The flight from Havana to Cancun is a breeze, clocking in at just under an hour, cruising high above the Yucatan Channel until spotting land. We made it from Cancun to Playa del Carmen in about an hour without issue on the ADO bus from the airport and navigated our way through town to our accommodation.
Our first experience with Playa del Carmen was a bit overwhelming, as it was far and away the most developed place we had been for quite some time. It’s in Mexico, but you can hardly tell while taking a stroll down Quinta Avenida, which is the undisputed tourist epicenter of the area. We were staying a few blocks off this main drag, which was quite relaxing by comparison, and conveniently located next to several of the top-ranked taco joints in Playa del Carmen.
We spent most of our time trying to avoid 5th avenue and the surrounding area, but did afford ourselves a few visits to indulge in the niceties of well-traveled cities like shopping malls and easily approachable restaurants. In truth, however, we discovered that the restaurants elsewhere in the city had much more to offer, and after a few thoroughly unimpressive culinary outings near 5th, we pledged our allegiance to Don Sirloin. Perched just across the street from our hotel on 25th and Constituyentes was the king of al pastor, or so we had concluded after trying it at several different places. If you were to ask the Internet, El Fogon, a few doors down would be the unmistakable winner, but after trying both several times we concluded that our beloved neighbor, Don Sirloin, served the better of the two. The added benefit of not having to wait in line for 30 minutes helped to solidify this as our joint, and we revisited it a number of times during our stay to indulge in the decadent and fragrant meat, deftly shaved from a huge trompo into trays by the zealous attendant, and piled onto freshly-made and lightly garnished tortillas for the masses. It really doesn’t get much better than that.
We ventured slightly farther off a few times for a specialty meal or two, including stops at El Ñero for similarly mind-blowing tacos 100% worthy of honorable mention and at El Faisan y El Venado for some downright disappointing cochinita pibil, a specialty of the Yucatan.
In retrospect, much of our time was spent eating tacos, which we really wouldn’t have any other way. We took a stroll down to the famed beach once or twice and concluded that it was really quite run of the mill, and went back to eating tacos. Oona went diving a few times, which was certainly memorable. It was bull shark season, and so they ventured out to the blue to find several of them, and got quite close to five or six of them, one measuring over 2 meters in length! The second dive of the day was at Dos Ojos, one of the famed cenotes, or caves, of the Yucatan, bathing in a deep blue light from far above, illuminating the translucent water and stirring the bats from their overhead slumber.
Then we ate some more tacos. And then we hopped in a collectivo for the hour long trip south to Tulum.
Tulum was a different beast altogether. One can tell that at one point, it was probably the hippie backpacker crowd’s paradise. A fair amount of them still confusedly wander the streets, still searching for the utopia their traveling buddies told them about several decades ago. In its place is a largely commodified version of a similar style, an abomination of words like bohemian, artisanal, and exclusive would aptly describe the area today. There is a distinct schism between the hotel strip near the beach and the main drag of the town itself, some several kilometers inland as well. We ventured into the hotel strip at one point, not sure what to expect, in order to try one of the several very highly-acclaimed restaurants down there. The barrage of boho-exclusif, for lack of a better term, was nearly unstemmable; a boutique clothing shop here, selling a high fashion shawl for several hundred dollars, an artisanal bulb lit bar advertising high end cocktails for $15 a pop there. In principle, all reasonable things, but taken to the absolute extreme. We opted to not even stay for a drink, and hightailed it back to town. The town is not nearly as offensive, but still smacks of pretension, replete with raw food cafes and expensive bars.
Fortunately, we were able to escape for a few days to do some exploring in the area. The first day we booked a few more dives to several of the best cenotes in the area. The first stop was Cenote Angelita, about 15km south of town. A truly memorable dive it was, descending into the near perfect circle eroded into the limestone. At around 20 meters there is an “island”, if you will, of decaying plant material, and a few meters deeper is a cloud of hydrogen sulfide so dense that one can hardly see their own flashlight, completing the island effect. We descended through the cloud to the considerably darker water below, and bottomed out at about 35 meters. We slowly spiraled our back up through the cloud and wound our way around the island, ducking through the snarled mass of bare branches reaching from it. It gives off a very creepy vibe, looking more like a misty graveyard in the rural north than a water-filled cavern in Mexico. The second dive was at Casa Cenote, about the same distance north of Tulum. It was basically the polar opposite of the first dive, with an average depth of around 5 meters, we skirted just under the water’s surface and ducked into and out of submarine caverns lit up brilliantly by the afternoon sun. We surfaced once to catch a glimpse of the resident crocodile lazing on a rock, apparently a longtime denizen of this particular cenote.
The next day we rented a car to make the trip out to Chichen Itza, which we would certainly be remiss to skip. We woke up quite early in an attempt at making it out there before the hordes of tour buses show up, and this was actually achieved quite easily by way of it being one time zone west of Tulum. So, we departed Tulum at 7am on the two hour drive and arrived at Chichen Itza at 8am, just as the gates open. We made it in before the flood and managed to get some pretty great early-morning views of El Castillo and the surrounding grounds before taking off an hour later, just as the parking lot was starting to fill up.
We stopped for a late breakfast in Valladolid, which turned out to be a pretty adorable little town. We picked a random restaurant on the bustling town square, and we had some cochinita pibil that was far better than our TripAdvisor-suggested place in Playa del Carmen. Had we known how Valladolid was beforehand, we may have made that our home base.
We stopped at Coba on the way back, and wandered the many kilometers of forest-enshrouded trails before climbing up Nohoch Mul for a spectacular view out across the forest’s canopy. Coba is not nearly as spectacular as Chichen Itza, but it’s far less crowded and the entrance fee is quite a bit cheaper. All in all a good day for exploring Mayan ruins.
We left on the daily ADO bus back up to Cancun airport in time for our flight across Mexico (via a shortish layover in Mexico City) to Huatulco, from which we’d make our way to our next destination of Puerto Escondido.
The short flight from Mexico City down to Huatulco was quite beautiful. The afternoon sun bathed the landscape in a warm glow, river valleys and rolling hills stood out in sharp contrast. We touched down at the tiny airport near the Pacific coast, and made our way out to the highway to catch the last bus from Huatulco to Puerto Escondido, which passes by the airport at around 6:20pm. We caught the bus without issue after waiting around for 30 minutes or so, fending off the occasional taxi drivers angling for our business. The bus tickets were 60 pesos per person, and the bus took about two hours.
We arrived to Puerto Escondido after dark, but had no trouble walking down the sandy alleyways of La Punta to our accommodation. After checking in and dropping off our bags, we immediately headed out to find some food, and settled on a street-side tlayuda joint in the center of town. The food was great, and we concluded that we very much liked the town so far, or at least what we had seen of it.
For what it’s worth, Puerto Escondido is much more charming during daylight hours, and we quite enjoyed the simple life lived in the stretch of residential community between Puerto Escondido proper and La Punta, which is the new tourist hub of the area, catering to the young backpacker crowd. We spent much time strolling down the sandy streets to the azure pacific, standing in brilliant contrast to the muted pastels of the windswept alleys, slowly transforming from street to beach over the course of a few dozen meters.
The beach was nearly empty at all times, but much of it is too powerful for swimming. There is a calmer area near La Punta where many people swim and surf, but the majority of its sandy shores are totally devoid of people between there and Zicatela to the north.
There are a few restaurants dotting the shoreline, one is called Pepe’s Tacos, and has some of the best fish tacos we’ve ever tried. Run by the boisterous and outgoing Pepe, he shouted out some greetings to us as though we were regulars when we were first approaching. He had only been open for a few months, but certainly had his craft down, and the several others there at the time confessed that they had already eaten there dozens of times. All it took was one bite for us to realize, and we made it a point to visit several more times.
We visited Zicatela several times as well, which is the older, more refined tourist area, and really doesn’t have much to offer. The restaurants are decent, but we didn’t find anything outstanding, but it is safe to walk after sundown. That’s another thing about Puerto Escondido; we heard many stories about people being robbed walking, especially on the beach, after the sun goes down. We were worried that we would break our 20 month streak of not being robbed while traveling, but fortunately dodged that bullet again.
We found ourselves magnetized to either Pepe’s or several of the local places in the center of town, up from Zicatela, which also proved to be a good choice (and cheap). La Tropicana, a taco shop in town, is worth honorable mention with some fantastic tacos. Make sure to order them with the accoutrements of your choice though, otherwise they are served with just the meat (which is honestly still quite good). We made friends with a Canadian couple at Pepe’s one night, and ended up playing euchre with them on into the night. They were staying in La Punta, so we accompanied them back there and continued talking and drinking mezcal until our impressive bed time of 1:30am, which we hadn’t seen in wakefulness for quite some time. La Punta is also a sight to behold at night, with many of the tourists there pouring out into the streets, buying their beer from the corner market, while music blasts from several of the bars around.
Oona took some early morning surfing lessons several of our days there, which proved to be quite a bit of fun. She had little problem getting back on a board after some three years of no surfing, and was able to do some impressive moves by the end of it, despite some less than fantastic instruction for part of her several days. Unfortunately, she had two different instructors, one of whom was quite good, while the other wasn’t able to contribute much to her progress.
On our last full day in town, we met up with another Finnish girl, whom Oona had met through a Facebook group dedicated to traveling Finnish females –a degree of specificity at which we all had a good laugh later in the day– and her husband, originally from the area, and their young daughter. We headed down to Agua Blanca, a lovely beach some 30 minutes down the coast. We spent our time eating fresh oysters the size of our hands, drinking mezcal and fresh coconut juice, and watching the waves crash in. Shortly after arriving, we saw the familiar crash of a breaching whale some distance out from the beach. Our new friends had a drone which they assembled at a fevered pace and flew it straight out to the still-settling water. The drone was able to capture some fantastic views of a family of two adult humpbacks along with their baby, swimming south along the beach. They breached several more times, which was impressive from our viewpoint as well as the drone’s.
As charming as Puerto Escondido was, we eventually did need to leave. Our next destination was the bustling mountain city of Oaxaca de Juarez, the capital and largest city of its namesake state which we were already in. We concluded that of the several available options, a minivan would be the best. There are flights, but they’re quite expensive, and there’s an overnight bus, but it’s overnight, and takes nearly twice as long as the minivan. There are dozens of minivans leaving per day, pretty much once an hour from several different companies. We were warned by our guest house owner that the minivan is a terrible experience on an infernal and winding road up into the mountains, and reiterated that we should take motion sickness pills and really ought to consider the night bus. Ian can’t really sleep on buses, so at his insistence we gave the minivan a try. It turned out to be really not that bad, and considerably better than basically any of our trips in Mongolia. The van snaked its way up through some pretty prolific switchbacks, but the views were quite lovely, and we passed through some quaint little towns along the way.
We eventually pulled into Oaxaca a little over seven hours later. Our immediate observation was that it was considerably colder up there, at over 1500 meters of elevation, compared to the balmy climes of the coastal Puerto Escondido. We got off and walked a kilometer or so to our hotel and concluded that it was a pretty lovely little city as well, and were looking forward to getting out and exploring a bit more.
Oaxaca is famous for its food, and it is revered all across Mexico as having some of the best cuisine the country has to offer. Mole sauce has a particularly esteemed place in this cuisine. The state of Oaxaca is, in fact, also known as the land of seven moles, for there are apparently seven different types originating from its various peaks and valleys. So indeed, we set off into the night (after dropping off our bags) in search of the decadent sauce. Much was found over our several days in Oaxaca, ranging in presentation from mole negro drizzled over a chicken leg on a chipped plate at a stall in the famed Mercado 20 de Noviembre to the dazzling short rib a la mancha manteles from Casa de Oaxaca.
We celebrated our 1000 day anniversary (before you judge us for counting our relationship by the day, Oona has an app which makes such things very easy, so it’s hard not to notice) at Casa de Oaxaca, in fact, and the food there was fantastic. The server makes a salsa according to your tastes with a mortar and pestle right at your table, which is a great accompaniment to their varied traditional dishes. We also got a bottle of Mexican wine from Baja California with dinner, and it turned out to be quite good, much to our surprise.
On our last night in town we paid a visit to Mezcaloteca, a mezcal tasting bar of sorts. We got a reservation at 9pm, but there was only one other person there at the time, so we’re not sure if it was totally necessary. We opted for the five sample tasting, and our server/mezcal educator brought us out round after round, telling us about the history, cultivation method, and production of each batch. The Mezcaloteca features mezcals from a cooperative of local producers, and the product is marketed as their own, with their own custom labels and the same standards for each batch, but from the look of it their collection is easily in the several hundreds. The bar doubles as a bottle shop, as most mezcal bars in the area do. We bought a few bottles of our favorite types and couldn’t help but to wonder how greatly the prices were inflated for ease of access, as surely the same stuff was brought in by the carboy or gas can, and the excess sold in unlabeled bottles in the market for a small fraction of the price. Nevertheless, the experience was quite unique, and we were happy to have access to some of the best mezcals in the area, all right in front of us.
In the end, we spent much time wandering the cobblestone streets and visiting the many markets in town. We ate great food, relying heavily on the ubiquitous mole and tlayudas, and less so on tacos as we had before, as they’re much less of a focus in this town, it seems. We drank lots of mezcal and hot chocolate as well, as the town is known for those things as well. On the day before we left we visited the Central de Abastos market, a bit off the typical tourist trail, and were thoroughly rewarded. The place is absolutely massive, first of all, spanning several city blocks. We got a feeling that we were in the right place by the fact that among the hundreds of other people we saw there, only two others were tourists. Indeed, we were able to find some lovely handicrafts for a fraction of their prices at Mercado Benito Juarez, for example. Visiting the market is an experience in and of itself, however, and is sure to be fun even if you’re not looking to buy.
Our next destination was Sayulita, farther up the Pacific Coast of Mexico, so with heavy hearts we said goodbye to Oaxaca and headed to the airport. This time our layover in Mexico City was quite long, we had six or so hours to kill at the airport. We did eventually make it onto our plane and ultimately to the airport in Puerto Vallarta.
We arrived in Puerto Vallarta at around 8:30pm and made our way outside to figure out transport up the coast to Sayulita. We had heard that the taxis at the airport itself are considerably more expensive than the standard city yellow cabs, and operate as a different entity, so we walked out of the airport past the touts and taxi stands and eventually caught a yellow cab on the street outside. We negotiated the price to 750 pesos, which we probably could have gotten down a bit more if we had really tried, but this roughly half of what you’d pay from the official airport taxis anyway, so we were satisfied.
Our driver sped us along the highway, passing the slowpokes in front of us with reckless abandon, and got us to Sayulita in around 30 minutes, which was well below his estimate of “40 to 50” when we got in. Oona’s friend from back in Finland had a week or so of vacation as well, so she decided to join us in Sayulita, scheduled to arrive the following evening. We exchanged numbers with our taxi driver and told him we had a friend arriving the next day and made rough arrangements for him to pick her up for the same trip.
Our friend made it with little issue the following day, and we proceeded to hang out on the beach and do other things that one does in Sayulita. We met up with our friends from Honduras as well, who are now living in Sayulita, and generally had quite a nice time. We spent many nights at Don Pato, among other bars in town, and threw our responsibilities to the wind.
Ian left several days later to head on a ski trip with his family back in Denver, and Oona stayed with our friends in Sayulita, and later moved to San Pancho, up the coast a short distance from Sayulita, and spent a few days there. Oona spent her days surfing, relaxing, and making quite many new friends. While Oona was surfing, Ian was snowboarding, which reminded us of the considerable physical distance between us at that point. It was also brought up that this was essentially the first time on our trip that we had gone separate ways, and evidence of our hitherto nigh 24/7 coexistence was a sense of longing.
The time did fly though, and we were found back with each other some days later, as Oona arrived in Denver for the final portion of our trip.