I have to be honest with you: we weren’t enamoured with Quintana Roo. Packed with tourists, corrupt police officers, and touts trying to sell us overpriced tours — it just wasn’t for us. However, it does have a lot going for it in the way of sun and fun, and it might be for you. If nothing else, Cancun airport is a convenient place to start your travels around the rest of Mexico.
Where is Quintana Roo, exactly?
Quintana Roo is Mexico’s easternmost state, a long skinny wedge of Caribbean coastline located in the Yucatán peninsula. The state of Yucatán is to the west, the country of Belize is to the south, and Cuba is not far away to the north-west across the Caribbean Sea.
Why visit Quintana Roo?
Most people visit Quintana Roo to enjoy long, lazy days in the sun. The beach is ever-present, there’s great food to try, and Mayan ruins dot the state and are easily accessible. Plus there’s the added attraction of the cenotes — pools that were originally part of underground rivers, revealed when the bedrock above collapsed. They’re cool and refreshing as well as being geologically interesting, a great place to cool off on a hot day.
Probably the easiest way to get to Quintana Roo is by plane. We flew into Cancun, and there’s another international airport further south, in Chetumal. You could also fly into another Mexican airport (such as Mexico City or Mérida) and transfer to a local flight or even make your way overland.
You can also enter by bus from the United States, Guatemala and Belize — it’ll be a long journey if coming from the States, though!
Distances between cities aren’t enormous in Quintana Roo, and the bus network is excellent and fairly priced (though not particularly cheap). You can buy tickets at bus stations or possibly online — our credit card wasn’t accepted when we tried, but you might be luckier! From Cancun airport, it’s easy to get to Cancun or Playa del Carmen by ADO bus, you can buy your tickets in the terminal after arrival or from a booth at the bus stop outside.
You could also hire a car, but be aware that tolls can be expensive and corrupt police officers target tourists, looking for bribes. A better option could be ride-sharing, especially if you’re travelling with a friend or as a couple. Mexico’s BlaBlaCar network is extensive, and we had a positive experience travelling from Monterrey to Querétaro. Just make sure to choose people with good references and let friends or family know what you’re doing.
A word on timezones
Although most of Mexico is in the Central Time Zone (GMT -6) Quintana Roo is an hour ahead (GMT -5, the Eastern Time Zone). The state changed its timezone in February 2015, so that tourists could enjoy an extra hour of daylight in the evening. Be aware that you’ll be changing timezone if you travel to other Mexican states — we didn’t know, and were a bit surprised when we the time suddenly changed on us!
Where to explore
Cancun is a planned city, designed especially for tourism. Most of its buildings are hotels and resorts, which stretch along an extensive peninsula located on the Carribbean coast. If you want to soak up the sun and drink expensive cocktails while lounging beside a pool — this is the place for you! We didn’t, and it wasn’t our favourite place in the world.
There isn’t a lot to do in Cancun itself apart from visiting the nightclubs and enjoying the resort facilities. There’s a nice market to wander around in the centre of town and a small Mayan ruin on the peninsula, but most of the attractions involve visiting the large theme parks or going on full-day tours to visit other ruins such as Chichen Itza.
Experiencias Xcaret runs the many theme parks you’ll see advertised (which all start with the letter X). Denotes appealed to us: it was more of an adventure experience than a park. We visited four different underground pools (cenotes) of different types, and zip lined, rappelled, or kayaked into them — it was fun!
A great day trip from Cancun is Isla Mujeres, an island located a short ferry trip from the city. To get there from the hotel zone, take bus R1 to Centro (10.50 pesos) and ask the driver where to get off for Puerto Juarez. When you get off, you’ll see yellow mini buses parked along the road, which you can catch to the UltraMar terminal (8 pesos). A return ticket to Isla Mujeres costs 146 pesos — it’s a lot cheaper than the ferry direct from the hotel zone, and it runs a lot more frequently.
On the island, you can enjoy the beach, eat at one of the many restaurants, or go snorkelling or scuba diving to see the underwater museum. You can also hire a golf cart to explore the island if you’re so inclined. We spent our day just relaxing on the sand — bliss.
Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen was much more our kind of place, especially once we got off the souvenir stall-lined main street. The beach attracts a lot of visitors, though as it was ridiculously windy when we were there, we weren’t among them. If we go back to Quintana Roo, it will be to Playa del Carmen.
Tulum is most famous for its ruins, which are located on the coast. We enjoyed our visit there and were pleasantly surprised by the price, which was a fraction of the cost of visiting Chichen Itza or Uxmal. However, we were feeling a bit ruined out by the time we got to Tulum, and weren’t overly impressed by the complex. If this is the first Mayan ruin you visit, though, I’m sure you’ll have a much better time than we did.
We didn’t get there on this trip, but this island is a scuba diving paradise. You can get there from Playa del Carmen.
It’s impossible to see and do everything, and we didn’t try. Tulum was as far south as we went in Quintana Roo, but if you continue on you’ll eventually hit Chetumal, which is right on the border with Belize. We also haven’t mentioned the many smaller towns dotted through the state that might take your fancy — exploring is always a good thing.
Personally, though, we’d recommend that unless you want a lazy beach holiday or to do some serious snorkelling, limit your time in Quintana Roo and head inland to see what the rest of Mexico has to offer you.