Puerto Morelos, Hidden in Plain Sight
We recently had a reason to visit Puerto Morelos for business and ended up spending the night there. We spent only twenty-four hours in the place, but came away with the conclusion that this relatively sleepy tourist town might just be one of the Riviera Maya's best kept secrets, especially for those of us who live in the Yucatan and visit the Riviera Maya for weekend getaways.
Because who doesn't love to just get away to the coast for a few days? Whether we are avoiding the intense heat of May in Merida or the craziness of Carnival or just craving a dip in the liquid perfection of the Caribbean Sea, we all love to spend a few days on the Caribbean coast when we can. For those of us who live on the Yucatan Peninsula, a few days by the sea is an easy trip. Eat your hearts out, rest of the world!
Driving from Merida to Puerto Morelos
We spent a little longer than usual getting to Puerto Morelos on this trip from Merida. Our day started early, and we spent lunchtime with friends in Valladolid. On a whim, we decided to take the via corto (shortcut) to Puerto Morelos. Following the libre road from Valladolid, we passed under the carretera and headed towards Cancun. We love traveling the back roads of the Yucatan Peninsula, because you never know what you are going to find, like this vendor selling spheres and dreamcatchers, teased out of the vines that grow in the jungles behind their houses.
After awhile, the geography, always so flat in the Yucatan, started getting uncharacteristically hilly and the little pueblos we passed were perched above and below the road on either side. Somewhere in the middle of this change of scenery, we came to a little town called Leona Vicario. There, the signs for the shortcut directed us to a side road that took us straight out to the coast.
After going for a few miles through jungle, we passed a number of cenote locations, the entrance to Club de Polo el Rey, "Cancun's" only polo field, Gorilax Jungle Park (ATV rides through the jungle) and Selvática (ziplines through the jungle), dropping us just meters south of Puerto Morelos. We wouldn't say it took less time exactly, but it was a more peaceful and interesting way to travel. And keep in mind, all those attractions we passed are just minutes from Puerto Morelos if you are staying there and looking for something to do.
It's good to know that to enjoy Puerto Morelos, you don't even need a car, though we drove there in one. Buses leave from Playa del Carmen and Cancun about every half hour to get to Puerto Morelos and a ticket only costs 24 pesos. Puerto Morelos is only twenty minutes from the Cancun airport. Next time we have to spend the night on the coast before flying out of Cancun, we will seriously consider overnighting in a small hotel here instead of a big, expensive resort (or a less expensive inland hotel) in Cancun.
Town, Mangrove, Beach
Puerto Morelos, like many Yucatan towns along the coast, has two distinct sections. There are residential sections, west and east of the highway, Puerto Morelos Pueblo, where most of the workers live. Separating this section from the beach is a mangrove swamp, and then the original Antiguo Puerto Morelos, on the beach about 2 kilometers east of the highway. The beachside community is, of course, where we went and where most visitors go and most extranjeros live.
To get there from the highway, we drove down a long, straight road bordered on both sides by that mangrove swamp. This seemed to be a road that people walked down quite a bit, both to get somewhere and for exercise. We noticed multiple signs warning of cocodrilos (crocodiles)... how every exotic! No one seemed particularly worried about the cocodrilos, but we definitely made a mental note.
When we arrived at the town, we didn't see anything striking or impressive. There is a central plaza, filled with a jumble of children's play areas, trees and bushes and benches. Around the square are buildings, including the obligatory church, a number of restaurants and coffee shops, stores and the Yucatan Peninsula's only English-language bookstore that we know of, Alma Libre. By the way, this small and independent bookstore has been around for years and if you love books, you must be sure to visit.
To the south of the main part of town are some large resorts, including El Cid and the Jade Riviera Cancun (yes, it's called "Cancun" but, like the Polo Club "El Rey", its really in Puerto Morelos). To the north are a bevy of hotels, condos, small hotels, hostels, some restaurants, and even a cooking school. And of course, there are beautiful beaches on both sides!
One Night on the Square
Before we went to our hotel, we walked around the square and down to the beach. The miniature malecon (beachside promenade) has obviously been recently upgraded. There are pergolas with benches, palm trees and a drop-dead gorgeous view of the Caribbean. Fishing boats line the beach and pedestrians walk back and forth, most of them also walking out onto the muelle (pier) that juts out into the sea. From the end of the pier, we could see the coastline of Puerto Morelos stretching out on either side, punctuated by the leaning lighthouse, damaged during Hurricane Beulah in 1967 and a symbol of this little town at the mercy of the sea.
The whole town is maybe only five or six blocks from the sea to the mangrove swamps, but packed into that area are a range of condos, hotels, homes and other buildings, none of which rise more than three or four stories. On the beach side of the main two-lane streets that parallel the coast, the homes seem well kept and well built. We wandered down that way, as we were staying at the small hotel, Casa Caribe, a client of our web-development company. We were happy to put our bags down in a spacious clean room with a view across an empty lot of the big wide white beach and the sea beyond. There was a hammock hanging outside on the balcony... what more do you need for a weekend by the sea?
Since we arrived late in the afternoon, the sun had set while we were checking in. We hurried into town on foot (about five blocks) to get to a farmacia before it closed. After getting the medication we needed from a small but apparently well-stocked store, we wandered over to the malecon to find dinner. We settled on a beachside taco restaurant (whose name we can't remember...). We ordered ceviche, guacamole and a michelada and settled down to wait as we watched the town come alive at night. Because that is, of course, what Yucatan towns DO at night. As the lights around the square turned on, the pergola lit up and contrasted with the deep blue sky beyond. People came from all directions and the restaurant filled up with extranjeros mostly, speaking any number of languages. The food came, drinks multiplied and everything got louder. It was a lovely evening by the sea with good, fresh food and a view of both a small town evening and the sea. An almost-full moon shone down on it all, just to complete the perfect picture.
Morning on the Beach
Determined to walk around a bit before we met with our client (the reason for our visit) and wanting to take advantage of sunrise over the sea, we were up well before dawn. Camera in hand, we walked barefoot the half a block down to the beach and stepped out onto that white powdery sand for which the Riviera Maya has become famous.
The sky was clear but for a few tattered clouds, gathering into clumps along the horizon. There was a slight pink tinge to the grey, heralding the sun's arrival. Up and down the beach, we could see a few people, coming out to join us as witnesses to the morning ritual. As if to punctuate that we were just visitors there, a large frigate bird flew over, doubled back, swooped down and flew off with a big fish wriggling in its beak right before my eyes... too fast for our camera so early in the day, to our dismay.
The horizon glowed brighter and brighter as the earth turned slowly towards the sun, which finally glinted, peeked and then burst forth, spreading that magnificent light onto the buildings, the beach and the tractor cleaning the night's seaweed from the sand. Another day dawning in the sleepy little town of Puerto Morelos.
We stopped on our way back to talk to a man sitting on a bench who had also walked down to watch the sunrise. He was eighty three years old, from New York City. He came to Puerto Morelos for the winter with his wife. His daughter was visiting for a few weeks with her children. He told us how he came to Puerto Morelos to escape the cold winters now, how much he loved to be there and how he came every morning to watch the sun rise. We wished him well and went back up to Casa Caribe for a quick breakfast before we got to work. Sunrise over the Caribbean is indeed a great way to start the day.
For all its sleepiness and small town atmosphere, Puerto Morelos is surprisingly chock full of activities and things to do... things to do, that is, if sitting on the beach and swimming gets to be too boring. If we had stayed a few days, we would certainly have taken advantage of the fantastic snorkeling and diving just offshore in the protected Puerto Morelos Reef National Park. The coral reefs offshore here are part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System and are every bit as beautiful as what you'll see in Cancun, Cozumel or Playa del Carmen, but perhaps just a little bit easier and possibly a little bit less expensive to access. If we didn't want to swim in the sea, we could have hopped in a taxi and gone back to that collection of cenotes just on the other side of the highway. If we wanted to avoid water altogether, there were those zipline and ATV parks. To the north of Puerto Morelos on the main highway (Hiway 307) is the famous Crococun Zoo, where children of all ages enjoy seeing crocodiles, monkeys, iguanas and even xoloixcuintli Mexican hairless dogs up close. To the south is the Yaax Che Botanical Gardens.
Puerto Morelos has a Spanish language school in town, and the Little Mexican Cooking School is there too. In fact, this cooking school is one of just a handful on the whole Yucatan Peninsula and has a well-deserved reputation for being both enjoyable and educational. The morning we were there, a group of about 20 students, hailing from Canada, the USA and as far away as Sweden, learned how to make traditional Mexican hot chocolate, candied limes and tamales from scratch from Chef Cristobal, who learned many of these things from his own grandmother.
The outdoor patio seemed the perfect location for cooking lessons, as a tropical breeze kept everyone cool while they learned. The sweet smell of cinnamon and chocolate mixed with the breeze and made us a bit envious of those students, whose morning would continue later in the white-tiled kitchen inside the hotel. Everyone, from chef to students, seemed to be having a great time.
Adios, Puerto Morelos...
Adios, but we'll be back. There doesn't seem to be much wrong with this well-contained and well-situated village along the Yucatan's most popular coast. For those of us not always up for the Vegas-by-the-Sea atmosphere of Cancun or the increasingly busy global tourist mecca that Playa del Carmen is becoming, Puerto Morelos seems to be an easy and convenient way to spend some time by the Caribbean. It doesn't have the spiritual and ecological bent of Tulum, nor the quiet exclusivity of Akumal, but Puerto Morelos has a little bit of everything you might want, all the conveniences you need and a location that almost defies reason. How much longer can Puerto Morelos hide in the shadows of nearby Cancun and Playa del Carmen without becoming too commercialized?
We don't know, but we don't intend to wait too much longer to go back. In Puerto Morelos, we didn't see any signs of big developments or high-rise hotels. We just saw wide beaches, quiet visitors and residents, well-kept houses and buildings and the sky and the sea. We like to think the aluxes (the elves) of the Maya forests have carved out this little town for themselves, and through their magical powers, are keeping it for us and for themselves, hiding in plain sight.
Casa Caribe and the Little Mexican Cooking School (by the way, if you want to do a little shopping, Casa Caribe's The Kitchen Shop has a great selection of hard-to-find-anywhere-else things, both for cooking and for gifts)
A blog about Puerto Morelos that will give you insight into living there
Award-winning Selvática's website
El Rey Polo Club's website
Alma Libre Bookstore