Should I Go to Cancun or Playa del Carmen?

These two destinations look similar when you first start your online vacation research: both Cancun and Playa del Carmen are known for their white sand beaches, each has beautiful resorts, both provide access to amazing snorkeling and diving sites, wild nightlife can be found in each city, both are within easy distance of the area’s main tours and eco parks, and they’re only an hour’s drive apart. How different could they be?

Despite all their similarities, Cancun and Playa del Carmen provide two distinctive vacation experiences, and your choice will depend entirely on your own personal preferences. But how can you know which one you’ll love the most if you’ve never been?

In my opinion, the fundamental differences between these two Mexican Caribbean destinations lie in just two main aspects: atmosphere and beach.

Atmosphere: Cancun vs. Playa del Carmen

Do you see yourself strolling along streets lined with cafés and restaurants? Cooling off with tangy micheladas at a beach club or lantern-lit palapa bar? Riding a sky blue rental bike from one end of town to the other? When it comes to atmosphere and pure beach town charm, Playa del Carmen is your destination. The city centers around 5th Avenue, a long pedestrian street that runs parallel to the coastline, and the compact layout of the town makes it easy to get to restaurants, the beach, or your hotel by foot or by bike. Playa del Carmen is a town for travelers who want to explore on their own, try the bars and restaurants, and do some people-watching.

Playa del Carmen 5th Avenue

Playa del Carmen photos by Andy Ruiz

The atmosphere of Cancun as an overall city is almost non-existent for travelers, with no good place for a lovely café-lined stroll, at least not within the Hotel Zone. (Downtown Cancun, where the locals live, is growing as a cool place to hang out, but it might be too out of the way for most resort-lovers.) That being said, each beach resort is its own little world with its own charm and lovely style, and the city’s restaurants often have gorgeous views and scenery, so you’ll still find yourself surrounded by plenty of atmosphere.

The downside to Playa del Carmen: As the city has grown over the past decade, more and more large businesses are coming to Playa del Carmen. This means several stunning new shopping malls on 5th Avenue and larger luxury hotels that are wonderful for the local economy, but many complain that the small-town beach charm is beginning to disappear.

Beach: Cancun vs. Playa del Carmen

On your next vacation, do you see yourself wasting the day away lazing on a lounger by a pristine infinity pool overlooking intense blue-and-turquoise striped Caribbean waters? Do you long to wake up to an ocean view every morning? To see the moonlight shining on the ocean from your balcony each evening? If you’re a beach-obsessed pool junkie, then you want to experience Cancun. The Cancun Hotel Zone sits all along a long and narrow island, meaning that almost every single resort has an amazing beachfront location. And yes, the beaches here rank among the best in the world – extensive white sands and striking turquoise waters that are rarely found elsewhere. If you want to just relax and not worry about a thing while enjoying the world’s most gorgeous views (and who could blame you?), then book a week at an All Inclusive resort in Cancun.

Riu Palace Las Americas beach

The quality of the beaches in Playa del Carmen, on the other hand, varies greatly. While the overall color of the ocean in Playa del Carmen can be stunning, the area right along the shoreline might not be. The beaches of the main Downtown Playa del Carmen area have suffered extensive erosion and sometimes (to be honest) have a not-so-great smell. The only Playa del Carmen beaches that even come close to Cancun’s beaches sit at the far southern end of town: at resorts by the very southern edge of the Playacar area. Shangri-La Beach at the end of 38th Street also looks very nice on most days, but still doesn’t compare to Cancun.

The downside to Cancun: The layout of Cancun, with a long-and-narrow Hotel Zone and a separate Downtown area where locals live, means that the city is more difficult to explore. When staying at a beach resort, you probably won’t be able to walk to many cool restaurants, and it’s not as easy to really, truly explore the area unless you take a city bus or two. If you just want to lounge around the perfect beaches, dine at the resort restaurants, and maybe just go out once or twice for a special dinner or a jungle tour, then you won’t mind.

The Verdict

The decision here really falls on what kind of vacation YOU want. Both cities boast beautiful scenery and some of the world’s best hotels and resorts, along with good prices compared to many beach destinations in other countries. Don’t stress over the decision for too long because you can’t go wrong! Just pick atmosphere (Playa del Carmen) or beach (Cancun), then get started planning the details of your vacation.

Our New Custom-Made Dining Room Table!

Jorge and I have long been wanting a dining table made of katalox wood for our new house! Our last house didn’t have a dining room, and we were excited to finally get something as simple as A TABLE. We’d seen katalox tables we liked at upscale stores, but they were usually very large and cost upwards of $20,000 pesos (about $1,000 dollars, not including chairs).

Katalox table

Something like this table is what we had in mind! Source: NativoMexico.com

Then, a few weeks ago, Jorge spotted our dream table for sale, used, on Facebook. The measurements were a bit larger than we wanted for our dining table, but I went in person to check it out anyway. Sadly, it had a wide and unsightly crack all the way down the center that would take a few hundred dollars to fix, putting the total cost at around $12,000 pesos (about $600 dollars). Jorge thought that maybe for that price we could have one custom-made, so we went to a woodshop called “El Pajarito” in Cancun to get some prices on materials.

After looking at different options, we settled on the thinner boards so that the table wouldn’t overwhelm the not-so-big dining room space, and we were thrilled to see that the thinner boards were significantly cheaper! Total, we spent about $2,100 pesos ($105 dollars) on wood.

Next, the woodshop owner referred us to a carpenter next door, who said he could have it all made in 2 – 3 weeks, including some time to let the wood expand… and he did! He charged us $4,500 pesos for labor, bringing the total cost to $6,600 pesos for the table ($330 US dollars).

The new katalox table was delivered this past Sunday, and Jorge and I immediately fell in love.

Katalox table Cancun

It fits perfectly into our dining room with room for 6 people. The reddish tone of the wood also adds some much-needed color to our house, which already has a lot of plain brown furniture. (Please forgive the pile of stuff on the right – we are still working on getting enough closet space in the new house to store everything!)

Yucatan wood table

Mexican dining room table

The branch crayons in the center were a souvenir gift from my brother-in-law’s recent trip to Michoacan. They’re almost too pretty to let the toddler use them!

Katalox wood

Needless to say, Jorge and I are incredibly happy! For a fraction of the price we had seen in stores, we were able to get our dream table and get it in a size that perfectly fits our space.

If you like what you see, the carpenter has a Facebook page! Just click here to follow and see some of their other work.

We still have a lot of work to do on the new house, like hanging up some artwork, getting doors made for our closets, CHAIRS for the new table, decorating the upstairs balcony, a railing for the staircase, a few more furniture pieces, and doing some cool stuff for the backyard… and someday, redoing the kitchen! (I like my kitchen, but I don’t LOVE my kitchen.) Then again, getting things done little by little is making the whole process even more fun.

What It’s Like to Have a Baby / Toddler in Cancun

My son is now almost two years old (he’s 21 months in Mommy-Speak), and not only has he taught me how to be a parent – he’s also taught me how to be a parent in Cancun, Mexico. I grew up as the youngest of 3 kids, and neither Jorge nor I had much experience with kids and babies before having one of our own, so it’s been a trial-and-error adventure! We’ve been blessed with a super-easy kid who is happy, outgoing, adventurous and a great sleeper, although his high energy levels keep us on our toes. (Seriously, the kid does not sit still.)  With that background info, here’s my take on what it’s like to start out parenting as an expat living in Cancun:

Puerto Juarez restaurant

Lunch date with the newborn in Puerto Juarez

Daycare

My understanding is that daycare in the States is around $1000 dollars a month, making many parents question if it would make more sense financially to stay home or continue working. Here in Cancun, daycare costs about anywhere from $50 to $200 a month, depending on how fancy you want to get and how many hours you use. This is still a good chunk of monthly salary for many employees in Cancun, but still more reasonable, I think. If you’re an employee who has IMSS or ISSSTE (Mexican social security and public health care), you are eligible for certain approved daycares for free; the downside is that there is a bit more paperwork up-front and these daycares often have a waiting list, but the opportunity for free daycare far outweighs those two minor inconveniences.

Baby on Isla Mujeres

Baby’s first day trip to Isla Mujeres!

Babysitting

When I was a kid growing up in Virginia, my parents would pay one of the neighbor girls to come over and babysit us two or three evenings a month. When I was in middle and high school, other families from my church would pay me to watch their kids from time to time. In the States, it’s normal to hire a trustworthy friend or acquaintance to watch your kids so you can go out, on a date, etc. Here in Mexico, not so much. I don’t think I know any parent in Cancun who has hired a babysitter, or even asked a close friend to watch their kids. (Correct me if I’m wrong here, guys.) Instead, people here rely almost entirely on family members. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and older cousins are almost always willing to step in and watch your kids, for free! For those parents that have no family in town, they simply don’t go out as much, at least not without their kids, or one parent will stay home so the other can go out. We are incredibly lucky to have Jorge’s family here in Cancun and they are all great babysitters, so we were able to get the occasional full night’s sleep when our son was an infant, and go out on more dates as he has gotten older.

Downtown Cancun taco restaurant

Waiting in line for tacos with Dad

Raising a Bilingual Kid

Our son is being raised bilingual. I speak to him entirely in English, and Jorge speaks to him entirely in Spanish. Since he will be hearing almost all Spanish outside of our home, right now we make sure to balance that out by having all his books, music and shows in English. (He is obsessed with Sesame Street and only Sesame Street.) So far I think it is going well; he took a little longer than most to start talking, but now he has maybe 20 words and phrases, about half in English and half in Spanish. In theory he is supposed to talk to me exclusively in English and to Jorge exclusively in Spanish, but since he is just starting out, we are mostly just focusing on making it easy for him to communicate in whatever language for the moment.

Cancun park for kids

Practicing his walking at the local park! (For awhile there he needed 1 item in each hand for balance)

Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding and formula feeding are both very common in Cancun, and although there is awareness about the pros and cons of each, there doesn’t seem to be any judgment as to which one you choose for your family. Breastfeeding in public isn’t too common, but I think that’s mostly because many moms prefer to stay home with their infants and not take them out much for health reasons; however, when a mother does breastfeed in public, nobody seems to care or notice, even if she isn’t using a cover. If you go to a mother’s home, she probably won’t be shy about breastfeeding while visitors are around. In Mexico, breastfeeding in public is simply a non-issue.

Going Out with a Baby / Toddler

From what I can tell, babies and children are more welcomed in public here in Mexico. Mexicans in general just LOVE kids and are more likely to talk to your kid or compliment them when you go out in public. Some expats here have mentioned that Mexicans are also more likely to want to touch or hold your baby, but personally I haven’t had a stranger touch my son yet, although my friends and family enjoy holding him. It’s common here to see kids running around restaurants, the mall, parties, shops, etc., and nobody seems to mind the extra noise and commotion.

Rio Lagartos with kids

Seeing the flamingos in Rio Lagartos

Buying Baby Stuff

When I first got pregnant, I was worried about not being able to find all the baby accessories I wanted here in Cancun. However, I discovered that most everything is easily available, toys are relatively inexpensive, and feeding accessories like bottles and baby spoons are pretty cheap. Also, local carpentry is pretty affordable and high-quality, so you can easily have a crib or other baby furniture handcrafted for a fraction of the price you’d pay at a fancy store. The small downsides I found to buying baby items in Cancun were the following:

  • Many of the nicer, less essential items like baby swings and bouncers are very expensive as compared to the US, and can mostly only be bought in department stores.
  • Muslin blankets that are so popular in the US right now are hard to come by in Mexico. I suppose you could make your own, but I was surprised to see muslin blankets just aren’t that popular here, even though they’re great for the hot Cancun weather. I’ve heard that Mexican parents prefer to keep babies more bundled up, so maybe that’s why blankets here tend to be made of heavier materials. I have seen muslin blankets for sale at some department stores, but they’re pretty expensive and there aren’t many options. We usually buy a package or two whenever we go to the States.
  • I haven’t seen any English-language kids’ books around town. We always stock up when we go to the States.
  • Brand-name baby clothing, like Carter’s or Osh Kosh, is incredibly expensive in Cancun and usually only available at boutiques and department stores. We like to either buy cheaper clothes in the States, or go to H&M in Playa del Carmen because they have a large kids’ section with stylish and very affordable clothes.
  • Crib mattresses are sold at most grocery stores, but come in very limited sizes. We have a pretty standard-sized crib but had to have a mattress specially made to fit. There are also fewer options for crib sheets. (I’ve noticed good linens in general are hard to find in Cancun at a reasonable price, which is why we usually buy new sheets and towels in the States.)
  • Many of the more specialty baby/toddler accessories aren’t easy to find. For example, those no-spill snack containers that everyone has in the States are almost never seen here in Cancun; when I finally found them at Liverpool department store, I bought two!

Overall, everything we need is right here in Cancun. We only have to buy in the States for those trendy items I see my US friends using, some cheaper but cute clothes and linens, and English-language books, of course.

Activities for Kids

Despite being a young city, Cancun is finally starting to evolve its own local culture and community. Over the past 5 years or so, the city has begun to offer lots more activities and events for kids. It’s easy to find swimming classes, stimulation activities for babies, kids’ theater, etc. Outdoor options for kids abound: just head to the beach, or go to one of the city’s many many many parks, most of which have playgrounds. We especially like Parque Kabah for its natural setting and large wood playground, and our neighborhood has a central park area that fills up with families every night. There’s also a monthly event called Co’ox Cancun on Avenida Nader where they close down the avenue for bikes and pedestrians, along with offering a local market and some family-friendly activities. On rainy days, you can also take your kids to indoor play places like Malecon Kids or Peter Piper’s Pizza (like Chuck E Cheese). Many restaurants have play areas for kids as well, and some restaurants like XBurger and La Casa de los Abuelos also have babysitting for toddlers (at about $20 pesos an hour) so parents can sit down to a kid-free meal.

Cancun family

Park and beach days with Mom and Dad

The Verdict

While there are a few small downsides to having a baby/toddler here, like not finding those specialty items we want, overall I would say I am very happy with our decision to raise our kid in Cancun. Childcare is affordable (for us), the overall culture is very open to all kinds of parenting styles, and we have a strong family network here to support us. I have yet to compare the school system because our son hasn’t started pre-school, but I’m sure I’ll have more to say down the line. I hope this was helpful, although I’m sure my experience will differ from other parents in the Cancun area and other areas of Mexico.

 

 

I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream When Plunging Facefirst into the Jungle

Thud. Zhhhhooooooom.

That, dear readers, is the terror-inducing sound that means you’ve just been dumped face-first off of a tower into the jungle.

“Oh no… oooooh no…”

That’s the sound of me right before being pushed off a platform while desperately clinging to a bungee rope (followed in quick succession by a steady stream of expletives and several instances of taking the Lord’s name in vain). 

Cancun bungee swing

TERROR.

 

I don’t wanna give too much away here because it’s kind of a tour you need to experience for yourself, but my Saturday at Selvatica was AMAZING. I did things I never thought I’d be brave enough or strong enough to try. The setting was gorgeous with newly-built zipline towers and a beautiful hub area that actually took my breath away for half a second. And the service was without a doubt the best I’ve had anywhere… the staff is clearly having tons of fun, pulling pranks and joking around while still being professional.

 

Selvatica jungle zipline
Cancun jungle tour
Selvatica Cancun

 

Despite having me absolutely terrified, my absolute favorite part of the day was the bungee swing! Pictures can’t do it justice, so here’s a recent video I found on YouTube:

 

Surprisingly, the most relaxing part of the day was the Superman zipline, the fastest in Latin America, where you speed face down over the jungle with your arms spread out, reaching speeds of up to 85 kilometers per hour.
Selvatica Superman zipline

I swear this is much, much higher up than it looks, you guys.

 

After a morning of endless zipline fun, we did a Polaris ride through the jungle then swam in a cenote. (I was too boring to jump off the platform into the water, but still had a wonderful time floating in the water!)
Jungle tour Cancun

Typical Cancun weekend.

 

This was the “Gimme All” package at Selvatica where you get to try EVERYTHING (all ziplines, Polaris/ATV, cenote, canopy walk, and I’m sure I’m forgetting some things because I was happily exhausted by 3pm). Anyway, if you’re one of those crazy adrenaline adventure-seeking travelers, please make sure to do a day at Selvatica on your next trip to Cancun! I’d say these are the most challenging and extensive ziplines in the entire Cancun/Riviera Maya area, only for the brave 🙂

 

Cancun Travel: Solo Exploring or Organized Tours?

Followers and friends often ask me which I’d recommend when traveling to the Cancun and Riviera Maya areas: going out to explore on your own, or booking a tour?

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to go on an organized tour with my friends at GoMexico, a Cancun-based company that offers tours in several of Mexico’s top travel destinations. We took the Tulum + Cenotes Plus tour, and I LOVED IT. The day’s itinerary would take us first to the Maya ruins of Tulum, then to a cenote park called Aktun Chen just north of Tulum. We were taken everywhere on a comfortable, air conditioned bus, and I frequently found myself comparing the experience to a similar day last year when I had taken my sisters on a Tulum/cenote day trip using the public van system. Which experience was better? Which experience would I be more likely to recommend? The comfortable and convenient organized tour? Or the self-made family itinerary with nobody but me as the primary tour guide?

Tulum Riviera Maya Caribbean Sea

The Transportation

When I took my sisters to Tulum last year, we got there by using the public van system out of Playa del Carmen, with cheap “colectivo” vans that take you up and down the main Riviera Maya highway (read more on that experience here). While cheap, the vans were somewhat uncomfortable and always full… Not necessarily a problem if you’re only going on a half hour trip, but something to consider for people with mobility problems. The region’s main destinations (Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Akumal and Tulum) all have designated spots in town where you can find the vans, but when on the highway after visiting a cenote, you have to flag them down by the side of the road. It’s a bit hectic to figure out the first time, but pretty easy once you know what you’re doing. By contrast, the bus with the GoMexico tour was air conditioned and very comfortable with reclining seats, great for napping. Tour buses usually pick you up straight from your hotel, or from an easy-to-access location in a popular tourist area. From there, they take you to each of the day’s tour locations, then back to your hotel, or close to it. Easy peasy. And bonus: They’ll usually serve you a boxed breakfast and/or lunch along the way!

Cancun tour bus

Our tour bus and part of the group! (You can see me in the bus staring out the window) Photo by @ConnyCun

Tulum Ruins

I’ve been to the Maya ruins of Tulum over my past decade living in Cancun, but this was my first time visiting the site with an organized tour. Having a tour guide was WONDERFUL. Thanks to our ruins guide Cesar, I learned so much about why the ancient city of Tulum was built a certain way (often relating to the sun’s positioning throughout the year), as well as its history and way of life. Cesar even took us to spots around the site that I’d never thought to visit before! If you go to Tulum on your own, you can still hire a guide at the entrance to take you through the site, and if you have all day with nowhere else to go, you can even spend the afternoon at the beach below the ruins, one of my favorite places in the world.

A little language trivia: While we were at Tulum last weekend, some Mexican friends and I got into an interesting discussion on the use of the word “ruins”. In Mexico, they tend to prefer the phrase sitio arqueológico (archaeological site), while ruinas (ruins) might be considered an insult. On the other hand, in English the word “ruins” has a feeling of mystery and romance and has become the more preferred phrase, while “archaeological site” is hardly used at all… and when it is used, it sounds a bit cold, scientific and impersonal.

Tulum beach

Me on the Tulum beach a few years ago, when Jorge and I were spending the weekend in town

Tulum Mexico beach

Tulum beach last weekend

Tulum doorway Maya ruins

Cloudy day…

Tulum tour guide

Our group learning from guide Cesar

 

Tulum train

On the Tulum train with @zukogirl and @pptotravel

 

Tulum Cancun tourist

Yours truly last weekend

 

Tulum guide

Oh-so-casually leaning against a palm tree while listening to the guide (photo @marhubarreto)

 

Tulum beach photo

A small crowd getting in some beach pics

 

Tulum building

Beautiful city!

 

Tulum rock formations

Tulum’s beach has the best rock formations

The Cenote

The second leg of our tour with GoMexico took us to a place called Aktun Chen. Here, we were given a Mexican-style lunch before we were taken to see some of the features of this area: a 20-minute walk through stunning caves, followed by an hour swim and snorkel in what is, to date, the most gorgeous cenote I have ever seen. The cenote at Aktun Chen is almost entirely enclosed within a cave; stalactites hang over clear, blue waters, and beautiful stalagmite formations lurk below to create a memorable snorkeling experience. Booking a tour will often let you visit some of the region’s most amazing cenotes located deeper in the jungle (like Aktun Chen), and using the van system limits you to the cenotes located closer to the highway, like Jardin del Eden or Cenote Azul. When renting a car, you have no limit to your choices.

Aktun Chen cave lake

Spelunking

 

Aktun Chen Mexico caves

Ok so clearly GoMexico’s photos are way better than mine

 

Aktun Chen cenote

Love. Love. Love.

My Verdict: Solo Exploration or Organized Tour?

Well, I guess in the end I don’t have a huge preference either way as it mostly depends on who’s asking!

If you’re a tourist: Go for the organized tour. There’s no hassle, no headaches, no questioning if you’re going in the right direction, no wasting precious vacation time getting lost, and you’ll probably get to see the area’s more impressive attractions, even if they’re harder to reach. You won’t have to figure out where to get lunch, your bus will be comfortable, and your pick-up spot will be easy to find.

If you’re a resident or a frequent visitor to the area: Do mostly solo exploring to save money and see places other tourists might not ever get to visit, BUT book a tour every once in awhile to see some of the Riviera Maya’s most beautiful and hard-to-reach locations. If you have a car – or can rent a car – or have a local friend with a car… well, that’s the best of both worlds.

No matter which option you choose, I hope you have fun exploring Cancun and the Riviera Maya!

Cancun Date Night at La Habichuela Downtown

Even when you have the easiest baby in the world, sometimes you just need a date night.

And so, last weekend Jorge and I dropped off the baby with my in-laws and went out for dinner and a movie. First was the movie “Room” at Plaza Las Americas (highly recommend!), then we headed to Parque Las Palapas to experience one of Cancun’s oldest and most iconic restaurants: La Habichuela.

With 38 years of history in Cancun, La Habichuela has two locations: the original restaurant by Parque Las Palapas, and the newer La Habichuela Sunset in the Hotel Zone. (You might remember we went to La Habichuela Sunset about a year ago when I was very, very pregnant.) On this particular night, Jorge and I wanted to try the original.

I had been to the original La Habichuela once before, but never had the opportunity to sit out in the garden and hoped that this would be my night. It had been raining all day, but the sky had completely cleared by the time we arrived; much to my delight, they had a covered terrace area within the garden, just in case of rain. The host sat us at the last table for two on the narrow terrace that had filled up with customers, mostly small groups of tourists and a few locals.

The garden area twinkled with little white lights, accented by Mayan statues and small trees. A Downtown Cancun fairytale setting! Yes, date night had begun.

Right away, the waiter brought us a jícara (dried gourd) filled with a Mayan drink called balché, made with tree bark, honey and water. Definitely one of the most refreshing drinks I’ve ever had and the perfect way to start the night. Jorge offered himself up as the designated driver for the evening, and I took advantage of my baby-free evening by ordering a few mojitos.

We were both in the mood for some soups, so Jorge got the cream of habichuela (string bean) and I got the lobster bisque; I’m pretty picky about soups, and these were delicious! Jorge and I filled up so much on soups that we couldn’t even finish our shrimp. (No worries, we ate the rest at lunch the next day.) Both of our shrimp entrees were wonderful, especially the sauces that came with them.

And for dessert… anybody who knows me, knows that if it’s not a chocolate dessert, I’m not interested. Well, La Habichuela changed my mind. The staff recommended the flambéed strawberries, so I asked Jorge if he wanted to take the risk with me, and he was happy to go along. Our server, Muse, brought all the flambé equipment tableside, and we looked on as he added cassis, red wine and brandy to the hot pan of strawberry slices. Then, he served the strawberries and sauce over vanilla ice cream and gave us each a glass. I had in front of me two things I’m not a fan of: vanilla ice cream and a non-chocolate dessert. Less than excited, I took my first bite… and discovered I had been so, so wrong. The flambéed strawberries and ice cream they had prepared was one of the best things I have ever tried, even better than *most* chocolate cakes. Thank you La Habichuela for taking me out of my comfort zone!

I think that my years as a waitress plus my years living in a city with so many cool restaurants has made me pretty picky about food, service and atmosphere. La Habichuela got gold stars in all three!

Travel Like a Local? Or Travel Like a Tourist?

Much of my career is based around the simple fact that I am a Cancun local.

You can come to me if you want to know the cheapest ways to get around town, the best place for tacos, where locals hang out on weekends, and the best bars off the main hotel strip.

And this works out well for me. Why? Because the hot new trend in travel is to experience a city “like a local”. Like me. Like my friends.

The beach at sunset in the upscale tourist neighborhood of Playacar, Playa del Carmen

My family checking out the sunset in the off-the-beaten-path lagoon at Isla Blanca

Every year, it becomes increasingly less cool to look like a tourist or act like a tourist… even if you are a tourist.

I would like to present the other side of the coin: sometimes the touristy stuff is the coolest stuff.

My favorite example is where to get tacos in Cancun. Yes, there are some really great tacos al pastor right by my house. Some of the best in the city. The place fills up on Sunday at noon (right after mass lets out) with a long line down the sidewalk. But you know which taco joint I always recommend? La Parrilla. Yes, I’m talking about the tourist-filled taco restaurant on Avenida Yaxchilan that everyone visits after shopping at Market 28. Yes, the one with all the mariachi groups and the waiters who balance giant margaritas on their heads. It is without a doubt the most touristy taco place in Cancun. But guess what? Those tacos al pastor are friggin’ delicious. And it’s easy to find. And the margaritas are pretty good, too. And you won’t have to face Moctezuma’s Revenge the next day (unless you overdo it on the margaritas). La Parrilla is super-touristy, but they serve amazing authentic Mexican tacos that surpass many of the most hidden-away street carts.

I always say, “Sometimes touristy places are touristy for a reason. It’s because they are good.”

My family came to visit last week. My sister and brother-in-law really wanted 3 things:

1. To visit a cenote

2. To visit Xcaret

3. To eat at a hole-in-the-wall taco place where “they might get sick”

My brother-in-law almost seemed ashamed about wanting to see Xcaret because it is so touristy. But guess what? Xcaret is really, really cool. It’s always on my lists for best day tours from Cancun. It’s filled with tourists, but it is AMAZING. Stunning. Fascinating.

But on the “travel like a local” side of things, Jorge and I took my sisters and brother-in-law out to a cenote that most non-Mexican tourists don’t know about. We took a cheap colectivo van to get there and back, just like the locals. We snorkeled. We jumped off a cliff. Then we took another colectivo van to the Mayan ruins of Tulum. (Ok, the ruins were touristy, but we did it local-style… except for the hazelnut praline coffee I bought at the new Tulum Starbucks… seriously) It was everyone’s favorite day of their vacation, and it cost us less than $20 dollars per person.

Jumping off the cliff at Cenote Azul

Me (left) with my middle sister in a touristy area of Playa del Carmen

I guess in the end, my advice would be this: When traveling to Cancun, try to get the scoop on hidden local gems and ways to save, but don’t disregard the touristy stuff just because you won’t look as cool to your Instagram followers. You might be missing out on something amazing.

Christmas in Cancun

I have always traveled back to the States for Christmas, ever since I moved to Cancun in 2005. That’s 10 Christmases. This year, I will finally be spending my very first Christmas in Cancun.

And guess what? I don’t feel very Christmas-y. Only 2 houses on our street have put up Christmas lights (1 of them is us), for some reason our tree doesn’t smell very pine-y this year, Jorge and I have been too busy to watch many Christmas movies, and it’s just too darn hot to feel like Christmas.

But that doesn’t mean we haven’t been trying to get into the holiday spirit! It is also baby’s first Christmas, and we are excited to see him open presents and go through his stocking. (Funny side story about that stocking: 5 years ago, Jorge had his first Christmas in the States, but he didn’t own a stocking. We ordered him a cute snowman stocking online from Target. When we opened the box… the stocking was considerably larger than we had anticipated! We kept it hidden away all these years, and now since we forgot to buy baby’s stocking in advance, we are rocking the giant stocking once again.)

As always, we set up a Christmas tree (smaller than usual this year). Jorge has always wanted a train around the tree, so we picked up a cute one from Home Depot in early December. My mother is the queen of giftwrapping, and she passed that talent down to my sisters and me. I couldn’t find curling ribbon in Cancun, but the thick ribbon looks pretty festive!

I also went with some friends to a local Cancun Christmas tradition: the Sunset Boat Parade. First I went to the press tweet-up for a sunset yacht ride from the Sunset Admiral Yacht Club & Marina last week…

…then attended the big Sunset Boat Parade event on Sunday night at Jardin del Arte on the lagoon. The Manos Magicas Christmas market was there with lots of local Cancun artisanry, along with live shows. Everyone lined up along the lagoon to watch the boat parade, a flyboarding show and a beautiful fireworks display. It started very, very late, but it was a very cool Cancun-style Christmas event! The water looked amazing.

Last night I baked cookies and watched Christmas specials with some girlfriends, and tonight Jorge and I will be watching our all-time favorite Christmas movie: Home Alone! Then we are having Christmas Eve dinner and lunch on the 25th with my in-laws, and my entire family is coming to Cancun to visit me the week after! The warm weather has me feeling un-Christmas-y this year, but we are surrounded by so much love, family and beauty this year. I thank God for everything.

Happy Holidays to you all, however or wherever you are celebrating!

Our Cozumel Anniversary Trip

We’ve been married for 5 years! It’s hard to believe it has been so long since our wedding day back in 2010, and Jorge and I still have so much fun together. We would have loved a huge week-long vacation to celebrate, but a newborn sure changes things. We left the baby with Jorge’s parents, and jetted off to Cozumel for the weekend. And by “jetted off”, I mean we took the ADO bus to Playa del Carmen, then the cheapest ferry to the island. Of course.

Our friends Juan and Viri celebrate their anniversary the day after we do, so we made it a couples weekend. Viri got us a room at this great little hotel called Vista del Mar. It sits right on the main road in Downtown Cozumel, and it has an ocean view. I loooooved hanging out on the balcony!

Our first day on Cozumel, we rented a Jeep that was clearly well-used (to put it nicely), and had a little road trip around the island.

We use a selfie stick. Deal with it.

We wanted to hang out at the Punta Sur beach, but the entry fee was very expensive for us, so off we went in search of something else. The entire Caribbean Sea has been suffering from a huge sargasso problem the past few months, so we had to settle for the closest beach with as little sargasso as possible. I was so bummed by the whole sargasso thing that I didn’t take any beach pictures, but we did end up at this cool little beach bar in the middle of nowhere that I absolutely LOVED.

Viri asked the bartender his name, to which he replied “Luis Forever”. The bar had a neighboring souvenir stand, plus a shaded hammock area on the beach.

Chillin' with Luis Forever

We were the only people in the hammocks when we arrived, but we were soon surrounded by all kinds of other travelers: a family with small children, a British couple, some couples, and a guy who kindly offered me a hit from his pipe. (People are SO NICE – but I politely declined.)

I also had my first alcoholic beverage in over a year – a really, really amazing mojito. But to be honest, I kind of liked Jorge’s coco loco better.

For lunch, we went to Muellecito at the southern end of Downtown Cozumel. Muellecito is a favorite of ours here in Cancun, but the one on Cozumel has an ocean view. Score. I’m OBSESSED with their caldo de camarón (shrimp broth) – first because it’s deliciously spicy, and second because it’s free. I also had a Long Island iced tea, which has like 3 kinds of alcohol in it, so I didn’t finish it because I started to get buzzed a third of the way through. That’s the danger of drinking something that tastes just like tea, but has zero tea content.

I don't remember this picture being taken.

The next morning, Viri and I noticed that there was a little entrance to the water right across the street from the hotel, and the water looked amazing! Turns out, the water around Downtown Cozumel is very, very rocky. Painfully rocky.

My feet were in a lot of pain when this picture was taken, but don't I look fabulous with the yacht in the background?

Later on a stroll through Downtown, we noticed a very nice beach just a block from the hotel. Oh well… missed the opportunity to swim here, but it sure looks nice in pictures!

Before hopping on the ferry back to the mainland, we got some lunch at a seafood restaurant called Tio Jose. The nachos were so, so wonderful, not to mention the seafood dishes. We grabbed a table right by the water, and there was a calm inlet with lots of families enjoying a Sunday swim.

We did so much more on this trip than I mentioned here. There was a haunted-house-style wings restaurant, a swim in the hotel’s terrace pool, watching local kids play in a fountain, some great omelettes, and a few road trip adventures where our Jeep almost exploded, but I really dropped the ball on the whole blogger taking photos thing. Hopefully you enjoyed the photos that I do have!

Newborn Photo Shoot!

Jorge and I are now the proud parents to a handsome baby boy! Baby “A” caught us all by surprise and arrived 3 weeks early, and so far he has been a very, very easy and laid-back baby.

He is over a month old now, but I have been way too busy with family, baby and work to post about him on the blog until today. I have already been posting photos of him on the Facebook page and my Instagram (@CancunGringa), but he hadn’t made it to the blog quite yet.

The good news is that we now have the images from his newborn photo shoot, thanks to Monica Lopez Photography. Some of my long-time readers will remember that Monica also shot our Trash the Dress photo shoot on Isla Mujeres several years ago.

The newborn photo shoot was done in our house and around our neighborhood. We have several pretty parks nearby, and we may have snuck into a neighbor’s yard at one point.

Here are my favorite pictures of A, with his parents making a few appearances. 🙂