Wednesday, July 1, 2015

7 Days in Riviera Maya, Mexico (Grand Bahia Principe Tulum Resort)

Mexico is one of the world’s greatest travel destinations, but it is also known for high rates of crime. Despite crime along parts of the US border and in areas along major trafficking routes, the majority of Mexico’s tourism destinations are very safe. In fact, Caribbean coast of Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula has one of the safest ancient ruins and white-sand beaches in the world. Nevertheless, when traveling abroad it's always a good idea to take precautions and research your destination in advance to ensure a hassle-free vacation.

Even though in Mexico most service staff speak communicative English, it’s polite to start a conversation in Spanish.

Simple Phrases in Spanish:

Hola (Hello)

Buenos días (Good Morning)
Buenas tardes (Good Afternoon; used until after sundown)
Buenas noches (Good Evening)
Habla usted inglés? (Do you speak English?)
No hablo Español (I don’t speak Spanish).
Gracias! (Thank you!)
Cómo estás (How are you?)
Muy bien, gracias (Very good, thank you)
Así (Yes)
No (No)
Adios (Goodbye)
Por favor (Please)

Travel Tips
  • Most tourist regions in Mexico are quite safe, but you should research your destination in advance to ensure a hassle-free vacation. 
  • Confirm all reservations before your leave, including flights, hotels, and cars.
  • If possible, make room requests (e.g. beach view) and book restaurants in advance (Grand Bahia Principe Tulum offers 3 dinners in à la carte restaurants per week of stay).
  • Aprenda un poco de español.

Day 1: Cancun Airport & Driving to the Resort

The route from Cancun International Airport to Riviera Maya is fairly easy. There is one highway with all main resorts on both sides of the road. Some of the major towns located in the Riviera Maya include Akumal, Xcacel, Xel-Ha, Tulum, and the largest Playa del Carmen. A ride takes about 1.5 hours depending on the location of your resort. You can rent a car or take a bus. Most car rental companies have staff at the terminal who transport customers by vans to off-airport offices. The whole process shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes (you can rent a small Chevrolet for 7 days for about $270).

A fresh breeze from the Caribbean Sea accompanied my first steps into the spectacular main lobby of the Grand Bahia Principe Tulum. A high-roof lobby with stone columns and waterfalls had very calming, spa-like feeling. The professional front desk staff welcomed us with margaritas.

On the Way to the Main Buffet

Our room in Villa 31 was nice and a good size, but a bit old. On the bright side, we had an amazing sea view. Unfortunately, the room was a little humid, but what can you expect when you're at the beach.

After unpacking, we picked up towels and headed to the main pool. The evening we spent at La Plaza Mayor Terrace (a bar with live music and dance shows).

Travel Tips
  • If booking a car, don’t forget to bring an official letter from your credit card, stating that you have international car insurance, to avoid extra fees.
  • Don't waste your time on the "Privilege Club." It’s a third-party run "club" run by a third party that promises extra benefits to people who pay up front and return to hotels associated with the club. They use different tactics such as offering free gifts, or warnings that there are just few memberships left at a certain price, etc. They give the impression that the Privilege Club is somehow a part of the hotel chain or a car rental company, but it’s not!

Day 2: Getting Around the Resort & Beach Activities

On day two, we had the best time ever swimming in the pool, lying on the beach, kayaking, drinking margaritas, and just chatting.

Small Trains that Run for Easy Transport Between Main Lobby and Hotel Amenities

What about a massage at the beach?

Relaxing at the Beach

That afternoon, we tried parasailing ($100 per person). Even though I felt sick after a few minutes in the air (I get airsick on a plane as well), it was one of the best experiences of my life. It literally felt like "floating on air," and the panoramic view of the resort area was spectacular. 


In the evening, we had a reservation at Le Gourmet a formal French restaurant in Coba (men have to wear long pants, but sandals and flip-flops are acceptable). The restaurant has a beautiful interior, very welcoming staff, and delicious food. It’s my favorite restaurant at a Bahia Principe, and I highly recommend it to everyone (especially the Avocado Salmon Salad).

On the Way to Le Gourmet

Travel Tips
  • Take some time to familiarize yourself with the resort. The Grand Bahia Principe property is right at the beach, and you can’t get bored there. You can enjoy unlimited food and free drinks, pools, a gym, water aerobic, casino, spa, golf, live music, shows, and much more. 
  • Le Gourmet is a must-see restaurant when staying at the Bahia Principe.

Day 3: Coba Maya Encounter

Because we rented a car for our entire stay in Mexico, we could have easily driven to Coba Ruins ourselves, but we booked a guided group tour so we could take advantage of the whole package Coba Maya Encounter offered ($125 per person). The encounter started with the Coba Ruins where we climbed the pyramid. Later, we were transported in a van to a jungle for a short ritual, rappelling into a cenote, two zip lines, and paddling through a laguna. The day ended with a tasty lunch prepared by the locals and shots of tequila. The excursion was filled with attractions that would have been difficult to fit into one day if we had gone on our own. We had a fantastic time, and we met amazing people, including our tour guide, Anna who looked after us throughout the day. She gave us a lot of interesting information about Maya Civilization and even taught us some Mayan language. I really appreciated her help when it came to rappelling.

Nohoch Mul, the Tallest Mayan Pyramid in the Yucatan, Which Rises 140 Feet (42 Meters) Above the Rainforest Floor

Travel Tips

  • Riviera Maya is one of the places where you would want to have a GoPro or a waterproof camera. Guided tours often offer photographs, but they are low quality and cost money (about $60/CD).
  • Rappelling is fun and easier than you would think. 
  • Going on an excursion could be a great way to meet new people. 

Day 4: Playa Del Carmen & Hacienda Doña Isabel

We were tired the morning after the Coba Expedition, so we stayed in bed longer than we planned. Around noon, we decided to drive to Playa del Carmen, a small tourist city about a 20-minute ride from the Bahia Principe (if you don't have a car you can take a colectivo). At Playa del Carmen we sat on the beach and watched the boats leaving for Cozumel, a popular cruise ship port famed for its scuba diving. After a walk through La Quinta Avenida, a busy promenade lined with handcraft stores, we headed to the town to buy 100% agave tequila, rum, and vanilla extract.

On our way back to the resort, we got off the main road to see what the “real Mexico” looks like. We saw kids playing in the streets and a man in a Bahia Principe uniform biking back home from work. Regular houses in Mexico are very small, colorful, and somewhat unfinished, but they have their own charm. I was super excited to photograph authentic Mexico, but my husband didn't let me leave the car. He thought that locals may not like me putting my lens in their private lives. 

We got back to the hotel just in time to catch the last few rays of the sun and swim in the sea. We spent the evening at La Fiesta at Hacienda Doña Isabel ($16 fee to enter). They offered games, photo booths, drinks, and finger foods such as grilled corn and popcorn. The show was picking up very slowly, but the Maya part was very authentic. I highly recommend going to La Fiesta for everyone staying at the Bahia Resort.

Hacienda Doña Isabel

Travel Tips
  • Buy tequila and souvenirs away from the expensive resort shops, perhaps at Playa del Carmen.
  • Vendors may use different tricks to get you to come in their shops. For example, they may pretend to know you or say “almost free” just to get your attention.
  • Don’t be afraid to get off the main track, but don’t forget you're are a tourist.

Day 5: Chichen Itza, Ik Kill Cenote, & Valladolid

Chichen Itza, a large city built by the Maya people in around 600 AD, is located in the eastern portion of Yucatán (about 2-hour ride from Tulum). We got there around 10:00 a.m.,  right before crowds from the tour buses; Chichen Itza thus it is one of the most visited archeological sites in Mexico (entrance fee is about $20). It was fascinating to see the pre-Columbian city, but we were disappointed that we couldn’t touch or climb any of the buildings. However, we found Chichen Itza to be the best place to buy folklore souvenirs. Some tourists complain that the vendors are too pushy, but we liked that everyone was willing to bargain. As a result, we bought a handmade wooden mask worth $100 for $35.

Temple of Kukulkan, also known as El Castillo, dominates the center of the Chichen Itza

On our way back, we stopped by the Ik Kil Cenote, one of the largest sinkholes in the Yucatán (about 80 pesos to enter the Ik Kil Archaeological Park). This is unfortunately also one of the busiest cenotes in this area, so if you're interested in a more natural experience, Cenote Samula or Zací Mayan Sinkhole are perhaps better choices.

Another attraction of the day was driving through Valladolid, a small city with many colorful colonial style buildings, and narrow one-way streets full of activity. I wish we had more time to explore the city on foot.

Travel Tips

  • If you're interested in buying souvenirs at Chichen Itza, you should know how much you're willing to spend, but almost everyone is willing to bargain.
  • If you do go to the eastern portion of Yucatán, be sure to stop by Valladolid.
  • Consider choosing the less commercialized Ek Balam and Cenote Zaci over the overcrowded Chichen Itza and  Cenote IK KIL.
  • The highways in Yucatán are quite good; you just need to pay attention to bumps.

Day 6: Valentines Day at Tulum Beach

Tulum, an ancient Maya city built on cliffs overlooking the beach, is a perfect place for a romantic day. Paradise Tulum Beach with its turquoise, calm water was the most beautiful site we visited in Riviera Maya. 

Tulum was One of the Last Cities Built by the Mayas

Tulum - Pre-Columbian Maya Walled City Served as a Major Port for Coba

Iguana is a Moderate Sized Lizard Endemic to Mexico

Tulum Beach is one of the Most Beautiful I've Seen

We finished the day at the Cenote Dos Ojos (250 pesos fee), a flooded cave system located north of Tulum. Dos Ojos ("Two Eyes") is an attractive cenote for scuba diving and snorkeling. When visiting Dog Ojos, I would recommend that you take with you just towels and leave all your belongings, including clothes, in the car. A tour guy who came with a bus full of tourists from Europe moved our clothes because he thought that they belonged to his group. Luckily, I saw him do this and everything ended up well, but you don’t want to worry about your stuff when you're relaxing in the crystal clear water of Dos Ojos. 

Refreshing Water of Cenote Dos Ojos

Dinner at Don Pablo Restaurant (Tulum, formal dress) wasn’t as good as I had expected. The waiter stressed that we should purchase non-house wine and dinner special for an extra cost. The food was just average, and we had to wait very long time for our meal. In fact, a three-course dinner took over two hours. We should have eaten at the main buffet, especially after, on our way to the restaurant we saw mariachis playing live music to celebrate Valentine's Day.

Travel Tips
  • If you are going to visit the Tulum archeological site, make sure to take advantage of the magnificent beach. Bring a towel, water, and sunscreen!
  • On your way to the Tulum Ruins, some locals may try to stop you and offer you a tour. You don’t need a guide for this one, so just keep going and pay the fee by the entrance.
  • When going to a cenote, don’t take anything with you besides swimming gear, flip-flops, and possibly a towel.

Day 7: Enjoying the All-Inclusive Hotel

On our final day, we decided to have a lazy day at the all-inclusive hotel, enjoying palm trees, hammocks on the beach, barbecue by the pool, and free drinks.

Barbecue by the Pool

Snack Turned to be a Serious Meal

Happy Feet :)

In the evening, we had a reservation at Gran Tortuga (Tulum, Brazilian, not formal). To be honest, I think that this place is overrated. The salad bar is limited, and the meat cuts are nothing special.

The Mexican state of Quintana Roo has much more to offer, such as the Xel-Há Natural Water Park (translated from Mayan language as “where the water is born”). Once an inner port, trading center, and shelter for sailors, today is a place where you can swim and snorkel in the river and the lagoon among hundreds of multicolored fish. Xel-Há is a true paradise, but it's quite expensive, so you need to bring lots of money to experience its flora and fauna. For this reason, we decided to skip this unique attraction; however, we plan to visit this amazing place during our next trip to Mexico! Also, on our list are islands of Isla Mujeres and Isla Cozumel, both of which are easy to reach by ferry.

Travel Tips
  • A rental car gives you the freedom to explore on your own and experience the “real Mexico!” We saw some of the smaller towns and were leaving the road whenever we saw something interesting.
  • In Riviera Maya, most places accept US currency, but you will be better off paying with pesos, especially at gas stations. 

If you have any questions please let me know in the comments bellow.  I hope you will have as much fun in Mexico as we did :) XOXO


  1. Justyna,

    This is a wonderful post! It's such a great guide for people planning a trip to Mexico. It looks and sounds incredible! I just told Mike that this is not on our 'must-go' list. Your photography is absolutely stunning :) I can't wait to hear about your trip home and hope you blog about it!

  2. looks like a dream come true vacation!

    1. Oh, I had the best time ever! Mexico is a place to go when you want to combine relax with adventure.

  3. Hi Justyna,
    After read your post I want to say one line about your post that is “outstanding post". The way of your post writing with excellent photography is really appreciating. My best friend is planning 10 days Mexico trip and I will share this post with her from this blog. Hope she will get good points for his trip. Already she started talking with transport agencies and travel agency for his travel.