Nice beaches are something you can see in many places around the world. People may try to convince you otherwise: don't fall for it. Our favorite beaches are not those recommended by the glossy brochures. Mayan ruins, on the other hand, are something you can't see at any place other than Yucatan. Chichen-Itza may be overrated, but it is still a must-see. If you are looking for some relaxing activities close to nature, parks like Xel-Ha and Xcaret have a lot to offer. Then, again, if you are in for $15 all-you-can-drink bars, there is probably no better place than Cancun.
You have to visit Yucatan at least once. Like with many other places, whether you visit again will depend on your taste for entertainment.
Our top priority was to see some Mayan pyramids and do a bit of snorkeling. On our first day, we woke up around 7am and drove to Chichen-Itza. The paid highway 180 was mostly empty: no wonder given the price. We got to the archaeological site around 10am and we realized that plenty of people had gotten there before us. Still, the place was not teeming with tourists just yet.
We took a few hours exploring the major points of interest, so we had to take a lunch break in the middle. At the end, we stopped at the small souvenir market outside, and cast our vote for local art. The winner was carved wood: non-brittle and lightweight. It felt nice to talk to the people who actually work the wood, and to see that our purchases made some difference in their lives.
On the way back to Cancun, we decided to stop at Valladolid and look at an authentic town. It reminded us of a big Eastern European village: one of those villages that got converted into towns by socialist industrialization (but not quite). Still, we were impressed by the convent and the church in downtown. In order to get to Valladolid we took the unpaid road 180 for about 30 kilometers. It goes through several small villages, and invariably at the entrance to every village there is an aggressive speed bump and kids that approach the car and offer to sell you souvenirs. We did not take advantage of the offers, however it seems that these are the best deals that one can get.
If you plan on visiting clubs in Cancun it might be advantageous to buy the Entertainment Plus card. It offers some nice 2x1 discounts on club cover charges, among other things. Coco Bongo is a club that we found interesting, though not overwhelmingly great. The E-Plus card can also be used at some restaurants to get 2x1 deals on main dishes, however there are many restaurants worth visiting that do not accept it. For example, we highly recommend Hacienda 'El Mortero', where the food is superb and there are mariachis who will play and sing your favorite song.
For those who want to experience nature, swim, and relax, Xel-Ha is a great place. Along with snorkeling (if you rent you get a new snorkel and keep it), there are some activities that are not recommended for people with heart disease or spinal problems: you can grab a rope and jump into a pool of water or you can jump into water from a 20' rock, then climb back up or swim to the shore. There are enough activities to take you a full day and, frankly, we wish we would have stayed there rather than going the extra 20 kilometers to Tulum. We were not impressed by Tulum partly because the ruins are not as big as those at Chichen-Itza, and partly because there were too many people at the time when we got there.
For the snorkeling we had bought waterproof disposable cameras, a Kodak and a Fuji, and we took some photos of fish. Most of the photos came out too bluish (Kodak) or greenish (Fuji). Overall we were happier with the Kodak photos. If you do this, try to take pictures of fish where the water is not deep, and where there is a rock for background. Don't set your expectations high. Underwater photography is hard. You need powerful flashes, special waterproof camera cases, and a bunch of other expensive equipment. Our next snorkeling experience will be camera-free, and we will spend 100% of our time enjoying what is there to see.
Cancun has the big airport in the area: after all this is the place where all the tourists come to relax and spend their money. You can rent a car from one of the major international companies, or from a local company like Executive. Since the roads have plenty of holes and speed bumps, a SUV can give you some peace of mind. The Wrangler we rented did that for us, however it compensated it with numb handling and poor fuel economy. From Cancun it is a day trip to Chichen-Itza and another to Tulum and Xel-Ha. Keep in mind that the paid highway to Chichen-Itza comes to about US$35 round-trip, so a guided tour at about US$45pp may be a good deal. The road to Tulum is free, so we would recommend visiting Xel-Ha and Tulum on your own. Make sure you lock your car at parking lots. Do not leave any valuables in it. You have been warned.
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