Playa Time

How to Do the Mexican Riviera in 48 Hours

You can be in Cancún faster than you could drive from Conroe to Galveston.

By Bill Wiatrak February 19, 2016

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You could be here quicker than you could get to Las Vegas.

The immigration officer looked at me like I was crazy when I told him how long I’d been in Mexico yesterday afternoon. After all, it had been less than 48 hours since I had left the U.S. and I was already back with a bottle of Kahlúa and a sugar skull ceramic. Nobody really goes to Mexico for two days, do they?

Many of my friends rarely leave the country. The excuses are often that they're too busy and can’t get off from work or don’t have the money for a $300-a-day all-inclusive resort. What many don’t realize is that you can get to Mexico from Houston faster than you can hit Vegas and often for the same price or less. Most people don’t think twice about going to Vegas for a weekend, but feel like they need to pack, plan and prepare for days to go to Cancún. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Competition has been heating up with airlines vying for business in Latin America for some time. With a little shopping around, it’s not difficult to get a round-trip ticket from Houston to Cancun for about $150 with a low-cost carrier like Spirit Airlines. Granted, you have to pack light and your seat isn’t going to win any travel awards for comfort, but you can be in Cancún International faster than you can drive from Conroe to Galveston.

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Swimming pool in the Azul Fives hotel in Playa del Carmen.

Once there, you can rent a car or take a cheap shuttle to Playa del Carmen. The great thing about a car is that you can pretty much stay anywhere you wish without being tethered to a pre-booked all-inclusive hotel. If you choose to head to Playa, there’s lots of little economic hotels as well fun affordable boutique hotels. Playa del Carmen also boasts the sexy Avenida Cinco with lots of choices for dining and shopping; Cancún can be a little more difficult to navigate.

Tourism in Mexico has involved into the ultimate money-collecting machine. There are thousands of time share reps ready to take up your days with high-pressure sales for an elusive “free something”and lots of package tours that will set you back $100 per person or more to do zip-lining, swim in a cenote, see some “nature” and ride on a ATV or other contraption. Some of these options can be tempting. Hop on a bus, lay around, rinse, repeat…

Xcaret, XPlore, Xel-ha, and other places that start with “X” are some of the “eco-resorts” that you’ll see ads for the moment you step off the plane. You should keep in mind that these places don’t include extra tack on fees once you arrive in the park, they’re often full of splashing kids, and the stalactites that you see inside the cenote are probably made from fiberglass. If you want the real deal and don’t want to shell out hundreds of dollars, here are a few of my suggestions:

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Inside the Ik-Kil cenote near Chichen Itza.

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Snorkel a Cenote

There are thousands of these unique sinkholes along the road from Cancún to Tulum and if you’re down there, there’s a chance you’re standing above one and don’t even know it. These underground caves are often half-filled with water and extend for hundreds of miles through the peninsula with their amazing formations, natural lighting and tree trunks that sometimes grow right to the water through the top of the cavern. You can see bats, fish and even weird little worms as you navigate through the labyrinth of stalactites and stalagmites in something that looks like it could only be possible in a movie.

The less-known ones are not well marked and might be in someone’s backyard. The more popular ones are attached to a company with a big sign that makes it’s money navigating you to it with a guide and providing equipment. With a little Google search, you can find a map of the best known places or talk to a local and find out where they go.

Rent a boat and go snorkeling at Puerto Morelos

Just 20 minutes from the Cancún airport is the often overlooked town of Puerto Morelos. Not only does this little town have sparkling blue beaches, but it’s got one of the only nationally protected reefs in the area. You can charter a boat and guide for about $20 per person (including park fees) and go out to the reef area. It’s a much better option than Isla Mujeres near Cancún. The water is fairly shallow so it’s an easy trip even for inexperienced travelers. Your boat can take you to two different reefs or allow you to spend more time at the first location.

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The Mayan ruins of Tulum look out over the Gulf of Mexico.

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Visit the ruins of Tulum and Coba

You can get to Tulum in 45 minutes by car from Playa del Carmen and to Coba from Tulum an additional 30 minutes west. Tulum is the poster child of the area. Its blue, shimmering water has ancient Mayan ruins perched on the cliffs above. Add iguanas, colorful birds, roving packs of coatis and a little jungle surrounding the entrance and you’ve got a Mayan adventure.

Admission is only about $5 and there are lots of shops to spend your leftover pesos in between the entrance and your car. Coba is more of a jungle pyramid experience. The entrance fee is under $5 as well. The structures are taller and more impressive and it’s a lot cooler since it’s in the jungle. The site is very spread out so you should rent a bicycle at the entrance if you want to save your legs and see everything.

Snorkel with sea turtles in Akumal

In this geographically ideal vacation town, there’s a little bit of tension at the moment between the government and the people of the area who don’t want big hotels built in their backyard. When I was there, the road was blocked to motor vehicles so there was a little walking involved to get to the beach. When things are a little calmer, you can rent a mask and snorkel and jump right into the ocean to look for sea turtles. They’re surprisingly easy to find and you can find some great little places to have some seafood once you’ve seen enough.

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Avenida Cinco is a popular shopping destination in Playa del Carmen.

Enjoy a fish spa

It’s a quirky way to end your vacation and you’ll have a lot of strangers asking you how your fish “massage” feels. For $30, two people get to immerse their feet in a Plexiglass tub full of “doctor” fish. These unusual fish immediately go to work on your skin, nibbling excess dead layers off your legs and feet. They don’t have teeth and supposedly  create some type of healing enzyme that is passed on to your skin as they exfoliate you with fish “kisses.”

I must admit that after 15 minutes of being gnawed on, my legs felt remarkably smoother. You can find these spas in Cancún, Tulum and in the airport right across from my departure gate. Not only is it a truly odd experience, your Instagram photo will surprise even your most jaded friends.

Visit 5th Avenue

The main street in Playa del Carmen is Avenida Cinco (Fifth Avenue) and it’s full of shops, restaurants, bars and anything you ever wanted to buy in Mexico. It’s a great place to just stroll in the evening, buy last minute gifts and dodge time-share salespeople.

So here it is: the perfect quick international getaway. Fly down, rent a car, knock out the things on this list and get back to Houston before anyone even notices you’re missing. You’ll probably spend a lot less than you would in Las Vegas and you won’t have to look at bad Elvis impersonators. Unless we’re talking about Elvis Crespo impersonators, and that’s another story.

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