This article is from the April 1999 The Mexico File newsletter.
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South of the Hi-Rise, Puerto Morelos and Playa del Carmen

by David Simmonds

I’m desperately trying to buy into the “Cancún is Cool” mantra. So many people tell me it’s true, I start  thinking that maybe I’ve turned into the kind of person I least admire. The black vs. white type who are unable to recognize the gray’s much less vibrant colors. “I’ll prove to myself my attitude is how its always been, open and curious,” I declared, as I arranged a recent flight to visit Mexico’s most visited tourist resort – Cancún. 

Just in case I couldn’t overcome my aversion to cement skylines and disco sounds, I rented a VW convertible from National Car Rental for less than $200 per week. That way I could get out of town fast, cowardly fleeing to locales less manic, places where Tevas are high styling and you can get a beer for less than a buck.

Several hours after deplaning, that’s exactly what I did. But not before making the mandatory visit to Cancún’s most compelling establishment – Commercial Mexicana (open from 7 a.m. to midnight) at the corner of Av. Uxmal and Av. Tulum. Here you purchase a $7.00 ice chest, a few adult beverages, and a $2.00 roasted chicken that will activate taste buds previously unused despite having too often dined at joints with “dinner jacket required.” Throw in a stack of fresh tortillas, drinking water, Gatorade, some fresh fruit, a white cheese wedge and you’re ready to head south for your first stop in...                  

Puerto Morelos

The most astounding feature of Puerto Morelos is that it’s a mere 20 miles from Cancún’s hotel row. Although not the unexplored backwater it once was, it still has an end-of-the-road aura perfectly designed for you to morph into your Mexico shuffle. Be advised – the shuffle should only be attempted in open-toed shoes at a tequila pace with a goofy grin firmly in place. Refrain from mumbling to yourself to avoid undue attention. Stash your wristwatch in the toe of the Ferragamos that you should have left at home. Then hit the streets –  it doesn’t matter in which direction. And remember, don’t try this at home.

The obvious attraction of this coastline is the turquoise, lucent sea and the surrounding jungle. And the weather is pretty good too. That’s why so many people have made the Yucatán peninsula their vacation destination of choice, for good reason. Another benefit is that there is plenty to see and do in a relatively small area. With the newly constructed roads carved through sacred Maya lands and tour buses to shuttle you around, you can stay very busy after the first day’s sun has blistered your gringo skin.

But if you just want to hang in a nice coastal village, you will find Puerto Morelos very satisfying. And if you like to dive, scuba or snorkel, this is about as good as it gets in this part of the world. The reef, some 600 yards offshore, extends for miles, providing excellent underwater exploring. Although not as celebrated as the nearby island, Cozumel, the traffic here is far less, as are the prices.  There are a couple of dive shops in town to rent gear and arrange boat transport to the reef. If you have a car and want to go to Cozumel, Puerto Morelos is where you catch the daily ferry service.

ALMA LIBRE LIBROS – There are plenty of good reasons to visit Puerto Morelos for at least a couple of days: sun, solitude, and one of the best bookstores I have seen in Mexico, Alma Libre Libros. San Francisco Bay area expats Jeanine Kitchell and Paul Zapella started this labor of love two years ago and have built the store into some 20,000 titles, both new and used. Paul and Jeanine are engaging and helpful hosts who are very willing to share their knowledge of the area that they love. More importantly, browse the shelves and buy a book. They provide a valuable service and need your support. For now they are open from October through April, daily from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Notice the 5 hour siesta break, a perfect indication of the pace of life in this town.

For those who prefer ten-story high hotels with long, dark corridors, you will want to bypass Puerto Morelos. I think two or three levels is as high as it gets here. On the low end of the price scale I like Posada Amor, just off the plaza, not on the beach. A simple fan-cooled room is in the $30US range, and as is typical, this runs about 50-100% more than a comparable room on Mexico’s west coast. The rooms are clean and you’ll meet an interesting cross-section of international travelers who are often the best source for information and tips. The attached restaurant is quite good and serves as an informal meeting place for many of the gringo locals. 

The best choice in a higher price range, and a good value for what you get, is Rancho Libertad. Located on the south end of town, but still within walking distance, this beach front compound is the epitome of tranquility, not coincidently due to a prohibition against kids. Best described as chic rustic, this is a very cool place that is perfect for loosening your springs with the one you love. Several two-story cabana style buildings offer either upstairs or downstairs rooms, very attractively decorated with suspended beds and lots of space. A free breakfast buffet is included with your room fare. Although they have no swimming pool, it comes equipped with its own ocean and plenty of sand. There is complimentary use of snorkeling equipment and bicycles and for $40US you can get a beachside massage. The psychological benefits are absolutely free. And if you just have to party hard for a night or two, Cancún’s many world-class restaurants and bars are less than 30 minutes away.

Next door to Rancho Libertad sits the Caribbean Reef Club. As I wandered over to take a tour, I was met by a distinguished, if gruff, gentleman who asked how he could help me. I explained the reason for my visit as he looked at me suspiciously, clearly enunciating that it wouldn’t be possible for me to come inside as many of the guests were unclothed at the pool and might feel uncomfortable with my presumably leering eyes. I can tell you that I heard some good things about the Club, fine food, nice rooms, and an all-inclusive price that is quite reasonable compared to other resorts. They had a high season price of $240 per day for two that included all your meals, booze, taxes, tips and activities. Volleyball, anyone?

A very good source for finding private homes, condos and guest houses for the area is on the internet. Type Puerto Morelos (or wherever you are going) into a search engine and you’ll find many web pages with info, photos, and email contacts. For those three of you who aren’t online yet, find a friend to do it for you. It really is the way to plan your trips these days.


Playa, as the locals call it, is one thriving construction site. If you can drive a nail, you’ve got a job in this town. But even so, I like it. Playa sits on a perfect white sand stretch of beach lined with hotels of all styles. And although there are a couple of larger properties, I don’t think any exceeds three stories.

The main tourist street is Av. 5, parallel to and one block in from the ocean front. And what was recently a typically small fishing village street now resembles something very European. Maybe it’s the endless string of outdoor bistro-style cafes filled with people speaking French, German, Dutch, Italian and even a little Spanish and English. But there is something different about the atmosphere than you find in other coastal tourist towns where Americans prevail. Number one, the Europeans (yes, even the Germans) don’t get as trashed as the party warriors in Vallarta, Cabo or Mazatlán. Either they don’t drink as much or they hold it better, but you just don’t see the stumbling yo-yo’s barfing in the street that I’ve hurdled elsewhere. Maybe since they come from a far distance and have longer stays, they pace themselves better as opposed to winging in for a 3- or 4-day bender. Anyway, its very noticeable.

There is more to do here than in Morelos, but primarily everyone hits the beach during the day and strolls pedestrian-only Av. 5 at night, where there are many shops and smaller hotels along with the lively restaurants. It would be impractical to describe all the different dining available, but everywhere I ate was quite good. This is a good eating town, necessitated by the European clientele. You don’t give the Italians a good meal and you’ll hear about it.

I wanted to find the least expensive hotel on the ocean front, which turned out to be Hotel Alejari. Although it is on the beach, few of the rooms actually have an ocean view. But for $50US, I was satisfied with the accommodations. A good Mexican breakfast was included in the price.

There are many, many small hotels tucked here and there throughout the town with ocean front the most expensive. I especially enjoyed the Posada Freud Hotel on Av 5. The $40 second floor room resembled something I have paid four times the price for in Santa Fe, NM. Artistically decorated with hand painted tiles throughout, it has a private balcony that provided the feeling of being part of the tree that shaded most of the property. This overlooked the wonderfully scented outdoor restaurant that softly played equally tasteful tunes throughout the evening. And if that’s not enough, the balcony had a double wide hammock. Discounting the fact that it wasn’t on the beach, it is one of my favorite rooms ever.

Another unique lodging choice is Treetops Hotel. When you step through their gate you have the feeling of being transported to the Amazon rainforest. Along with individual thatched-roof bungalows, they now have 12 modern hotel rooms and a gorgeous, small pool and bar. The entire grounds, located right in town, are covered by a canopy of trees which eliminates the sun, but creates a very seductive atmosphere.

If you want something more luxurious on the beach, El Faro seemed the best of all the properties I inspected, although there are many to choose from. All of the rooms have ocean views with patio/balconies. The property is designed less like a typical cookie-cutter resort and more like you might design it, with a minimum amount of cement poured. Here you feel more like a guest, not a customer. Not surprisingly, being a guest will cost a bit of money. 

As mentioned, there is an amazing array of hotels to choose from in Playa. What I like best about traveling to a place like this is to be flexible about where you might end up. It would be good to have a reservation at one of the places I have mentioned, but that first day in town, spend two or three hours checking out other possibilities. It helps you get acquainted with the layout of the town and gives you the sense of a great discovery when you find that perfect little hostel that the guidebooks have missed.       


I’m not going to attempt to review the nearby ecological theme parks Xcaret and Xel-Ha. Having knocked around this coast so long ago before it was “discovered,” I just can’t bring myself to enter the gates and pay to see what I’ve been lucky enough to have seen in its natural state. Xcaret, for a hefty price, will let you swim with their captured dolphins. I have always figured if you want to swim with dolphins, you ought to be willing to swim with sharks. Some things just shouldn’t be sanitized for everyone.

If you want to get off the beach for a day or two, go visit the Mayan ruins. They are powerful, indeed. But since I’ve exceeded my pre-planned word-count for this issue, I’ll save that for later.                   


All prices are high-season quotes. Expect to pay less off-season.        


Posada Amor: half-block from plaza. Tel: (987) 10033. Fax: (987) 10178. Double room is $30US. Interesting, if simple, conclave of low-slung buildings. Good choice for the budget minded. Fine restaurant.

Rancho Libertad: south of Ferry Terminal, on beach. For info in U.S. and Canada call (888) 305-5225 or (719) 685-1254. Fax: (719) 685-2332. Mexico: (987) 10181. Email: December 15 thru Easter: Double $75 upstairs, $65 downstairs. April 5 thru December 14: $55 and $45. $10 less for single. Great hotel for relaxation and beauty. Highly recommended.

Caribbean Reef Club: next to Rancho Libertad. All-inclusive, nudity allowed. Rates run from $240 to $300 for two per day. Beautiful location and grounds. Tel: (987) 10191. In U.S. (800) 322-6286.

Private Homes, Condos: many to choose from. Check the internet for possibilites.       


Posada Freud Hotel: Av. 5 between Calle 8 and Calle 10. Tel and Fax: (987) 30601. Only 11 rooms, some with private balcony and hammock. Prices range from $35 to $70. Attached Media Luna restaurant is excellent. Beautiful, spacious rooms. Request one upstairs with private balcony.

Treetops Hotel: Calle 8, near the beach. Tel: (987) 30351 Fax: (987) Email: Sleep in the jungle in one of the thatched roof bungalows or for more comfort try one of the new rooms.  Prices range from $40 to $70.

El Faro: On the beach. Tel: toll free (888) 243-7413. Or in Mexico (987) 30970. Fax: (987) 30968. Refined luxury in a beach/garden setting. All amenities available. Rates range from $85 to $205, depending on room and season.