My First Three Months Living in Paradise
It has now been over three months since I officially took my position as the Cancun Experience Officer (CEO) for Cancun.com. It is amazing how fast the time has gone. It’s so easy to get caught up in all of the Mayan Ruins, snorkeling, ecotours, beaches and endless cuisine down here in the state of Quintana Roo. With endless activities, sights, and people, it is easy to get swept along as if you were drift diving off the coast of Cozumel. So before I let that happen for the next four months, I figured now would be a good time to look back on my journey as ‘the luckiest man in the world’.
Facing Unexpected Feelings
When I think back to the initial announcement for the job, I remember being overwhelmed with a lot of different emotions: excitement (obviously), sadness (for my fellow competitors who became new friends), and gratitude (for the immense support from friends and family). But there were two emotions I wasn’t expecting: fear and doubt.
At the same time I landed my dream job I immediately felt a burden placed upon my shoulders. I knew expectations would be high and I questioned my ability to share Cancun and all of the surrounding areas with the world. The reason for this was simple: I’m a budget backpacker and Cancun is a resort based tourist destination. It was a place I would never have chosen to travel as I sought to ‘get off the beaten path’. Could I really live here for six-months and do this place justice?
What I’ve since learned is that I absolutely can. On one hand, I am staying in some of the nicest resorts in the world. On the other, I am tasked with sharing more than what everyone ‘thinks’ about Cancun. Yes, there are amazing resorts, beautiful beaches, and partying. But, there is so much more. Looking back at my last two months, I am now ashamed to have come into this job with those sentiments. However, I am stoked that I get the opportunity to explore a gem that I otherwise may have dismissed.
The reality is that Cancun has something for everyone, no matter what your likes or dislikes, which makes it one of the most versatile destinations that I’ve ever been to. Having the opportunity to live here has been an absolute honor.
What is it like living in Cancun?
So what is it like living in Cancun? Well, it’s a lot like you’d expect. Living in a place most people only vacation to is a dream. Cancun and the surrounding areas were built for tourism, so there is an elaborate infrastructure in place that makes it easy to get around and have a good time.
On any given day I can grab a cab, bus, colectivo, ferry or Best Day transfer, to any number of cultural or adventure activities. Or, of course, I always have the choice to soak up the Mexican sun on a coastline where turquoise-blue water perpetually kisses white sand beaches.
When day turns to night, the heat may fade but the fun keeps going. The Hotel Zone and Playa del Carmen provide access to world class night clubs while downtown Cancun and Tulum offer trendy and intimate experiences. You can find broadway quality shows like Rock of Ages at Dreams Playa Mujeres and JOYÁ Cirque du Soleil just south of Puerto Morelos. Around Playa del Carmen the adventure continues with parks like Xcaret’s Xplor Fuego lighting up the night with fiery ziplines, jungle drives, and subterranean cave swimming.
Needless to say, I have yet to be bored during my first two months. So, naturally one of the more frequent questions I get is, what are some of my favorite experiences and what do I recommend? Well, I thought you’d never ask.
Favorite Experiences and Recommendations
I had a moment during my road trip down to the capital of Chetumal, where I was sitting all by myself on top of a Mayan Temple in Kinichá. It was 11:30 in the morning and I’d already been exploring the site for 45 minutes. Not one other person was there. While sitting looking out over the treeline and surrounding farmland I thought to myself, “Man, I can’t believe I’m getting paid for this.”
Since then I’ve had many of these moments. But it took that trip, three and a half weeks into my contract, before I really had a chance to take a breath and appreciate the magnitude of this opportunity. Obviously a big part of this job is not selfishly keeping all of these experiences to myself, but sharing them with you! So here is a short overview of some of my favorite tips from down here in Quintana Roo.
Cancun and the Hotel Zone
The Hotel Zone
Everyone knows the Hotel Zone has world class shopping, resorts, restaurants, nightlife and beaches. But did you know that this island (yes the hotel zone is an island) has its own Mayan Ruins named El Rey? There are also museums and outdoor art exhibits and scattered throughout the area. To find these, all you have to do is walk to one of the numerous bus stops and catch either the R1 or R2 bus in the direction you want to go. You’ll travel with locals moving in and out of the area for work and pay a measly 12 Pesos or $1 for the bus fare.
The side opposite of the Caribbean Sea is actually a lagoon with crocodiles and protected mangrove forests. You can take eco-adventure tours with companies like Parque Maya or play on a number of other adventure sports at Aqua World.
Don’t be afraid to take either one of those buses all the way into the city and explore even further. The weekends are a great time to visit Parque de las Palapas and Mercado 28. At Mercado 28 you can find all of your souvenirs for a fraction of the cost in the Hotel Zone, while getting food from local food stands. If you go, be sure to stop by one of the many Michoacana ice cream shops to help cool off during the day.
At night you can jump off the bus at one of the first stops outside the Hotel Zone and walk to Avenida Carlos Nader. You’ll find some very hip bars and eateries on this street with a good mix of adventurous tourists and trendy locals.
If you want the same great coastlines as Cancun but experience vibes that are completely different, then I recommend you head on over to one of the two islands nearby: Isla Mujeres and Cozumel.
Isla Mujeres is a former fishing village and, despite being a 30-minute ferry ride from Cancun, has somehow managed to maintain its laid back charm. The island is small and manageable on a day trip but you may find it worthwhile to rent a set of wheels. Typically this means either a scooter or a golf cart. Some great day activities include a visit to the gorgeous Playa Norte, feeding the turtles at La Tortugranja (The Turtle Farm), and walking around the paths at Punta Sur. If want something more upbeat then visit Parque Garrafon for some ziplining, snorkeling and kayaking.
One of my favorite meals I’ve had since I landed in Mexico was on Isla Mujeres at La Casa del Tikinxic Playa Lancheros. They cook a traditional tikinxic fish meal that is absolutely divine. I also really enjoyed my visit to Isla Animals. This is an organization that helps with education, sterilization, rehabilitation of dogs on the island. You can stop by and volunteer for a couple of hours by playing with dogs or even taking them for walks. There is also a lot of coastline around the island that doesn’t see a lot of visitors. So if you feel like exploring, you can go slice out your own piece of paradise.
Cozumel is a bit larger and further away so I recommend planning a few days dedicated to the island. I stayed at Melia Cozumel and had a blast at the resort. This is another great place to rent a jeep, car, or scooter to get around since there isn’t much for public transportation and taxi fares add up fast!
The downtown area is charming and provides a warm welcome when you arrive via boat. The Island Museum is a great starting point for getting oriented and educating yourself on what you are about to experience. If you want to have an amazing meal in a historic building then be sure to visit El Palomar. This is another one of my favorite dining experiences. Of course, in a city with a population of 80,000, there are lots of local restaurants just waiting for you to discover (See Otates, El Pique, and Los Seras).
There are numerous beach clubs which are great ‘one-stop shops’ for you and the family. I visited Mr. Sancho’s Beach Club, which provides the most diverse range of activities, and Chankanaab Beach Adventure Park, which offers lots of water and cultural activities in a beautiful natural environment. Playa Palancar is a great spot to dive into the water for some world class snorkeling and diving. Companies like Dalila Divers offer trips to the three most popular spots: El Cielo, Columbia Reef, and Palancar Reef.
Since Cozumel is so large and so uninhabited, it leaves room for lots of intrepid exploring. The east side of the island is almost completely secluded besides a few scattered restaurants. This is where that car comes in handy. You can explore this coast, have lunch with a view and find your own private stretch of beach (be aware that the currents can be very strong). Next time I return, I plan on uncovering some more of these remote locations, including the Pearl Farm, Isla de la Pasion, and Punta Molas.
The Grand Costa Maya
If I’m being honest, I think one of the best things about going to Cancun, is getting out of it. What I mean is that, to me, Cancun is just a starting point to a whole world of opportunity. I realized this on one of my favorite trips where I spent one week on a solo road trip down the Grand Costa Maya. I went to three different cities and lots of places around them during this time, and the sense of freedom was absolutely exhilarating. As you can imagine, the further south you go the more undeveloped the tourism trail gets and thus you get off “the beaten path."
First let me preface this section by saying that renting a car in Cancun is cheap and easy! I rented a car from the Hertz airport location and was pleasantly surprised to see a higher level of service and workflow than at most places I’ve seen in the U.S. Driving the route was also surprisingly easy. I imagined it would be an absolutely wild experience… but it wasn’t at all! The roads were good, the traffic was chill and the driving etiquette felt very similar to what you will find in the U.S. and Canada.
My first stop was Mahahual. This sleepy beach town has a coastline that is basically a forest of palm trees. It is a destination for dog owners since it is one of the few beaches open to man’s best friend, and it is also a popular cruise port. It is located in between three nature reserves, which means that the life off the coast is much more protected and flourishing than in others. It also means incredible diving and snorkeling opportunities. You’ll also find lots of eco-hotels in the area. I stayed at Hotel Maya Luna just south of town, which embodied the essence of the community. Even if you don’t stay there, it is worth a stop to try the famous Pineapple Curry.
Bacalar is famous for its location on the banks of the stunning Laguna Bacalar, also known as the Lagoon of Seven Colors. I don’t know how many shades of blue can be identified in this fresh water lagoon and I don’t care, because at the end of the day, the place is absolutely breathtaking.
I got a good look at the lagoon on my way into town with a stop at Tirolesas KanKin. They offer much more than ziplines but I was mainly interested in the view from the last zipline, which takes you right along the bank of the lagoon. Once I got into town, I jumped into a boat with Bucanero’s Tours to get up-close and personal with some of the best swimming holes and exfoliation spots (long story).
I have to say, equally as beautiful as the water, is the community of Bacalar itself. It is as if the waters themselves have attracted and inspired artisans from all over the world to gather on its shores. I was there during Semana Santa so there were lots of Mexican tourists in the main square every night. Artisans lined the walkways with their handicrafts on display while they furiously worked away on more behind the tables. All through the streets you see the culture embedded in the restaurants and building facades and it makes for an absolutely charming experience.
I stayed just north of town in a place called Rancho Encantado, which made the experience complete with a charming hacienda-lakehouse feel.
The last stop on my trip was a place many Mexicans told me was a waste of time: Chetumal. While it is true that as the capital of Quintana Roo it doesn’t have a very sexy reputation, I found it to an amazing base for travelers providing an interesting viewpoint for outsiders.
I stayed right downtown at the newly remodeled Hotel Villanueva. This was great because I was right along The Boulevard, which is the road that runs along the bay and serves at the entertainment vein to the city. At night, The Boulevard comes alive with street food vendors, games and kids driving around the plazas in little electric vehicles. The air blowing over the bay is refreshing as you walk around and watch real Mexican life happen all around you.
I was fortunate on my trip to make friends with a local who showed me a couple of secret spots. My favorite was a little blue house where a family has been making and selling ice cream out of their living room for over 60 years. The ice cream is delicious and they offer multiple flavors made from real fruit. You should be able to find it on the map by searching for ‘La Casita Azul Helados Don Nacho’.
Neighboring Calderitas is a great place to watch local life as well. If you are there it would be worth your time to grab a bite at El Rincon de Las Tortugas for some delicious seafood. And a little further out this way are the Mayan Ruins of Oxtankah.
The reality of Chetumal is that it makes an incredible base for all of your southern Quintana Roo adventures. It is only a 40 minute drive from Laguna Bacalar, yet much much cheaper. You also have the nearly unknown swimming hole of Laguna Milagros only 15 minutes from downtown. Odds are you’ll be a spectacle since only locals go here, so prepare for curious stares and maybe even a few free beers. If you head out to any of the ruins like Kinichna, Dzibanche or Kohunlich, you may just have the whole ruins to yourselves. Revel in the solitude.
When I say Xcaret, I’m not just talking about the one park, I’m talking about the destination that encompasses the new Hotel Xcaret and ALL of their parks. Out of all the organizations I’ve had the pleasure of working with, Xcaret definitely stands out. They go above and beyond in both ethos and design and you can see it in all of their creations. Right now they have six parks and two tours, all of which offer a diverse range of opportunities. I highly recommend you look into each one and see what appeals to you and your party: Xcaret Park, Xel-Ha, Xplor, Xplor Fuego, Xenses, Xochimilco, Xichen Tour, and Xenotes Tour.
The best part about this ‘destination’ is that they are the first place to offer an ‘All-Fun Inclusive’ experience. This means that when you stay at Hotel Xcaret, you get unlimited access to all of the parks and tours. What’s important to realize about this, is that these parks combined aren’t just a typical ‘theme-park’ activity, they are a celebration of both regional and national culture and adventure intertwined with the unique geology of Quintana Roo. Plus, it makes me feel good knowing that when I come to Mexico, I’m staying with a real Mexican company.
Six Months Won’t Be Enough
I know it sounds absolutely ridiculous but six months down here will not be enough. I may be called the Cancun Experience Officer, but in reality I’m promoting areas all over the state of Quintana Roo. This means everything from Isla Holbox down to the state capital, Chetumal. When you realize how many islands, eco-reserves, cenotes, beaches, adventure parks, clubs, resorts, etc. lie in between, one could spend a whole lifetime uncovering all of the region’s secrets. But let’s be clear--I’m certainly not complaining.
As I said earlier, Cancun and the greater state of Quintana Roo has something for everyone. If you are first time traveler, you have a wide range of options to suit your comfort level. This place was built for tourism so the infrastructure is well laid out., And since most people speak English, you’ll have no trouble navigating around. If you are a veteran traveler and want to get off the tourist trail, well, there is plenty of opportunity for that, too. So much gets missed in the state that it isn’t even funny. You have the opportunity to demonstrate your travel prowess and explore those under-discovered destinations.
But most importantly, no matter which category you fall under, don’t make the same mistake I almost did, and miss an opportunity to experience one of the most magical regions in Mexico.