4 Days in the Yucatan Peninsula

If you follow me on Instagram, you definitely saw my oversharing from my trip to Playa del Carmen at the beginning of the month. Back in September I was lucky enough to be gifted a trip to Sandos Playacar for me and a guest (one of the many perks of working in the travel industry) and I figured it was the perfect halfway point for me and my west coast bestie, also named Megan, to meet up.

Being on different time zones and just busy all the time, it hasn’t been easy to keep in touch as often as I’d like so this was the perfect excuse to get together, catch up on life and relax a little for ourselves.

Thursday afternoon we each flew into Cancun airport, which is just a quick hour drive to Playa del Carmen. Because we were coming from different airports, and different coasts, my Jet Blue flight landed a whole 3 and a half hours before Megan’s. After clearing customs and grabbing my bags I headed out to the arrival area where they had a few options for outdoor restaurants. I sat down with a margarita, ceviche, and a book and hung outside, soaking up the Cancun sun for a few hours. Once Megan’s plane landed I took the free terminal shuttle over to where her flight was coming in from LAX and waited for her outside of the arrivals gate.

How we got there
Getting to any resort in Playa del Carmen, Riviera Maya, or Cancun is pretty easy. I live by the motto of, if you don’t have a ton of time, spend the extra money for convencience. We had a private car bring us straight to our hotel. We used Olympus Tours and for just $214 roundtrip we were picked up right outside of the baggage claim. No stops at other resorts or waiting to pick up other guests. The next day we met up with Jorge from Olympus to set up our return pick up time and we were actually the ones to bring up doing another tour using Olympus. More on that later, but it was nice to not even think about being pressured into adding on tours or activities, which was awesome.

Where we stayed
Like I mentioned earlier, I was gifted a trip to Sandos Playacar by one of my business partners. When we got down to Playa del Carmen, our driver pulled through gates and I assumed we were at our resort, but we weren’t. Playacar is a gated little subdivision of Playa del Carmen with private homes, restaurants, clean streets and manicured lawns. It was really nice to know that we could go for a little walk around the neighborhood if we wanted and it would still be safe.

We stayed in a Junior Suite Select in the adults only section of the hotel. It was perfect. While Sandos Playacar is a great place for families, we weren’t traveling with kids so the adults only section was ideal for us. Our room overlooked the adults only pool with a swim up bar, and jacuzzi.

My favorite part of all inclusive resorts is that everything is included. You can throw your wallet in the safe once you get there and not worry about anything for the rest of your trip. We ate at a lot of the restaurants on property while we were there but my favorite was definitely Asiana, the Asian fusion restaurant.

I would say my only complaint may be the breakfast options. The buffet was the only restaurant open for in the mornings and it was busy each time we stopped in. One morning we opted for room service, but the options were very limited.

The beach at Sandos Playacar was amazing. I’m not much of a beach person. I love to go and sit but don’t usually get in the water. (My town’s beaches are on Long Island Sound… not ideal swimming water, and in Southern California, the water is pretty cold most of the year, so I’ve never really lived anywhere I’d want to jump in.) This was beautiful, and I could see my toes even when we were pretty far out in the water so that’s a win for me. The resort offered a ton of activities including paddle boarding, jet skiing, parasailing, and snorkeling.

What we did
Going down to Mexico we knew we wanted to visit some of the Mayan Ruins but we were torn on spending the whole day and heading to Chichen Itza or doing a half day trip to the much closer Tulum, with much cooler temperatures. Once we started talking with Jorge at Olympus Tours he convinced us to do both with a private driver and make a full day of it. (What can I say, we’re suckers.) He set us up with Living Dreams Mexico and our guide Edwin. It was seamless.

Our driver picked us up bright and early and drove us over to Chichen Itza where we were some of the first people to get into the archaeological site. Our guide was so knowledgeable and passionate about the history of the ruins and his country it was a perfect match for my history teacher travel buddy and I.

*Tip: Wear light fabrics like linen. It is HOT at the archiological sites and there isn’t a ton a shade. The best part of our private driver, after touring the sites he had cold, wet clothes for us to cool us down. A-MAZ-ING! Also, I opted out of jean shorts this day and stuck with a pair of Old Navy soft shorts.

After spending an hour or so getting a private tour around the ruins we headed to a local cenote where we were able to hop in and swim around for a little bit. It was a perfect way to cool down after spending the morning in the sun at Chichen Itza. Cenotes are scattered all around the Yucatán Peninsula. They’re caused by lime rock collapsing and Edwin told us that the Mayan people would sacrifice themselves in these natural sinkholes because they would be closer to the underworld. Chichen Itza has a famous cenote, Sacred Cenote, where a lot of Mayan people sacrificed themselves for rain, crops, and fortune.

We grabbed lunch at the hacienda on the property of the cenote and headed over to one of the few colonial towns that are still in tact from before Mexico got its independence, Valladolid. We were able to get out and wander around on our own a little here in this European inspired city. The cobblestoned streets were lined with pastel colored shops. Right in the middle of town was a square lined with trees and beautiful, Spanish inspired artwork. Megan told me that in the colonial times the colors of the buildings are what dictated what the building was. They didn’t have signs because they didn’t want the slaves learning how to read so color coding was how they operated.  (Even when the history teacher is on vacation, she teaches.)

After Valladolid we headed an hour and a half back to the Caribbean to Tulum. According to Edwin, Tulum’s ruins have been 100% uncovered where only 20% of Chichen Itza has been. It was amazing to see the city as a whole perched up on a cliff. There were look out towers and the foundations of homes that you would see surrounding the temple. This was absolutely my favorite part of the day and definitely a place where you could go without a guide and feel like you saw a lot.

Honestly, if I were to do it over, I may skip Chichen Itza. I know it is probably the most famous of the ruins, but it felt very inauthentic. We went early, and because we were with Edwin, we were able to skip the lines and get around most of the crowds but there were vendors everywhere. It felt like a tourist trap. Tulum was totally different. There were little restaurants outside of the archaeological site, in the little town, but inside the walls of the city there were no vendors or people trying to get you to buy anything. Edwin recommended us visiting Coba, one of the few ruins you can still climb, and I wish we had taken his suggestion and done that instead of Chichen Itza. But I felt like it was as if I were to have gone to New York and not seen the Statue of Liberty. Next time I go to Mexico, Coba is high on the priority list.

Three nights in Playa del Carmen just weren’t enough for me. Before going to Mexico I assumed it was a place where you would just go, sit on the beach with a cocktail and a good book, and that’s not my favorite type of vacation. Now knowing how much there is to do in the Yucatan Peninsula, and what a great value Mexico is for US travelers, I would love to plan a trip there again.

What I’d like to do, but we didn’t have time
-Snorkel the second largest coral reef in the world
-Visit Las Coloradas (the pink lakes about 2.5 hours north west of Cancun)
-Spend the day at the aquatic theme park, Xel-Há
-Explore Cozumel