The Mayan Riviera - Cozumel, Playa del Carmen, Tulum

Laura and Shannon in San Miguel, Cozumel

4/24/2010

Shannon and I just returned from a week in Cozumel. We went with Laura and Joel, Shannon's cousin and her husband.

Overall it was a great trip. We were concerned as the weather reports prior to departing were not looking good, lots of rain everyday. I had wanted to go in February but due to conflicts, like Shannon's sister Sarah having a baby and spring break, ended up meaning that we scheduled the trip later than I had originally wanted to go but it worked out well. The weather was very mild for most of the weather and early spring with the weather turning wet as we went into April. Mid-April is the start of low season, most American's heading south from the beginning of the year through spring break. While there was rain the first day we arrived, most of the trip has a low of mid-60's to low-70's and highs in the low 80's and slightly overcast. Having the cloud cover was nice as anyway tropical tends to have hot direct sunlight even if the temps ae only in the 80's.

One conern right now is violence in Mexico. There are a lot of people at this moment who will not go to Mexico due to concerns over violence with the drug cartels. This was not a concern on our part, while there definately parts and cities in Mexico that you shouldn't go to due to the risk of violence, the Mayan Riviera; Cancun, Cozumel, Playa del Carmen and Tulum are big sources of revenue from tourism. If the cruise ships stop using Cozumel as a port of call or Americans stop going to Cancun for spring break, the economic impact on Mexico is huge. For this reason you see a lot of police. We never saw a single sign of violence and as you will see further down in my trip report, our experience with the Mexican police was one of the best I have had anywhere in the world.

We ended up taking a red-eye on Friday night. One of the problems going to this part of the world is that you are either going to have to stay overnight at the airport or take a red-eye as the flights to the Carribean and eastern Mexico all take off mid-day and with the time difference no flights leave early enough in the morning to take both flights on the same day. For the first time I took a sleeping pill on the flight, the first flight that I have ever done that on. Makes it much nicer the following day having had at least a few hours of sleep. In this case we had to change flights in Houston. After a short layover we were on the next flight and on our way.

Arriving in Cozumel we hit with the overwhelming number of touts at the airport all trying to sell us a rental car, tours, or hotel room. We already had a rental car booked for the week so after waiting for a while for all of the touts to get their clients cars, we were able to get our car and head to the hotel.

This trip was the first time that I have stayed at an all-inclusive resort. Not my sort of thing, I have always viewed this as very similar to cruise ships. After taking the cruise last year and finding that it wasn't quite as bad as I expected, I thought it might be kind of interesting to see what it is all about. Cozumel is about 15 miles off the Yucatan peninsula and is a rather small island, albeit much bigger than anywhere we stayed at in Belize. About 30,000 people living on an island about 25 miles long and 15 wide.

Our hotel was on the south coast, about 15k south of the only town on the island, San Miguel. I made a wrong turn coming out of the airport so we had the not so scenic tour of the part of Cozumel where the locals live, more like the real Mexico as opposed to the part of town that the cruise ship passengers see.

Our hotel was the Wyndham Sabor. Wyndham has three hotels and a time share property all right next to one another. The Sabor is the middle of the three properties price wise, Azur being the most expensive. If you book a room in the standard resort, you can only use their pools and restaurants, at Sabor you can use the Sabor pool and restaurant and then if you are at Azur you can use all three properties. The room quality and size also increases at all three. After reading the reviews on Trip Advisor, it looked like Sabor has the best value especially for the price we paid through Orbitz.

Sabor was nice, with four buildings each with three floors and four rooms to a floor. There was a small pool under each of the buildings with water slides leading to the main pool. For some reason we paid a little more to be on an upper which had a balcony and a hammock. I think Wyndham figured a way around having only a few rooms with pools outside of the room and priced those rooms on the upper floors more expensively. Pay more but get less.

We didn't do much on the first day just kind of explored the hotel. On the second day (Sunday) we booked a snorkeling trip with a guy who called himself Crazy Manuel. Really good snorkeling, we hit a few different areas; one shallow enough to wlk through with sand dollars scattered across the bottom, several places with great coral formations and lots of tropical fish and one sea turtle.

Snorkeling

On Monday we caught a ferry to the mainland. As it was a ways from the hotel into town we took the car into town and had some trouble parking but found a block on the main street along the beach in town that didn't have no parking signs and walked to the ferry. The ferry's are very heavily used, leaving every hour and filled with hundreds of locals and a few tourists. A lot of locals live on the mainland and take the ferry to Cozumel to their jobs. After about 45 minutes we arrived in Playa del Carmen.

Playa del Carmen

Had I known what Playa del Carmen was like I would have tried and stayed there. Very nice town, very hip. The Americans mainly go to Cozumel, especially via cruise ships (up to 10 a day in high season and 3-4 when we were there in low season). Playa del Carmen draws the Europeans; everyone from young and stylish to older and average. A neat and interesting diversity of people. Playa del Carmen also has a great wide beach with bigger surf. Not good if you want to walk out and snorkel in which you can do in Cozumel (wonderful snorkeling right from the beach at our hotel) but a great place to spend an afternoon. Lots of great restaurants and hotels. Definitely someplace I want to go back to.

We grabbed another rental car (there is a car ferry but it isn't practical for a day trip) and drove south to Tulum. After about an hour we arrived at the ruins in Tulum. The unique thing about Tulum is that is Mayan runs on a bluff overlooking the ocean and a nice beach. The ruins are neat but not spectacular but in that setting it is quite the combo. Next to Machu Picchu, the best setting to see ruins. Definitely worth a trip.

Tulum

After lunch (El Mariachi in Tulum, recommended by a woman I work with who has taken several trips there) where I had a dish call Alhambre which was ham, pork and beef with onions, bell peppers, cheese and covered with tortillas and the best green hot sauce I have ever had we drove to Coba. Another set of Mayan ruins, this time spread over a large area. Large enough to have rickshaws that take you between the temples. Not the most spectacular in the world, but they do have a very nice Mayan ball court in much better condition than the one at Tikal.

We drove back to Playa del Carmen, caught the ferry and went to were we parked the car and it wasn't there. Asked a woman working in one of the nearby shops and she told us that t had been towed. At this point it was like 8:30 at night, but she said that we needed to go to city hall which was like 10 blocks away and that they would be open and we could get the car back. We decided to walk and it ended up being a very long 10 blocks. Shannon, Laura and Joel stopped at Starbucks (of course they have Starbucks) and I went on to try and get the process started.

After going to city hall and finding a cashier that didn't speak English and finding out that I needed to go to the police station first to get a piece of paper which I would need to pay, I decided that this would be too complicated and went to get everyone else. Of course when I find Joel and Laura I find out that Shannon had already walked to city hall. Fortunately we had cel phones so I got a hold of Shannon and we agreed to meet in the plaza in front of city hall so I walked back to meet her. 

We walked into the police station where we were ignored for about 10 minutes. You can see a few prisoners in cells behind the front desk, cops bringing people in and out and one cop taking a statement from a woman. Then a police officer walks up and asks in decent English if he can help us. We explain the situation and he walks us outside to where some of the cars are. I check and our car isn't there, he walks over to a desk in what is almost a shed and goes through the paperwork until he finds out car. During this process we find out that he lived in Santa Rosa, CA for 16 years and is now the commissioner of the tourist police. We go back inside where he talks with other officers I believe explaining that he is helping us get the car, then to the ATM so I can get $40 is pesos to pay the fine and then to the cashier.

He then takes us out to his police car, we all get in and we are off, driving 5 miles or so south to a place we would have never found on the main road, which is apparently the police impound yard. After talking to the guard who tells him it is too late and he won't let us get the car, he convinces him to give us the car and then on the way back to town he turns on his overhead lights and gives us a police escort into town. A wonderful man, without whom we would have spent all day getting the car back.

We went back and found Joel and Laura sitting at a little Hard Rock bar they have setup just down the street from the world's smallest Hard Rock (why I mention this I don't know, I hate Hard Rocks). We have a drink and then go to a restaurant the bar tender at the Hard Rock told them about. If you ever go to Cozumel go to Pepe's. Pepe's has been around for 30 years or so. It is an old school steak house, dark wood and waiters in tuxedos. We had a wonderful meal and great service. By this point it is midnight and I was exhausted. Very nice to fall into bed.

On Tuesday we explored the island, after having lunch at the buffet at the main resort. Not too far to drive around, maybe an hour if you drove it without stopping. Some of the tourists rent mopeds. Do not do this. The island is too big, the cars drive too fast and the last thing you need is a bad moped accident which happens all the time. If you do have an accident, don't worry an ambulance is only minutes away as there obviously a lot of tourists that need them (we had one come to our hotel while we were in the lobby for what looked like heat exhaustion). We spent a while at one of the several Playa Bonitas that they have on the island. t is the one at the southern tip. It was great, relatively shallow quite a ways out so you can walk several hundred feet into the ocean and just stand or swim in waist to chest deep water.

We got back at like four in the afternoon. I started not feeling that well and ended up coming down with Montezuma's revenge. Shannon ended up getting a little ill and Laura was sicker than I was. Wednesday Laura and I stayed in our room most all day. Shannon and Joel left for while and did a little exploring on the island, but for the most part it was just a quite day at the resort.

Thursday, Shannon and Laura went shopping in San Miguel and Joel and I went diving. I jump off the boat and the regulator comes apart. after fixing that, I submerge to a great dive site, Palancar Horseshoe which had high coral and a drop off. We swam through holes in the coral and then to a sandy area with an alter. I then loose my weight belt which causes me to immediately surface. Fortunately it was near the end of the drive and I was a little high anyway as opposed to the 80 feet we were at during the beginning of the dive. Had it happened sooner I might of spent the next 12 hours in a decompression chamber.

After a short break on the surface, the next dive sight was a drift dive, with current strong enough that I had a very time trying to swim against. It is kind of nice, you just kind of hang there and the current takes you past all of the coral and sea life, where I saw my first lobster.

Friday morning we spent the morning exploring the island some more, going to the light house at the southern end of the island where we saw a number of crocodiles and from the top of the lighthouse, a great view. Then off to the larger Mayan ruins on the island which are very small and unimpressive. We wanted to grab a snack and ended up having a very good late lunch at a Mexican restaurant just out of the tourist area in San Miguel.

That afternoon and evening we went back to Playa del Carmen where we finally had some time to explore. Had a great time there and wanted to spend more.

Saturday it was time to come back to the US. Laura was still really sick so it was not a good trip for her. In Houston waiting for our flight to Portland they announce a two hour delay with us scheduled to have a three hour layover. Not what we hoped for, but this being the only time this has ever happened to me, just before our original boarding time they announce they found a plane and get us on board and takeoff about the time we were originally supposed to.  Back home and in bed at 3:00am (now having adjusted to Central time so it feels like 5:00am).

If you hadn't guessed so far, I really want to go back and stay in Playa del Carmen. Overall I think the area deserves a couple of weeks. A week in my opinion is just right if not too long for Cozumel, unless you want a lot of time on the beach, the pool or enjoying the world class diving. On the subject of an all-inclusive I would do it again for the right price. We got such a good deal that it didn't make sense to do anything else. Having access to free food and drinks was nice, especially since the price we paid was less than just a room at other resorts. I am very glad we went and would really recommend people to go, especially to Playa del Carmen.