flying back to the US.
24 Hours in Cancun
Due to our early morning flight, the last day of our trip we headed to Cancun. We stayed in a small apartment downtown. We took the local bus to the hotel zone which is along the beach were all the resorts are. There is public beach access so even if you aren’t staying at one of the resorts you can still enjoy the beach. The restaurants and shops in this area are very touristy. We were starving and did end up grabbing a quick lunch in this area. The food was okay but overpriced and nothing tasted authentic. We would recommend eating in downtown Cancun then just spending time in the hotel zone if you are looking to enjoy the beach. Our host recommended an Argentine restaurant (Restaurante San Temo Argentino) that had recently opened up just down the street. We walked there for dinner and would highly recommend it. You can see them grilling all the various cuts of meat from all the tables in this small restaurant.
We really enjoyed our time in Playa del Carmen itself and the surrounding area of the Yucatan. We found Playa del Carmen to be a great central location to stay while you explore the region. Links to Yucatan day trips:
- Hidden Gem Near Cancun: Fish Market Mar-Bella Raw Bar Grill
- Tulum Ruins, Beach, and Snorkeling
- Ek Balam and Cenote Maya through Alltournative Tours
This restaurant was highly recommended to us by the host at our apartment the last night of our trip. We didn’t make it to this restaurant that night since we decided to go somewhere within walking distance and this was a little further away. But when we went back to the Cancun area for Ryan’s brother’s wedding we were determined to leave the resort and find this place. The resort staff actually tried to talk us into another restaurant, but we insisted this was where we wanted to go and we were not disappointed. You walk into what looks like basically a convenience store and you would not know that there was a restaurant if you didn’t know to look for it. You walk up a small spiral staircase and once you are upstairs there is a small seafood counter to the left and the restaurant to the right. The restaurant is right on the water so you see the beach and the small fishing boats as you eat. You order from the list of all the fresh seafood at the counter. Items can be cooked in a variety of ways. Fish is on order by the kilo. The server can tell you the different ways they can cook everything and offer recommendations. We were lucky enough to find a waiter who did speak English well and could help us out. Spanish would have helped with the majority of the staff there. We had a group of 5 of us so we ordered a ceviche, a whole fish, grilled and served with risotto and veggies on the side. We also tried a few chocolate clams: a few of us had them raw with a squeeze of lime juice and the others tried them grilled in a butter sauce. Everything was delicious and very fresh. We would highly recommend this restaurant if you are in the Cancun area.
The Mexican winery that got the most praise in our internet research was Don Leo – which is about one hour from Parras de la Fuente. It is situated 7000 ft above sea level in its own small valley. Saturday morning we woke up, took a very cold shower (no heat!) and did a quick yoga. We then went into town to see about some breakfast – I had found a gordita place on tripadvisor, but we were not able to locate it. We did get some gas at the Pemex since we were just under a half tank and the stations are sparse in the desert. After refueling, we continued our search for breakfast, which ended up at Casa Vieja, which was a small family run restaurant that served some really good Cafe de Olla and huevos divorciados along with some elephant ear-like glazed tortillas. The eggs were great, and both the red and green salsas were very good. After breakfast, we decided to head up to Iglesia de Santo Madero. The curvy path we took was a bit sketchy and precarious, Siri wanted us to go up a steep road that our trusty Nissan March was terrified of (so was Erika). We finally got up to where the walk to the church starts and took a few pictures. The hike up to the church is a pretty wide brick path width steps on one side. You spiral your way around the church on the way up and there are a few benches along the way to take a rest or picture on the way. Where the path ends, steps start to the top of the hill. You can take the path on the left, which is made up of really steep stone steps or the right, which has a more gradual and consistent steps. We took the left route up, and on the way you up there is a short tunnel you walk through with a few places to light candles under a crucifix on either side. Once at the top, you have a great view of Parras below, and are up at the small chapel. We took a few pictures and headed back down. There were great views not only of the valley, but the surrounding mountain range that Parras is in the foothills of.
After the quick trip to the church, we headed back into town and got some cash before departing for Don Leo. We ended up stumbling upon a more lively market in a square near Las Parras De Santa Maria (restaurant) with a lot of cool stuff. We tried and bought some whiskey cream, but they also had Pecan cream liqueur that was good. They had a lot of wine themed accessories and decorations. We knew we would be really early, but our map said it was an hour drive from our hotel so we didn’t want to take any chances. We were initially under the impression that Don Leo was in the Parras region, and while it technically might be, it is completely different. From Parras, it is about a 45 minute drive closer to Saltillo (but not taking the toll road). Then after a really scenic drive through orchards, desert, eroded river beds, and Don Leo signs meant to encourage you that you are on the right road, you reach the entrance sign for Don Leo. Picture driving through the desert without having seen a building for 25 miles and turning right on a dirt road that leads up the mountain – it was a nice looking sign that told us we were at least on the right path.
It was another 10 km or something up the mountain on this dirt road climbing roughly 2k feet of elevation to be at the roughly 7k ft of elevation Don Leo says they are located. Since we were about 45 minutes early we took the ride really slowly and took a bunch of pictures – it is a really pretty ride up, which ends up in a huge clearing in a high valley that resembles a bowl surrounded by mountains. In the middle, there is a massive field of cattle grazing on grass. In the distance there at other crops that are difficult to distinguish from the distance. You finally veer to the right to end up at the winery with the vineyard surrounding it. It was by far the most refined place we visited. We parked and found our way to the reception desk where we gave them reservation name and paid. We were lucky that a nice English speaking gentleman that worked there caught our poor Spanish and showed us around for a few minutes since we were waiting. We walked around on the balcony and took in the views, which were great! When it got closer to our tour time, we went back to the reception desk where they corralled us onto a trailer for a vineyard tour. As I had expected, the tour was in Spanish (our communication in setting up the reservation made it sound like there was a chance at English) which wasn’t a huge deal: I can understand a fair bit and we have been to enough wineries to know what they are doing. We just missed some of the specifics of what made Don Leo unique. What I did gather is that they are a bit unique to the other Mexican wineries in that they are situated at a higher elevation. This allows them to grow grapes the others would not, such as Pinot Noir, Semillon, and others. When we got back to the winery after a trip around the vineyard, we unloaded and descended the steps ok to the barrel room – as with any winery, this is usually the highlight that most people get excited about and this one did not disappoint. It actually reminded me of a larger Loma Larga (Chile)- with backlit “Don Leo” signs in an otherwise dark room, all the barrels in neat rows and ready for the pictures. From the barrels, I saw they used American, European (Hungary), and I heard our guide say French barrels (I didn’t see any though). There was also another tour going through their tasting in the barrel room, so it was a bit difficult to understand him. We then went into the winery – very modern and clean in comparison to the old Casa Madero winery we had seen the day before. He then proceeded to talk through the entire winemaking process from grapes to crushing/destemming to fermentationp, pressing and fining. Well I am assuming so – my winemaking Spanish vocabulary could be a bit better, but he was very thorough in his explanation.
After another 15-20 minutes we had finally sat around a big table for the tasting (this was about an hour and 20 minutes in and we were getting restless). We sat down to a cheese and meat platter, with three tastings coming up. He then went into the tasting process (See/Swirl/Smell/Sip/Savor) as we stared longingly at our wine glasses hoping for permission to taste. The actual tasting, food pairings, and wine were all very good. We ended up liking the Cab/Syrah the best of the wines we tasted. There was also a Zinfandel rose (thankfully it was dry), and Merlot – which was good, but not as full bodied after having the Cab/Syrah (I probably would have structured the Merlot before the Cab/Syrah). After the tasting, some of the group went upstairs to have a meal paired with wine, but we didn’t opt for that and just bought a bottle of Syrah, which we hadn’t tried, and started our journey back to Saltillo.
-Overall impression of Don Leo was that they were putting in a lot of effort to educate the people on wine: what it is, what the process is, how to taste it, etc. The guide at Rivero Gonzales had mentioned that they are trying to create more of a wine culture in Mexico, since right now people view it more as a mixer (sweet reds, sangria, etc.). In that regard, I think Don Leo is doing a good job of the education side. I would say that the tour, while educational was a bit drawn out – two hours total for a tour and tasting of three wines is a long time. I think a solid hour could have kept people a bit more interested. To be fair, I was listening in a second language that isn’t super strong in an echoey loud room and I was just tired of trying to listen. The winery, vineyard, and surroundings are all really nice, and the wine was quite good.
– Tour- 7/10 English would have been nice, but more points were deducted because it was a bit longer than I thought it needed to be.
– Tasting 8/10 – He did a nice job of walking through the tasting process, the wines were all good, and the pairings were actually really good. For an almost 35 minute tasting I probably would have preferred 4 or 5 wines (or cut the time down a bit) we talked about the wine sitting in the glass in front of us for 15 minutes before our first taste. The group was probably also about 25 people, which was part of the reason it took so long and made it much less personal. Ideal for this style of tour/taste would have probably been 10-12
– Wines – 8/10 All of the wines we tried were solid, nothing blew my socks off though. That being said, I would have liked to try their premium bottle – which I am guessing received first-use oak and better concentration. We probably also would have bought a bottle of it if we had.
– Winery/Vineyard – 9/10 it is an impressive place. Not a large scale operation, but the whole experience of the drive in to the winery itself is on par some of the better wineries we have been to. The view itself is worth the drive.
After we worked our way out of the Don Leo estate, we took the long backroad to Saltillo since it doesn’t make sense to backtrack to Parras to take the toll road. You are basically crossing the Coahuila Desert and you won’t see many cars, have any cell service, or see a gas station so make sure you are prepared (I preloaded a map before departing Parras). It is a really scenic route though and if you aren’t in too much of a hurry, plan to stop to take pictures.
Here are the links to our other posts about more wine tasting in this area of Mexico: