Puerto Morelos – Quintana Roo’s Best
by Jeanine Lee Kitchel
Jeanine Kitchel, a San Francisco Bay
expat, moved to Puerto Morelos several years ago. Read more about Puerto
Morelos in Jeanine’s upcoming book, Where the Sky is Born: Living in the
Land of the Maya (January 2004, Enchanted Island Press, $15). This
non-fiction travel account leads the reader on an adventure that is not
only fun to read but just the ticket for anyone who has ever dreamed of
retiring in Mexico. Kitchel bought land, built a house, and retired in
Puerto Morelos in 1997. Watch The Mexico File for a book review when her
book is published.
Puerto Morelos has never been a contender
for the tourist trade in the Riviera Maya. Located at the northernmost
spot on the Riviera Maya map, just 36 kilometers south of Cancun, it was
aptly named Quintana Roo’s best kept secret a few years ago.
Only recently has it been recognized as a
destination spot for travelers. Most come to snorkel or dive in the
pristine waters of the Palancar Reef (recently renamed the Great
Mesoamerican Reef ), which has carried the designation of ecological reef
park since 1998.
Others come to take advantage of the yoga
centers or the town’s spiritual offerings – temazcals, jungle journeys,
Maya goddess center. And some tourists come simply to hang out in a place
that isn’t overrun with other tourists.
That’s what drew me to Puerto Morelos in
the early ‘80s – near empty beaches and a lack of travelers. At that time
it was a working fishing village, and even today, many townspeople still
work the sea for a living. Every morning, if you’re up early enough, you
can see the white and blue tiburoneras motoring out towards the reef, in
search of the freshest seafood you’ll find on the coast, available by
early afternoon at the fishermen’s cooperative on the town square at
competitive prices. If your timing is good, and you’ve booked a few nights
in one of the town’s low key hotels with kitchenette, have the fisherman
filet it for you after he weighs it so it will be ready for the grill.
Local Puerto Morelos fishermen were given a
ten-year step down period to adjust to a no fishing policy which will
begin in 2008. At that time, the reef will become a true water park
aquarium on a grand scale. Presently, neither jet skis nor parasailing is
allowed, which means the only noise you hear is that of natural surf
breaking on the mighty reef just a half mile off shore.
Many local fishermen have created new jobs
for themselves as snorkel guides or dive masters. If you like to snorkel,
it’s easy pickings for inexpensive snorkel trips by going to the local
Puerto Morelos dock where a handful of snorkel boats can always be found.
For higher quality dives or fishing excursions, contact Sub Aqua
Explorers, right on the town square next to the bookstore, or contact
Kathy Loretta at Diving Dog Tours (yes, there really is a diving dog at
email@example.com or check Diving Dog’s schedule at El Pirata
Restaurant on the square).
The town boasts a handful of inexpensive
hotels and bed and breakfasts from as low as $45 US per night. As prices
vary with the season it is best to contact the hotels directly for
pricing. A few of my favorites on the beach and right in town are Ojo de
Agua (871-0027), Casita del Mar (871-0301), and Amar Inn Bed & Breakfast
(871-0026). Part of the proceeds from your room rental at Amar Inn goes
towards ecological measures geared towards saving the reef and the
mangroves which surround Puerto Morelos.
The owners of Amar Inn were the initiators
in establishing an ecological initiative to save the Palancar Reef,
shortly after Garrafon Reef, near Isla Mujeres, was ruined by countless
day trippers who stepped on that fragile eco-system, eventually
deteriorating it to nothing in twenty years’ time. At Ojo de Agua, wind
surfing and kite surfing are popular sports, along with kayaking. Rent
wind surf and kayak equipment right there on the beach. For an unusual
experience, swim just off Ojo’s beach to the south and look for its
namesake – the hole in the water – which is where fresh water from a local
cenote streams into the ocean. Ask for information at the hotel desk.
A bit more upscale, also on the beach, is
Villas Playa Sol (871-0236) with 30 condo units. Just off the beach are
Casa Caribe (871-0049), Villas Clarita (871-0042), Villas Shanti
(871-0040) and Motel Eden. On the town square, you’ll find charming Posada
Amor Hotel & Restaurant, (871- 0033), one of the town landmarks, with
super room rates, along with a good restaurant that serves breakfast,
lunch and dinner. Not far away is Hacienda Morelos (871-0015) on the
beach, with ocean views, reasonable rates, and a restaurant downstairs.
Farther up the beach, about a kilometer
north, is La Ceiba Hotel & Spa. Room rates are expensive, but the hotel is
a striking vacation spot, with many amenities on site including spa,
temazcal, gym, and massage room plus a beautiful wooden zapote dock that
stretches from the wide sand beach to a pleasant palapa where you can sit
and watch pelicans, cormorans, or magnificent frigatebirds to your heart’s
Near La Ceiba, a few private beach villas
are for rent; see www.casitamaya.com. Half a mile north of La Ceiba is
Acamaya Reef Campgrounds (871-0132) one of the few trailer parks along the
coast, with reasonable rates on the beach. South of town is Rancho
Liberdad (871-0181) also on the beach, a hip, happening hotel for the
avant garde traveler.
As for eats, Puerto Morelos has a
smattering of restaurants, some quite good. I may not list them all here,
as each season brings new eateries, so make sure to ask around once you’re
in town. Top of the line is John Gray’s Kitchen, run by former Ritz
Carlton chef John Gray and his wife Dora. Gray’s trendy new restaurant on
Ave. Ninos Heroes, one block before the main square, serves up designer
style cuisine every night but Sunday. For Italian food, try Palapa Pizza
on the square; there’s sushi Mexican style at Hola Asia, El Pirata for
great local eats like tacos, enchiladas, empanadas, and salbutes – Mayan
fair you’ll love – plus even hamburgers and fries. The food is tasty with
great prices and it has a view of the town park.
Pelicano’s – on the beach with a large
palapa roof – is known for its seafood. In recent years the wait staff has
become quite complacent; we suggest you count your cervezas when you get
your check. Across the street is a cute Italian deli with great salads,
sandwiches, cappucino, drinks. Spaguettino is a couple blocks north of the
square, with tasty Italian eats and a large variety of wines, nice
atmosphere. El Café d’Amancia is good for coffee, light meals or snacks,
on the square. El Viejo Pescador is owned by the fishermen’s cooperative,
and we hear there is good fresh fish nightly. El Tio’s, down below, is a
local eatery with tacos, empanadas, salbutes, very cheap. Another local
spot is Tuch T’lan (“the rabbit” in Mayan) with daily specials at
unbelievable prices for authentic Yucatan food. Both Ojo de Aqua Hotel and
Casita del Mar have small restaurants as does La Ceiba Hotel.
Every Wednesday there is a traveling
vegetable vendor who sets up a booth on the town square – with fresh,
tasty veggies and fruits. There is the tortilleria where for a few pesos
you can get a kilo of fresh hot torts – bring an empty stomach! – on Ave.
Ninos Heroes, not far from John Gray’s Kitchen. Scattered throughout town
are little tiendas, or stores, selling soft drinks, beer, snacks, and on
the town square is Casa Martin Super Market where you can find most any
food or liquor item you might need. An ATM is there also. The town has two
money exchanges and two internet spots – for checking your email, right
near the town square, next to the liquor store. Computer Tips Internet
also sells office supplies.
In case of medical emergency, there is a
Medical Clinic just down the street from Hacienda Morelos Hotel. A local
doctor is usually on call. In Mexico, medical students can receive tuition
assistance by working off their loans in small town clinics like the one
in Puerto Morelos. So, this is a good spot to get help with Moctezuma’s
Revenge, but not a good spot if you are having cardiac arrest. There is an
American Hospital behind American Express and a large new medical center
in Cancun near J.C. Penney’s at the Mall of the Americas for more extreme
As for shopping, Puerto Morelos has an
Artisan’s Market with about 20 booths displaying and selling items such as
hammocks, local clothing, hats, arts and crafts, and jewelry. The Tee
Shirt Shop next to El Pirata has great tee shirts and lots of nice
souvenirs. Don’t forget to stop in the bookstore, Alma Libre Libros, for a
page-turner for the beach, right on the square.
For things to do around Puerto Morelos,
check out Dr. Alfredo Barrera Marin Botanical Gardens, 65 hectares of
semi-evergreen tropical forest surrounded by Puerto Morelos’ mangroves. An
abundance of native plants and trees are here, all clearly identified by
their Latin and Mayan name. A small pyramid site sits at the back of the
reserve, along with a replica of a Mayan village, created by Sylvia, the
curator, who has donated years of time to this facility. She has also
planted a Mayan herb garden. Howler monkeys sometimes pass through the
jungle part of the reserve late in the day, if you are lucky enough to
spot them. The gardens are also alive with countless birds of Quintana
Roo’s tropical forests. This is a very popular spot for bird watchers, so
bring your binoculars, pack a lunch, and make an afternoon of it.
Donations are accepted at the gardens, and we strongly urge you to be
generous. The botanical gardens are two kilometers south of town, an easy
walk or a short cab drive.
Puerto Morelos is actually a town divided
by Highway 307. In 1988 when Hurricane Gilberto ravaged the area, around
60 feet of new sand was deposited on Puerto Morelos’ beaches from the
storm. In Mexico,
squatter’s rights prevail, and if someone
remains on previously unacknowledged land for 60 days, they may lay claim
to the property. After the hurricane, squatters came from all over
Quintana Roo to lay claim to this new beach.
But just days before this came to pass, the
PRI sent in troops to relocate the squatters to jungle land on the other
side of Highway 307. Land grants were bestowed on the squatters, and
today, La Colonia is the other half of Puerto Morelos. If you are
hankering for a true Mexican style pueblo, check it out. It has a town
square, a church, a school. Prices tend to be lower at La Colonia
restaurants and small vegetable stands. It’s a good place to practice your
Spanish or buy a BBQ chicken grilled on mesquite for $5.00US. Delicious!
Puerto Morelos has experienced great growth
in the past few years in the real estate market. Unlike Playa del Carmen
which stretches for kilometers both north and south, Puerto Morelos is
surrounded by mangroves, so there is a limited amount of land for sale.
Most beach-front land is now sold, but there are houses for sale
throughout the town. Check with Vicky Sharp for what’s still available at
(998) 871-0112 or
firstname.lastname@example.org or Marcela Diaz at (998) 845-8725 or
When you’ve explored Cancun and Playa del
Carmen and are still looking for that quiet getaway spot that seems just
out of reach, check out Puerto Morelos. If you settle into the town’s
relaxed lifestyle and start to feel comfortable, watch out. Because next
thing you know, you’ll be moving there. That’s what happened to me!