Trip Coach: December 11, 2007
Zora O'Neill, co-author of 'The Rough Guide to the Yucatán' and owner of RovingGastronome.com, answered your questions on Yucatán.
Zora O'Neill: Hello—this is Zora O'Neill. Thanks so much for joining me for this chat! I've been visiting the Yucatan since 2003, and every time I visit, I'm given one more reason to think it's a fantastic place—nice people, tasty food, good weather, cool culture and loads of variety... So whether you're looking to veg out on a beach or hike around in the jungle, send your questions along. I'm looking forward to hearing what you're planning!
Fredericksburg, Va.: Hi, Zora! My wife and I love Playa del Carmen. We've heard that they'll be building an international airport there within the next couple years. Have you heard about that? And what's the best way to keep track of news from that area?
Zora O'Neill: Hi Mitch!
Playa is great! Even as it develops, it has kept a really mellow, hip flavor. As for the airport, I've heard talk about this too—the alleged plan, first mentioned by politicians a couple of years ago, is to overhaul the airstrip at Tulum and make that into an international airport. But there's no evidence of this on the ground yet, and I doubt it will happen anytime soon—especially because Cancun's airport has just added a new terminal. The plan also doesn't help or change Playa substantially, because Tulum is also an hour away.
The website playa.info has a really active set of forums, with a lot of Playa residents contributing—this is definitely the first place to go for gossip.
Mountain View, Calif.: Hello, Zora. I am looking for a good deal to go to Cancun with my family over the holidays for a week—2 adults, 2 kids. Round trip flights from San Jose, CA are around $1k+ now. I'd like to know if this is inflated. Are there good and bad times to go?
Where would be a good place to stay? I've looked at several hotels—north, nr, downtown looks like it's just hotels after hotels. South looks less congested but would it be difficult to get to town if we wanted to (shopping?)? How do Riviera Maya and Playa del Carmen compare to Cancun?
Zora O'Neill: The holidays are a tricky time to visit Cancun and the Riviera Maya—all the hotels charge their highest rates at this time (even higher than the late winter and spring beach season), and they usually require that you book for the whole week between Christmas and New Year's. As for airfare, the price you're quoting sounds high, but I'm not surprised—this really is the premium time of the year. If your schedule can handle it, you might just have to wait to see if any last-minute discount deals are available.
As for where to stay in Cancun, don't worry, as there are buses that run every few minutes up and down the full length of the beach area and into downtown, and the price is only 65 cents! Aside from Punta Cancun, where most of the bars and clubs are, everything is so spread out anyway, you'll have to take a bus regardless of where you stay. I'd say pick the hotel you like, and go from there.
But in general, know this about the beaches: The hotel zone is a barrier island shaped like the number '7'. The north section—the top of the 7—faces the bay and usually has calm, totally waveless water. But the closer you get to the bend in the 7, the more rocks there are, and some hotels have some creative "beaches" that are more like sand over breakwaters. On the other hand, the beach at the Presidente Intercontinental (and its neighbor, Ambiance Villas at Kin-Ha) is one of the most beautiful in the whole hotel zone, as it's especially deep.
Once you go around the bend in the 7 and head south, you're right, the feel is less congested, and the beaches feel a bit more open. The water on this side is the open Caribbean, though, and the waves can be high and occasionally too dangerous to swim in. But the scenery really is gorgeous. One other note about the beaches in this section: in many cases, the hotel towers are so tall that they cast shade all over the beach by mid-afternoon—so if you're staying on this side, you should be an early riser! (Or book at the Westin or the Club Med, which have west-facing pools.)
As for Playa del Carmen and the rest of the Riviera Maya, there is a lot of variety there. Playa is great for nightlife that's not as party-hardy as Cancun's, and Tulum is extremely mellow, but staying on the beach there is really for people who have money but don't care about not having electricity (and a/c, and TV and all that) all the time. And there are scores of individual resorts in between these towns and Cancun.
You probably are more likely to find a good package deal in Cancun proper, but you could also keep an eye out for other options down the coast—these will mostly be all-inclusive deals.