How to Have a More Authentic Experience on the Caribbean coast of Mexico
Updated: Jul 26, 2019
Unfortunately the white sanded coast of eastern Mexico is seeing more and more development as the area is discovered by more tourists. Here are my top 10 ways to have a more authentic experience on the Caribbean coast of Mexico despite its growing popularity with tourism.
1) AVOID TOURIST HUBS LIKE CANCUN AND TULUM
Cancun is not what it used to be a decade ago let alone what it was back in the 70's and 80's! And Tulum has had an even faster growth quickly deteriorating from it's place as a low key authentic destination to a hipster Instagram hub in a mere 10 years from when I first went. For those that haven't been in many years they will be surprised by the stretch of high rises and Las Vegas style town center that Cancun has become and the over-priced acai bowl and electronic party scene now at it's peak in Tulum. The key to escaping these Americanized tourist hot spots is firstly to head into the Riviera Maya region (south of Cancun and North of Tulum). You will still have to fly into Cancun but don't stay there. A short half hour drive south will bring you to smaller towns and a much more "Mexican vibe". There are several regions including Riviera-Cancun, Puerto Morelos, Playa Maroma, Playa del Carmen and more. In addition you could opt to instead take the ferry from Cancun to Isla Mujeres and stay on the island itself which is overlooked by many- it's usually done as a day trip from Cancun but it has a lot to offer on it's own as well and is very easy to get to! I'll mainly be focusing on the Playa del Carmen area for the prime central location with local markets and easy access to explore by foot in a very safe and friendly town!
2) NO ALL INCLUSIVE RESORTS
Although they are luxurious and convenient and sometimes great especially when staying in a more secluded area, try not staying at an all inclusive mega resort. This is particularly best in an area like Playa del Carmen or Isla Mujeres where you have a town that you can walk and bike to explore some amazing local restaurants during the day. One of my favorite options in Playa would be the Mahekal Beach Resort where you can stay in traditional cabana style villas on one of the best beaches around with a great central location. You can choose to have no meals or if you prefer- half board (2 meals a day) included, leaving you the freedom to get out and explore town restaurants and nightlife easily.
3) TAKE A DAY TO EXPLORE COLONIAL MEXICO
Playa Del Carmen is modern Mexico but with a short day trip inland you can reach Valladolid and get a taste of colonial Mexico. Only about a 1 1/2 hour drive into the Yucatan you can see a whole other world. The streets are filled with Spanish colonial architecture and you can try some traditional Mayan dishes, some of my favorites are Relleno Negro (a turkey stew) , Pollo Pibil (a chicken cooked in banana leaves with spices) and Conchita (a slow roasted pork).
4) LOCAL RESTAURANTS AND NIGHTLIFE
Explore the local restaurants and nightlife! Although Playa Del Carmen is a fast growing area with tourist traps starting to pop up you can easily avoid these and embrace the local culture if you veer off the beaten path. For nightlife try the La Bodeguita Del Medio, a Cuban restaurant and bar that usually has live salsa music in the evenings, or Blue Parrot Club- a beachfront dance club. If you want something more upscale try the rooftop lounge at Thompson Playa del Carmen. Looking for some lunch and dinner spots where you can try some local cuisine? Try El Fogon, Loncheria Dona Mary, La Cueva de Chango, Los Aguachiles or Axiote restaurants. For something romantic and high end try the beachfront dinner spot Fuego. The options are endless! If you want some options farther from 5th ave for a more quaint feel you may need a bike rental, see #5 below for renting a bike.
5) RENT A BIKE
After you've explored the bustling center by foot a bicycle can open up the less trodden areas of town. You can easily rent a bike for $5-10 a day. Make sure your rental comes with a lock and be sure to avoid riding on highways or in the dark as it can be quite dangerous with the traffic. Head south to Playacar and try some other restaurants here such as Kaxapa Factory or La Famiglia. You can also bike ride to the ferry port for a day trip to Cozumel island.
6) TAKE THE FERRY
The Caribbean coast of Mexico is famous for their reef system which is the 2nd largest in the world and is home to plenty of sea life including sea turtles! Don't snorkel off the beach here. Instead take a ferry to Cozumel island and snorkel the protected marine parks where you can get away from the hustle and bustle. The ferry is only a 1/2 hour ride and is about $14 round trip.
7) SKIP THE PARKS
Although the mega parks of Xel-ha and Xcaret are great fun, they are definitely for tourists. Escape by skipping the parks and instead heading to some cenotes . My top 3 favorites near Playa Del Carmen are Cenote Azul, Jardin Del Eden and Cristalino Cenote. They are about 20 minutes south so grab a taxi or collectivo to head there.
8) TAKE SPANISH LESSONS
Knowing some Spanish even just the basics before you go will help a lot with getting around and having a more local experience as it will open up places to you with less tourism and therefore less English speaking. If you can't do lessons try DVD, audio and phrasebooks for some practice. On the other hand you can take Spanish lessons while in Mexico to truly connect on another level and learn from the locals first hand.
9) ENGAGE WITH THE LOCALS
Don't be shy! Strike up conversations and meet new people. You never know who you will meet. Mexicans are incredibly friendly and having someone invite you to a local hot-spot or give you some tips or recommendations is priceless! This is how I discovered some of my favorite restaurants.
10) CHECK OUT THE ART SCENE
As mentioned Playa del Carmen is a "modern Mexico" town and you can see a great art scene here! Visit some gallery spots like Riviera Art Gallery and Pepe Soho Photography to see this other side of Mexico. You can also visit the Playa del Carmen Museo Frida Kahlo and the Ambarte Mexican Folk Art Shop for some more traditional style works.
Overall much of the Caribbean coast is becoming overrun by tourism but don't let this stop you- you can still experience true Mexico if you are willing to take the path less traveled and explore the local life. Feel free to comment or message me with your own experiences and any questions. Enjoy your trip to Mexico!