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Visiting the Mexican Caribbean in 2021

By Cy Witherspoon | Jan 8, 2021, 15:47 PM

My name is Cy Witherspoon, and I have worked at IMG since 2013.  Prior to moving to Indianapolis, I lived in the Riviera Maya area of Mexico, specifically Cancún, for three years.  On a recent visit back, I had my first international travel experience since the start of the pandemic. During my trip, I was able to document all of the things to do in a place that I love and once called home.

Upon arriving at the airport for my departure, I was quite surprised at how similar air travel’s “new normal” was to life before the pandemic.  Once on the plane, the main difference is that you are required to wear a mask for the entire flight unless eating or drinking. There is also no formal in-flight drink, snack, or meal service.  Instead, prior to takeoff, the flight attendants supplied each passenger with a zip lock bag containing a bottle of water, a cookie, and a sanitary wipe.  The biggest shock to me was that the flight was completely full, and, of the four flights that we took on this trip, there weren’t any flights with restricted seating.

The Mexican Riviera Maya, or Mexican Caribbean, is a beautiful and awe-inspiring sight—even from the air. It’s the only portion of Mexico which resides in the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean Sea.  Cancún is located in Quintana Roo (kin-TAH-nə ROH), one of the 32 Mexican states, and sits at the beginning of the second largest natural Coral Reef in the world, known as the Mesoamerican Reef. The reef begins North of Cancún then runs all the way down to Chetumal, before going into Belize then continuing to Guatemala and Honduras. The Mesoamerican Reef spans over 620 Miles (1,000 kilometers) and is regarded as a premier spot for water activities such as fishing, snorkeling, and especially scuba diving.  

Due to the proximity of the region to the Tropic of Cancer, the Mexican Caribbean has a very humid environment. I would strongly recommend traveling with light, breathable clothing, and comfortable sandals (with straps) are a must to not overheat while walking around the city or its beaches.  

Apart from the plethora of water activities, there are a number of amazing marketplaces, stores, and shops offering everything from large seashells to standard tourist items such as clothing and drinking glasses.  Tequila and silver are very popular and common commodities for the region and the country.  When entering one of the many open-air marketplaces such as Mercado 23 (Market 23) in Cancún or Avenida 5 (5th Ave) in Playa Del Carmen, it’s best that you haggle or bargain.  The ability to haggle is almost an unspoken art form in the region. Most shopkeepers or employees won’t respect you if you don’t haggle with them.  If you choose not to haggle, then you risk getting taken advantage of and paying too much for the item.


When I previously resided in the region, I always recommended to friends that they exchange their money for the Mexican Peso prior to arriving.  During this trip, I found that most, if not all, vendors will accept U.S. dollars and, in most cases, prefer it. Nearly all financial institutions will allow use of your bank’s debit or credit card abroad with a simple authorization call prior to your trip, and most vendors and physical restaurants in the region have credit card machines to process digital transactions. Most restaurants, bars, and vendors will run your card in front of you, with your approval. If they don't then I wouldn't recommend giving them your card. Make sure to verify with your bank to find out if there will be any exchange rate charges or other fees to use your card internationally. I would strongly recommend carrying loose cash for tips for the hotel staff, transportation workers, baggage handlers, and bartenders or waitstaff.  The average wage for many of these workers is quite low, so most will go above and beyond to earn your tips.  

Cancún’s numerous Grupo Xcaret Parks are some of the most popular tourist attractions in the city. For this trip, I chose the Xcaret Ecological Beach & Park.  This park is filled with various forms of wildlife including flamingos, parrots, jaguars, coati (a cousin to the raccoon), and iguanas.  Some of the animals are housed in enclosures, while others roam the park freely.  Inside the parks, there are plenty of extracurricular activities for all ages including a massive beach club with carved out pools by the sea, snorkeling, and speed boat and scuba tours.  Depending on your package, the park will provide you with snorkel gear, and always provides life preservers when necessary for that activity.  One of my favorite attractions is the Lazy River, where you traverse through underground caves. 


The main purpose for my trip to Cancún was actually to visit my wife’s family and to share with our daughters their Mexican heritage.  The most profound and unexpected way we exposed them to their culture was by enjoying the “Xcaret México Espectacular.” This wonderful night show is filled with stunning dance routines, great folkloric stories, and exciting musical presentations. The show beautifully displayed the very rich and robust history of Mexico, and I would highly recommend this show for anyone traveling to the region.  

Speaking of Mexico’s storied history, tourists flock from all over the world to learn about one of the remaining surviving indigenous people known as the Maya or Mesoamerican Indians.  The Mayan people mainly reside in Southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Northern Belize, and there are about 30 different Mayan languages spoken with the most popular or commonly spoken tongue being Nahuatl (näˌwätl).  Evidence of the Mayan people’s presence is felt all over the area with buildings and streets containing Mayan artwork, words, and names.  You may see some indigenous women with their babies strapped to their backs selling sewn items such as hammocks and bracelets.  You may spot the Palo Volador (palo βolaˈðoɾ) or Flying Pole Ceremony, which is a ceremony meant to ask the Gods to end a severe drought.  It’s a very interesting sight to see four men tied together with rope and spinning around so high above the ground while a fifth plays a flute and hits a drum.


Evidence of the Mayan’s grandeur and technological advancements are evident throughout the many ruins and each tells its own story. The site pictured above is known as Tulum and was considered the major trading seaport for the area of Coba.  The ruins are strategically positioned 40 feet or 12 meters above the turquoise blue of the Caribbean Sea.  Considering they were built in AD 564, it’s an amazing site to see in person. It doesn’t take a history buff, architect, or anthropologist to appreciate all of the beauty and majesty of Tulum. If you’re planning your own trip to the ruins, it will more than likely be a warm day, so  I strongly recommend taking a dive in one of the many cenotes or underground freshwater wells to refresh yourself.  I would also recommend taking lots of water, wearing plenty of sunscreen, and carrying some wet cooling towels as most of the ruins are located in wide open areas with very limited shady spots. 

Whether you are looking to book a quiet, relaxing, all-inclusive stay at a 5-star resort, or a scenic adventure into breathtaking landscapes and history, the Maya Riviera area of the Mexican Caribbean has something for all to enjoy! 

If you’re ready to start planning your trip, don’t forget to include travel medical insurance on your must-have list. I never travel internationally without it and suggest the same for you. Learn more about IMG’s best vacation insurance plans or get a quote today!


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