Updated: Oct 18
If you want to feel like a zoo animal on display in a massive area of tourists, stay in the Cancun Hotel Zone. It's literally hotel on top of hotel and you don't really need to leave your bubble. Tulum and Playa del Carmen offer similar encampments for tourists looking to sit on the beach all day as well. However, if you want to experience real Yucatan stays, consider these options instead:
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Full of colonial charm, this city offers a different view of life in the Yucatan. While still busy, you will find mostly French tourists here and a notable lack of ostentatious Americans looking to get wasted. Stroll picturesque Calzada de los Frailes to the Convento de San Bernardino or pop into the many shops along the way.
Stop at local merchants and try the Mayan honey you may have learned about in your visit to the Coba ruins. If you are in time, visit the Mercado Municipal - next to Cenote Zaci. Here you can have a cold beer at Restaurante Zaci while you watch visitors tiptoe into the cenote's waters below.
Tour lovers can optionally hire a guide for the day to show them around town as well.
Casa Tia Micha, around $100 USD a night for a double including a great breakfast. Pay in cash and get a discount.
Ix Cat Ik for traditional mayan cuisine featuring the xcatic pepper. Make a reservation well in advance online and bring cash, as they do not accept cards. Expect an all out feast of new flavors to ignite your senses, and if you're lucky, a tour from the owner to explain all of the Mayan flavors that have gone into the food.
Coined "The Yellow City", the idyllic backdrop will have photographers marveling at the wash of amarillo all over the buildings in this town. Vibrant and festive, you'll want to come for the photos but stay for the small town feel. Enjoy some elote (street corn) from a vendor outside the Convento de San Antonio de Padua (worth a walk through and it's free!), or take a horse drawn carriage around the streets. Make time for a leisurely lunch and a stay at a local hacienda, or indulge in a full day tour of the city with private transport and an included horse and carriage ride.
Hacienda Sacnicte, around $112 USD including breakfast.
Enjoy the pool and have a meal at the al fresco restaurant. The food at Hacienda Sacnicte is outstanding - be sure to save room for a bottle of wine, raw tuna appetizer and pasta. All absolutely wonderful and one of the best meals of your trip to be sure!
Colonial and slightly upmarket, Merida may surprise you. I found Merida to be heavily influenced by European architecture, and that the 'main drag' by our hotel was a lively and posh place to be. The town has many sites, but due to the ungodly heat the day of our visit, we managed only to stumble from beer (+food!) to pool, to more cold drinks and more food. If you ask me, taking a foodie tour of town is the best way to see Merida.
Haciendas are plentiful in this area, but if you like to use points like me, the Marriott branded Rosas & Xocolate cost me only 35,000 points for a one night stay in the heart of town, including breakfast.
Enjoy lunch at El Nuevo Tucho Centro, a family friendly mid range restaurant serving huge meat plates and ice cold beer. Live entertainment and great service make this place a win for ducking away from the Merida heat. For dinner, we tried the pizza restaurant across from Rosas & Xocolate called Trattoria La Pasta Montejo. With streetside dining we enjoyed people watching and great food.
The Real Yucatan Itinerary
Now that you understand where to go, let me give you the best route to make it happen. This itinerary requires a car rental, which is very cheap. The roads are perfectly fine to drive on and safe. Don't worry!
Day 1 - Riviera Maya
Arrive Cancun airport, rent from Hertz (beware lengthy and confusing upsells and shuffle from upsell to upsell before you ever see your car).
Have lunch in Puerto Morelos at El Pesquero, 25 minutes south. Toes in the sand, you can enjoy some fresh ceviche and mezcal or tequila cocktails while your kids play in the playset at the back of the restaurant.
Stay at the Conrad Tulum Riviera Maya - one of the newest Hiltons in the area featuring multiple pools, sea view rooms, a kids club and many restaurants. Heaven! Burn up those well earned points here or use your super juiced American Express Hilton card here for extra resort perks.
Day 2 - Riviera Maya
Drive to Tulum and find a hidden oasis for lunch. Despite my efforts, I cannot locate this place we found on google maps. From Tulum, when the road dead ends at Tulum Beach road, turn left. After about a mile you'll see a stretch of coastline and water with a palapa-roofed beach bar at the end of a peninsula. Go there and enjoy some tacos, a bucket of beer, and all the relaxing vibes you came here for. Turn right at the fork and all you will find is high end resorts and boutiques requiring fees to enter! After lunch, relax at your hotel.
Day 3 - Coba and Valldolid
1 hour drive to visit the Coba Ruins (details on separate post)
Drive to Valladolid, 45 min
Check into hotel.
Walk down Calzada de los Frailes to Convento de San Bernardino de Siena Mexcaleria don Trejo
Shop and explore before dinner
Dinner at Ix Cat Ik (walkable but I recommend driving or taking a taxi)
Day 4 - Ek Balam and Izamal
Drive 30 minutes to Ek Balam (details on separate post)
1hr 45 min drive to Izamal
Lunch at Kinich Restaurant
Check into your Hacienda and relax.
Day 5 - Merida
1 hr drive to Merida
Check into hotel.
Walk down the Paseo de Montejo and explore the towns' many markets and museums
Stop into the Posheria for a coffee and Pox (posh) drink (read more about this ancient elixir at the link)
Day 6 - Playa del Carmen
A three hour drive from Merida and a one hour drive back to Cancun's airport, Playa del Carmen is a good home base for your final night's stay in the Yucatan. Basically bourbon street, this is going to be the only taste of Cancun that you need to feel like you've properly seen Cancun. Enjoy strolling the main drag - shopping and eating or drinking is the main event, so pick whatever floats your boat and have fun!
We stayed at The Fives Downtown Hotel & Residences, Curio Collection by Hilton, which included an average to poor breakfast (especially after all the homemade goodies we got elsewhere!) but a great rooftop pool.