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Natalie Hartley’s guide to Mexico!

We landed in Cancun after a ten hour direct flight, to pick up our rental car (be careful of the pictures online – don’t get stung like we did!), and were welcomed by the tourist board at our first night in the hotel. Cancun is a stopover, but shouldn’t be overlooked, as the beaches are incredible and on the other side of the hotel is an enormous lagoon which is so tranquil.



The hotel recommended dinner downtown at their famous Mexican chef’s house/ restaurant, Christian Morales, where we are greeted by the chef himself, who then went through his traditional Mexican and Asian influenced tasting menu! My fave dish was the carpaccio of lobster, and the sweetcorn chowder soup was incredible (sweetcorn is a Mexican favourite, which is used in loads of dishes in that area!)



The next day we decide to visit Isla Rosario, the furthest island off the coast of Cancun (another reason to spend a little time in this area!). The island is mainly an eco-resort were scientists live while studying marine life and rare birds, although a section of the island is open to 150 members of the public a day! We’re lucky, and get a space on the infamous ‘pirate boat’ which takes people on a 2 hour sail to the island. Half way along our journey, we spot dolphins swimming alongside the boat, and then start to see turquoise water surrounding the island! It’s one of the most amazing things to see, and we cant wait to get off the boat!


We wander round the island, have a fresh fish BBQ on the boat and then swim with the stingrays and barracudas. The weather is perfect and I wish I could set up home here, but no one can stay overnight sadly!




Back in Cancun we start the next leg of our road trip heading an hour away, just past Playa del Carmen, to an area called Mayakoba. This man made nature reserve has hotels designed within the mangroves so as not to disturb the different kinds of nature, including crocodiles lazing in the sun, huge fish and rare birds, that have built up over time.

The first hotel we head to is Rosewood, a haunt that counts Bono and the Pitt/-Jolie clan among their fans. The perfect place to unwind, each room has its own mini pool and all rooms back onto the mangroves so you wake to sights of fish swimming around and huge iguanas, (which we spot EVERYWHERE)!

We spend the next two days chilling out and getting over jet lag, so it’s a perfect stop over. The beach is just five minutes walk from the room, and for the end of the day there is a tequila bar serving 100 different types of the stuff – don’t leave Mexico without trying it!



Feeling absolutely relaxed and ready for change, we decide to try another area not far from where we are and spend another couple of nights at The Fairmont. Great for families, the Fairmont is much bigger and feels less like a boutique, although they have an amazing spa if you want to really unwind! We went for a couples massage on heated beds that had so many soft layers, you felt like you were lying on cotton wool! There is a beach, but there is so much to do here so this area allows you to be freer with how you spend your time.

Another must-get-out-of-bed-for activity is a visit to the Cenotes. These amazing natural holes are said to have been created when an asteroid fell to earth millions of years ago. Even though you’re just off a busy main road, these random worlds are so tranquil, in particular the ones in between Tulum and Mayakoba. You can pay a pound to enter these fresh water lakes and even dive through the caves if you are brave enough! I wasn’t, so opted for a gentle swim…


Six days have gone by so quickly, but the best of this side of Mexico was still to come. Another hour down the road leads you into Tulum. It’s the hippy town of Mexico and as you pull into the dirt road you head into beach bars, bungalows and an endless beach that goes on for miles.




We turn up to Hemingways and really go back to basics, with no TV, no phone reception and a restaurant so homely that it feels like you are staying at someone’s house.




Italian owned, the menu is full of freshly made pastas and fresh fish. Book a bungalow on the beach so you can wake up to the sunrise every morning and sit on the porch or one of the double four poster beds scattered around. It’s the best start anyone could ask for!




Tulum is famous for its Mayan ruins, with a whole village on the coast the first place any tourist should go to. Get there for the opening as it gets crazy busy, and if you are one of the first you feel as if you are there alone (and can make it back to the beach in time for the afternoon sun!)




Tulum is all about great food and chilling out. Walk along the beach and visit all the other hotels/bungalow accommodations and try them all out! My other highlights were Coqui Coqui (only five rooms so book early!); Las Estrellas (which again, only has five rooms and is perfect for a group of friends to hire the whole place); and OmTulum which has a swimming pool which is rare for Tulum, as it’s the beach or nothing in most places.



Across the road from Hemingways is an amazing restaurant, serving local and organic produce with recipes so good, you feel like you are in a Michelin starred restaurant, but my favourite food has to be the ceviche with tortilla chips.




The next day we decide to put our driving skills to the test, and head into the biosphere, a nature reserve open to the public to drive through. Patience is needed as the road is potholed for miles, and a jeep is best. We however tried to trust our car and the journey was well worth it!

Along the way we visited a deserted and were the only people on the beach for half a mile! We carried on, and three hours later reached an amazing fishing village with a tiny population of about 50 people.





We were pointed in the direction of the lighthouse, which resembled the very end of the road (literally!), and as we set up a picnic watching the herons and other wildlife chill around us, we felt like we were at the end of the world.



Back in Tulum we headed to a well known restaurant, which features different performers each night, all eating typical Mexican cuisine – which generally is the same thing done slightly differently and always topped with fresh tomato sauce! Then back to the bungalow for a read and bed by 9pm (its all early to be up by dawn!)



Day three in Tulum was our best yet, about 30 minutes down the road is another incredible beach where you can swim with giant turtles, stingray, barracuda, tropical coloured fish and other marine life! Then sit down with a Sol beer and tortilla chips, and the rest of the day is spent on the beach. It’s a hard life!



After four full days we felt well and truly rested and it was time to move on again. But we decided on a day trip to Chichen Itza, which is a wonder of the world and a must-see. (A tip for anyone who has not been before – make sure you get there as the gates open, you will have the place to yourself for a couple of hours before the big coaches head in!)


We headed back towards Mayakoba, and where we stayed next was my idea of heaven! Viceroy Riviera Maya is a small boutique hotel with cabanas on the beachfront, around the pool and into the jungle. We went for a beachfront room, but any of them would have been amazing – you will not be disappointed!


The front cabanas have outdoor bathrooms, private mini pools and the best mini bar ever!

They offer amazing treatments, which was pretty much all we did! Two restaurants are available, a smarter one for dinner and one more relaxed for day. A library of videos can keep you occupied after that! If you are lucky you can spot monkeys in the trees from early morning, and then double mattresses are laid out for you to relax on all day, plus swinging ones for night time, when the little light pollution allows for the best star gazing.

We left after two nights, although we could have stayed there for the whole trip. The end of the holiday was drawing very close and all we had left was a final night in Playa Del Carmen.

On our way there the heavens opened, and it was flooded when we got there. As we had a single night staying at The Deseo we left our bags in the car and took just a change of clothes.

This hotel is good value and great for party people but take ear plugs as it gets very noisy! Italian seems to be the speciality there – have a look at Tablet Hotels for great restaurants in the area. I came across an amazing pair of hand made cowboy boots – a must buy for Mexico. They aren’t cheap but will last forever, and the more you wear them the better they look!


Gutted – it’s the last day! On the drive back to the airport we planned to trek through the jungle and take rafts down the river…but the car broke down. We thought it best to head to the airport in case it happened again, but as we were filling up with petrol we got distracted by signs to Isla Mujeres, which were calling us! We parked the car, boarded a boat and sailed through turquoise waters straight into a storm!



We got there soaked and had to waste an hour waiting for the rain to stop before we could wander round the island.





You can hire golf buggys but we strolled around looking at the colourful buildings.





Another thing you have to do is visit a Mexican cemetery. I have never seen anything like it, and what a great place for a shoot one day!!





And definitely try the fresh fish served in abundance with a cold beer!





The trip is over, so it’s back to Cancun. This is truly one of the best places I have been to. Visit the tourist board website for all the tourist attractions, but also relax and unwind. You could spend three months here and not get bored – I will be back!

Natalie’s top five holidays picks:

A high waisted bikini






Blue silk shirt dress – great for day or night






Hippy gold chains by Zoe and Morgan






A scarf which can keep you warm on the plane and be used as a sarong or towel on the beach







A black kaftan for chic summer dressing






Good websites for hotels and activities:



Mexican tourist board

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