The Beach Snob’s Guide To Cancun

So you’re not the Cancun type. That’s no reason to pass up a cheap flight to its airport, a gateway to lots of anti-Cancun destinations. The area has more than 80 miles of white-sand Caribbean beaches, and only a few of those are confined to the cheesy place you’ve been avoiding.

I’m a certified beach snob, and Cancun-area sands are some of the best for the money and the time it takes to fly there from most parts of the United States. The scenery and beach quality rival Turks & Caicos, the most postcard Caribbean beach I’ve ever seen.

The trick is to look beyond Cancun’s strip to the broader area called the Mayan Riviera, and your options expand to include laid-back islands, secluded luxury resorts and yoga retreats that feel like they’re located at the end of the earth. Some destinations are 30 minutes from the airport, some two hours. You can be on the beach with a thatched-roof balcony and your own hammock for around $100 per night – and no Senor Frog’s for miles and miles.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the Cancun type. The spas in the hotel zone are underrated, for one. But I like quieter places away from the crowds, and more placid waters than Cancun’s. If you do, too, it’s time to reconsider Cancun airfares. Snap up a deal and trust that you’ll find a place your speed; shoulder season in late April and May (and again in September, October and November) is a great time to go because you avoid high-season hotel rates and the scorching summer weather. Here are a few destinations you might not have heard of:

The Island Vibe: Isla Mujeres
A slice of real Mexico, this small island is the closest Cancun alternative to the airport. Located six miles off the coast of Cancun and reached by ferry (pictured at top), it’s anchored by a lively town that sits right on Playa Norte, a postcard soft-sand beach. The extended shallow water appeals to families with young kids. The most popular mode of transportation is a golf cart, and for such a compact place, there’s an remarkable number of restaurants and places to stay. I like Ixchel Beach Resort for a new condo (via VRBO.com), Playa la Media Luna for a tropical beachfront bargain and Casa el Pio for a cute, cheap, in-town option.

The Luxe Life: Playa Mujeres
Quietly, this upscale area has cropped up just north of Cancun, in the opposite direction of the Mayan Riviera development and therefore totally under the radar. It’s a secluded, almost untouched stretch of coastline (pictured below) with nothing else around, the kind of place where you won’t leave the hotel unless it’s on a boat to go fishing or snorkeling. The resorts are extremely posh and expensive – think marble showers the size of a car wash and in-room Jacuzzis with indoor and outdoor access, like those at Excellence Playa Mujeres.

The Soulful Escape: Tulum
This is the only place where I’ve ever picked up hitchhikers. Bumping along a dirt road lined with small, economical beach hotels south of the well-known Tulum ruins, we passed dozens of budget travelers walking to and from the highway, where they catch a bus to Cancun. We gave a lift to an older German couple with wheeled suitcases. Every year, they said, they fly to the area without hotel reservations and call around once they land.

Tulum is located at the far southern reaches of the Mayan Riviera, a good 90 minutes from Cancun and not far from the Belize border. The beaches here are some of the most pristine on the Yucatan. Traditionally an off-the-grid backpacker’s haven, it’s now attracting vacationers who like the good life but aren’t high maintenance. The New York Times called it the fashion in-crowd’s new Miami last year. There are dozens of small hotels in this area alone, including yoga retreats and chic eco-friendly casitas. Casa de los Olas gets high marks.


[Photo credits: from top, Megan Fernandez; 917Press, Scarlatti2004 and Mr. Theklan via Flickr]

Mud Season Escapes: Where Ski Towns Go After The Snow

sayulitaThe countdown has begun; most ski resorts will be closing in roughly three to four weeks, and then they’ll temporarily become ghost towns. Welcome to mud season, the bi-annual, post-season time when businesses shutter and residents escape to hotter climes – usually (die-hards head to South America to chase the snow).

Be they lift op or millionaire, most locals have their favorite vacation spots – most of them affordable and south of the border. I’ve lived in my share of ski towns (and thus enjoyed mud season exodus), and there’s just no avoiding the fact that certain destinations are southerly extensions of the mountains. What can I say? Ski bums have great taste.

The following are some of the most popular places locals flock to for mud season. The good news is, you don’t need to live in a ski town, or even be a skier, to appreciate them. Book your tickets!

Sayulita, Nayarit, Mexico
Also known as “Telluride South.” There’s just no escaping your neighbors, clients and customers, but this sleepy fishing village has managed to retain its charm, despite being less than 30 miles from Puerto Vallarta. Main activities: slurping ice cream, scarfing fish tacos, reading on the beach and watching the sunset.

Costa Rica
Crested Butte loves it some CR, especially a specific treehouse community (started by former locals) called Finca Bellavista. Tamarindo, Jacó and Mal Pais are also popular beach getaways for the off-season ski crowd. What better place for winter thrill-seekers to transition to warm weather pursuits such as whitewater rafting, surfing and volcano bagging?sea turtle
Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Formerly known as the jumping off point for the ferry to Cozumel, Playa has become a bona fide resort, popular with families, couples and singles who desire a bit of luxury minus the crowds and squalor of Cancun.

Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Located close to Playa, this buzzy village is better known as the home of some of Mexico’s most spectacular Mayan ruins. Popular with the backpacker crowd thanks to beachfront bungalow and palapa accommodations (alas, camping isn’t as prevalent or permissible as it used to be); Tulum is now a target destination for food lovers making a pilgrimage to Hartwood Restaurant, a solar-run operation that specializes in locally-sourced, contemporized regional cuisine (note it’s closed March 18-April 3 for annual maintenance). Also, don’t miss the cenotes, or sinkholes, that dot the countryside; you can swim in their crystalline waters, or even explore them via scuba.

Caye Caulker, Belize
Both diving and hammock enthusiasts are drawn to this laid-back island in the Caribbean Sea. Lobster at 9,000 feet can’t compare to freshly-caught.

Hawaii
A popular destination for trade wind-craving ski town refugees, especially Oahu, Maui and Kauai, depending upon budget and inclination. The diversity of outdoor adventure and relative ease of getting there is the draw.

[Photo credits: Sayulita, Flickr user waywuei; sea turtle, Flickr user -NINETIMES-]

10 Essential Destinations In Mexico

mexico While many think of Mexico as a country that’s too dangerous to visit, there are actually many beautiful, safe and historically rich cities worth making a trip for.

While Tulum features one of the most well preserved ancient civilizations in the country, Copper Canyon features an extreme adventure park inside its ravine. Additionally, Guadalajara boasts magic villages, UNESCO World Heritage Sites and 684 historical monuments, while Guanajuato has an entire underground road system and an active mining community. These are just some of the experiences to be had in these worthwhile cities in Mexico.

For a more visual idea of these essential Mexican destinations, check out the gallery below.

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[image via Bjorn Christian Torrissen]

Renewed Mexico travel warning threatens spring break travel plans

MexicoThe U.S. State Department has issued a new Mexico travel warning, superseding last April’s warning. Apparently, cartel violence stemming from drug trafficking, specifically violent struggles among the criminal organizations for control of trafficking routes, has resulted in a rising number of carjackings, kidnappings and gun battles throughout Mexico.

“U.S. travelers should be aware that the Mexican government has been engaged in an extensive effort to counter TCOs (Transnational Criminal Organizations) which engage in narcotics trafficking and other unlawful activities throughout Mexico, says the State Department in the new warning posted on their website today.

Detailing the problem, the State Department says “The TCOs themselves are engaged in a violent struggle to control drug trafficking routes and other criminal activity. As a result, crime and violence are serious problems throughout the country and can occur anywhere. U.S. citizens have fallen victim to TCO activity, including homicide, gun battles, kidnapping, carjacking and highway robbery.”

Mexico government figures indicate that 47,515 people were killed in narcotics-related violence between December 1, 2006 and September 30, 2011, the warning states. Most of those killed were members of the criminal organizations.

The big problem: State Department numbers indicate that 120 U.S. citizens were murdered in Mexico in 2011, up from 35 in 2007, according to the warning.

Bad news for college students, the government says spring break destination Rocky Point is a key area in the international drug and human trafficking trades and can be extremely dangerous.

Arizona college student Juan Pantoja told KVOA.com, “I was there two or three months ago. I go down there often and go to Rocky Point. I have never thought twice about it. It’s always a good time.” University of Arizona student Chase Tsui added, “I would love to go visit my boyfriend’s family, but the problem is getting there. My mom still has this thing about going to Mexico, so she still doesn’t want me to go.”

The updated warning advises against nonessential travel to areas within 16 Mexican states, including Veracruz and the border areas of Aguacalientes and Zacatecas, and Colima and Michoacan says TravelWeekly but notes that no advisories are in effect for the state of Quintana Roo (Cancun, Cozumel, Playa del Carmen, Riviera Maya and Tulum), the Riviera Nayarit, Mexico City, Cabo San Lucas, Puerto Vallarta, Guadalajara and Guanajuato (San Miguel de Allende and Leon).

Travelers are advised to stay within the tourist areas of Acapulco, Ixtapa, Mazatlan, Monterrey and Zihuantanejo.


Severed Heads Left at Mexican School

Flickr photo by scazon

Design Hotels launches Papaya Playa Project, a “pop up hotel” in Tulum, Mexico

papaya playa projectTaking glamping and the idea of pop ups to a new level is the innovative hotel group Design Hotels with the launch yesterday of the Papaya Playa Project, a temporary “pop up” camp with 99 rustic cabanas on a 900-meter stretch of Caribbean coastline in Tulum, Mexico.

Starting at just $25 a night for what amounts to a cot on the beach to $675 a night for one of the more luxe accommodations, the rooms will be a mix of private cabanas and casitas and shared, dormitory-style accommodations featuring shared baths and bunk beds.

Lest you wonder about whether or not building such a project wreaked havoc on the area’s natural surroundings – it isn’t. It’s “a spiffed-up campus of cabanas once belonging to three now-shuttered resorts,” according to The New York Times, but it’s the first such large-scale hotel pop up we’ve seen. The only other that exists? Hotels offering limited term “glamping” excursions and a British company called “The Pop Up Hotel” which really specializes in crafting limited-term spaces for events and retreats.

Barring some traveler’s unwillingness to visit Mexico due to continued violence in the country, Papaya Playa seems an easy fit for those looking for alternative travel experiences – a true “glamping” trip that integrates local materials and nature with luxe elements like high thread count sheets and private cabanas, plus amenities like food from KaterHolzig of Berlin’s Bar 25 fame and a spa incorporating Mayan shamanism.

Design Hotels founder and now Tulum resident Claus Sendlinger plans to bring in famous DJs and musicians to perform on the beach’s “natural ampitheater” as well as perks for the luxe seeker including local and sustainable foods plus organic “nutrient-rich food-on-the-go,” plus an on-site boutique with local and international designers.

The only thing we can’t figure out? What Design Hotels plans to do with the space when it closes in May of 2012.