Puerto Morelos – the Mexican Caribbean

By | Category: Travel destinations
the marina in Puerto Morales

the marina in Puerto Morales

We swished through the crystal-clear, swimming-pool-turquoise water, our eyes darting from left to right.  From behind our snorkel masks, we gazed at the rainbow-hued Caribbean fish and dramatic coral formations.

Here, in the Puerto Morelos National Reef Park of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, (the world’s second largest,), we explored and beckoned to each other with delight.  And then suddenly, I gripped my husband’s hand and gestured wildly to the right. An enormous black manta ray was flapping its fins at our side – much wider than I am tall, its tail alone some four feet in length. We gasped through our snorkels –one of those never-forget moments that happen regularly at this reef just 500 meters off the coast of Puerto Morelos.

Back in its infancy as a tourism destination, I lived and worked in this area. It was only thirty five years ago, yet Cancun is almost unrecognisable from what it was in those days , an island-like oasis of long virgin stretches between hotels, iguanas everywhere, an almost completely Mayan population, and just a few restaurants vying for the adventurous tourists eager to come to a newly “discovered” hot spot.

Cancun still has those impossibly beautiful beaches of swimming-pool-turquoise, the sand is still that never-gets-hot silky white limestone, and there are a few local Mayans working among the hordes of other transplants from just about everywhere. But, action-packed Cancun now has over one million residents, and the hotel zone has nary an inch to spare. Iguanas? I challenge you to find one.

...and the beach...

…and the beach…

However, there are nearby places, within 30 minutes from Cancun International Airport,  that have managed, so far, to keep their tranquil, authentic ambiance.  I was recently delighted to see for myself that Puerto Morelos, a small fishing village just south of Cancun, is still the Puerto Morelos I remember – granted, yes, with a few more residents from up north and across the pond, but with a multitude of iguanas, many Mayans speaking their language, and NO towering hotels (buildings are limited to three stories by local by-laws.) The town previously was the ferry embarkation point for the island of Cozumel, but that moved – perhaps helping to keep the population down.

We stayed at two all-inclusive properties. Dreams Riviera Cancun is a very well-run, beautifully laid out, family-friendly place, situated about a half-hour beach walk from Puerto Morelos, while Zoetry Paraiso de la Bonitais a posh, 90-suite, adult-focused property with exquisite furnishings and artwork. We were entranced with Zoetry’s resident 50 or so tropical birds living in relative freedom, attended to for years by Marcos, a devoted birdkeeper. We fell in love with Makita, a Military Macaw who flew to the property after Hurricane Wilma for sanctuary and never left. She loves to wave one foot in greeting and was enthralled with my flowery bathing suit coverup. During afternoon teatime, (a pastry extravaganza), Makita and the other birds chirped happily around us.

Indeed, all larger hotels are out of town, keeping the original character of Puerto Morelos intact. The beach walk from Dreams was quite pleasant, although a bit unnerving (we were quite surprised when we passed by a clothing-optional resort!) We also passed countless soaring pelicans, seagulls, tiny birds with gorgeous striped wings when aloft, and we rejoiced in that pure white, never-gets-hot sand. Upon arrival to the town beach, we saw numerous brightly colored umbrellas and beach palapa huts, and we heard chattering in Spanish, English, French, Italian, German, and more. The little harbor held some twenty or so small canopied boats with crews equipped to take snorkelers and divers out to the barrier reef just off shore, for very reasonable prices.

...fishing is still important...

…fishing is still important…

Off the pier, on the quaint boardwalk area’s benches, sat older foreign residents and tourists during the daytime, but in the late afternoon, when we returned, there sat the usual Mexican “novios,” (romantic couples,) and students socializing after classes.  That’s about the extent of action here in this very low-key town – this is where those who want to escape the throbbing dance club scene and all-you-can-drink bars go. There are many town festivals, however, mostly in the beach front plaza, while some are about two miles away in the colonia, where most of the 10,000 locals live, along with a few small guesthouses. For those not staying in the gorgeous all-inclusive resorts nearby, such as Dreams, there are many B&B’s, vacation rental houses and small inns here – many of them quite charming and well run.

Strolling through the town, we enjoyed stopping for a sweet treat with Lourdes Casanova, at her “Dulceria del Puerto” (port candies,) a charming, brightly colored and festooned candy (confectionery) stand strategically placed near the elementary school. Selling a wide variety of artisanal Mexican goodies, piñatas and other knick knacks, the stand is the kind of place you’d no longer find in more tourist-crowded places. Lourdes speaks English quite well, loves to practice, and told us she learned the language from listening to the Beatles.

We were thrilled, when while peeking in at a preschool having an al fresco marionette show, the teacher beckoned us in. Some thirty adorable 4 and 5 year olds, all dressed in matching uniforms, sat mesmerized for the homemade puppet show, while the presenter sang and played music on a ukulele-like instrument. When the mosquito puppet appeared, they screamed and jumped in “terror.” At the end, they cried for an encore – and we wondered if kids back home would be this entertained by such a quaint show. We also agreed that no school at home would invite strangers from the street to enter – and felt so lucky that this had happened to us. Later, we visited the pretty Catholic church in the plaza, perused the fresh fruit and vegetable market outside it and walked past all of the souvenir shops to admire well-kept homes and gardens, and the lazy, quiet plaza. Bicycles are very popular here, and are an excellent way to get around the small town.

...and local sharma are still around...

…and local sharma are still around…

Contrary to what you might think, those all-inclusives are NOT homogenised, you-could-be-anywhere conglomerates. For example, at the exotic, wellness-oriented Zoetry Paraiso de la Bonita, adorned with art and sculpture obtained on the owners’ many trips around the globe, we participated in a real Temazcal steam room ritual ceremony led by Luis, an authentic Mexican shaman. This was similar to a Native American sweat lodge experience one can find in the United States, but shortened to one hour for tourists. The Temazcal is held in a domed small hut on premises. Small groups of up to about 12 sit on low benches while the shaman chants and waves fragrant palm and other fronds over hot coals to spread steamy mists of copal and other native plants. The group breathes in the steam and afterwards, slowly stands, and leaves the hut to have a refreshing dip in the hotel’s effervescent salt water pool. Mark and I were not going to take part, feeling nervous, but in fact, we found the experience extremely relaxing, soothing and fascinating.

Puerto Morelos offers a nice set of attractions besides that world-class diving and snorkeling on the spectacular reef, such as the Crococun Zoo just out of town, where a one hour tour allows you to walk with a guide through crocodiles, parrots, spider monkeys, snakes, deer and other wild animals. This is a place well worth a morning away from the beach – we loved it. The Botanical Garden (Jardín Botánico) is also maintained very well, and is a delightful setting, with spider monkeys scampering overhead.

You might take three hours to visit the Little Mexican Cooking School on the main avenue facing the beach. The school has classes during the week with an experienced local (English-speaking) chef, and students receive an apron and recipes to take home with their memories.

...as are the iguanas!

…as are the iguanas!

But most folks just sit back and savor the peace in Puerto Morelos. They might peruse the wares at Alma Libre Bookstore, with its large selection of used English paperbacks, along with new books of local interest, and yes they take trades. And then, they head to the beach – sitting under a palm-branched palapa, cold Negro Modelo beer in hand. Yes, a world away from Playa del Carmen and Cancun – that’s Puerto Morelos.

Currently, the official website – www.visitpuertomorelos.com – is unavailable.



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