Help me have an awesome trip to Riviera Maya
December 23, 2010 7:00 PM   Subscribe

URGENT TRAVEL FILTER: Flying to Riviera Maya for the first time at 5am tomorrow morning for a 10-day vacation with my girlfriend. What do we absolutely NEED to do, and what should we be careful of/avoid?

We got a good deal through Apple Vacations Square Deal and just found out we'll be staying at the Secrets Silver Sands in Riviera Maya for our 10 day trip. Its all-inclusive, and we'll probably be doing some excursions and maybe have dinner out in town one night (maybe in Playa Del Carmen).

I've never been to Mexico, neither of us speak spanish. We want this to be very memorable but have already blown a big wad on the trip itself so we are being budget conscious now.

Where should we go, what do we need to do, how do we get awesome cheap souvenirs that aren't tacky crap that's mass produced and sold in the airport, etc? Also, what do we need to be careful of in terms of scams, violence, etc.

I have a million questions but instead of listing them all I'll just open it up. I'm pulling an all nighter tonight since our cab comes at 2:45 so I'll be checking this throughout the night. If there are questions, just ask and I'll be sure to respond quickly.

Thanks in advance for helping me have an awesome vacation!
posted by Elminster24 to Travel & Transportation around Cancun, Mexico (23 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You need to get to the airport at least three hours before your flight.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:03 PM on December 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

You ought to do excursions to ruins and snorkel, ideally in multiple locations (cenote, underground river, etc). Souvenirs everywhere will be overpriced (although fairly cheap, especially stuff made of silver), but souvenirs in the hotel itself will be amazingly overpriced and are to be avoided.
posted by jeather at 7:18 PM on December 23, 2010

-DON'T drink the water, *seriously* dude.
-Carry lots of singles (USD) for tips.
-Apple is a great company to organize all your pickups and drop offs, you won't be left behind.
-Don't leave the compound alone, go with another couple or a group.
-Visit Tulum, you can take public transportation (about $1 one way), bring your bathing suit, there's a beautiful beach there. Steal food from the buffet and take it with you for a nice afternoon.
-The Mexican culture is very modest, so don't be offensive in your dress or language.
-Silver for gifting, you can't go wrong and it's hand crafted, cheap and travels well going home.

Have fun!

Oh, and sunscreen.

posted by ~Sushma~ at 7:20 PM on December 23, 2010

No disrespect intended, whatsoever, by anything I say in this reply, but I've spent a lot of time in Mexico, and you haven't.

You're basically parachuting into an all-inclusive resort, in the Yucatan, in high season, for 10 days, with minimal preparation, and back reserves. Enjoy the resort. Swim in the chlorinated pool(s). Get your meals, on time, without much worry of Montezuma's Revenge. Apply a lot of sunscreen/suntan lotion, lie about, and get a great tan. Have fun with your girl, and be a helluva lot better to her than ever you might, back home. Once you get there, ask the concierge for local recommendations, and help in making reservations, getting back and forth, etc. Let the resort staff know when you're leaving the grounds, if you decide to do so, where you are going, and when you expect to return, and keep someone back home updated daily about your plans.

Be skeptical about persons who might be described as "hangers on," local offers of services/goods, and food. Don't change money needlessly.

Enjoy yourself, your girl, and the vacation you've purchased at some expense. Get yourself and your girl home in good shape, with nothing but happy memories.
posted by paulsc at 7:30 PM on December 23, 2010

The best advice I have I got here on the green. If you get turista, go to the doctor in Mexico while you are still down there. They know the local malicious germs better than your doctor back home.

Other advice: eat, eat, eat. Take a shot of tequila after every meal and squeeze lime on everything.

Buen viaje!
posted by Duffington at 7:46 PM on December 23, 2010

Forgot the following:

Tip well, tip everyone, but remember that despite what you may have heard about Mexican government, bribes (please read the whole article linked) are bad, if you're aren't capable of doing them right. And trust me, amigo, you aren't.

If/when you go off the resort, watch your valuables (money, passport, tickets, jewelry), 20x -23x times as much as you might, back home. It's not that you're 20x or more times likely to be pickpocketed, or that the locals are especially greedy/skilled cutthroats/Dodgers, it's that you are spending 17, 18, or 19 out of every 20 available brain cycles on something other than your own minimal security, because you're a fantastically interested tourist, in a new place, maybe with a camera, trying to take it all in.

Keep a weather eye, pal, even when skies are blue.
posted by paulsc at 7:59 PM on December 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the great tips guys. We'll be sure to check out Tulum.

In regards to tipping, I have heard there is a new law that forbids businesses from accepting US Dollars there. Obviously that may not impact tips much, but is it best to tip in USD or pesos? If pesos, what is appropriate for different types of services?

Also, if we go out to town and order a coke in a restaurant, is that safe? I believe coke is made with syrup and water and I'm not sure if that would be ok to drink or not... Probably if its in a can but not out of a machine would be my guess.
posted by Elminster24 at 8:23 PM on December 23, 2010

If you start thinking that it might be a good idea to get braids, it is just the tequila talking. Don't do it.
posted by spilon at 8:24 PM on December 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Try the local specialty sopa de lima every place you go. Every place has a different version, and they're AMAZING. Get out to see Tulum, the ruins are spectacular. Other than that, the best memories I had of the Riviera Maya were spending quality time with my feet in the sand, a bucket of local brews on ice, and a plate full of ceviche in front of me.
posted by TungstenChef at 8:27 PM on December 23, 2010

I didn't see soda fountains anywhere I went. All the sodas I ordered came in bottles, which are perfectly safe.
posted by TungstenChef at 8:28 PM on December 23, 2010

Do not drink a beverage with ice, nor one from a frosted mug, i.e. just drink it from the bottle. And remember, the same rules apply for the meal on the way home. If it has native H2O on it, it is not safe for your GI tract.
posted by docpops at 8:42 PM on December 23, 2010

Also, try a margarita on the rocks, with good tequila, and a little liquer in it from Merida called Xtabentun.
posted by docpops at 8:43 PM on December 23, 2010

"Also, try a margarita on the rocks, with good tequila, and a little liquer in it from Merida called Xtabentun."
posted by docpops at 11:43 PM on December 23

Agreed, but not within 24 hours of your flight home. In fact, amigo, nothing but hot coffee/tea, cervezas and bottled sodas for you and your girl, within that time. They won't hold flights for stragglers, and you don't want to be sick, airborne.

And don't schedule any "resort course" SCUBA dives within 48 hours of flying, either. They really ought to catch this at all-inclusive resorts, but often, for various reasons, they don't. If you're going to dive/snorkel etc., do it early in your stay, or forget it.
posted by paulsc at 9:00 PM on December 23, 2010

Chichen itza, mayan ruins, are awesome and bigger than Tulum, although they're a bit far away. If you're going to be in the riviera maya for 10 days, it's probably worth it.

Xelha is a good place to go snorkeling.

The fish ceviche is pretty great everywhere.

In most places you can pay with a credit card and include tips, but for service people who'd you want to give a little something, dollar bills will be fine.

And just to nitpick, the riviera maya and cancun are actually in the state of Quintana Roo, not Yucatan.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 9:02 PM on December 23, 2010

The Coke and Corona will be in bottles, but it will be safe. (Other drinks, like horchata or agua fresca will be made with local water.) Many people fret about ice, which is made of local water and could have bacteria-or-whatever. I'm personally not one of them, but I tend towards more risk rather than worrying about every little thing.

To further illuminate ~Sushma~'s comment about modesty on dress in Mexico, if you're going off the resort, I recommend long pants/skirt and something that covers the shoulders, at least. Something more like Casual Friday. In developing countries in general, people take pride in their personal appearance and wearing nice clothes, and it's baffling to see rich Westerners (and you feel broke now, but I assure you, you're rich) dressing like hobos. Avoid the Hawaiian shirt / shorts / flip flops combo; it's a courtesy and respect thing. On the off chance you visit a church, more covered up is better.

On the off chance you want to brush up on a few words of Spanish, you can't learn enough to actually do anything but show a little courtesy in the short time you have left, but the free One Minute Spanish and Coffee Break Spanish are pretty good. Coffee Break uses Iberian pronunciation rather than Latin American, but they usually mention when there is a difference in the early shows.
And from my post in this other thread:
My top 8 words/phrases, roughly in order:
Thank you. - Gracias. (pronounced "grassy-ass")
Hello / Goodbye. - Hola / Adios
Yes / No. - Si / No
Please. - Por favor
I'm sorry. - Lo siento.
Toilet. - Baños (pronounced "banyos")
Actually, now that I think of it, the Wikitravel phrasebook is pretty decent for a few basic pleasantries.

I'm biased, but I recommend getting off the resort once or twice to push yourselves a bit. No disrespect to paulsc, who is providing some excellent security tips that I totally agree with, but I'm sure he hasn't accrued all of his time in Mexico and his savvy by staying only on the grounds of resorts. You don't want to do anything crazy or stupid, but you build travelling skills the same way you build any other, by stretching yourself a little (and sometimes making mistakes). I snooped in your previous comments, and you mention living in Chicago, so I assume you have some sort of street smarts. Use them.

Tulum is awesome, it's a decent small ruin, but location, location, location. On top of a cliff with the white sand / blue ocean beneath. It's magical. Chichen Itza, which your resort will undoubtedly offer a package bus trip to, is a huge complex of massive, well-restored ruins that I really enjoyed visiting.

That said, you're going to a beautiful area and avoiding winter. ¡Feliz Navidad y Año Nuevo tambien!
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 9:14 PM on December 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you want ruins slightly more off the beaten track, Coba is not far, and maybe more eye-opening than Chichen Itza. We rented a car, but it was a while back.
posted by anadem at 9:23 PM on December 23, 2010

I was at Playa del Carmen in October. We tipped and often paid for things in dollars and had no trouble. Tip your housekeeping staff especially. At an all inclusive place, tipping isn't strictly required but will be welcomed and remembered. Brush your teeth with bottled water from the mini fridge, it's easy to forget. Go to Coba, it is amazing and you can rent bikes to ride through the jungle and around the ruins. Count on a lot of extremely pleasant lazing on the beach.
posted by donnagirl at 10:16 PM on December 23, 2010

Use pesos. It's the local currency and you'll get a better deal if you pay for things in pesos, the people you tip won't have to convert it to anything, and you'll actually feel like you're in a foreign country.

As for a place to eat in Playa Del Carmen (there are an unbelievable number of cheap excellent places) I'd recommend most Origenes. The service was unbelievable, one of the best waiters I've ever had, and they turned on the AC just for us (we were the only ones in the place at the time). The food was fantastic and he gave us really detailed descriptions and recommendations. Highly recommended.
posted by haveanicesummer at 10:33 PM on December 23, 2010

See Tulum.
posted by santaliqueur at 10:55 PM on December 23, 2010

Where should we go, what do we need to do, how do we get awesome cheap souvenirs that aren't tacky crap that's mass produced and sold in the airport, etc?

Usually there will be one shop that is selling local crafts, and are from an actual location in Mexico, rather than Guatemala at best or China/Thailand at worst. Finding that shop is the hard part.
posted by smackfu at 8:17 AM on December 24, 2010

If you wish to have a nice dinner out at a more upscale, expensive restaurant in Playa del Carmen, make reservations as soon as you get there. We didn't and ended up somewhere horrible with plastic menus because our concierge didn't really understand what we wanted.

Also, eat ceviche. Gulf shrimp is fantastic. And try some of the local cuisine specialties like salbutes or Yucatan style pork. Drink daiquiris made with Havana Club or micheladas.
posted by kathryn at 8:44 AM on December 24, 2010

Just got back from Playacar on Tuesday! Read through the trip advisor comments for tips and feedback on your actual resort.

With all-inclusive resorts you don't really need to worry about the water issue unless there are signs saying it is not potable. We brushed teeth from the sink and had no problems. Your resort probably has buffets and then a la carte restaurants for dinner. Those will fill up quick so make reservations for future days on the first day you arrive. When you check in, avoid time share salespeople who may be offering you a tour and other perks in exchange for you time.

About 500-1000m off shore from Puerto Morelos is the second largest coral reef in the world, so you will not have to travel far for awesome snorkeling. Your resort will probably offer a snorkeling trip out to the reef for $30-35. Also, they will probably offer free non-motorized water sports, so take advantage of the kayaks and hobie cats and boogie boards.

You can find good souvenirs in Puerto Morelos. If you resort offers bicycle tours I recommend that as a way to get in to town and see some local culture. Using USD and not speaking spanish are really not a problem down there. Don't convert a ton of money to pesos so you don't get stuck having to convert them back at the airport.

For excursions, Tulum is definitely worth the drive. There is also Xel-Ha and Xcaret not too far away, haven't been to either of those in a decade+ though. And a dozen more cenote and environmental parks that you can see if you are interested in. A while back we did a 2 person motor boat through the mangroves ending with snorkeling that was awesome. It left out of Cancun.

When you get to the airport in both directions ask for exit row where possible for more leg room.

Have fun!
posted by gatorbiddy at 12:42 PM on December 24, 2010

Answering for anyone else who runs into this, or the OP if they have internet access on the resort:

Yeah, I'd second Xel-Ha and Tulum. Due to the season, Chichen-itza would be a good place to go, too. It's inland which means it's far away from the moderating oceanic influence so it can be brutally hot in the late summer, but in December? Enjoy it. The tour I took dropped us off at an Indian knick-knack store, if you're looking for souvenirs. But google is telling me that it's about a 3 hour trip from Riviera Maya to Chichen-itza, which sounds about right.

Xel-Ha is a blast, but it tends to be a half-day tour with that and Tulum, and.. I dunno, I think my wife and I spent all day at Xel-Ha and loved every minute of it. On the downside the soles of my white-boy feet aren't suited to walking barefoot on limestone paths, so I really wish I had water socks or scuba boots, and Mexican feet stop growing somewhere around size 10 so I couldn't buy anything suitable in Mexico. You'll spend half your day snorkeling in the brackish water, and the other half lazily floating down the river in an inner tube. There is (or was, anyway) an all inclusive option for Xel-Ha when I was there, and the food was alright, although the watermelon juice was pretty memorable.

Tulum is nice as well. I'd be torn between Chichen-itza and Tulum, although Chichen-itza is basically a full day tour from the Riviera Maya, while Tulum isn't. The beach at Tulum is nice, though. I don't remember if it was mentioned in the tour description, but I was awfully tempted to go splashing around in the surf. But I think Chichen-itza has far more impressive remains.

Take the ferry over to Cozumel or at least take the taxi to Playa del Carmen. The resort zone is sort of sterile. It's very very nice to get away from the world, but after 4 days, you might want to stretch your legs.

My wife and I have never gone to Isla Mujeres- we always say we really want to go, it just never works out.

If you're a diver, Riviera Maya is sort of a letdown - most of the dive operations will shuttle you on the ferry over to Cozumel which has much better diving, but makes for a hellaciously long day. Puerto Maroma has decent-ish diving on the mainland if you aren't looking for anything too exciting. (No drift diving, nothing really deep, nice and relaxing.)

If you aren't a diver but are interested in it, the suicidal resort courses are an.. interesting introduction to it. If you go on and get certified later, you'll be aghast at some of the stuff they kind of breeze over on the quick 30 minute beachside instruction. But the diving down there is fantastic.

Complete anecdata, but I've taken preventative daily pepto bismol every time I've gone down (I know it won't do anything about bad bugs, shush), and I haven't worried too much about ice and fountain drinks and the like. So far luck has been with me, but I expect it'll run out eventually. I figure I just prime my GI tract by eating gas station hot dogs and other cafeteria disasters. Your resort probably has hellaciously clean reverse osmosis water anyway, since they aren't likely to be on the town supply. I seem to remember all the ice and water jugs in the area proclaiming to be RO-processed as well, but we never got _too_ far off the beaten track, and they could be lying.

Figure out, the first day or two, what you need to schedule for on your resort. Every resort is different, but the one that I've gone to the most often you have to book your dinners if you want to eat something other than the limited room service menu or the beach bars. You won't starve, but you won't get as much out of your AI price as you could.

Don't speak Spanish? No problem, really. I have more experience with wandering around San Miguel on Cozumel, but you have to get pretty far out of the tourist zone to run into shopkeepers who don't speak English. Puerto Rico was more aggressively Spanish-only than the tourist region of Quintana Roo.
posted by Kyol at 9:25 PM on December 27, 2010

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