By Shel Zolkewich (@shelzolkewich)
While posh Mexican all-inclusive resorts definitely have their appeal, it’s the small towns and far-flung villages that hold the promise of the real Mexico for so many travellers. On the eastern shoreline of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, and just 40 kilometres south of bustling Cancun is Puerto Morelos, with a population of under 10,000, that delivers the real deal.
This working fishing village, like most Mexican towns, centres around the zocalo (also called plaza or town square). Look for the iconic lighthouse — tilted by Hurricane Beulah in 1967—at the water’s edge. Every morning, fisherman bring in the fresh catch of the day, offering spectators a close-up peek at the bounty of the sea. You’ll spot these entrepreneurs delivering shrimp and snapper to neighbourhood restaurants before the lunch rush.
Mornings are busy as visitors and locals alike shop for fresh, handmade tortillas and extra large juices, made to order from the fruit stands. By afternoon, vacationers have staked out their favourite loungers at one of the beach clubs (Unico, My Paradise) where 150 pesos gets you a chair for the whole day.
After siesta, it’s time to head downtown for dinner where options abound. For cheap and cheerful, there’s the red-sided taco stand on Calle Jose Maria Morelos where you’re encouraged to buy drinks next door at OXXO. For something more upscale, John Gray’s Kitchen has long been the destination for shrimp crab cakes and roasted chipotle duck enchiladas.
Where to Stay
The three roadways that run parallel to the ocean’s edge are dotted with a wide variety of small hotels, rental cottages and condos. It’s a good idea to check VRBO.com if you’re in search of an entire home to rent for a larger group. Mid-range accommodations can be found at Hotel Arrecifes Suites, which offer a cluster of rooms a short distance from the beach. For great value, Hotel Eden—with kitchenettes in each room—sits at the edge of town, snuggled against the mangrove swamp, but still only a five-minute walk to the beach (downtown is about a 20-minute walk).
For those that want pure luxury, there’s a collection of resorts including the Hotel Marina El Cid and the Now Jade, just south of town. So if it’s all-inclusive you want, book one of these places and make your day trips into town (a 10-minute cab ride) to sample the shops, restaurants and beach clubs.
What to Do
Cenotes and Lunch: Layla Guesthouse takes visitors on a small-scale excursion each Thursday. The trip includes a visit to a wood carver’s compound, guided nature walk highlighting Mayan medicinal plants, dry cave exploration, a cenote swim and authentic Yucatecan lunch prepared and served by a charming Mayan family.
Dinner in a Shipping Container: Luis Rodriguez worked at Babbo, Bar Americain and Oceana in New York before settling in the Cancun area. Searching for a slower pace, he converted a shipping container into an open-air restaurant—DK—just steps off the beach in Puerto Morelos. His chino-latino menu includes Arroz Taiwan (coconut rice with pork pelly, shrimp and shitake sauce) and Pulpo Espaiz, a.k.a. el Kraken (octopus with arugula, cilantro, parsley and spice oil).
Tour with a Pro: If a trip to Chichen Itza is on your bucket list, reach out to Francisco at La Siesta Tours. The local operator can also pick you up at the airport, take you fishing or arrange for a trip to nearby cenotes.
A Day at XelHa: This all-inclusive adventure park is the ticket for travellers in search of a little bit of fun, exercise and good eats. The star of the park is the quasi-natural pool where ocean water meets the river and where over 90 marine species reside. Suit up with a life vest, fins and a snorkel and be prepared to swim, swim, swim. You can also jump off cliffs, go ziplining, cross a floating bridge, dive into cenotes, go for a bike ride, fly a kite or crash out for a siesta in the clusters of hammocks dotted around the park. Food and drinks are unlimited at the eight restaurants on site.
Getting There: Fly into Cancun. Arrange for an airport transfer or take a cab to Puerto Morelos
Currency: Mexican Pesos
Weather: Average daytime highs for January to March hover around 28°C
Shel Zolkewich is a Winnipeg-based writer specializing in food, travel and the great outdoors when she’s not eating, on the road or playing outside.