Yucatán Travel Guide

Read and see more photos of our family trip to Tulum and Villadolid here.

Transportation

Bus.  The whole Yucatan peninsula is completely accessible by bus.  The ADO bus is the one that we used.  These buses have comfortable seating and are air conditioned.  The trip from Merida to Tulum was less than $10 and completely painless.  Tickets can be purchased at the terminals which are located near the town centers in the larger towns.  http://www.ado.com.mx

Colectivos are shuttle vans and are a cheaper alternative to taxis.  While in Tulum, we’ve taken the colectivo to the beach.  Colectivo stops are not always obvious but it’s widely used by the locals so just ask.

Bikes.  Most hotels and hostels provide bikes for rent at a small fee.  Biking is a really easy way to get around Tulum.  We would often bike from our hostel to the beach, the store, and nearby cenotes.  Although some roads are narrow and do not have a bike lane, I felt that the drivers in Mexico tend to be more respectful of bikers than in the States and felt pretty safe while biking around Tulum.

Car Rental.  The daily rental rates are insanely cheap, but the insurance is more expensive.  The total will work out to about the same price as renting a car in the US.  Book ahead online with any of the major car rental companies to get the best rate.

Mexican car alarm.

Stay

Airbnb $-$$$ – Really easy to find plenty of good and cheap options in Merida and around the Yucatan.  It is where we found our “cheap” beach side resort in Tulum this time around.

Hostel Candeleria $ – A cute little hostel with individual hut rooms and a nice garden for eating.  It’s located right by the town center in Valladolid.

Tubo Tulum $ – a cheap and cute novelty hostel with rooms built into concrete cylinders.  A bit claustrophobic but comfortable enough.  The location is right in between the beach and Tulum downtown so it’s a good base if you plan on getting around by bike.  I would recommend it if you are traveling without kids.

The Tulum coastline is dotted with private mansions and boutique hotels.  Looking at Google earth, I found two bays that appear to have shallow and calm enough waters for Ellie to enjoy, so we set out to find a hotel along this bay.  Most of the places are way out of budget, but in the end we found a place on Airbnb aptly named “The Last Resort“.

The Last Resort $$ – This “eco-resort” consists of a few simple thatched-roofed huts on stilts built right on the beach.  Our hut is literally a few steps away from the waves.  The Last Resort is an eco-friendly hotel with a shared-use kitchen, outdoor shower, and a waterless composting toilet.  Don’t let composting toilet scare you–it was really well-maintained, clean, and odorless.  If you’re looking for a luxury-styled “eco-resort”, this isn’t the place for you.  It’s comfortable enough, but it’s pretty much a step up from camping.  The room isn’t impervious to mosquitoes and we found the mosquito netting around the bed to be inadequate, so all of us got bitten during the night.  That is the major downside to this place.  The upsides are numerous, including hanging out with the resident dogs and cat in the hammock between two coconut trees and being steps away from the crystal clear water and baby-friendly beach.

Posada San Juan, Valladolid $$ – I wished we had more than one night here at this charming boutique hotel.  I felt instantly transported back to some old Mexican hacienda at this hotel.  Amazing eye-catching artwork adorn the walls.  The rooms are tastefully decorated and smells faintly like lilies.  There is a beautiful courtyard garden and pool lined with lounge chairs and tables.  There is even a well-stocked cabinet of traditional Mexican toys and books for kids.  It’s a place catered 100% to relaxation and is totally worth a splurge.

Merida

Merida is the capital of the Yucatan and its colorful streets are full of that old town charm.  Merida is also a good base for a day trip to Izamal, another old town that has a colorful convent and ancient ruins that are a little wilder and overgrown and less crowded with tourists.

merida

Valladolid

Valladolid is another pictueresque old town filled with colorful old buildings, folk art museums, and good Yucatan cuisine.  It is also a good base for exploring Chichen Itza and nearby cenotes.

valladolid

Chichen Itza

One of truly amazing man-made structures left from the ancient world, it is definitely worth a trip to see with your own eyes.  I went both times I’ve visited the Yucatan, but the second time we got a guide and it was definitely more interesting to learn about the history behind the structures as we walked around.  Guides usual gather around the entrance and just talk to them for a bit to see if you can follow their English (they are usually really good) and if their rates are reasonable to you.

Eat

The Kitchen Table $$$ (Tulum) – My husband and I both agree that this place was absolutely worth the splurge.  In typical Tulum fashion, the tables are tucked away in a large, jungle themed garden.  There is a large open kitchen where you can see the chefs roasting their signature pulpo on an open fire.  Seafood, meats, vegetables and drinks are all made to perfection.

El Camello $ (Tulum) – A busy, casual restaurant near the end of the Tulum downtown strip.  It’s packed with locals and tourists alike.  They are famous for their ceviche and fresh seafood.  Portions are extremely generous so watch out when you order the “medium” size.

Restaurare $$ (Tulum) – This vegan Mayan restaurant serves up moles and curries full of interesting spices and pack a strong flavor.  Great drinks, too.

Hartwood $$$ (Tulum) – We had no idea this restaurant is world famous.  We showed up with a baby at 6:30 and were able to get a table right away–pure luck!  The dishes are creative and artistic, while staying true Mayan cuisine flavors.  Everything was incredibly delicious and memorable, including this beautiful ceviche.  Definitely worth a try even if there is a wait.

Antojitos La Chiapeneca $ (Tulum) – This everyone’s favorite taqueria in Tulum.  They are famous for their el pastor tacos.  There is usually a line, but it moves pretty fast.

Yucatan style Mexican fast food.  Sopes,  panuchos, tacos pavo en relleno negro.

Yerbabuena de Sisal $ (Valladolid) – This restaurant serves up traditional Mexican “cazuelas” or comforting moles in earthen bowls.  They also have a wide variety of delicious smoothies and milkshakes.  The best thing about this restaurant is the seating in their tranquil garden full of the sound of fountains and bird song.

Taberna de Los Frailes $$ (Valladolid) – Located right next to the Convent of San Bernadino, this restaurant offers pretty decent Yucatan style cuisine.

El Atrio de Mayab $$ (Valladolid) – Another good restaurant for traditional Mayan cuisine.  The food was traditional Yucatan style, nothing too creative, but delicious nonetheless.

Hotel el Meson de Marques $$ (Valladolid) – Probably the best Yucatan/Mayan style food I’ve had in Valladolid.  The food is exceptionally great quality and the dining experience in a tranquil courtyard of the historical hotel is also really wonderful.

The Coffee Bike Station $ (Valladolid) – a newish cafe with a friendly owner, bike-inspired decor, and great coffee.

Best Beaches

Xcacel Beach – The real draw of this beach for me is that it’s usually quiet and not crowded, being further away from the stretch of resorts (but it’s just a short ride on a colectivo).  It’s actually a national park and turtle sanctuary.  Bonus: there is a small freshwater cenote right next to the beach.

Tankah beach – Located in the quiet Soliman Bay where the ocean is like one big swimming pool stretching into the horizon.  Since we stayed right on the beach we didn’t make a special trip out to this beach, which is identical to the one in front of our resort.  Great for snorkeling and swimming–just watch out for the stingrays that like to hang out in the shallows.

Paraiso beach – One of numerous resort beaches along the Tulum coast with the characteristic fine white sand and turquoise waves.  Grab a margarita at the bar and enjoy the view.

These girls wanted a picture with our sand mermaid/fertility goddess.

Best Lagoons

The variety of swimming holes in the Yucatan region is mind-boggling.  Due to the geology of the region there are thousands of unique cenotes and lagoons.

Yal-ku Lagoon – Located in the neighboring town of Akumal, this lagoon is connected to the ocean.  The lagoon is full of fish and is a fun place to swim or snorkel.  Even though it’s popular with tourists, it never feels crowded as the lagoon is quite big.  Even though the whole lagoon is open-air, there are still a lot of underwater stalagmites and other cave formations that are characteristic of cenotes.

Kanlum Lagoon – This lagoon is one massive sinkhole with a really wide shallow area that was perfect for Ellie to swim in.  This place is popular with the locals and the yoga crowd.  Get there before noon if you want a quiet swim.  The mud is actually sulfurous and I’ve seen people put it on their faces as a mask.  Sulfurous mud is anti-bacterial and good for your skin, especially acne!

Best Cenotes

A cenote is a natural sinkhole that formed from the collapse of the limestone bedrock.  They are the surface connections to larger underground lakes and rivers.  Each cenote is unique–some are almost completely subterranean while others are partially exposed to the sunlit world.  Swimming in them is always a trip, especially when you can see the dark abysmal openings to the underwater cave systems.

Grand Cenote – Located just a short bike ride away from downtown Tulum, this is pretty popular spot with tourists and locals.  It is also one of the most beautiful cenotes I’ve ever swam in.  The water is crystal clear and full of fish and even tiny freshwater turtles.  There are cave tunnels you can swim under that sometimes have bats in them.  Fun fact: Ellie made a poop in her swim diaper while swimming here and we finally learned whether a swim diaper works or not.  Verdict: they work!  They held everything up beautifully while she’s in the water and we had no idea until we got out and opened it.  Then it was like a dam just broke and brown shitty water came rushing out and ruined our lives.  Consider this a warning.

Cenote Zaci – This cenote is located right next to the town center in Valladolid.

Agua Dulce – This cenote comes highly recommended to us by our hotel host in Valladolid.  It’s about a half hour drive outside of Valladolid and is not very well-known to tourists yet.  In fact, we had the cave to ourselves for almost half an hour before another couple showed up.  In this situation, I almost wished there were more people.  After taking a rickety spiral staircase down from a tiny opening, you are completely swallowed up by the cavernous cave.  The water looks eerily calm and black. and as you’re floating on the surface you can’t help by wonder what’s lurking in the murky depths below your wriggling legs.  Definitely try your best not to let your imagination run wild or you may never get the courage to get in.  Fun fact: Ellie made a poop in her swim diaper while swimming in this one, too.  Google maps location: https://www.google.com/maps/place/Cenote+Agua+Dulce/@20.8171045,-88.0564016,1049m/data=!3m2!1e3!4b1!4m5!3m4!1s0x8f519a2737bc525b:0x7c5990fa9ad595c7!8m2!3d20.8170995!4d-88.0542076

Cenote Sac Aua – This cenote is located near the Agua Dulce.  After you pay the entrance fee, a guide takes you down a short half mile trail to reach it.  It’s an absolutely gorgeous cenote located at the bottom of an open-air cavern.  There is an island in the middle and the water wraps around like a lazy river.  We were the only people there the whole time.  The water in these cenotes are pretty cold, but it feels amazing on the hot day.  We got there a bit later in the day when the sun was setting, but I wished we had more time to enjoy it before it got too cold.  Google maps location: https://www.google.com/maps/place/Cenote+SAC-AUA/@20.8653101,-88.0662187,25389m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x0:0x7f233f503042434e!8m2!3d20.8361972!4d-88.05141

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