YUCATÁN AND QUINTANA ROO, MEXICO

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Introduction

I have always wanted to go to Yucatán and Quintana Roo (I learned then that they are two separates states) for the pretty unique combination of Caribbean beaches, archeological sites and colonial towns. So in January 2014, in order to celebrate my 40th birthday and Luigi's 41st, we decided to take advantage of some US Airways miles and we headed there for a trip partly on the road and partly on the beach. Ten days to visit this area is the bare minimum, and I wished  we had a couple more days to visit also the southern Mayan sites of Calakmul and Palenque, and maybe also to take a detour on Isla de Mujeres... oh well, next time!


So we planned the trip in two main sections:


CULTURAL PART IN YUCATÁN

Valladolid-Chichén Itzá-Mérida-Uxmal-Cobá (4 days)


BEACH PART IN QUINTANA ROO

Akumal and Tulúm (5 days)


We had reserved some time in advance the four posadas (local bed and breakfasts) where we stayed, and all of them exceeded our expectations in terms of charme, service and location. They are detailed below.

Practical tips

We flew direct to Cancún from PHL, which is very convenient (and right next to the beach) and from there we rented a car with Enterprise. Roads are in general very good, with several police checkpoints (I guess for the drug lords) and there is even a brand new highway that connects Cancún to Valladolid and Mérida, but since there is a toll (I think it is made for tourists that head to Chichén Itzá), it's completely empty and rather unsettling! Therefore on the way back we preferred to drive on the regular roads, which are much more fun (with tons of people, markets and colorful houses), and we experienced no problems.

YUCATÁN

Valladolid

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We spent our first Mexican night in the lovely posada of Casa Quetzal, a fantastic colonial house with a beautiful courtyard & garden, located few steps away from the famous Convent of San Bernardino and the Parque Sisal. The town of Valladolid has a very nice atmosphere, especially to be seized at night, where around the main square Parque Francisco Rosado people gather to chat and dance. The Cathedral of San Servacio is also facing the square, and so La Casa de la Cultura, where we learned a little bit about the history of the town. Unmissable on the same square is the famous Hostería del Marques, a very popular restaurant with a charming courtyard, where we had a very good dinner.

The next morning we visited the convent of San Bernardino, built in the 1500 by Franciscan missionaries and then, few blocks away from the main square, the Cenote Zaci, our very first time diving in a giant hole in the rock.

The indoor Mercado Municipal is also by the central square and it's a good place to have lunch with local empanadas and lots of fruit and vegetable

Chichén itzá

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The famous Maya capital of Chichén itzá is half an hour from Valladolid, which makes a stop in this pretty town not only very pleasant but also convenient. 

As much as we tried to arrive at the site at the opening time to avoid the buses that are coming from the Cancún resorts, we found ourselves pretty quickly surrounded by crowds. It was also shocking to realize how many local vendors and artisans are allowed to sell inside the archeological park, and to see that most of them would speak perfect Italian to lure us to their products... but despite that, the sight of the majestic pyramid of El Castillo and the other temples was very much rewarding. I would suggest to venture also in the more isolated areas of the park, as there are many small ruins scattered around the forest, with sunbathing iguanas and beautiful flowers.

Mérida

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Mérida is the capital of the Yucatán state and a wonderful town to spend at least a couple of days. We stayed two nights at the beautiful Hotel Medio Mundo, located just few block from the central square, in a chic colonial building filled with art, with two garden patios and a small but cute swimming pool. Our room was huge and breakfast very generous. 

The town is very pretty and culturally alive, with gorgeous  historic buildings overlooking the Plaza Grande, including the very nice Museum Casa Montejo, la Casa de la Cultura and the Cathedral, allegedly the oldest in Mexico. We didn't have the time to visit the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya, in a very new and modern building just on the edges of the historic city and the MACAY-Museo de Arta Contemporanea of Yucatán.

We walked at night everywhere and there are many nice restaurants, including the popular La Chaya Maya, where we had a typical comida yucateca.

Uxmal

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Among the four Mayan sites that we visited in this trip, Uxmal was definitely our favorite. It takes one hour to get there from Mérida through a nice road for the most part in the middle of the forest. The archeological park is vast and almost empty compared to Chichén Itzá, and filled with majestic monuments -that some say represent the finest Mayan architectural style- like the Pyramid of the Magician, the Governor's Palace, the South Temple and the Grand Pyramid and we enjoyed very much the peaceful and magical two-hour stroll. Highly recommended! In front of the parking lot there is also a Chocolate Museum, which we heard was very good. On the way back to Mérida we also stopped to see the pretty church of Santa Elena

Cobá

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We visited Cobá right before arriving in Akumal, being located just 30 km from the coast, overlooking two small lakes. The archeological site is completely immersed in the forest and it is one of the largest of the Yucatán peninsula -for this reason you may want to visit it by rickshaw and bikes, like we did. The fairly maintained ruins are scattered all over and sometimes you really have to search them through the plants, but the big pyramid, Nohuch Mul, is one of the few ones that you can still actually climb to the top  -and it is really fun! 

AKUMAL AND TULÚM

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We spent one night in Akumal in the lovely Hotel Que Onda, built several years ago as an artists retreat by Maribel Bianchi, a funny Italian-Swiss woman. The rooms and bungalows are very pretty and spread around a nice garden and swimming pool, and their little restaurant is also very good. The hotel is located few steps away from the beautiful rocky Half Moon Bay, where also the popular cenote and water park Yal-cu is, and where we had a wonderful first snorkeling dive of the trip. The next day we enjoyed the wonderful and very tourist-friendly Akumal beach, famous for turtles (that we didn't see!) and ate fantastic tacos at the cute Loncheria Akumalito.


Tulúm was supposed to be the highlight of our beach vacation and it completely enchanted us with its gorgeous beach, layback atmosphere and radical-chic décor of the places! We had booked the very pretty Posada Lamar, one of the many little eco-resorts -which the area is famous for- and that was perfect for us, with a nice two-story bungalow literally 50 meters from the white beach and a cool, shaded communal area with wood tables (where we had breakfast),  chaise-longs and hammocks to relax. 


All the boutique/hippie/boho posadas and resorts along the 2 km stretch of the FANTASTIC Tulúm beach are very  similar: some bigger, some smaller, but all offering pretty much the same type of cozy, stylish and low-key  experience. Most of them have also a little restaurant, among which the Italian Posada Margherita brags to be the coolest ;-)

The little road that connects all these places is very pleasant to walk on, especially for some cute little artisanal or artsy stores, while on the beach you can rent kitesurfs (like this one) and surfs, and do may other activities like yoga, spa treatments... that most of the wonderful eco-resorts proposes. 


The main village of Tulúm pueblo is 10 minutes by car away from the coast and it has the very different and more down-to-earth atmosphere of a busy hub for the many locals working in the area's touristy places. Nevertheless it's worthy a stop, if only because it is filled with restaurants, shops and little travel agencies. We enjoyed eating there a couple of nights (our favorite dinner was at an Argentinian place), as the choice is a little more varied and less pretentious than the beach restaurants. There is also a big, modern supermarket at the beginning of the road heading to the costal area, where we bought fruits, bread and prosciutto for our lunches on la playa.


You can't go to Tulúm and not visit the amazing archeological ruins, the only Mayan city (and the latest to be built, before the Spanish colonization) by the Caribbean sea. We went there early when it opened, because we were told that it's better to visit it before the hordes of tourists buses arrive from the Riviera Maya resorts - and I am glad we did it because we got to enjoy an hour of almost solitude around the incredibly beautiful park and even swam on the beach down from El Castillo, the biggest pyramid by the cliff.


While in Tulúm we also snorkeled in one of the many cenotes of the area, Casa Cenote, which is quite big and connected to the sea bu a serious of underground tunnels - which are apparently very popular for scuba divers. Other cenotes that were highly recommended to us were also Dos ojos, Gran Cenote and Sac Actun.

Unfortunately we didn't have the time to explore the close-by Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, which is a Unesco World Heritage site and it is supposed to be wonderful! By the way, I saw a very nice movie/documentary on Amazon that was shot right there: Alamar.


Further readings on Tulúm: