Mexico’s Riviera Maya! Feat. Chichen Itza, Valladolid, and a Brandi Carlile concert, Feb 2022
Updated: Mar 31
Let’s go to Mexico!
So I can live like this all day, every day.
Note: I went back and did it again in 2023! Those details at the end.
Route: This trip was a sandwich of a few days in Valladolid, in the Mexican state of Yucatan ⇨ a 4-day music festival held at the Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya ⇨ a few days on the beach in Akumal, Quintana Roo. Click on the green links to get to specific sections.
Method of Travel: 388 kilometers round trip by car (241 miles), after flying into Cancun. Note: Cancun and coast are on Eastern Time, Valladolid and Chichen Itza are on Central.
Soundtrack: Brandi Carlile Band, Sheryl Crow, Indigo Girls, Lucius, Yola, Allison Russell, Katie Pruitt, and the rest of the artists of GJWW, or Girls Just Wanna Weekend.
First, west to Valladolid. That's "vaya doe leed" for the Spanish-challenged, like me.
Valladolid, Yucatan: This city is a little over 2 hours west of Cancun, and a great location to feel like you’re really in Mexico, even if you’re there primarily to be a tourist at Chichen Itza. It’s advertised as a “colonial city,” a term we debated over cocktails at the beautiful rooftop bar of El Meson de Marques, while looking out at the Iglesia de San Servacio cathedral (rebuilt 1706). It’s a vibrant, walkable city, with narrow sidewalks, low stucco buildings, and busy inhabitants.
The Iglesia de San Servacio at night, and Mexican street corn from a cart in the square. Delicious, but not for the mayonnaise averse!
We stayed at the exceptional Hotel Posada San Juan, a place that looks like a wall from the street and opens inside to a lovely courtyard and pool. While the pool was cold (refreshing), the bar was plentiful, the staff accommodating, and the room large and comfortable. Highly recommended. Everywhere we went in Valladolid was walkable from here.
The Hotel Posada San Juan's courtyard.
Three of the things we wanted to do while in Valladolid were closed - but do put them on your list and see if they're open:
the central Cenote Zaci (more about cenotes later)
the market, Mercado Municipal
The evening light show on the ex-convent of San Bernardino, about the history of Valladolid. Our hotel concierge told us “the lights have been broken for a month.”
What we did instead was visit that ex-convent of San Bernardino, which was peaceful and interesting. It’s one of the oldest Colonial structures in the Yucatan state, from 1560, during the Spanish conquest. We walked there via the Causeway of the Friars, Calzada de Los Frailes, from the main square. Lots of shops and restaurants along the way. We also visited the Casa de los Venados, the House of the Deer. This private (American) collection of Mexican art is housed in an amazing mansion in the center of town, where the owners still live and seem to be just around the corner but are never seen.
A typical streetscape, and the ex-convent.
Pics from the House of the Deer. Courtyard pool!
There are plenty of travel blogs and videos about Valladolid, but I found these to be extremely helpful, as I didn’t know anything about this part of the world: Boundless Roads, The Country Collectors on YouTube - who do a great job talking about prices and timing, Island Life Mexico, which has an active and helpful Q&A page, and the city’s own tourism page https://valladolidmx.travel/.
I perused a lot of resources to decide how to do this visit, and in the end we simply drove there and went in. The main tip is to arrive early, which we did, and we probably should have gotten a guide, but didn’t. The entrance fee was a little confusing, somehow we had to pay part in cash and part on the card. I still don’t know what happened. With all places, always have some pesos on you for moments like this. Be prepared to walk a lot here, and to be amazed because there’s so much to see. What we didn’t expect was the gauntlet of tchotchke purveyors everywhere, blowing whistles that sounded like jaguars and yelling “one dollar!” Thanks to the travel blog Goats on the Road for helpful tips here.
What’s a cenote? Essentially it’s a sinkhole, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater. They’re everywhere around here, and present in two ways - open, so you look down into it, or underground in a cave. I hesitate to tell others about the one we went to, Cenote Sac-AUA, which has both types of cenote, because it was so nicely empty when we arrived. As we drove there, it seemed as if the jungle was just a few weeks away from devouring the paved road. When we came to the village of Dzalbay, kids crowded our car looking for pesos. Once parked in the empty parking lot, we sat down in the empty restaurant, and happily ate the only thing on the spoken menu: grilled pork with homemade tortillas and cans of beer. We shared an excellent guided tour with three other visitors, and fortunately someone in the group translated. We went down some stairs into a cavern with stalactites and stalagmites, and an underground (cold!) pond, which we swam in. Back up and along a trail, then down again about four flights of stairs to an open cenote with clear blue water and an island. Sublime.
So many tortillas.
More about Cenote Sac-AUA https://mexicodailypost.com/2021/02/08/cenote-sac-aua-the-only-cenote-with-an-island-inside/
I had a whole list of cenotes we could have visited, and we saw many along the way. I’d guess none will be disappointing, and most have food and changing rooms. Here is a guide,
At this point in our trip, my companions dropped me off at the Girls Just Wanna Weekend concert. An explanation: the inaugural Brandi Carlile Band Girls Just Wanna concert event was in 2019 as a 4-day concert at the Hard Rock Riviera Maya resort featuring female artists, with a ‘80s night costumed concert. I went that first year, as well as 2020, and then, of course, 2021 was delayed until 2022. The only people at the resort during that time, then, are concert attendees, and mostly women. The all-inclusive price covers music, room and board, and drinks (and so many churros)! Other artists do this too, such as Dead and Company’s Playin’ on the Sand, the Avett Brothers' Avett at the Beach, and Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky.
Aimsel Ponti, a music writer from Maine, wrote the following excellent deep dive, for anyone who wants a play-by-play of GJWW 2022. I could not have said it better myself.
Brandi Carlile with Lucius and Sheryl Crow.
Below, one of the better ways to see a concert, floating in the Caribbean with a cocktail. I may have been holding two...
I also attended GJWW4 in 2023, equally awesome music and floating with drinks experiences!
To the beach!
Akumal, Quintana Roo: This small beachfront community is a great place to unwind. Our family has stayed here several times. There’s enough beautiful beach for teens and toddlers alike, enough walkable restaurants for those who want them, and enough easy snorkeling for all. I am easily entertained by floating around and looking at fish. There were the many silver ones, who surrounded me while being picked off by diving pelicans. There were the Caribbean Reef squid (we thought they were cuttlefish) who swam in a pack and stared us down with their funny eyes. There was the flat fish with the supraorbital ridge who knows he’s kind of ugly but looked at me as if to say “leave me alone, I know.”
Half Moon Bay, where we stayed, is north of the center of Akumal, and is ringed with rental condos and small hotels. The beach is not that wide, and the bay is surprisingy shallow and rocky, so water shoes are recommended. Once you’re floating and looking down, the bottom looks as if you’re flying in a small plane over western states, as the undulating sand formations and seaweed look like mountains and trees. Since the coral, unfortunately, is dying, the colors are mostly muted. But suddenly a bright blue fish! And an orange one! And… and… and.
The view of Half Moon Bay from our 4th floor condo rental.
Akumal itself is hardly much more than a diving center, a busy public beach ($6) and a few restaurants. There’s a pueblo (a non-touristy area) on the other side of the highway. Most of the towns along the Riviera Maya have a beach location, and another half on the “jungle side” of the 307, which is a four-lane highway that connects Cancun to the rest of the coast. Make sure you’re looking at a map when you make your reservation!
We rented a great two-bedroom condo through La Mirage/Hacienda Tortuga, which came with views, a pool, and parking. Contact email@example.com directly, and Roberto will set you up.
Back to the fish! For a different Akumal snorkeling experience, especially if you didn’t pack the gear, go to the beautiful Yal-Ku lagoon, just north of Akumal.
This year I was surprised to find that three different outfits operate there now, all with essentially the same name. Once you’re in the water, you all swim together. We chose the Yal-Ku Cenote (not really a cenote). I believe this is the smallest outfit, they have parking and lockers and showers and equipment rentals. It is the farthest west, meaning you’re closest to the fish that hide in the rocks, while the other entrances are closer to open water. There is also Aventuras Mayas Parque Yal-ku which picks people up from other locations, and Yal Kú Akumal Riviera Maya which has rentable palapas in which to park your stuff and have a siesta.
OK, let’s eat.
Great places to eat in Akumal are the following:
La Buena Vida is the perfect beach bar with swings and hammocks and treehouses and everything you want in a beach bar including a variety of margaritas and, of course, guacamole. On a recommendation we ordered the Caribbean lobster, only available late winter, and inexplicably it arrived smothered in spaghetti alfredo with shrimp. We accepted the challenge.
La Cueva del Pescadora is an adorable little fish-centric place with small tables and big pitchers of margaritas (as pictured with my opening statement "so I can live like this all the time").
Turtle Bay is great for breakfast and lunch, mostly in the shade if that’s what you need. Also has to-go pastries for breakfast.
Taverna Akumal is a “fancy” Italian restaurant under an open-air palapa on the second floor. Pretty drinks (pictured) and delicious food! A great reason to dress up a little.
Lol-Ha is the beach restaurant. Tip: if you’re looking for something to eat and drink, and don’t want to pay for the beach, go to Lol-Ha and enter the beach from the restaurant. It’s a long walk from the main drag, accessible near the Oxxo convenience store before the white arch, or a confusing drive down a driveway that appears inaccessible until you tell “the guy” you’re going to Lol-Ha. You can have your margarita and your beach too!
La Lunita is on the ground floor of Hacienda Tortuga, where we rented our condo. This lovely beachside restaurant is creative, and a special place. It can be quite windy, and the "floor" is sand, so wear your best caftan and sandals.
A few more notes:
Tulum? I have stayed in Tulum, and it's one Instagram moment after another, so if that’s your thing, there you go. If you choose Tulum, I highly recommend the quieter northern end near the ruins. When we returned in 2023 and stayed in the southern part, there were very few hotels or restaurants that didn't have a persistent throbbing dance club beat coming out of them at all hours. I really just wanted to listen to the ocean. The place we chose was pretty peaceful, and it offered free yoga and a nice beach club: Alaya Tulum. I won't recommend any restaurants because things down there change too often. Check those reviews carefully!
About Covid travel in the Riviera Maya and Yucatan. In January/February 2022, nearly everyone wore masks on the street in Valladolid. We easily found a Covid test site, required for my entrance to the resort concert I was attending. People mostly wore masks in Akumal, though not on the beach. Staff everywhere were masked. Covid tests required for flying home are available in many places in Cancun, including the airport. We chose to take proctored tests that we had brought along from home. Not without anxiety, these tests involve an app, good wifi, and a person watching you take the test on your phone or laptop. Once at the airport, our results were briefly looked at once, by the guy helping with the check-in kiosk, and never by the airline, but that may have just been us.
About safety in Mexico: I feel safe in Mexico. That said, yes, I am freaked out by the armed guards posted along the 307 and walking through tourist areas. It happens in Italy too. In fact, there are likely as many guns when I travel around my Concealed Carry state of Wisconsin, unfortunately. Are the cartels active? Probably. I don’t seek out illegal drugs in Mexico, thus we have no business together. As with anywhere, do your research, find your comfort level, and be careful. There are several blogs out there that address women traveling solo in Mexico, all worth a read and helpful: Where Goes Rose, The Wandering Blonde, Taylor on a Trip.
This should be a margarita, but it's champagne. See you in Mexico!