Exploring the Riviera Maya, Tourist Style: But Would We Go Back????

by Mari Pintkowski (July 2014)

As B&B owners/operators, we sometimes have the opportunity to enjoy a few days off for road-tripping while returning to La Selva Mariposa each night to enjoy the peaceful jungle, alone in paradise.

LSM jungle

We try to visit or revisit places our guests may be interested in seeing as well. For the first day of our mini-vacation, we planned a trip into the Sian Ka’an Biosphere to find a semi-secluded beach. The downside of this destination is the pot-holed road we would be traveling on. The upside would be that we would feel like we were traveling back in time and really "getting away from it all."

The sky was blue and the winds lofty, as we pulled into one of these off-the-beaten-path beach clubs. Fifty pesos for the entrance fee that included use of the bathrooms and showers were handed over to the Maya ladies working in the rustic kitchen. We inquired if the restaurant was open and they handed us a menu. It was quite complete, as they cater to campers who might be staying onsite for more than a day.

We made our way to the beach and, to our surprise, the sand was being raked by a man and woman who were currently resting under a sheltering palm. We laid our beach mats under another palm tree and headed toward the surf. The water was warm and clear with soft, rolling waves. We were able to keep our sunglasses and hats on in the surf in order to protect our faces from the bright sun now shining directly above us. Before long, the shade was beckoning, so we retreated to our spot under the palm and noticed that a few other couples and a family had arrived to enjoy the beach.

Photo Sian Ka an beach club

Later that day, we discovered their restaurant perched on the cliff. The scene brought back memories of our first days in Tulum, 10 years ago, as we feasted on a whole, fried boquinete fish and a bowl of guacamole and chips. I could not resist washing it down with a cold cerveza.

Photo restaurant

We whiled away the hours  by reading and relaxing under our own palm tree, and swimming in the surf. Who could leave this paradise without a walk along the beautiful, turquoise waters of the Sian Ka'an Biosphere? It was time to head back to La Selva Mariposa and cool off in one of our freshwater pools, or the rooftop Jacuzzi.

While driving home, we planned the next day’s excursion to the nearby island of Cozumel. We left home early enough that morning to catch the 9 AM ferry in Playa del Carmen but, to our disappointment, it had been canceled due to the low number of tourists predicted. Not to worry, we were on vacation. We could return to catch the 10 AM ferry. We walked 5th Ave., had a coffee and chatted with the friendly shopkeepers. When we returned to the ferry dock, hundreds of others were also waiting for the 10 o’clock boat.

Photo PDC arch and water

We purchased our tickets and waited in line with the masses, until the guards stopped our line with only four people in front of us. The ferry was full! We would have to wait for them to send another boat. In the meantime, the tour operators were in force trying to sell snorkel and diving tours, rent scooters and cars, and all sorts of other choices. The skies were very dark and rain was threatening, so we decided to wait until we arrived in Cozumel to see what options would be best at that time. The half-hour wait went quickly with conversation, people-watching and enjoying the stunning views. We could see that the coastline of Playa del Carmen had changed drastically in 10 years. But this was only the beginning, as a new ferry terminal was planned with very modern and updated facilities to handle the hundreds that pass through this port each day.

I had always dreamed of having a VW convertible. We found the perfect one to rent for $40 US from Tomas at the Cozumel ferry dock. (We were offered the same car for $50 at PDC). We walked the five or so blocks with Tomas and were soon on our way. The gas pedal was fabricated from a wheel, but everything else seemed ok, especially the fact that the downpour was over and the sun was peeking out.

Photo green VW bug

Lou, my husband the professional driver, said that not everyone could handle the bug, and I was quite content NOT to be behind the wheel. Note to others: Make sure you have a confident driver if you rent one of these dinosaurs.

We followed our plan to circumvent the island and wanted to check out the possibility of doing it at a later date by bicycle. There is a well-maintained bike path going south along the coast and cutting across the Island before you reach the rustic roads on the northern tip of the Island. It is no longer isolated along this road as it was in years past. There are many rustic beach bars, restaurants and convenience stores, along with a growing number of larger beach clubs along this route.

We didn’t allocate enough time to do a snorkel trip and decided not to bring our gear along (a mistake). There were many inviting spots along this southern route (some with coral rock formations and no sandy beaches). The water was super clear and reminded us of Laguna Bacalar with many shades of blue, from light turquoise to navy. We observed quite a few boats anchored off shore filled with snorkelers swimming at the reef. Note to others: You could easily book a day trip (2 to 3 hours) right from the ferry dock. Tours are about $25 a person with gear and beverages.

Photo of beach

We stopped at several restaurants to sample the fare and check out the ambiance. Note to others: Skip the big clubs, as they are full of people from cruise ships.

Photo of big beach club and funky beach spot

All of the establishments on Cozumel take U.S. money, in fact the menus list prices in U.S. dollars as well as pesos. Even the funkiest places were expensive compared to Tulum standards, but the views were worth it. Note to others: Be sure to stop at Coco's; the view is stunning.

Photo cocos

After returning the car, we browsed the shops on the strip with everything listed in U.S. dollars and pesos. We bought our ticket for the 4 PM boat and returned once again to our oasis in the Maya jungle, 20 km from Tulum pueblo. Would we return? ... yes, to bike the island loop and to go out on a snorkel trip to the Palancar Reef.

We were in tourist mode now, so we headed out the next day to Xel-Ha. As residents of Quintana Roo, we got a 50% discount, making the all-inclusive entry fee very reasonable. Note to others: Bring identification and an electric bill or other document with a Quintana Roo address.

We tried to avoid the crowds by choosing activities that seemed to be less popular at this time of the day. The jungle bike ride, on a hard-packed trail, was fun, with interesting stops along the way to observe plants and animal species. A coati or tejon passed us on the trail. Note to others: The path is a two-way trail, so with inexperienced riders there could be crashes, so be careful.

I loved reading the tree signs along the way. We photographed a few we were not familiar with. One of the nice features of the park is allowing you to take photos with your own camera. They will even put all your photos on a zip drive. They also have a few professional photographers taking group shots with a toucan or Scarlet Macaw.

Photo of lagoon and activities

The float ride on the tubes was a bit congested (over 2,000 guests that day, some days as many as 5,000) but it was naturally beautiful floating through the mangroves. You could stop once the canal opened up to climb up the steps to swing on a rope or jump from the cliffs or, like us, just be a spectator. There is even an obstacle course above and on the water to challenge the best athletes or those who are fearless.

There are four choices for lunch from fast food, Mexican grill, International buffet and Mexican buffet. We checked them all out and found the Corona Mexican Grill to be our favorite. Food and drinks (including alcohol and water) are free and easily accessible all day. We did not see any evidence of alcohol abuse. There are hammocks and lounges scattered around the park for a siesta or break at any time.

Next the snorkel experience was not to be missed. The gear is in great condition and is easy to access. You even get to keep your snorkel. Tubes and various-sized vests for adults and children can be picked up or put away when going in and out of the lagoon. The lagoon is very wide in spots. Areas where there are an abundance of fish are marked with flags. We discovered that the tubes are great for reaching these far-away corners and provide a resting spot so you don’t have to stand on the coral rocks. It is very relaxing to just float on your tube in the wide lagoon and do some serious people watching.

Photo large lagoon

I think my favorite part of the day was the late-afternoon stroll to the left side of the park. This is an amazing piece of work by Mother Nature herself. YES. We would return with our kids and grandkids (best if they are swimmers over five years old; at any age they are required to wear vests in the water). This is truly a fun, family park.

Last but not least, we spent our last free day without B&B guests at our favorite beach club, Zazil Kin, on the north end of Tulum beach before you reach the magical ruins. Lou likes to ride his bike from Macario Gomez, 22 km, and meet me at the beach for some sand, surf and siesta. We love this little rustic spot and it is so economical. For 50 pesos you get a chair and a beverage: cocktail, beer, soda or water. The sand is the softest, the water the calmest and the beers the coldest in this part of the beach. We walked next door to the fishermen’s restaurant for a seafood lunch, and enjoyed the unexpected treat of music by a live salsa band.

Photo of boys in the surf

Back at LSM, we felt refreshed, rejuvenated and ready to greet the next group of guests arriving the next day. We feel very fortunate to live in such a rich, welcoming country and love sharing our little piece of paradise with people from all over the world.

Mari Pintkowski and her husband, Lou, own and operate La Selva Mariposa , the #1 B&B in Tulum. To read more of Mari's stories, go to Sac-be archives or order my books: Embarking on the Mariposa Trail; Shifting Gears, a Journey of Reinvention; and a children’s book, Molly the Gecko Hunter on www.amazon.com.