As comfortable as the last overnight bus was, we didn’t fancy taking one for the 2,000 mile journey between Durango and Playa Del Carmen (where our G-Adventure tour starts), so we took a very cheap Volaris flight from DGO to Cancun instead. Rather than go straight to Playa, we opted for a few days in Cancun, staying at Hostel Ka’Beh in Downtown.
It was a small enough hostel for everyone to know each other by name, but big enough for you to do your own thing if you wanted to. After an included breakfast, it was easy to collect a group of travellers for a trip to the beach, catching the R-1 bus for a measly $10.5MEX (around 60p). The water was “bluer than an iMessage” according to one Australian, and the sand soft and white. As soon as we got a football out, we were approached by locals for a game (the hostel ‘4 a side team’ beat both a Mexican and an Argentinian group). The same went for frisbees and American footballs.
Returning to the hostel at late afternoon, the breakfast table would become a social hub for the evening, with travellers and staff (who are just travellers running out of money) playing drinking games and sharing stories. There are many opportunities to cook shared meals to make your money go further, or you could eat at the cheap, hygienic street-food market 100m down the road. This was probably one of my favourite hostels I’ve been to; with decent facilities, wifi and breakfast included. If you go, just book in advance: we paid way over the going rate by rocking up at 2am without reserving a bed!
Another air-conditioned coach (costing the equivalent of £3) took us south for the half-hour journey between Cancun and Playa Del Carmen. It was here that we met with (another) Ben, a mutual friend from school who has also been travelling around this part of the world.
Ben was staying in Hostel Yak, and we stayed just round the corner in Hostel Che Playa, a Cuban-themed hostel. In a room of 10 for a more-easily stomachable £6 per night, it equally put on nightly-activities (all you can eat pizza, football games, cocktail nights etc) but didn’t seem as social as Ka’beh at first (although this was disproved later on in the week). Hostel Yak was the more consistently social of the two, with a full-time bar rather than a pop-up nightly one, but was double the price per night; and we voted with our wallets.
There are a number of reasons that make Playa Del Carmen so attractive for both holiday-makers and backpackers. The food is very cheap (street food, again, is around £2 for a filling burrito), the nightlife is good, and there is a ridiculous amount of day-trip potential to ease the hangover. For budgeting reasons, I stayed away from Coco Bongo, the costly nightclub that everyone raves about so much (James and Ben gave it five-stars, however); but all 3 of us immersed ourselves in the wide variety of day-time activities, each no more than a 30 minute collectivo (a cheap Mexican minivan, working like a shuttle-bus, that only leaves for it’s destination once full) away from the city centre.
Isla de Cozumel: A $245MEX ferry ride got us from Playa to the main port of Cozumel, where we flagged a cab to take us south to the reefs and beaches. Testing out our cheapskate snorkel gear for the first time, we swam for free in Sky Reef, which was inhabited by inquisitive fish who approached us rather than the other way round. Alongside the beach were tequila bars and restaurants, and sun loungers and tables were available for those who didn’t fancy taking a dip. The water here is ridiculously clear and warm, and we spotted at least 20 different species of fish.
Akamal Bay: En route to Tulum, we asked our collectivo driver to stop at this bay, famous for the protected sea-grass that attracts equally-endangered turtles to feed. Dozens of local Mexicans, trying to take advantage of tourist’s naivety, attempted to get us to pay $600MEX for a tour of the reef, claiming that it is “federally illegal” to snorkel the bay without a guide or a life jacket. Knowing otherwise, and putting our newly-learnt cuss words to use, we told him, “La playa y tortugas es gratis, puto!“, and got into the warm waters anyway. Without life jackets, we could dive down to the turtles level rather than waiting for them to come up to breath; and without a guide, we could stay in each area as long as we wanted and without having to share it with tens of other people. We also saved our 600 pesos, so the whole day trip only cost us the equivalent of £4 for travel. (The beach that surrounds the bay is just as beautiful as the animals that live within it, with white sands and coconut trees providing comfy shade for snorkellers who wanted to rest and pelicans happily providing photo opportunities as they waddle around you.
Cenotes: There are literally thousands of cenotes on the Yucatan coast, naturally formed sink holes filled with crystal clear water and fish. We chose the Cristalino cenote, a 15 minute colectivo from the city centre, and only $100MEX to get in. Sitting around the edge of the lagoon, small fish would tickle our feet as they fed on the dead skin (pretty horrible, really); and bigger catfish would slowly make their way deeper underneath us. Walking around the cenote and up some rocky stairs, we could jump off a 3 metre ledge into the pool, attempting frontflips that we had ‘learnt’ from our time with Manuel. And donning our snorkels again, we discovered a mass of underwater caverns, which eventually opened up to a reveal a secluded room filled with stalactites and stalagmites. Really cool. After getting covered in mud from the caves, we cleaned up on the swim back to the side of the lagoon before flagging down a colectivo to take us home.
Other activities that we ran out of time/money for but would have liked to have done were the Chichen Itza ruins (Ben visited as part of his Extreme Gap Year package and spoke of the Mayan’s obsession with the number 7, ensuring that whenever a noise was made, their architecture would echo it back precisely 7 times); a trip to the Coba and Tulum ruins; and (if we were millionaires) make a discovery scuba-dive before we do our PADIs in Thailand and Australia respectively. Ben’s tour also took him on a catamaran booze-cruise around the Isla Majeta as well as other less-touristy beaches. And if we didn’t fancy catching buses out of town, we could join the other sun-worshippers and sit on the pristine beaches that hug the side of the town. There is no shortage of day-time activities in Playa!
We met up with 14 other travellers (mainly English, but a smattering of New Zealanders, Australians, Canadians and Germans) at Koox Garden City Hotel to meet our guide, JP of G Adventures, who briefed us on the next month of our adventures: heading down to Costa Rica via Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.