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Beyond Cancun: The more authentic, less expensive Riviera Maya

SmarterTravel

To some travelers, Cancun, Mexico, is paradiseÃ?Â?sweeping white-sand beaches, crystal-clear water, swanky all-inclusive resorts, beautiful people, and wild nightclubs. To others, Cancun is expensive, overcrowded, overdeveloped, and miles away from the real Mexico. For travelers like these, including myself, a more affordable and authentic travel experience can be had by visiting the small coastal towns of the Riviera Maya, the unofficial name of the Yucatan’s Caribbean coast.

While development has been explosive in places along the coast such as Playa del Carmen and Cozumel, some communities have managed to hold the builders at bay, keeping their beaches and reefs relatively unspoiled. On a trip to the Yucatan this past August, my sister Jennifer and I had the opportunity to visit two such communitiesÃ?Â?Puerto Morelos and Tankah. You won’t find many mainstream American touches here, with many local hotels and restaurants lacking air-conditioning, phones, and televisions. But, you will find quiet beaches, pristine diving and snorkeling, budget accommodations and dining, and a taste of laid-back Mexican living.

Puerto Morelos

Known as “La Joya del Caribe de Mexico” (the Jewel of the Mexican Caribbean), this small Mexican fishing town is truly a diamond in the rough. Although it appears a bit unrefined at first glance, it reveals its beauty to travelers willing to give it a closer look. Located just 21 miles south of Cancun, Puerto Morelos feels a world away with its small, unpretentious hotels and restaurants, quiet bay, and relaxed pace of life. It’s avoided the ugly development that’s taken over so many other coastal communities thanks to its residents, a mix of locals and expats. Through their efforts, Puerto Morelos’ coral reefs attained the status of a National Marine Park, which is now the town’s greatest tourist draw.

Thanks also to the townspeople, Puerto has no high-rise hotels or shopping center in town. Instead, you’ll find small budget hotels, B&Bs, and vacation rentals; several cheap, but good restaurants; a few tourist shops and cafes around the main square; and about a half dozen resident-owned dive and snorkel outfitters.

The hotel

My sister and I wanted a quiet hotel with access to snorkeling, so we stayed at Rancho Libertad, a two-story, thatched-roof beach hotel located a 10-minute walk from the center of town. We paid $59 per night, a rate that included a breakfast buffet and free use of snorkel equipment and bikes. Rates are $10 more during the high season (December 1 to April 15) and $10 less during the low season (April 16 to July 15 and September 1 to November 30).

Our room had a private bathroom, two double beds suspended from the ceiling like swings, a supply of filtered water, a fan, and two outdoor hammocks. Rooms with air-conditioning were available for $10 extra. The hotel had a private beach with lounge chairs and shaded hammocks and tables, perfect for alternating sunning with reading. Jen and I wanted to see some tropical sea life, but weren’t dive certified and didn’t want to pay to take a class at one of the dive shops. However, with use of the hotel’s snorkel equipment, my sister and I were able to do some underwater exploration for free.

The hotel’s new owners, an English-speaking Mexican couple, were courteous and friendly, and even asked us for suggestions on how to improve the hotel for future guests. We suggested Internet access, and were informed that the hotel would be wireless by the end of the month.

You can learn more about the hotel and read instructions for making a booking by visiting the Rancho Libertad website. Note that the hotel’s new owners plan to change its name to Sak Ol in the near future.

Tankah

Numerous small towns and developments dot the coast between the sprawling resort town of Playa del Carmen (40 miles south of Cancun) and the ancient Mayan ruins at Tulum (80 miles south of Cancun). Tankah, situated about five miles north of the ruins, is one of the most peaceful hamlets along this stretch, home to a handful of guest inns and private homes and two small restaurants.

Like Puerto Morelos, Tankah’s star attraction is its unspoiled coral reef. Just a few yards from the shore, visitors can view a rich variety of coral, colorful fish, turtles, and other sea life with little competition from other divers or snorkelers. Several outfitters in town rent snorkel and dive gear and arrange tours. Tankah also has a divable freshwater cenote that is surrounded by mangrove trees and is a good spot to view migratory birds. (Unique to the Yucatan Peninsula, cenotes are water-filled limestone caverns with surface openings.)

Adventurous types can also swim, snorkel, or dive in the numerous nearby cenotes and cave systems with local tour companies. For $40 each, Jen and I went on an exhilarating half-day cave snorkeling tour with Hidden Worlds, the top cave-diving tour operator in the area. We first explored a large cenote and cave system where a horror movie was being filmed, and then moved on to a narrow, winding cave system that had only recently been opened to the public.

Besides great snorkeling and diving, Tankah is also a convenient base for visiting attractions on the southern coast. Tulum, one of the most spectacular Mayan ruin sites in Mexico, was a 10-minute drive from Tankah. Admission is 35 pesos (about $3) per person. (Hint: Arrive at the ruins before 10 a.m. to avoid high temperatures and the tour bus hoards.)

The hotel

Based on numerous guidebook recommendations, we chose to stay at the five-room Tankah Inn, a coral-colored guest house and dive shop set on a white-sand beach. We paid low-season rates of $79 per night (May 1 to December 14) for a spacious room with two double beds, a private bathroom, a supply of filtered water, a large ceiling fan, and a private terrace. Continental breakfast was also included. Room rates are $119 over the holidays (December 15 to January 4) and $99 during peak season (January 5 to April 30). None of the rooms had air-conditioning, but the fan and sea breeze cooled things off at night. The inn also featured a library, self-service bar, lounge area, and a shaded balcony.

To explore Tankah’s turquoise bay and reef, my sister and I only had to pay $5 apiece for snorkel gear and a kayak from the dive shop on the inn’s premise and then take off for the beach. For an entire afternoon, we were the only two people in the water, and were able to spot sea turtles, parrotfish, butterfly fish, and other marine life without encountering motorized boats or tour groups.

To learn more about the Tankah Inn, visit its website, where you’ll find an online booking form.

Planning a vacation off the beaten path

Because I wanted to visit destinations off the beaten tourist track, I had to do a good bit of research before traveling. I compared notes from four guidebooks I picked up at the library and then went online to find the most up-to-date information. Some helpful websites included YucatanToday.com, TravelYucatan.com, and LocoGringo.com.

By far the most useful planning tool for my trip was advice from other travelers. I used Lonely Planet’s free online Thorn Tree Mexico forum to post questions about what to see, where to stay, and how to keep safe and healthy. For each question, I got thoughtful responses from experienced travelers who gave me good ideas about where to go and a list of places to avoid that were overrated or unseemly. Thanks to their recommendations, I felt, upon heading home, that I was leaving Mexico with a rich travel experience that could have never been bought at any resort.

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