I’m still fantasising about the crystal clear water off the beaches of Isla Holbox and the beach bars on Isla Mujeres. The Caribbean coast of Mexico is the stuff that dreams are made of, with fresh water sinkholes to swim in, Mayan ruins, white sand beaches, turtles and reggaetón late into the night. My 10 days exploring the Yucatan Peninsula were heavenly and far too fleeting, but we had a couple of close calls that seemed like disasters at the time, so here a few things you definitely shouldn’t do when travelling in the area.
1. Take your phone out on the town in Cancun
I arrived in Cancun on my lonesome and headed to the hostel I’d reserved in the city centre for that night, as Tiff, my ultimate partner in crime, was arriving the following morning. Having not travelled solo properly for a few years my street-wiseness had definitely deserted me, and when I ended up heading out for a night on the town in Cancun, in the company of Katie and Natasha, two brilliant Scottish girls who could really handle their all-you-can-drink tequila (unlike me), both Katies arrived back at the hostel iPhone-less.
Lesson learnt? Leave your phone at the hostel.
2. Pursue thieves down the street
Did I mention the tequila? Well, that might have had something to do with my sliiiiiiiightly irrational behaviour. When I felt my phone being taking out of my bag on the night bus on the way back from the clubs (the cheap hostels are a long way from the clubs and fancy hotels) and couldn’t grab the guy as he slipped through my fingers and out the back door, my instinct was to jump off the bus after him and hare down the street in hot pursuit. He was, (un)fortunately, too fast for me, and I watched him and my phone disappear round the corner. I then realised I was on my own in the middle of Cancun at 4am. Sensible? No. Thankfully, one of the guys we’d been out with realised I’d disappeared and jumped off the bus at the next stop to ask me just what I thought I was doing. It was then I realised that my visions of tackling the thief to the ground probably weren’t all that realistic, as he could’ve been far more dangerous than he looked.
Lesson learnt? Don’t chase down thieves in Mexico.
3. Hit Mayan ruins at peak time
Once I’d located Tiff at the airport the following day (or she’d located me, tequila-addled as I was) we headed to Isla Mujeres and then onto Tulum, without incident. Sun, sea and sand, and exploring Isla Mujeres by golf cart (which is well worth it if you’ve got the cash). We did, however, fall victim to margaritas on most nights, and our plan of getting up early on our first day in Tulum and visiting the ruins didn’t really happen.
If you can, do try and steer clear of the alcohol the night before you visit the ruins and get there as soon as they open to make the most of it before the crowds and the heat gets too much for you. And take snacks. We swanned into the ruins at about 10 am with the rest of the world and his wife and the heat was already unbearable. The site is stunning and it’s unmissable, with the iconic pyramids perched on the cliffs above the white sand beach, but it’d be much better without sharing it with the masses.
The sun beats down mercilessly, there’s no shade to speak of and it’s hard to take a genuine interest in Mayan culture when you’re slightly hungover, dehydrated, overheated and hungry. After a few attempts at photos, we restricted ourselves to ‘pensive’ shots taken from behind (exhibit A can be seen above) as the camera was not our friend that morning. We spent an inordinate amount of time hiding in the fairly pathetic shade of a mini palm tree, dreaming of quesadillas and making friends with an iguana.
Lesson learnt? Go before the crowds and without a hangover.
4. Make your friends face their phobias
Now in our decade of friendship, Tiff has expressed her strong dislike for bikes on multiple occasions. What I didn’t realise is that it’s not just a dislike, it’s a full on fear. So when she was imagining her ‘relaxing’ break from London life, she didn’t exactly have riding a bike in mind. Tulum is, however, bike central, as the ruins and beach are a good 15-minute cycle from the village itself, and the hostel we stayed at was in between the two. She was forced to face her fear, and I’m incredibly proud of her for doing it, but she needed a stiff drink afterwards.
Lesson learnt? Try and avoid your friend’s mortal fears whilst they’re on their ‘olidays.
5. Go overboard on the scrimping and saving
As Tiff heard me say multiple times (and the fact she put up with it shows what a good friend she is), I currently live in the cheapest state in Mexico. In comparison, the area around Cancun is pretty damn pricey, and I heard myself channelling my mum multiple times when exclaiming ‘HOW much?!’, a phrase that used to make the adolescent me go into decline. On many occasions, this saved us an awful lot of pesos and I did some good haggling but, in Akumal, loosening the purse strings a bit wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Akumal (between Playa del Carmen and Tulum) is famous for being where all the wild turtles hang out, but they’ve cracked down on things recently in an effort to minimise the impact on the turtle population, as things were getting a bit out of hand. When you arrived, you’re told you can’t swim outside a certain area without a guide, and the guide, complete with equipment hire, costs at least 400 pesos pp (~£16) for an hour tour, extortionate by Mexican standards. My desire to support the local economy and not do any damage to the eco-system always does battle with my budget in cases like this. Desperate to see the turtles without stressing them out, but wanting to be able to eat that day.
In this case, the budget won, and once we’d had a nap on the beach (ending up nicely burnt) I went in search of a pair of cheap goggles. I went too cheap, as when I swam out to see what I could see, I realised I was seeing double. What I thought was a group of four turtles was, in fact, just two. I couldn’t see them in much detail, but I watched them graze on the sea floor and bicker between themselves from a respectful distance, before swimming back in. Unfortunately, the wind had got up and it was a little choppy, so Tiff couldn’t make it out far enough to find any turtles to commune with.
Lesson learnt? Fork out for the life jacket if there are turtles involved.
7. Nearly get caught rifling through passports
Now we really enjoyed our stay at our hostel in Tulum, but when they took our passport as a deposit for the bikes assuring you that they’ll be kept in a safe place, they’re lying. We had our bus to Chiquila, gateway to Isla Holbox, at 8 am, and when we went to reception to check out and reclaim my passport, there was no sign of the receptionist. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I kept a look out whilst Tiff hopped over the bar, found the key and opened the locker. We then had to find my passport amongst a good 40 of them, and EVERY country’s passport seems to be burgundy. Once located, we hot-footed it out of there, passing the receptionist on her way in, not pausing to give explanations. If we managed that, and we’re not exactly criminal masterminds, I feel like someone with light fingers would have a field day, so I won’t be sharing the name of the hostel so I’m not responsible for a mass robbery.
Lesson learnt? Don’t trust anyone with your passport.
8. Nearly get robbed en route to Isla Holbox
I’ve raved all about the paradise that is Isla Holbox in a post over on Land of the Traveller, so if you want tips for a few days of utter bliss on this jewel of an island in the Caribbean sea, head on over. However, there are very few cash points on the island so anyone heading there tends to have stocked up on cash beforehand. That means you’ll want to keep a close eye on your bag on the bus journey up there. On a nearly empty bus, a guy lay down on the seat behind Tiff and subtly extracted her backpack from under her chair, and was going through it when she realised what was happening. I told him where to go in my finest Mexican swearwords, and he retreated to the back of the bus. The bus driver didn’t seem overly concerned and the guy got off in Playa del Carmen, despite my protests.
Lesson learnt? Bags on laps or on seats, and a money belt for your cash and cards.
9. Go to Holbox with no cash
So we’d been warned about the no cash thing, but I, in my wisdom, assumed that we would be able to get cash in Chiquila before making the crossing. It turns out it’s a tiny little village, and cashpoints are not a thing. Stuck, slightly panicky and wet (don’t forget your waterproof for the tropical downpours), we held our breath and used the last of our cash to pay for the ferry over in the hope that the few cash points on the island would be working. The cash point we tried didn’t like either of my cards, but thankfully it accepted Tiff’s, and we could start breathing again. We should’ve taken out more whilst we were at it, as by the time we left (or I’d physically dragged Tiff onto the ferry – she much preferred it to London) on the Saturday morning, we’d spent it all and had to forgo souvenirs of our time in paradise.
Lesson learnt? Take the amount of cash you think you’ll need and double it.
So we got a fair amount of stuff wrong during our trip, but thankfully none of it disastrous, and all excellent anecdote material. We also did an awful lot of stuff right, finding a bunch of wonderful people to hang out with, locating 2 for 1 margaritas everywhere we went, consuming guacamole at every possible moment (even finding it at 3 am – beats cheesy chips any day of the week), dancing the night away with sand between our toes, seeing one of the wonders of the world (Chichen Itza), swimming in a fountain of youth, bonding with baby raccoons, watching the sky being dyed pink by the sunset, searching for stingrays, dolphin watching, careering around on a golf cart and generally enjoying ourselves. Are you after a mix of incredible culture and food with salsa and cocktails under the stars? Look no further.
Have you ever been to the Yucatan Peninsula? Did we miss any gems? Does the Yucatan Peninsula look like your idea of paradise? Comment away!