This article is from the October 2003 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Puerto Morelos – Quintana Roo’s Best Kept Secret

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 bocapaila@yahoo.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 content. 

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 emergencies. 

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 vsharp@prodigy.net.mx or Marcela Diaz at (998) 845-8725 or floridakey@aol.com  

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!