For our 2nd vacation this year, we visited beautiful Cancun, Mexico. This was an unusual choice for us because we already visited Hawaii in September. Why did we have a second beach vacation? Well, our Waikiki trip was actually a spur of the moment decision. Mrs. RB40’s work sent her to Hawaii for 4 days and we tagged along. This Cancun vacation was our original plan for 2017. Besides, I love going to the beach and this gave us the chance to compare 2 world class destinations.
I heard that Cancun was a great vacation destination from my old college roommate and everything came together this year. I finally succeeded at travel hacking after reading about it for so long. We signed up for several credit cards and accumulated enough reward points for 3 flight tickets to Cancun. We also received 4 free nights anywhere from the Hyatt credit card. I figured we’d stay at a cheaper hotel for 5 nights and then move to the Hyatt Ziva, a luxurious all inclusive resort, to complete our visit. However, it didn’t quite work out that way.
We visited Cancun in November because we enjoy traveling during the shoulder season. The kids are in school and most parents don’t want to take them out. November is a great time to travel, though. We were gone for 10 days and RB40Jr only missed 4 days of school. There was a teacher meeting day, 2 parent-teacher conference days, and Veteran’s Day. It was the perfect time to take a short trip.
Anyway, the shoulder season is not very busy and I never had any problems booking a hotel room in our previous trips. However, the 4 free nights only applied to standard rooms and those rooms were sold out for most of that period. I barely got 4 nights booked and those were in the middle of our trip. So our hotel situation looked like this.
- 3 nights at the Suites Gaby in El Centro (downtown), Cancun.
- 4 nights at the Hyatt Ziva in the hotel zone.
- 2 nights at the Krystal Urban in a newer area in downtown.
Mrs. RB40’s friends wondered why we were changing hotels so much. Hey, that’s what happens when you leave it to Joe to plan the trip. I like variety and it’s neat to see different parts of town. We moved around a lot during our Thailand and Costa Rica trips as well. Ideally, we would have switched hotels just once in this trip, but the Hyatt Ziva was too busy. There were many weddings while we were there. Anyway, it worked out really well and changing hotel didn’t cause any issues for us.
Cancun is kind of a strange setup. The nice all-inclusive hotels are located on the beach which is called the Hotel Zone. Most tourists go straight to the hotel zone to enjoy the beautiful all-inclusive resorts and never go to downtown. You could almost forget you’re in Mexico if you don’t leave the hotel zone. All of the hotel employees we interacted with spoke very good English and you don’t even have to eat Mexican food if you don’t want to. It was strange to see such a huge degree of separation between tourists and locals. Most places we visited were organically grown so the locals are mixed in with tourists.
Just a few miles away from the hotel zone is El Centro, where the locals live and work. We like to get a feel of the local culture whenever we travel so I wanted to stay in downtown for about half the time. That way we could experience the culture a bit and see how regular people live. Admittedly, this was a tad scary because the US Department of State recently issued a warning about traveling to many areas in Mexico. The homicide rate in Quintana Roo (the state) increased significantly from 2016 due to drug related crimes. I did some research on the internet and the criminals rarely target tourists, but innocent bystanders have been hurt. El Centro seemed safe enough as long as we weren’t looking for drugs or hanging out in dark alleys really late at night. Sadly, nowhere is 100% safe these days as we kept hearing about shooting and terrorist incidents while we were on vacation.
Our El Centro adventure didn’t start off all that great. We arrived at our hotel around 7:30 pm and checked in without any problem. However, I was very disappointed with the room we got. Room 108 was next to the main stairway and it smelled like somebody smoked in the room. (There were “no cigarette” signs posted everywhere, but I guess
some selfish bastard somebody just didn’t care.) The small window opened up to a view of the hallway and the safe didn’t work. I was glad we got a place to sleep, but I got ready to ask for a room change the next day.
Once we checked in, we went for a short walk to get some dinner. It was late by then, but downtown seemed safe enough and I didn’t see any suspicious characters lurking about. The local residents were going about their business without paying us much attention. We walked to the Pescaditos, a local restaurant, and had a great Mexican meal.
Pescaditos made the best blue crab tacos I’ve ever had! Well, it was the first crab taco I tried, and it was fantastic. We also had fish tacos, fish soup (really fish broth), and a basket of battered fried shrimp. The tacos were unusual because they were fried. Delicious, but not very healthy. Everything was good and the meal cost around $20.
After our late dinner, we strolled back to our hotel and tucked in for the night. It was a long travel day and we were knackered. Unfortunately, it took me forever to fall asleep because people were stomping up and down the stairway and the lobby phone kept ringing. It was super annoying. RB40Jr and Mrs. RB40 slept right through them, though.
Upgraded to a nicer room
The next morning I asked to change room after we had a light breakfast. The hotel was full, but then a few people checked out so they were able to shuffle us to a nicer room. Room 117 was much nicer. The room was slightly bigger, there was no lingering cigarette odor, and the window had a view of the street outside the hotel. I tipped the guy 100 pesos ($6) for helping us change rooms. It was well worth it. That first room was terrible and it was the same price. Sometimes, you’ve got to advocate for yourself.
*Joe’s theory on hotel rooms: The earlier you check in, the better room you’ll get. If you check in late, you’ll get the worst room for sure. We checked in early in Hawaii and got upgraded to a bigger penthouse room. That was pretty awesome.
The clientele at Suites Gaby seemed to be local tourists. Everyone spoke Spanish and we didn’t see any foreigners while we were there. This was great because it gave Mrs. RB40 a chance to practice her Spanish. Suites Gaby is conveniently located in the older part of downtown and there are many restaurants and eateries nearby.
Two popular tourist destinations in El Centro are Mercado 28 and Parque de las Palapas. Mercado 28 is a market where you can pick up souvenirs and try some local food. It was right across the street from Suites Gaby so it was very convenient. I didn’t want to buy anything, but RB40Jr picked up a wooden spinning top for 50 pesos. That’s less than 3 American bucks so I can’t complain too much. We bargained it down from 70 pesos, but I’m sure they would have sold for less than that.
There were many places to eat around Mercado 28 and we had lunch at El Cejas, a seafood restaurant in the market. We got the mixed seafood cocktail, fried crab, empanadas, and drinks. Lunch cost about $25 and we enjoyed it.
Parque de la Palapas
That evening we went to check out Parque de la Palapas. This is a big urban park where locals congregate to let the kids play, eat, listen to music, and watch some live shows on the stage. This evening was the last night of Dia de los Muertos and many locals were walking around with skeleton face paint. There were performances on the main stage and the streets were packed. We thought it was really neat to see the locals out enjoying the evening. RB40Jr had a great time running around at the playground and even made friend with a local kid.
For dinner, we went to Labna, a fancy Yucatan restaurant. Unfortunately, the food was just good, not great. I had to try it once to see what “authentic” Yucatan food is like. Everything was a bit too salty and there were not much other seasonings in the food. Sadly, I’ve had better panuchos in Portland.
Big excursion day
Another reason why I wanted to stay in a downtown hotel for a few days is the excursion. We usually stay at moderately priced hotel because we want to go out and see the sights. The hotel is just a place to rest and we rarely hang out there. Staying at an all inclusive resort is different. It’s a more relaxing stay with all the included amenities and activities. Anyway, we took a full day to visit 2 ruins and a cenote. I’d be reluctant to do this if we were ensconced in a nice all inclusive hotel.
Our big excursion day began at 6:45 am when our driver came to pick us up at the hotel. We booked a private tour because a bus tour wouldn’t have been much cheaper for the 3 of us. A private tour offered the flexibility to visit the sites we really wanted at our own pace (slow…)
It took 2 hours to drive to Chichen Itza from Cancun and we got there at 8 am, right at opening time. Hmm.. you might think it’s a bit strange. If we left at 6:45 am and it took 2 hours. How did we get to Chichen Itza at 8 am? Well, we crossed the time line during the drive and we gained one hour. That was convenient for us.
Anyway, we were one of the first visitors at the site and that was awesome. Chichen Itza is one of the new 7 Wonders of the World and it can get very busy even during low season. The Temple of Kukulkan (big pyramid) was incredible. However, RB40Jr was very disappointed that we couldn’t climb any structures. He was ready to go about 5 minutes after he found that out.
RB40Jr really enjoyed taking photos of the various ruins, though. He prefers to be behind the lens rather than in front. It’s really cool to see him taking an interest in something. Maybe he can be a photographer when he’s grown up.
The Great Ball Court
Here is the Great Ball Court. This is the grandest ball court from ancient Mesoamerica. The hoop is way up there (6 meters) and I have no idea how they’d be able to get the ball that high without using their hands. I think you can only use your hip to move the ball around.
Our guide told us a little about the history of the site and then gave us about an hour to wander around. It was nice because we could see various ruins at our own pace. We were done around 10 am and made our way out. The tour buses were starting to show up and there was a huge crowd of tourist at the entrance. We were very glad we were there early. Our guide took us to a local chicken grill for lunch (included with tour). The local organic chicken was tasty and we scarfed it up.
After lunch, we headed to the next destination, Ek Balam. Ek Balam is an older site than Chichen Itza, but it’s not as popular for some reason. I think it was discovered later and isn’t as well known. Ek Balam encompassed about 12 square km and only the area around the pyramid was excavated. I read that you can see smaller ruins in the jungle if you explore around the area. Visitors can still climb the ruins and RB40Jr really enjoyed that.
The pyramid at Ek Balam was about 30 meters high, about the same height as the one at Chichen Itza. The Ek Balam pyramid was actually more massive because the base was wider. We set off on the climb and RB40Jr was like a monkey. We had to keep telling him to slow down and wait.
The Tomb of Ukil-Kan-Lek-Tok, Ek Balam’s greatest king, is located about midway of the climb. The entrance to the tomb was meant to represent the gate to the underworld through the jaguar’s jaws. The artwork was really impressive and the guide told us it was original. I can’t believe that. How can stucco last 1,000+ years?
The climb to the top was not easy because the steps were small and the pyramid was steep. We made it without too much trouble, but RB40Jr got scared when he made it to the top and looked down. It was pretty high and we had an incredible view over the jungle and other ruins. We didn’t stay up top long because it was really hot and RB40Jr was scared of the height. This was interesting because he never showed this side before. We live on the 11th floor so he should be accustomed to height. Later on, he told us that it was scary because it was wide open. Our balcony at home felt more secure because it has a guard rail. He had to slide down on his butt one step at a time, but we made it down without any incident. Whew!
Chichen Itza was cool, but I really enjoyed Ek Balam. Being able to climb the pyramid and other structures made it much a more interactive experience. The site was much less busy and that made it more enjoyable for us too.
The last destination on our excursion was the X’Canche Cenote. A cenote is a sink hole that exposes the ground water beneath. Cenotes were a source of fresh water for the ancient civilization in this area. Nowadays, they are great swimming hole for visitors to cool off after a hot day of hiking and climbing.
The X’Canche Cenote was located inside the Ek Balam complex, but it was a distance from the main ruins. You can hike, rent a bike, or hire a tricycle to take you there. We hired a tricycle and our guide rode a bike ahead of us. I think it was 2-3 km away so it was worth it for us to pay 50 pesos each for a ride. The entrance fee for the cenote was 100 pesos each. The total was 450 pesos for this side excursion, about $24.
Once we arrived, we changed into our swimming suits and rinsed off at the shower. They don’t want any chemicals going into the fresh water table, that makes sense to me. At the cenote, you can rappel down or zip line over it for an extra charge. We skipped those options and just took the steep stairs down.
X’Canche cenote was beautiful and the swim was refreshing. The water was a bit cold, but it felt great after a hot day in the sun. I brought RB40Jr’s life vest from Portland so we didn’t have to rent one. We had a great time there. The original itinerary from the tour company was to visit Valladolid, an old Spanish colonial town, but I found out about the X’Canche cenote online and insisted we go there instead. I’m really glad we did. This was the first time we visited a cenote and it was awesome. We’ll visit Valladolid another day.
Back to town
It took almost 2 hours to get back to town and I napped in the car. Our poor driver was tired and sleepy, but he got us back safely. We paid $360 plus 300 pesos tip for this private tour and I thought it was worth it. It could have been much cheaper if we taken the bus ourselves and DIY, but we wouldn’t have been able to do it all in one day. This was just right for us especially with a little kid along.
That evening we went to Parque de la Palapas again and ate cheap tacos and churros from the local stalls. The tacos al pastor were great! You get 4 small tacos for 30 pesos and they tasted better than previous evening’s fancy restaurant food. We also got a big bottle of local lemonade and none of us got a stomachache. Whew…
All in all, we really enjoyed our first few days in Cancun. It was fun to see how the local people live. The next morning we checked out from Suites Gaby and took a taxi to the hotel zone. Hyatt Ziva was pretty awesome and I’ll write a detailed review next time. We spent 5 great days there and wallowed in luxury. It was an interesting experience. 😉
Another downtown location
After our luxurious all inclusive stop, we moved to Krystal Urban. This was a conference hotel in a newer part of Cancun. It seemed like most of the clientele were there for work. We saw many people walking around with lanyards and IDs. Krystal Urban was okay for 2 nights and 1 day.
The last day was a free day for us. Originally, I planned to visit Isla Mujeres on that day, but I was flexible. It turned out we were beached out after 5 days at Hyatt Ziva so we just explored that part of town instead. The Plazas del Toros (bull fight ring) was right next to the hotel. There wasn’t an event when we were there, but we walked around and checked out the restaurants around the arena.
Las Plaza Americas was a huge mall that was just across the street. We spent a few hours there walking around and checking out various stores. Surprisingly, stuff isn’t any cheaper than in the US. The only thing we got was a bottle of water and a USB charger to replace my old broken one. We ate at the mall and the food was fine.
Later that afternoon, we went for a walk toward the lagoon. Mrs. RB40 saw on Google Maps that the our hotel was near the lagoon and we can walk there. I read that there was an esplanade there, but the development looked unfinished. This walk was pretty interesting. The main street into the development was gated off, but you can walk in through the sidewalk. This place looked like it was an abandoned housing development project. The streets were in good shape, but the sidewalks were overgrown with weeds. RB40Jr got scared because there was nobody in this huge development. It was a little eerie because of the quiet. There were no houses, just a bunch of weeds and bushes along the streets. After about a quarter of a mile, we got to the lagoon. The esplanade was in good shape and there were a few local people relaxing out there. This looks like it would be a nice suburb if they ever finish it.
Wrapping up our visit
That evening we went to Oh My GGogi, a great Korean BBQ, across the street from our hotel. Mrs. RB40 was skeptical, but the food was really good. Their kimchi was the best I’ve ever had and the kalbi was excellent. We thoroughly enjoyed our last dinner in Cancun. Yelp finally came though and sent us to a good restaurant.
The next day was spent traveling back home. It was great to get home, but the rain and cold was a big shock to my system. This time of year is rough in the Pacific Northwest. Okay, that’s it for Cancun today. Next time, I’ll share our luxurious all-inclusive resort experience with you. It was our first time in an all-inclusive resort and we got spoiled rotten.
Cancun expense report
Amazingly, our trip cost less than $1,200. That’s way below what we spend normally on our international vacation. The flight and the most expensive hotel were funded with credit card rewards. I’ll write a more comprehensive post another day. All in all, it was a great trip for a very affordable price.
Have you been to Cancun? I really enjoy visiting the tropics. Cancun was great because it wasn’t too humid and there were very few mosquitoes. Someday, I’d like to live in the tropics for a while and see if I can enjoy it long term.