Hidden Gems: A Tale of Two Mexicos

A few years back I found myself in the sleepy town of Chetumal along the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico. On my journey still to come were the wonders of Central and South America. Sharing these forthcoming adventures over a meal of fried rice, beans and chicken with two travelers, they insisted, with great efficaciousness I might add, that I scrap the rest of my plans and just explore Mexico – a place they’d spent the last 9 months traversing from the highlands of Chiapas, to Ciudad Juárez, Ciudad Cuauhtémoc,  lush jungle and pristine coastlines both east and west

Of course, I didn’t listen – Mexico, to me, was a place for Señor Frogs on every street corner, retirees with leathered skin and buffet style family vacations… don’t get me wrong I think I could live here one day. I love the food. I love the people. But my bias was such that Mexico was not for the real traveler.

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico 

Bus Route from DT Puerto Vallarta to Mismaloya –  $8 Pesos. Kosan Archives 

So today on the heels of two of our team members returning from last minute getaway to this beautiful country, one to the Caribbean side, the other the Pacific, we tell the tale of two Mexico’s.


Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco

You’ve probably been on vacation to Mexico, but have you been when Mexico is on vacation? Our trip was so impromptu that we hadn’t even looked at the timing but Easter weekend means the locals are out for a good time…which meant so were we.

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Near Elizabeth Taylors & Richard Burtons once home in downtown Puerto Vallarta. From Kosan Archives 

Backed by lush palm-covered mountains that stretch along the dazzling blue Bahia de Banderas Vallarta doesn’t get credit for just how magnificent it is. Each evening the setting sun sets ablaze the sky with deep oranges, pinks and yellows that fades away in such slow motion you feel like you hold on to it forever.    From Mislomoya to La Playa Gemelas to Yelapa to where ever…just get on the local bus, hop off when you see a beach and the view is the same – perfection.  And Yes, you can find delicious prawns or fish on a stick, a cold’ish Tecate or Valencia flavored chips at just about any beach – the unique thing about the bay is that each place you go sparks its own pleasant vibes.

From the Malecon to the quirky shops along the River Cuale, the flower-laden streets of Old Town  to the quiet hustle and bustle of El Pitillal, you can wander, and wander and all of a sudden start to feel like your actually in Mexico – and that’s when the magic of Puerto Vallarta pierces your soul. Why because of it’s people; Charming, welcoming, helpful and willing to sit through your horrendous broken Spanish.

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

El Panteon Cemetery. Beside the Municipal Fish Market. From the Kosan Archives 

This little slice of Mexico’s 10,000 miles of beachfront may have structures half built here there and everywhere,  making the city both beautiful and ugly and wondrous to explore, but it’s character, and that of the country, it is the pride of the Mexicans that shines through here…did I mention especially when they’re on vacation?  Not once but many times we were handed beer, helped out and genuinely not oversold anything (except at the airport)!

Yes, for me the tale of two Mexico’s isn’t that of the Mexico City hipsters versus the indigenous villagers. It isn’t the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean versus the deep blue of the Pacific – It’s more of the – Did you get off the resort and experience grandma’s ancient recipes? “Cafe de olla”, which translates to “coffee from the pot – simmering all day in a sweet mix of Cinnamon and Cloves, the greens, yellows, and oranges that splash the whitewashed walls and cobbled streets. Did you sip some real damn tequila, not some moonshined patron in a Cazadores bottle!

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Municipal Fish Market – San Salvador s/n, 5 de Diciembre. From the Kosan Archives 

In Puetro Vallarta, where the tourists and locals live side by side although more American eateries and shops are popping up it still holds its charm. You can still navigate a local el mercado de piscal and bask in local architecture and not have to walk far to find backpacker friendly prices on bare Necessities: beer, food, fish and bus rides!

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel – Centro Pitillal. From the Kosan Archives

Recommended Eats:

Municipal Market – Fish Market

Las Brassas – Old Town – River Cuale Island

El Arrayán –  El Pitillal

Grand Venetian – Las Glorias (nice but not all inclusive)


Playa Del Carmen, Quintana Roo

Playa Del Carmen, previously a more laid back, less busy version of Cancun, has recently become a hot spot party destination in it’s own right. Over the past 6 years or so that I have been visiting Playa Del Carmen, it has changed dramatically. 5th avenue, the main strip in Playa Del Carmen, is longer, brighter and louder than it’s ever been before. Big box retailers such as Zara, Old Navy and Forever 21 have firmly taken root in this little slice of paradise, making me sometimes question whether I’ve even left home. Security in and out of the gated communities such as Playacar have tightened, and you can no longer park on the side streets along the beach.

Akumal, Mexico

Akumal North, Mexico. Photo from the KOSAN archives. 

Despite the changes, we’ve learned to adapt. We’ve still found ways to escape the crowds, and to experience the Mexico that we know and love. Though 5th Avenue is a bit of a circus show sometimes, we still love to spend and evening or two walking along and enjoying the fresh sea breeze. The restaurants tend to be overpriced and rarely offer authentic Mexican food, so we are always sure to grab a bite to eat somewhere a few streets up before hitting the strip. If you’re looking for a good and affordable place to try, El Fogon is a personal favourite. It doesn’t hurt that the drinks come in massive fish bowl style goblets.

During the day, we tend to avoid the crowded beaches of Playa Del Carmen, where you can walk for miles without seeing a gap between resorts. Instead, we hop in our rented car for the week and hit the open road. This past week we made a few new discoveries that have made it to the top of our list of things to do in the Mayan Riviera.

Akumal, Mexico

Akumal North, Mexico. Photo from the KOSAN archives. 

Looking for something a bit different to do, we came across the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. Located just outside of Tulum, this UNESCO world heritage site covers over 780,000 acres of reefs, beaches, jungles and wetlands, and has been home to over 200 conversation projects. We decided to head inland this time, as the beach roads along Sian Ka’an are notoriously bad, and most people recommend taking 2-3 days to explore the coastal areas. We started in Muyil, potentially the most understated and least busy ruins you’ll find along the Mayan Riviera. Though the site itself is quite small and you can’t actually climb any ruins, it is well kept and peaceful.

Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, Muyil, Mexico

Muyil, Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, Mexico. Photo from the KOSAN archives. 

After exploring Muyil for an hour or so, you can enter the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve through a path at the back of the ruins. There is a boardwalk that winds along the jungle, and if you aren’t scared of heights, there is an observation tower you can climb with incredible views of the park. You’ll eventually get to the end of the boardwalk, and the jungle will open up to the most incredible view of a clear, turquoise lagoon. If you have a couple hours to spare, find one of the locals to take you on a boat ride around the lagoon. They’ll even take you to one of the old boating routes, where you can float alongside Mangroves in the crystal clear water.

Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, Muyil, Mexico

Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, Mexico. Photo from the KOSAN archives. 

If you’re looking for another quick and easy day trip from Playa Del Carmen or Cancun, check out the Coba ruins. This archaeological site isn’t as busy as Tulum or Chitchen Itza, but are sure to impress as you can climb one of the largest temples, Ixmoja (138 feet). Coba is located inland, and it can be very hot and humid, so be sure to pack lots of water, sunscreen and a hat. If you’re looking to cool off after a few hours exploring the ruins, there are tons of cenotes that you can stop at on the way back. If you’re not familiar with them, cenotes are natural pits or sinkholes that expose the fresh groundwater below. At one point, they were used as the main source of water for locals living in the area and held sacred meaning, but now with the influx of tourism, they serve as a great place to snorkel, dive and cool off after a hot day under the Mexican sun. One of my all time favourites is Gran Cenote, about 20-30 minutes down the road from Coba. For a small fee, you can explore the sandy bottom cenote, and you might even meet a turtle or two.

Coba, Ruins, Mexico

Coba, Mexico. Photo from the KOSAN archives. 

If you’ve had enough adventures and are craving some good old R&R, head over to Playa X’cacel for the perfect beach day. Only about a 30 minute drive from Playa Del Carmen (along the road to Tulum), this picture perfect bay is rarely crowded and is a local favourite. There is a turtle sanctuary on the property, so they may ask for a donation to help conserve the area.

We all have the tendency to sometimes judge a book by its cover. In this case, before you write off Mexico as being ‘too touristy’ or ‘overcrowded’, I’d suggest you give it a chance. We promise that there’s plenty to discover and explore, if you just stray off the beaten bath and open your eyes.

Playa X'cacel, Turtle Sanctuary, Mexico

Playa X’Cacel, Mexico. Photo from the KOSAN archives.

Gran Cenote, Snorkeling, Mexico

Gran Cenote, Mexico. Photo from the KOSAN archives.

Gran Cenote, Mexico

Gran Cenote, Mexico. Photo from the KOSAN archives.

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