I love destinations that are off the beaten path, so when I heard that my friend Pamela had moved to Puerto Morelos, a small village on the Mexican Caribbean coast, I knew I had to visit.
I flew in for ten days and had an amazing relaxed beach vacation with some easy sightseeing walks and a glance at local life in this charming Mexican town.
I arrived in late October, which is pre-tourist season for this destination. The high season in the area is usually from December to April, when the weather is perfect and it rarely rains. I got perfect weather, too—most of the time it was 26 °C with a mix of sun and clouds, but there were also a few days of sweltering heat.
This area in the south of the country is called Riviera Maya—the Mexican Caribbean. It’s a tropical paradise of rainforests, coconut trees on white sand beaches, and stunning warm turquoise water, perfect for swimming and lounging.
Cancún is the big city of the area, attracting millions of tourists with luxury hotels and resorts. Puerto Morelos, on the other hand, is a small, uncrowded fishing village that has kept its authentic charm as it’s developed into a low-key tourist destination, attracting families and more relaxed travelers. Many artsy expats from the US and Canada have made it their second home, so it’s not rare to see gringos pedaling their bicycles around town.
The town is divided into two parts, separated by a crocodile-teeming mangrove swamp and connected by a single road. Both parts have their charm. The part on the beach is called “Puerto,” and that’s where most of the tourist destinations are: the artisan market, the town square, restaurants, and of course, the beach.
The part further inland is called “La Colonia,” and it’s more like the “real” Mexico. That’s where I stayed. It was a convenient spot from which to explore the surrounding attractions, like the Cenotes, Tulum, Isla Mujeres and the lovely Dr. Alfredo Barrera Marín Botanical Garden.
We had a lovely dinner with great live music at the Punta Corcho restaurant.
Puerto Morelos Beach
The beach in Puerto Morelos is special. Just 400 meters from the shore lies the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef—the second-largest reef in the world. It blocks the waves and creates a calm and warm pool where fish swim between your legs in the crystal-clear water.
The coral reef is teeming with sea life, and locals with small fishing boats offer snorkeling tours. To see the most fish, it is best to go early in the morning or at sunset. We went at sunset, when the water is warmer; it was a beautiful and peaceful experience to float in the shallow waters, watch fish nibble gently on seaweed, and go swimming after turtles and sting rays.
We spent a few days relaxing at the beach. Almost every restaurant rents beds for the day, so we brought some books, got drinks and food from the restaurant, pampered ourselves with a massage on the beach, and went in and out of the water.
My first idea was to rent a car so I could drive around to the tourist attractions, but Pamela and her boyfriend Juan Carlos said it was a bad idea because Mexican policemen stop rented cars and demand fines. So as a measure of caution, Juan Carlos, who is Mexican, volunteered to drive us.
We rented a car from Puerto Morelos’s town square and drove south for about two hours to Tulum to see the Mayan ruins. The path to the Tulum ruins begins in the rainforest under thick foliage and then follows the magnificent rocky coastline. We arrived at midday; it was very hot and steamy . Iguanas the size of cats were calmly crossing the path, and girls were walking in their bikinis.
Standing on the cliff looking toward the ocean, it was easy to imagine yourself as a Mayan emperor, watching in apprehension the sails of Spanish ships on the horizon, arriving for the first time to the new continent.
To cool down, we drove to Tulum’s beach strip for a cold beer and swim. Here, too, the road cuts through the rainforest. Alongside the road, there were many vacation rentals and cool restaurants we decided to revisit later. The beach was beautiful and felt like a big party—young people and music from every restaurant. No wonder they say that Tulum is in the new Ibiza!
It was getting late and we had a long trip ahead of us, so we grabbed some excellent vegetarian quesadillas and tacos de tripitas (tripe) at the night market just off the main road before heading back to Puerto Morelos.
One of the major tourist attractions in the area are the cenotes. Pamela said we would definitely visit one—but I wondered, what is a cenote? I had never heard the word before, but that’s no great surprise, since the cenotes are unique to this specific part of the world—Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula.
The cenotes are freshwater pools of pristine, cool, clear water nestled under the rainforest, whether in caves or in pits. This natural phenomenon happens because there’s a layer of rocks under the thin earth layer from which the rainforest grows.
Formed over millions of years, these swimming areas contain impressive stalagmites, beautiful fauna, and cool pools that are the perfect respite from the broiling Mexican sun.
The indigenous Mayan people considered the cenotes passageways to the underworld.
There are a number of cenotes around Puerto Morelos. We drove west through the jungle to Kin-Ha Cenotes, which offers entrance to two cenotes and a bunch of other activities. Both cenotes in the tour were beautiful, each in its own way.
To jump, or not to jump?
One can enjoy the Cenotes just by being there to soak in the cool clear water and enjoy the beauty of the rainforest and cave. Others who need more adrenaline can jump or zipline into the water—and that’s a lot of fun too.
Isla Mujeres is famous for its beauty and has a reputation for being a tiny island with a relaxed, peaceful atmosphere. Well, the south part of the island was definitely that, though it lacked the authentic vibe of Puerto Morelos, but I found the north part too commercial and crowded.
The center of the town, where you disembark the ferry, is charming but busy, with restaurants, cafés, shops, and much more. You can find even find branches of McDonald’s and Starbucks there.
The north beach is stunningly beautiful. The perfect turquoise water, the sleek yachts mooring in the bay, the high-energy music—you feel like you’re inside a commercial. I mean that as a compliment!