Updated: Jun 15, 2021
Cancun is one of the most sought-after destinations in Mexico, so it's a wonder that with all of our travels throughout Mexico, we hadn't stepped foot in this destination until now. Mid-May is the beginning of summer travel season when the humidity rises, the seaweed increases and families start frequenting Cancun's lively beaches. As COVID restrictions lesson and vaccinations increase, the tourist industry is prepped for a rebound and people are longing to get out of town.
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We had one startling revelation about Cancun in general that was unexpected; the water! We'd seen the pictures, but there truly is nothing like seeing it in person. Our first glimpse was from our ocean-view balcony at the Villa del Palmar Resort, about 30 minutes north of the hotel zone in Costa Mujeres.
The Villa del Palmar is a "budget," family-friendly resort that exceeded my expectations. The room was nice, the view, spectacular and the grounds were well-maintained with numerous pools from child-friendly to adult. There was a wide variety of nightly entertainment at the pool. "Budget" is in quotes because I'm comparing it to its more luxurious cousins farther up the coast and in the hotel zone, but don't confuse budget with cheap. We found the service, amenities, grounds and rooms all first-class.
Photos: Villa del Palmar lobby and the grounds at night, nice room with hammock and view, beach (there is a ferry to Isla Mujeres literally minutes away) and pool.
Few beaches are safe from the sargassum (seaweed) that plagues Cancun, especially in the summer months. Hotels do their best to clear it, often daily, but it can be relentless. These pictures were taken in front of the Villa del Palmar.
The ferry next to the Villa del Palmar takes cars as well as passengers to Isla Mujeres and if you don't mind the leisurely 45 minute crossing, the dock is literally a 4 minute walk from the hotel. We opted to drive 10 minutes south to Puerto Juarez and take the Ultramar Ferry for a quick 15 minute jaunt to the island. There is a multi-level parking garage next to the ferry where you can park all day for about $10 USD. A taxi will cost you approximately $8 USD.
Masks, sanitizer and temperature checks are still the norm. The ferry runs every hour on the hour and during busier times, on the half hour for approximately $19 USD roundtrip, per person.
Photos: Boarding at Ultramar Ferry, 15 minutes to Isla Mujeres over that incredible blue water, passing the Ultramar Vehicle Ferry on its return to Cancun.
Once on the island we followed the crowd past the vendors and into the main streets of Isla Mujeres. We explored the local area a bit before finding our golf cart rental at Rentadora Joaquin. I prepaid online for both the Ultramar Ferry and the golf cart. In each case it saved us a few minutes by not having to wait in any lines, other then the line to board. Both websites were efficient and clear with directions.
Photos: Putting around in our little golf cart and some street scenes of Isla Mujeres near the ferry terminal.
First stop, the hotel Zoetry Villa Rolandi. This cute little all-inclusive, boasts only 35, all ocean-front rooms, gourmet dining, a Thalasso Spa and complementary arrival and departure by yacht from Cancun. An ideal wedding location, one could easily book out the entire hotel for their guests.
With time to spare until our next hotel visit, we putted down to Punta Sur to see the location where Mexico receives its first rays of sunlight. There is a small fee to go out to the archeological site of Ixchel Temple at the tip of Punta Sur and some debate about whether it was a temple to the Mayan Goddess Ixchel or merely a lighthouse to warn ancient sailors. Some history about this and Isla Mujeres in general, can be found here. A quick stop for a refreshing drink of naranjada (fresh squeezed orange juice and mineral water) and guacamole at El Borracho Burro Cantina, which also featured live music.
Just down the road from the Zoetry Villa Rolandi is the Isla Mujeres Palace. This couples-only, all-inclusive resort has 65 well-appointed rooms, that include ocean views and in-room whirlpool tubs. Booking 4 nights or more gets you included transportation from the Cancun Airport to their private dock, and currently, Covid tests are free with a 4-night minimum.
Day three and more hotels to see! I had the opportunity to preview the new Garza Blanca Playa Mujeres right next door to the Villa del Palmar. They are currently in the 'soft-opening' stage with their grand opening scheduled for October, 2021. I've seen so many hotels in my travel career that it takes a lot to truly impress, but this one was jaw-dropping gorgeous. Upon completion, Garza Blanca Cancun will have a total of 4 gourmet restaurants, a gourmet food hall, 6 pools including a Kids´ Pool and rooftop infinity pool, 3 main bars, a world-class spa, state-of-the-art gym, and a banquet hall for events. Take a look!
Farther north in Playa Mujeres are two AMResorts properties, Dreams Playa Golf and Spa Resort and it's adults-only cousin, Secrets Playa Golf and Spa Resort. Both are well-appointed, "Unlimited Luxury," all-inclusive of drinks, meals, wi-fi and nightly entertainment. Dreams has a Kids Club for the little ones and a Core Zone Teen Club for 13 - 17. They also have a dolphin habitat right on the property. Secrets, all-suite resort, includes nine restaurant options, seven bars and two protected flora and fauna areas, plus a 18-hole Greg Norman Golf Course. Secrets guests can access the neighboring Dreams Resort, enhancing the luxury experience with ten additional restaurants, thirteen bars and all resort facilities. Dreams guests can also access Secrets restaurants and pools, but you have to leave the kids behind. All hotels in the AMResorts family offer free on-site Covid testing with a three-night minimum stay.
Dreams "Family Friendly" Resort and Spa
Secrets "Adults Only" Resort and Spa
After walking our feet off all morning viewing these beautiful properties, we decided to head down to Puerto Morelos, about a 30 minute drive south.
Located between the hotel zone and the Riviera Maya, Puerto Morelos is a more laid back coastal area that was once a fishing village and retains a more 'authentic' Mexican village feel to it. We ate at Los Pelícanos Restaurant, overlooking the pier and the crystal-clear turquoise water. Walking out on their rickety pier we spotted Manta Rays swimming close to shore.
Off to the Zona Hotelera
Cancun's hotel zone is an 14-mile stretch of over 70 resorts, restaurants, nightclubs, shopping malls and even a few archeological sites. It is nestled between the Caribbean Sea and Laguna Nichupté and features mile after mile of beautiful, white-sand beaches. Attractions in the Hotel Zone include: Museo Maya de Cancún y Zona Arqueológica de San Miguelito (Mayan Archeological Museum), and El Acuario Interactivo de Cancun (Interactive Aquarium). The hotel zone is shaped like the number 7, with resorts that face north along the top of the 7 and the remaining hotels heading north to south. Our first stop was the Hyatt Ziva which has the enviable position of being right on the point of the seven affording it beaches that face north and east.
I have to admit this was one of my favorite properties. Family friendly, but with an Adults-only tower, this all-inclusive hotel offers spectacular views of two sides of the Caribbean, eight unique restaurants, six bars and an onsite microbrewery. The hotel also has less expensive pool and garden views, plus a very cool category, 'dolphin view,' that overlooks their dolphin training area.
Hyatt Ziva has some wonderful white sand beaches, plus areas to snorkel, awesome views from both their family and adult towers, spectacular ocean front, swim-up rooms, plus a 'to-die-for' venue for weddings.
Way down the strip (at the bottom of the 7) is the couples-only, Sun Palace Resorts. The Sun Palace features 247 all-inclusive ocean view rooms and suites, 4 gourmet restaurants, 3 pools and jetted, in-room tubs. We had a wonderful meal in Thai, their pan-asian cuisine restaurant.
Approximately an hour to an hour and a half south are the communities of Playa del Carmen, Akumal and Tulum. We stayed on lovely Half Moon Bay, noted for its coral reefs, turtles and snorkeling.
While Mayan ruins and cenotes flourish throughout the Yucatán Peninsula, many can be found in the southern half of Quintana Roo. Cenotes are sinkholes of varying sizes or caves, that are found in limestone rock that have filled with cool, clear groundwater and rainwater over thousands of years. Many have been made accessible and are slowly being taken over by tour operators, although you can still find cenotes that are free (or nominal maintenance fee) and open to the public.
We visited 4 cenotes in Cenotes La Tortuga Tulum, 1 in Akumal (Yal-Ku) and 1 in Coba (Choo-Ha). The water was cool and refreshing and spectacularly clear in most cases. Some had amazing stalactite formations and some were resplendent with tropical fish. Every one was worth the trip.
Cenotes La Tortuga Tulum
You need a guide to enter at Cenotes La Tortuga Tulum. Admission runs about $30 USD per person. Our guide narrated along the way and took us through 4 different cenotes, some with dark tunnels and others open to the sky. Mandatory life vests and snorkel equipment is included. No sunscreen or bug spray is allowed and everyone was asked to shower before entering the water.
Cenotes Yal Ku
Yal Ku Cenote was a 4 minute walk from our abode in Akumal. It was so nice, that we spent two entire days here. Admission was $14 USD per person and masks/snorkels another $5 if you need them (we bring our own). Tour groups of 15 - 20 would pass by periodically like a school of fish but most of the time we had much of the cenote to ourselves. The only thing lacking was shade, but we found a lone palapa the first day and low-hanging tree the second that enabled us to stay all day without getting burned.
The Coba ruins and Cenote Choo Ha
Covid caused a brief closure at the Tulum ruins so we opted to take a tour out to Coba and found it well-worth the 45 minute drive.
Unlike Tulum, Chichen Itzá and other archeological Mayan ruins, Coba is not a single site but a large group of sites connected to a central pyramid. 16 ceremonial roads, the longest of which extends 62 miles and ends near Chichen Itzá, provided transportation for over 50,000 inhabitants between 600 and 900 A.D. You can walk, bike or have a chauffeured 'trike', to view the sites that are spread out over an area of about a mile, one-way. We opted to walk and really enjoyed the history shared by our Mayan guide, Pedro.
There are three cenotes very close to Coba but we visited just one, Choo Ha. A long stairway descends about 40 feet to a cavern lit only by the small entrance above. Stalactites and interesting limestone formations, plus crystal clear water made this a refreshing and interesting stop. Entrance fee was only about $5 per person.
Back to work with three hotels to see in the southern half of Quintana Roo, along the Riviera Maya. First up: Secrets Akumal Riviera Maya. The first thing to notice is that the hotels in these areas have incorporated their jungle surroundings into their landscaping. The Secrets Akumal is a beautiful adults-only, "Unlimited Luxury" AMresort. 6 gourmet ala carte restaurants, and 6 bars serve top-shelf spirits. Ocean and garden view rooms surround 3 large pools and beautifully appointed grounds.
Secrets Akumal Riviera Maya
For those brides-to-be (or for anyone wanting to be fully pampered), Secrets Akumal has a private bridal area, full-service hair and nail salon, hydro therapy pools and of course, beautifully serene areas for massages.
Always good to know what you are getting if you select a "Garden View" room. Not everyone needs an ocean view and these garden view rooms are filled with the sounds of birds and other wildlife.
Just 10 minutes north of Secrets Akumal, also in the Riviera Maya, is Unico 20° North 87° West. Like its name, Unico strives to be unique among its fellow resorts. This 5-star adults-only, all-inclusive resort has 448 well-appointed rooms, with a touch of personalization unique to each guest. On arrival, head to the spa where you can select your own aromatherapy scent for your room and be sure to tell the concierge your drink preferences so your mini-bar can be stocked to your taste. Rooms range from ocean to tropical view and each has a hydro therapy tub on a spacious balcony. 3 unique pools and 5 restaurants serve locally-sourced gourmet specialties. Mixology classes, wine tasting and Mexican Cooking Cuisine are just a few of the on-site amenities.
Unico 20° North 87°
Finally, the last hotel for this trip was The Fives Beach Hotel and Residences. In additional to well-appointed deluxe studios, the Fives also has 1, 2 and 3 bedroom suites ( (662 total guest rooms) complete with full kitchens making a large family or friends get-a-way easy to enjoy. They guarantee connecting rooms for your party so you never have to worry about your family being in another part of the hotel. The 3-bedroom suites have a rooftop patio with a bbq and jacuzzi.
This is an all-inclusive resort that takes dining to the next level. There are 11 internationally-themed restaurants, plus La Casa de Rosa, a small, family style Mexican restaurant where you can try your hand at making authentic local delicacies.
Want to stay in for the evening? Order fully prepared meals from any of the restaurants, OR have the ingredients delivered and use their unique in-house videos to help you prepare dishes right in you own apartment. Feeling the need for even more pampering? Hire a chef to prepare the meals in your own kitchen.
The Fives has 5 pools, several with shallow areas for children and a jungle walk right on the grounds where you might spot their friendly javalina (a Collared Peccary named 'Pepa'), monkeys, iguanas and a wide-variety of birds. The beach is a bit of a hike (10 minutes from the farthest buildings) but there are golf-cart shuttles that come by every 10- 15 minutes.
The Fives Beach Beach Hotel and Residences
Finally, our stay in Akumal wouldn't be complete without a turtle sighting. Akumal means 'place of turtles' in the Mayan language and Akumal Bay is the perfect place to see them. We were told that free-swimming is no longer allowed over the soft seagrass meadows favored by the sea turtles, so we paid a visit to Akumal Dive Center and were fortunate to get the lovely Monica as our personal turtle guide.
Photos: Akumal Bay and Dive Center, snorkeling with our guide Monica, Manta Ray and turtle sitings
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