When my boyfriend and I were looking to find a vacation spot to escape the impending winter blues of Manhattan, Mexico was a no-brainer: he likes warm places that are filled with adventure and I have a penchant for tacos, enchiladas and margaritas. So in between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, we packed our bags – mine sufficiently heavier as a nod to my job in fashion– for five days in Cancun and three in Playa del Carmen.
Cancun was beautiful. The boutique hotel we stayed at, which is plopped on a crocodile-filled lagoon, featured an attentive staff. The beaches we lounged by boasted a perfectly pigmented sea ranging from bright turquoise to a seductive navy. And we stuffed our faces in a food coma-inducing array of lobster, shrimp, grouper and oysters. But we had one considerable caveat during our leg in Cancun: the hotel zone feels like a kitschy, over-commercialized Las Vegas. “Or Miami,” my boyfriend pointed out.
Playa la Isla, a club-clad strip mall in the hotel zone, is lined with institutions that feel like more of a tourist trap than homage to Mexico’s rich and expansive culture. There’s a Señor Frogs, which has locations everywhere from Rio to Myrtle Beach, and is equipped with stand-alone souvenir stores so anyone who had a few too many piña coladas can score a shot glass, T-shirt and booty shorts with “Cancun” plastered on the bum the morning after. The ever-so-flashy Coco Bongo prides itself for once being reported as “putting Las Vegas nightlife to shame” by CNN. A Chili’s restaurant is even thrown into the mix.
However, even in the midst of “Viva Las Mexicana,” my boyfriend and I found solace and a slice of authenticity in Cancun by heading off to Isla de Mujeres. Just over a 25-minute boat ride, Isla de Mujeres offers a calmer look at the popular destination—and it’s free of those Señor Frog souvenir stores.
Like any tropical getaway, the tiny island can satiate all of your adventure cravings: you can snorkel, swim with dolphins and get cozy in a beachside hammock. But fresh from a dysfunctional wave runner ride – which my boyfriend can definitely corroborate my claim that my wipeouts were probably worthy of an America’s Funniest Home Videos reel – we decided to take it easy, rent a golf car and explore the island. And thanks to a friendly, older couple from Staten Island, we headed south towards Punta Sur.
Our golf car was neither fast nor furious, but the ride to Punta Sur was exactly how we envisioned Mexico: vast roads that showed no signs of overpriced cab drivers, shabby houses painted in bright hues, stray dogs roaming the streets for food and even an occasional roadside café. With the exception of a tiny water adventure park that promised “splish splash fun,” the road’s sidelines became more and more bare with each pump on the gas pedal.
With a lighthouse and small patio restaurant for ceviche and slurpee-sized cocktails, pulling up to Punta Sur initially felt like going to any other picturesque point on an island. But, after zipping through the restaurant and the point’s admissions kiosk, I quickly sequestered my cynicism. The flat land, which overlooked a seemingly endless sea, was juxtaposed with an mélange of scarce ruins from a Mayan temple and sleek, bright sculptures that were erected a few years ago. It wasn’t just an Insta-perfect spot: the grounds were a place that effortlessly blended history, art and nature together.
As we crept to the edge of Punta Sur, we discovered a slippery flight of stairs that descended down closer to the shoreline. The waist of the island’s tip was cinched with wooden railing-lined trails that was home to breathtaking views with every turn you make: wave crisply splashing against rocks that jutted out of the ocean, lowered rocky alcoves that you could easily jump down to, the occasional patch of sand that tempted me to take refuge there with a towel, tanning oil and January’s copy of Vogue. And right when you felt like you were discovering a serene, remote wonder of the world, remnants of a colossal wave would joyously splash right onto the walkway, soaking everyone in sight. The occasional baby would let out a terrified shriek, but it was pure bliss and laughter for the rest of us.
After walking the trail, my boyfriend and I hiked back up to Punta Sur’s restaurant for a drink before we drove away in our semi-sedated golf car. We found two seats right by another edge that overlooked a faint skyline decked with Cancun’s array of Marriot, Ritz Carlton, and Hyatt all-inclusive resorts. But, at just over eight miles away, we couldn’t have felt further from there. Instead, we were truly in paradise.