Our Perfect 2 Week Mexico Travel Guide
When I first saw pictures of Tulum I was confused that it didn’t represent the Mexico I knew (or thought I knew). It turns out the Riviera Maya / Carribean coast has a completely different vibe to the rest of mexico. It’s so beautiful and romantic, I’m so happy we decided to come here for part of our honeymoon.
There’s lots of things I learned on this trip or after much research that I wish I knew before, or someone had summarised for me. So here’s the guide I wish I had!
In this guide I’ll talk mostly about generalities of planning a trip, Tulum, Playa del Carmen, and Valladolid. I wrote a separate post all about the Cenotes here.
Weather & Season
We arrived in Cancun Airport on the 1st of January, which is a beautiful time of year for these parts, but also happens to be the peak of peak season. Prices were noticeably elevated. If you’re visiting during any other time of year, expect the prices to be much lower for you than in our experience below.
The weather was beautiful most days, sunshine and blue skies in the mid-twenties, but it did rain for about 10-20 min almost every other day. The rain didn’t bother us as it always passed quickly, and if we got caught at a bar we’d just order another margarita. In the evenings and early morning there can be a chill – a jumper or cardigan will do.
Our Perfect 2 Week Mexico Itinerary:
Days 1-3: Playa del Carmen, one day at Xplor
Days 4-7: Akumal, exploring cenotes and snorkelling with turtles
Days 8-11: Tulum Beach
Days 12-16: Valladolid, with day-trip to Pink Lagoon and Rio Lagartos.
Now, I realise that’s not strictly two weeks, but we really took our time. You can definitely cram much more into each day than we did. We took it easy because it was our honeymoon, and spent at least half of each day relaxing, but you can certainly do about 4 cenotes a day for example, and just see everything we did in even 10 days if you’re in a rush. (If you have a car. More on this later.)
Oh tulum. I’ve seen my fair share of beautiful beaches but something about this super white powdery sand and turquoise water just takes my breath away. So beautiful. The first thing to understand about Tulum is that there is Tulum town and Tulum Beach. Two very distinct areas with very distinct atmospheres and ecosystems.
Much cheaper. You’ll find accomodation across the range from hostels to boutique hotels, but all will be significantly cheaper than Tulum beach. There’s a lively and cheap bar strip colloquially called cocaine lane or something like that. If you plan to buy any souvenirs like giant dream catchers, hammocks, sculptures, pillow cases, etc. you can buy them here for half the price of Tulum beach. Big shops selling all of this line the main road (307) running through town centre.
It seems anybody who wants to be somebody is here. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a collection of beautiful scantily-clad women in one place. Hotels here are expensive. Not necessarily in the empirical sense but definitely in the overpriced sense. Tulum beach is also painfully instagrammable. In fact it’s so instagrammable that some photo hot-spots actually have a real queue of people lining up to take a shot. I’ll list all the instagram famous photo spots below if you want to make up your own mind about them.
Getting between Tulum Beach and Tulum Town:
If you like many decide to stay in Tulum town, you can cycle down to the beach area (about 20+ min cycle) or catch a collectivo bus which run regularly between the two. They cost 25 pesos each. I don’t recommend driving in and out of Tulum Beach even if you have a car, as there is only one street here and it’s permanently backed up with cars.
If you’re not staying at a beach front hotel and want beach time, expect to pay a cover charge or minimum spend of between 400 – 800 pesos per person for a lounger.
Hotels in Tulum
As much as I loved Nueva Vida, if I were to return to Tulum I would stay at Le Zebra next time. The beach front bar is more lively (if that’s what you want) with music, a cute margarita-producing beach bar, and a beautiful and delicious beachfront restaurant. The beach bungalows are modern, chic, also all face the sea and each have a cute little front porch and mini plunge pool. Rooms here cost $250 USD per night in the high season, so only marginally more than Nueva Vida, but a very different vibe. Check rates for your dates here.
If you’ve got a bit more cash to spare, then you’ll want to stay in Azulik. Also eco friendly and so much so there isn’t a shower (but a mozaic bath tub to wash in). I have to say it looks absolutely beautiful and the jungle canopy restaurant with sea views is like something from another world. It’s built almost entirely out of wooden sticks and used the shadows cleverly. They’ve created a really unique atmosphere which I haven’t seen anywhere else. Check rates here.
We stayed at Nueva Vida Eco Bungalows. It was beautifuil in it’s own down-to-earth sense. Our bungalow was on the beach with a sea view, but shielded either side by jungle palms for privacy. We could see the sun rise over the sea from our bed every morning, and that was pretty magical. The private beach front was beautiful, with comfortable and varied sun beds, bed swings, and chairs. The beach was always empty and tranquil. Body boards were available for use, but the sea was always far too calm for that.
We paid $230 USD per night for our room with breakfast, but I believe these were highly elevated party-season prices, and I expect these rooms to cost half that at different times of the year. Since it’s an eco lodge, you won’t find hair dryers, irons, or a fridge in the room.
If you like the look of this place, check rates on booking.com here.
Food & Drink in Tulum
My absolute favourite lunch spot. We came here every day while in Tulum and I had the Chicharron Tacos every single fricking day. The tastiest and best value tacos I’ve ever had in my life. Tacos aside, the mixed ceviche here is delightful, and the bar is super cool and non-pretentious. (A rarity in tulum you’ll find). Happy hour margaritas from 6-8 and live music most nights after 8.
At Mur Mur you’ll be paying London city prices for food, and it’s on the high-end for Tulum. But they really get it right for some dishes, particularly the Short rib and all their cocktails. We got the impression most of the staff here were stoned, but that’s ok….
A cute little courtyard serving Mexican classics, about 16 different types of tacos, and refreshing drinks! There are several artisan craft shops in the same courtyard to peruse while you munch.
The grilled octopus is to die for. The atmosphere is very romantic (right on the beach with tree lights and pink skies) and the service exceptional.
Les Euphema Tacqueria
Ok this is a bit of a cheat one. It’s by the same owner as I Scream Bar, but just serves food and in a different location. This one is directly on the beach. Exactly the same ridiculously tasty Chicharron tacos, but on the beach. There’s also a cute old mexican man who plays nice music from a beer-bottle zylophone of sorts. The photos do not do the food justice.
If you’ve ever looked up tulum on instagram you’ll have seen pictures of Raw Love bowls. Vegan “super food” bowls on the beach galore, all very cutely presented. I’m not vegan, but I did find my chia bowl very delicious. Everything contains no added sugar or sweetness, which is refreshing!
Like Raw Love, this place has had it’s fair share of instagram mentions. It’s very very cute. I love matcha, and I couldn’t imagine how a whole place could sell just matcha-based products until I saw the menu. Really quite inventive and imaginable uses of matcha. Give it a go!
Beach Clubs in Tulum
It’s so beautiful. I want to photograph the whole place. Prices are on the very high end, and the food you get is good but not great. When there’s an event on the place will fill very quickly with very pretentious people. When there’s no event on it’s wonderful and really sums up the tulum vibe for me. There’s a cover charge to use the sun beds if you’re not a guest but you can dine at the restaurant with no minimum spends.
Right next door to Be Tulum, also does really great cocktails and has a good beach front restaurant. They’ve got these very cool triangular net hammock teepee ??? things on the beach to lounge uncomfortably on.
Slightly less pretentious than other beach clubs I felt, and also slightly cheaper. Friendlier atmosphere and decent food and cocktails. It’s right next door to Pablo Escobar’s Mansion / Casa Manca.
Valladolid was a super cute mexican city. It felt like real mexico to me. Colourful pastel houses, delicious food, and happy locals. Everything here is about 60% cheaper than Tulum/Playa del Carmen, and just as good if not better. The food quality here has been top notch, and the town bustling in a happy way.
From Valladolid we explored Chitchen-Itza, Cenote Ik kil, and did a day trip to Rio Lagartos and Las Coloradas Pink lake.
This was my favourite hotel we stayed at in Mexico! You get a welcome tequila shot or two and are offered another one every breakfast lol.
Our room had a suspended bed and a cute separate lounge area. We didn’t really need the mosquito net because there weren’t any mosquitoes that I noticed in that area anyway, but it was cute.
Food & Drink in Valladolid
Dishes here cost between $50- 60 pesos and will leave you very satisfied. Incredible value for money, and really really tasty regional mexican food. Most meals come with a side of fried plantaines and beans. This Loncheria is a in a food-court of sorts on the corner of the main square, and is by far the most popular restaurant in it. For good reason.
This is actually the restaurant at Zentik Project, but it’s amazing and worth a mention in it’s own right. You’ll find ‘western’ fusion cuisine here at really fair prices (dirt cheap compared to Tulum) prepared to a very high standard. The “Green Tuna Cevice” is incredible and I urge you to try it.
Not just churros, but grilled /steamed corn, local ice cream etc. The park is a wonderful snap-shot of every day life in Valladolid, and the friendly vendors lining the gates sell delicious snacks for pennies. Have them all.
Chichen-Itza and Cenote Ik Kil
We arrived at about 9:30am, and I’m so glad we didn’t arrive a minute later. About 15 peaceful minutes after entering and looking around, bus loads of tourists arrived from Cancun / Playa del Carmen / Tulum.
We got a guide who showed us around the site and explained the history of each building to us. Guides go for an ‘official’ rate of 1000 persos, but negotiable. (We paid 800.)
A bit of peace and quiet before the busses arrived.
People come here to do boat tours around the marshlands. It has Mexico’s largest population of flamingos and is a bird watching heaven complete with crocodiles. We had a delicious lunch at Ria Maya and can definitely recommend the mixed cevice!
PLAYA DEL CARMEN
We stayed at Condotel Fabiola in the middle of town, which was perfectly located in Playa del Carmen. It was 1 block away from Coco Bongo and 3 min walk from 5th Avenue. I thought it was fab, and highly recommend it for a place to stay while in Play del carmen. Check rates on booking.com here.
The hotel itself is actually apartments, so we had a super comfortable lounge and dining area + kitchen, and a separate bedroom and balcony. The swimming pools and loungers were mostly empty, and really tranquil.
Playa del carmen is small enough to just walk around, particularly if you’re staying centrally. The city is small, and you could see most or all of it in 1 day.
10th Avenue in Playa del carmen is what I would consider the “main” street, along which there’s a cycle path, lots of taquerias / restaurants / shops / banks. Things along here feel a tad less touristy than on 5th.
5th Avenue is a BUSY pedestrianised street full of hawkers, souvenir shops, bargain shops, exchange stalls, bars, restaurants. It’s the tourist strip.
FOOD & DRINK
I love really local but tasty food. Most of these places are really good value, authentic, and super tasty.
Everything here is 21 pesos. Beers, simple cocktails, tapas dishes, everything. I know right. Nothing here is Michellin, but definitely good value for 21 pesos. I encourage you to try the Michellada with seafood. Think of it as a beer-based bloody mary with crispy prawn topping instead of celery stick. There’s two of them in Playa del carmen as far as I’m aware, the one on 1st avenue has a nicer terrace and atmosphere.
Beef sirloin tacos/fajitas and Al Pastor tacos sooo good. Opposite coco bongo and open late. We ate here about 4 times. Equivalent to the mexican version of a good kebab joint.
You’ll find all the local mexican dishes here at very fair prices. Locals seem to visit as much as tourists which can only be a good sign!
Las Quekas Quesadilla
It’s just 2 mexican grannies making quesadillas all day long for 15 pesos each. Fresh, simple, cheap, and tasty! On the corner of 15th Avenue and Calle 10.
A cool and lively courtyard in the middle of a block just off 15th. Great margaritas, music, vibe, and food.
The 3 most famous “nature theme parks” here are Xplor, Xel-Ha, and Xacaret. All of these are run by the same company and have similarities and have an all inclusive lunch buffet as part of the ticket. All of them get very very crowded, and you should expect to wait in line for the main rides/attractions at each park. There are several others, such as Rio Secreto that are worth looking into if you want to avoid the crowds.
Xacaret: cultural shows, dancing, fun for all the family.
Xel-Ha: a water park where you can zipline, snorkel, slides, lazy river, etc. Great for kids.
Xplor: considered the “extreme sport” one, but really not that extreme. There’s zip-lining, ATV driving, hammock water swings, and cenote rafting. We had lots of fun here, particularly the ATV driving, but all still not very extreme.There’s also an Xplor Night which sounds really cool and perhaps the better option if you want to avoid crowds and children.
Tickets: get tickets from a tiny little office on the corner of 10th Avenue and Calle 10. It’s cheaper than online and hotel receptions.
Playa Del Carmen Beach
The beach here is really not that great and very windy. There’s lots of seagrass, in fact mountains of it when we were there, which leaves quite a strong smell along the beach and little room for placing any towels etc. I would save the beach time for further down the coast.
Akumal area seemed to me like an in-between place that was a bit forgotten by people who either go to Playa del Carmen or Tulum. We decided to base ourselves there for a few days, and here’s why you should too:
- You have the beach almost all to yourselves
- You can swim with turtles here
- It’s perfectly located to visit all the cenotes
- Hotels are about 1/3rd of the price of Tulum.
TAO / XIO Akumal
We booked a holiday condo through airbnb at Tao residences. It was in a gated community full of American expats, with a really nice gym, several pools, and a tasty bistro surrounded by jungle. You would need a car to stay here, but for us it was the perfect spot to explore Akumal and the cenotes!
Jungle Fish Beach Club
This place is small and cute but has everything you need: great food, cockatils, small infinity pool on the beach, nice empty beaches, and sun loungers. Very reasonably priced food and drink for a beach-front club.
What to pack (or I wish I’d packed):
- Mosquito repellent (they’re the size of birds here)
- Wet shoes (for the water parks and cenotes. You’ll find these for sale everywhere in Playa del carmen for significantly more than you can buy on amazon.)
- Snorkel set (for all the cenotes and to swim with turtles at Akumal. These are available to hire everywhere, but makes much more sense and cheaper to buy your own.)
Good (rich) moisturiser (down in Tulum beach everything is very dry and dusty and my usual moisturiser didn’t cut it)
- Ear plugs, these are amazing and comfortable to sleep with (for some reason Mexican towns are super noisy at night, and while you’re in Tulum / Playa del Carmen parties will go on till sunrise.)
Other logistics: Electricity sockets are Plugs are two flat prongs = like in the US and East Asia.
Dodgy Conversions: If you get quoted anything in USD, they will most definitely charge you in pesos, but using THEIR conversion rate (bad). So for example if you’re quoted something for $150 USD and go to pay, they’ll use a terrible in-house rate and you’ll end up paying $200 USD. The same occasionally happens the other way around: you get quoted something in MXN pesos but then they bill you in USD at 17 pesos to $1 USD. Be aware of this trick.
Fraudulent Cash Machines: There are plenty of anecdotes going around about many no-name cash machines being scammy. Some are said to be owned by cartels that copy every user’s card details for later fraudulent transactions, while others just whack on secret charges while you take the cash out. Whether or not these no-name cash machines are fraudulent or not, they all charge excessively high usage fees. So in my opinion it’s worth avoiding them. I’ve located at least one reputed and safe cash machine in every location which I’ll share below. These belong to banks and charge significantly less to withdraw money than the small gray no-name machines you see everywhere.
Questionable Car Hire Insurance: Hiring a car is the most practical way to get around the Yucatan peninsula. But most quotes you get online don’t include “added insurance” which when you get to the counter often totals more than the cost of the entire car hire. If you have added insurance as part of your travel or credit card insurance, then don’t worry about getting this. Some places will tell you it’s legally required – it’s not. We didn’t get it, and we had no problems at all.